Monday, February 28, 2011

The Gory Guts of Government

Our whirlwind day in Nairobi started in Nyeri at 5:30 AM followed by a three and a half trek south. It was a frantic sprint over poor roads and unmarked speed bumps for much of the journey with a few jar-rattling moments, with the last third of the trip spent staring at the bumper in front of us in a choking traffic jam from Thika into the capital which is apparently de rigeur. The massive road building projects in process seem to be targeted at exactly this migration pattern, but there seem to be enough cars transiting to fill the new road with plenty to spare.

We arrived at  Nyayo House (which still gives me chills) slightly late for our first meeting with the General Counsel of the Immigration Ministry the organization that has subsumed most of the government's Registration departments. We were shuttled up through the masses into the VIP elevator and whisked into his office. What followed was a frank discussion about which laws they respect and which they don't and how we can ensure that our legislation falls into the former camp. Government authorizing legislation is so vertical here, with empowering acts dedicated to each of the ministries, that cross-cutting rules are relatively rare. Success will depend as much on the political power of our sponsor as the quality of our report, but we'll do our part.
We then delved into the front lines of the processes we hope to reform, getting an all-access tour thanks to our backing from the President's office. We began with the head of Passport issuance, who held forth at length on the Somali threat, bragged - rightfully - about the degree to which IT automation in that process has squeezed out the opportunities for graft. Touring the floor was dizzying but not without some method behind the madness. The duplication and over-specialization within the step-by-step-by-step carousel of clerks was at least organized, publicly posted and ultimately effective (if not efficient) in that it can turn around a well-qualified passport request in 14 days (quicker than the US to my recollection). Our magnificent guide took us through the pre-check, the verifying clerk, the cashier, the photographer, the scanner, the indexer, the recommender and the adjudicator. Astoundingly, all of this is done without a whit of external validation or cross-checking unless there is a whiff of suspicion, despite the fact that they have the entire process automated and online access to perfectly good sources of validations. Not only that, but the din is undiminished as people from all over the country flock into this one of only five national processing centers for passports, both to file their application and pick up their finished passports - a daunting task as you can imagine for people coming from the sticks. We saw numerous people turned away for issues with their paperwork or improper materials for pickup. The notion of corruption was literally laughed away, blaming it on "blockers" outside who stand outside the offices posing as expediters who make off with hard-earned, unschooled shillings with no results. (Others have told us that the blockers are only still able to hang around because they kick up to the bosses within the Ministry.)

We took tea with the ministry CIO, Jane Otoko, who was quite blunt with what she hopes to get out of e-government and how we can best achieve it within our allotted time frame. We then proceeded to the low point, at least until that time, of the organization process at Makadera station deep in the neighborhoods of Nairobi. Gone were the gleaming computers, well ordered queues, clear processes, and pressed uniforms. These were ramshackle huts, literally sticks bound with twine at some points, populated by a listless group of unbusy bureaucrats whose chief duty appeared to be delaying the snaking line of humanity outside their door from getting their National ID cards.The administrator held forth in painful and painstaking detail about the finer points of each inane step of their process, proudly displaying "archives" of paper logbooks tenuously stacked in jury-rigged bookcases. No window was intact. No clerk strayed from their designated simple portion of the task. Their tools seemed plucked from the 18th century. No customers were served simultaneously, each one waiting for the one before to complete the full Model-T assembly line process. The opportunities for subjective evaluations, inexplicable delays, and corruption abounded. A single web-form could render all of them irrelevant and their customers served at a much higher level.

Those few of them who were working in a dilapidated concrete structure had an interesting cornerstone.


Given my experience yesterday, one would expect it to say "killed fighting FOR Mau Mau" especially on a building populated by the government that has now dedicated their national holiday to them. A fascinating dissonance.

We rushed back to Sheria House in the government complex and met with the Attorney General's CIO, who tried to give us a clearer idea of what we needed to provide the legislative drafters. In the course of the meeting he enlightened us to the 255 forms that they provide for corporate legislation, the five types of marriage they register (civil, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and African customary), and the hodgepodge of other functions their office serves.

On the ground floor, we then witnessed what was the most striking of all the processes we experienced today - the Birth Certificate registration office. Only 60% of Kenyan births are registered, since many still occur at home, especially outside of Nairobi. Many children are not registered until they need to sit for matriculation exams, and the administrator was telling us of cases where people don't register their birth until age 70, when they want a passport to leave the country. The process is completely manual, with the only computers involved being one set for printing the certificates, by manually typing them and then printing onto form paper, and calculating statistics, by manually typing collected numbers into an Excel spreadsheet with over 70 tabs and copying the numbers into a "report" in Microsoft Word. The actual records are stored in hundreds and hundreds of red backed books dating back decades and decades. These books are on shelves, on desks, strewn on the floor and, in at least one instance, being used as doorstops. Foot-high piles of applications rested on every spare surface, with some clerks unable to see over the pile in front of them. No process was apparent although the administrator assured us it existed. The dysfunction was dazzling, and I've provided a brief snippet below. This is one of those areas where someone concerned with e-Government throws up their hands and does not know where to begin, except maybe with a match and a jug of kerosene.

video

We finished off the day meeting with Vivian from IBM East Africa at a delightful repose called the Nairobi Java House, a Starbucks knock off which definitely smelled, felt and tasted like carefully calibrated corporate issue home. I'm not saying I miss it, but it's impossible to deny the draw.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Aberdares

I almost had nothing to write about today, as my iPod/Alarm Clock determined now was a good time to reset itself back to Eastern time. The same rooster that I threatened with bodily harm yesterday, today I owe my timely arrival at the front desk to meet up with Isaac, my driver up to the Aberdares. A gorgeous ride, complete with swirling hills, gaping green valleys, every shape and size of kiosk and roadside market along the way and some of the worst infrastructure my rear end has ever had the misfortune to experience at highway speeds. The next NGO to grace Kenya should be Meineke, and they should bring shocks.

We arrived at the Aberdares around 8 AM and immediately started a game drive around very different environs than I had experienced outside of Nairobi. The wide open dusty plains were replaced with lush greenery, providing a much more scenic backdrop, but also a much more dense camouflage to shield the objects of our interest. Animals would often burst from the foliage and out across the plain into another shelter before I could even power up my camera. Nonetheless, we enjoyed seeing more zebras, eland, bushbuck, waterbuck, gazelles, warthogs, water buffalo, rabbits, wild horses, and a phenomenal assortment of birds their untamed plumage luxuriant in the early morning sunshine.

We saw a number of majestic reticulated giraffes, and my guide Martin, gave me the "book" on giraffes: "Magnificent in appearance, Colossal in height, Bizarre in form, Unique in gait and Inoffensive in character". 18 feet tall on a base of only 4 feet, raising both left legs, then both right legs when walking (try it sometime, you'll fall over within three steps), and as mellow as their neck is long. Though the inoffensive character has its limits, as the kick from a giraffe can kill a lion. After a 14 month gestation, the giraffe gives birth while standing, which leaves it's 4 foot tall progeny to fall 2 feet to the ground once it emerges. Quite a harsh way to start life, no?

The briefest but most fascinating part of the trip was to the Mau Mau cave, a hide out under a rock abutment overlooking a glorious valley. Here over 100 Mau Mau were stationed along with other caves dotting the Nyeri countryside. They live off game meat and wild plants. Their ranks consisted of commanders, warriors, transporters who would bring food from cooking sites (lest the column of smoke give away their location, and runners - young boys who would ferry messages between the various hiding spots. They stockpiled weapons by raiding police stations, and administered illegal loyalty oaths to as many of their countrymen as they could. My guide and driver

This particular hide-out met with an abrupt end when the British bombed it and buried the remains of the 114 Mau Mau based there in the debris. How could the British have identified this location in this vast land? There begins the real story.

The Mau Mau were not defeated by the British. Fighting on foreign lands against an agile force which had minimal supply needs and indiscriminate standards of warfare, the British did not stand a snowball's chance in hell. Even the Masai askari that the British were able to hire as mercenaries were on unfamiliar territory and could match the Mau Mau in ferocity but not in mastery of the land. However, the Mau Mau were so fierce even amongst the loyalty they demanded from their own people (the first high profile killing by the Mau Mau was of a Kikuyu police official) that they began to alienate other Kikuyu who joined the Home Guard, a British sponsored security force. More and more, the Home Guard became constituted of disaffected Mau Mau who would expose their former crews' location, tactics, supply chains, and identities. Eventually the threat of retribution by the Mau Mau became hollow, and people could cross them with impunity, and the Mau Mau were squashed by the British and the Home Guard.

The damage, however, was already done, and the wound to the British colony festered and would not heal. The myth that the vast majority of Kenyans preferred their British masters was dispelled and a decade after the genesis of the Mau Mau's campaign, Kenya was granted its independence.

But the story doesn't end here. For although the titular head of the new Kenyan state, Jomo Kenyatta, had been jailed in isolation for years as a Mau Mau organizer, many others in the power structure came right out of the Home Guard. In fact, what happened was unlike anything I've heard of in any other country. In most instances, the winners appoint their leaders the historical heroes. History is written by the victors and all that. But who were the victors here - the Mau Mau, without whom the British might still rule these lands, or the Home Guard, who effectively slaughtered the Mau Mau by betraying them to the British?

 Instead of a straightforward answer to this question, those in power played a sly double game. The Home Guard and their ilk maintained all the control and wealth, but passed on all the glory to the Mau Mau heroes. So today there are statues, universities and streets named for Kimathi (a homicidal loon by most accounts), but those who stood in solidarity with Kimathi are impoverished and underserved to this day, while those who turned him in are living quite well, praising him at every opportunity. In fact, the Mau Mau's illegal status was recently revoked, and the new Constitution even transforms the previous national holiday from Kenyatta Day to Mashujaa Day - literally Heroes Day - which celebrates the Mau Mau warriors. On this day, the Mau Mau and their descendants are paraded around and feted, only to be returned to their fetid environments as soon as the fireworks dim. Whether this historical deception will pass without redress is a fascinating topic for a Kenyan PhD sociology thesis at some point in the future, but it's known by everyday Kenyans, who seem to adopt the same attitude that has baffled me all this time - the past is past, focus on the future.

I ended the morning with a leisurely row in a small boat around a natural lake in the shadow of Mount Kenya, and then headed back to Nyeri to take up our project again... no rest for the weary.

We returned to the main roads passing through the 6,500 acre ranch of an eccentric German who demands complete silence on his lands, but flies his helicopter back and forth from here to Nairobi.

Back to work...

Saturday, February 26, 2011

All clear

I have no idea if this is even making news in the States, but Mandera is about 1000 km and over a day's travel from where we are in Nyeri, i.e. trouble for Kenya, not trouble for us. Hakuma Matata.

Shabbat Nyeri


With the rest of the group enjoying a Safari in Samburu,  a Shabbat of solitude was in the offing.






I set up my little Shabbat corner of my room, and jumped in, lighting candles (something I’m certain I haven’t done in at least 13 years if not longer). Knowing that all of the rooms surrounding me were assigned to my colleagues and therefore empty, I let loose, serenading the unperturbed trees outside my window with a full volume Carlebach Kabbalat Shabbat, something I haven’t really done since my last Friday night at Kesher back in October. About halfway through, I could hear the muezzin from the local mosque behind the treeline and across the highway joining in, something that recalled davening in certain locations in Jerusalem.



Emotionally, it was a mix of the transcendence of davening apart, away, and in complete isolation and longing for the top shelf family time that normally constitutes a Shabbat evening. But having made my solitary bed, I aimed to sleep with gusto, pacing my prayers according to me own whim, lingering on tunes that felt right, and singing every Shabbat zemer published in the Koren siddur. My Shabbat meal constituted of a mini-Kedem grape juice, 2 whole wheat matzot, a tin of tuna fish, a packet of RJ’s Kosher Beef Jerky and an orange – basar v’dagim v’chol matamim – and I was off to bed.

Since all my timepieces are electronic, I can’t tell you what zmanim I observed, but I can tell you precisely when I woke up, as the rooster who has made himself a home just out of view but not out of earshot from our bank of rooms has been quite punctual all week. He has no snooze button, and his repeated crowing is quite impossible to sleep through. I hope to kill that bird.

Praying in the morning was similar to the previous night, although layning the parasha to myself alerted me to how rusty I’ve become, gotta work on that before Rami’s bar mitzvah. Before lunch, I caught myself pausing a second time after “Savri” in Kiddush, which brough a smile to my face - as if I expected one of my avian audience to reply “L’Chaim”.

I leisurely strolled around the town and the Green Hills campus for some of the day, indulged myself a long Shabbat afternoon nap, and enjoyed a few selections from the Mitoch HaOhel collection of drashot from YU that the Rosenbaums presented to me as a going away present. The frenetic pace of our work during the week and the full stop of this Shabbat put the conceit of progress and the humility of rest in lovely contrast, and I thought for a while about the proper frame of reference for our work here. Though I hope that all of us are able to make substantive contributions during our brief stay, Shabbat brought home the notion that Kenya was here long before us and will be here long after us, and our fondest wish can only be that its progress, whose success will be determined by factors indubitably far out of our control, is ever so slightly buoyed by our efforts.

Tomorrow I rise early to head out into the Mau Mau caves, fortunately long since abandoned.

Shavua tov!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Some background on Nyeri

A very productive morning, after which my colleagues headed out "into the bush" to spend some time on safari in Samburu. Samburu is not particularly Shabbat-friendly (not that Nyeri is significantly better, but at least I have the span of the Green Hills to roam), so I opted to stay alone. My Sunday free, I signed up for an early morning excursion into the Aberdares, the nearest National Park to the area, and a hike to tour the Mau Mau caves.

I haven't written much about our home base of Nyeri, but it is Kikuyu Central. The Kikuyu are the largest of Kenya's 42 communities, yet hold power, wealth and influence even in excess of their numbers. In fact, President Mwai Kibaki is from this town. Nyeri now is indistinguishable from many other towns its size in Kenya, but during the dying days of the British Protectorate, this area served as the home base for the Mau Mau Rebellion, a bloody and vicious time prior to Kenyan independence. The myth and history of the Mau Mau have become indistinguishable in many cases, but it is likely that they were driven to revolt by the typical excesses of colonialism - shortage of land devoted to the natives, outrages visited upon the local communities, a complete stripping of their political rights - and it is undisputed that they dwelled in the forests around Mount Kenya, stockpiling captured weapons to add to their signature Panga long machetes, and unleashed violent attacks ostensibly in the hopes of driving out the British and other white Europeans.

At this point, the accounts veer into the gory and easily exaggerated, but hyperbole or no, they were trying times for Kenya. Tens of thousands of Kenyans died (a significant number due to internecine violence) and another 70,000 were imprisoned over the course of a conflict which killed less than 100 Europeans but made the case that the British protectorate was failing and likely led to Kenyan Independence in 1963. All this within a small radius of our current home. In fact, the local university where I'll be speaking at the end of next week is called Kimathi College, named after Dedan Kimathi, a Mau Mau freedom fighter/terrorist (your pick) who is currently hailed in Kenya, but was known at the time for strangling to death those who he suspected of treason until his alienated followers joined up with the British, captured him, held him less than a mile from our hotel, and then executed him by hanging after a court decision in absentia. I'm hoping for a knowledgeable guide who will be able to provide some first hand or close second hand knowledge of those times for me.

In the meantime, I've got my own Shabbas Safari planned that consist of pray, eat, walk, read, sleep, repeat. Shabbat Salama.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Reaching out

Today we spent much of our time reaching out to a variety of local and national government officials. Since our project spans the gap between e-Government and its constitutional, legislative and regulatory underpinnings, we have a broad range of technical and legal within the government who we need to interview in order to ensure that our recommendations are relevant and actionable. Given our short time frame, it's already remarkable how many meetings we've been able to coordinate at relatively high levels. I know that if the tables were turned, I'd be deleting emails and sending calls to voice mail left and right. Fortunately, that hasn't been the case here.

In parallel, we're developing detailed interview documents that spell out exactly what information we need to get from each stakeholder, and doing our own research via the web to determine what some of the answers are likely to be, and what other answers can be brought from outside the country as global best practices to benefit Kenya. It's massive, but fascinating reading for my inner geek as we compare e-government legislation in Norway, the U.K., Finland, Australia, the U.S., South Korea and others.

OK, enough work talk, here's another piece of local color. Luan, Nimeesh and I had lunch in Nyeri again today, at another second story cafe, this one open air. The heat of the day and omnipresent dust was not enough to erase the enjoyment of drinking in the sights and sounds of this bustling small town. I'm confident that there's no corner like it in the US anywhere - bumper to bumper cars, people milling about, in front of storescape that is devoid of brand names, each one hand painted with the proprietors name above it, none of them busy, but all of them eking out a living. Below the balcony was a man tending a small, crowded coop of chickens, and an even more crowded cardboard box of chickens, which led me to jibe that my colleagues lunch would at the very least be fresh.

A trip to a bank to make the deposit for the group's weekend safari led to an experience with the always flexible closing time. 3:10 can become 3:00 with a kind word, and we walked into an ultra-modern Barclay's Bank which seemed to defy the space and time around it, as if it was a portal to a first world country.

The negotiations at the bank took longer than we expected, we had already taken a leisurely lunch, and it was hot, so we decided to grab a cab back instead of walking. For 200 shillings (about $2.50), it seemed a reasonable luxury. My rudimentary Swahili was enough to identify and procure a vehicle (cabs are not marked anywhere in Kenya that I can tell, but certainly not in Nyeri). Fortunately the cardboard on the passenger side floor was sturdy enough to keep my feet from touching the street. As we drove up the main road, I was dismayed to see the driver pull into the Koboil gas station on the corner. I questioned the customer service wisdom of fueling up with a car full of passengers until I glanced over at the driver's side dashboard and realized that it was amazing that we had made it to the gas station, given that the needle was firmly on "E". Sure enough, the driver asked for his fare at this point. He took 100 shillings and put it in his pocket, and gave me back the other 100 shillings to give to the service attendant, enough to buy 1 litre of gasoline. His fuel gauge ever so slightly buoyed by the stop, he ferried us back to the Green Hills front gate. And here's the good part. He then gave me his cell phone number in case I ever needed a cab again in Nyeri. This is to say, that this guy who sits around the center of town waiting for the rarest rarity of a cab fare, so much so that his means of livelihood and transportation stands on the verge of uselessness with vapors so evanescent that the kilometer each way to our hotel would stand a fighting chance of exhausting them, who can spare only one quarter of a gallon of gas at a fill-up, nonetheless has a CELLULAR PHONE which he will fund and maintain even at the risk of disabling his only apparent source of income. I have nothing more to add.

We returned immediately to work upon our return, this time choosing the grassy plaza as our "office". A sudden rain forced us inside, and the rhythmic patter of the rapid drops on the corrugated tin roof made the passing shower sound more like a typhoon. It mostly drowned out the noise of the absurdly sonorous aerobics class though, and provided a steady soundtrack to our furious work efforts, which carried over to a brief dinner and then back to the bar for a few more productive hours.

Next will be my first Shabbat in isolation in Nyeri... more to come.

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.

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.

Presentations

(You'll forgive me for blogging out of chronological order, but I'm afraid to get steamrolled by the march of time and the density of experiences, so I'll try to fill in the last few days asynchronously.)

This project goes zero to sixty on the first day. Leveraging our presence in Nairobi, each of our three subteams were scheduled to present their plans for the month to their clients. All of us had already completed work plans back in our own countries, but its not slandering anyone to say that many of them were pro forma, having either been cribbed from prior CSC teams, assembled hastily, or based upon first impressions rather than detailed research. Nonetheless, our in country consultant Muriuki was clearly very eager for us to make a dramatic first impression, gain the confidence of our customers, and - although he was kind enough not to state it explicitly - dispel any notion that we were just a bunch of spoiled mizungu who wanted to take a safari within the government as well as around the parks. Admirably, all of our teams rose to that challenge. One team made the responsible choice and skipped going out on Sunday night in order to retire their presentation early. My team and one other chose to enjoy dinner together first and then return to the hotel to work, and those two teams were up well past midnight drafting, refining, practicing and recalibrating our slide decks.

First thing Monday morning, we gathered in the lobby in our business finery. Personally, I can't remember the last funeral or wedding I went to that necessitated the wearing of my only suit, but if any of the others were as unaccustomed to the formality as I was, they certainly didn't show it. Muriuki distributed some gifts from Kenya - for me a beaded bracelet in the Kenyan national colors too small for my wrist but perfectly suited for makeshift worry beads. We loaded into the cars and our convoy headed out.

Our first stop was IBM East Africa, a relatively newly constituted subsidiary of IBM that covers Kenya, Uganda, Tanzinia, and some other countries. We met with Tony Mwai, the country general manager, and a small group of his sales, services, and communications staff, who presented a little bit of history about IBM's expansion and strategy in this region. IBM EA has recently made blockbuster headlines by capturing an enormous IT outsourcing deal with Bharti Airtel (finalized yesterday) to the tune of $1.5 Billion US dollars over 10 years. IBM East Africa's annual revenue target is US$30 million dollars. IBM East Africa's largest single prior multiyear deal was US$30 million. So with a single deal, they grew annually by 500% and their largest deal by 5000% . Apart from the eye-popping numbers, Tony, his staff and the IBM office itself were extremely impressive. It's no novelty to say that any of them could meet or exceed the standards of IBM in the United States, because many of them served with IBM in the US previously, including Tony who is a 25-year veteran of IBM in New York, Virginia and elsewhere. Overall, the impression left was one of staggering growth, and an ambitious and highly skilled staff eager to capture it. Another piece of the puzzle in explaining the plenary optimism we have witnessed here.

Upon leaving the office and heading to our first customer presentation, the contrast was bracing. There is no transition from the stylish suits and unmistakable command of the IBMers to the mass of people milling about aimlessly, workers carrying wrought iron carts by hand hoisting 30 gallon drums of lord knows what down the center of the road, and the occasional herd grazing on the road shoulder. It's facile to ask which of these represents the true Kenya because the answer is clearly that both do.

We arrived in the city center at the Posta Kenya building, home to Subteam 1's client the Postal Corporation of Kenya. We filed in to a dingy but formidable lobby, where we were greeted with a large mission statement poster signed by the retired Major General of the Armed Forces, who clearly received his position as Postmaster General as a gratuity for his years in the Army, and not through a recognition of his ambitious plans to reform this dowdy institution. The conference room on the twelfth floor was unremarkable with 1960s decorating style, and broad assortment of chairs in various states of disrepair. The audience was a half dozen or so high ranking postal officials, though it quickly became apparent that there was only one or two who were truly engaged in the discussion, primarily the general manager of financial services. The team presented it's initial ideas on how to revitalize a classic old economy institution into a modern e-commerce staple. The facts are bleak - stamp revenue for PCK is down 90%, their budget is hemorrhaging, their investment in IT is diminishingly small, and they run a cash only business nationwide, unable even to accept credit cards. The GM responded enthusiastically to the global examples of postal rebirth that the team highlighted, and confirmed the unique advantages that PCK has in terms of its broad and deep presence across the country. The question left lingering in the air was if all of these initiatives and ideas resonated so well with these high-ranking PCK officials, then why was the corporation in this sorry state? Nonetheless, the IBM CSC team left with enough confirmation of their stated goals, that they can probably attack even a subset of them, and still deliver their customer a document of tremendous value to them.



Our next stop was just around the corner at the Kenya ICT Board. The Tale of Two Cities continued as we contrasted their gleaming modern offices, which could have exchanged unnoticed with any avant garde Silicon Valley powerhouse, with what we had just seen at PCK. A striking view overlooking all of downtown Nairobi was the backdrop for Subteam 2's presentation regarding the development and retention of high end ICT talent to reduce the reliance on expensive expatriate workers for Kenya's most complex technology undertakings. The audience was a selection of ICT staffers, let by the Kenya ICT Board chair, Paul Kukubo,
a polished marketer charged with the limitless mandate of supercharging Kenya's ICT economy and presenting a professional and commanding presence in the room. Subteam 2 faced the difficulty of a flighty scope which seemed to shift or change with each attendee's feedback. At one point it could seem like Mr. Kukubo directly contradicted the team's impressions, at other times his staff contradicted him. Everything was very collegial, but progress was choppy.

It was at this point that we experienced a true Africa moment. Arriving in the middle of the meeting was the Permanent Secretary Dr. Bitange Ndemo, the head of the Ministry of Information and Communication. As the PS walked in, the environment shifted instantaneously,  all of the oxygen had suddenly been sucked out of the room. Dr. Ndemo was a striking figure, seemingly casting a greater aura than any Kenyan we had met previously, somehow more formidable with a density that exceeded any notion of Western gravitas I had previously experienced. Paul Kukubo, who had until now presented a confident and Alpha persona, quickly shifted over from his place at the head of the table, commanded one of this underlings to provide the PS with a drink, and kowtowed immediately, scribbling notes as soon as the PS spoke. In some cases, people literally averted their eyes. A taste of the African Big Man, and not one that I'll soon forget.


Dr. Ndemo was soft-spoken, insightful and direct, giving the team much clearer feedback than they had had previously, and was extraordinarily gracious in taking pictures with the group. I ended up next to him in the photo, and hearing that I was from Washington, DC, he inquired if I was a Redskins fan. I informed him of my Philadelphia roots and my Eagles allegiance, and he shook my hand, congratulated me on my choice of teams and revealed that he is an avid Minnesota Vikings fan. In an act of uncharacteristic good judgement, I refrained from trash-talking Brett Farve.

The presentation concluded, we enjoyed a tasty buffet lunch of genuine African delicacies courtesy of the ICT Board adjacent the pool at the posh Intercontinental Hotel.

En route to our next meeting, we passed by the infamous Nyayo House which sent chills up my spine. It was it the sublevels of this building that the storied torture of the Moi regime were housed. Innumerable confessions were extracted here - sometimes for offenses as slight to our Western ears as criticizing the administration - by standing people up against walls and pummeling them with the stream from open fire hoses, housing prisoners with rotting human corpses, forcing them to consume their own urine and feces, and crushing their testicles with hammers. Some of those who still refused to yield were simply tossed off the 24th floor to their deaths, which were blandly labeled suicides. Whatever the foibles of the current government, these outrages are now complete anathema, though astoundingly an elderly Daniel arap Moi still lives in this country with no justice or retribution sought against him.

We walked through the city center past the Parliament building, and arrived at Harambee House, the Kenya White House, the office of President Mwai Kibaki and his staff. It's located directly across the street from the office of the Prime Minister Raila Odinga, the President's main rival.

We entered a chaotic lobby, where some Kenyan military security officers made an elaborate show of registering our laptops and ushering us through metal detectors whose loud beeping they promptly ignored. We ascended a dilapidated staircase into a non-descript hallway where we found our presentation space and our client, Dr. Katherine Wanjiru Getao, the presidentially appointed head of eGovernment in Kenya. While much of the discussion was simply confirmed what we had discussed over the phone previously, the experience of meeting her in person met all of our expectations. She was engaging, sharp, modest, collaborative, funny, and extremely committed. I look forward to working with her over the course of the next month as we attempt to put her efforts on strong legal footing and, by doing so, position Information Technology as a powerful force for eliminating the opportunities for corruption, streamlining the experience that Kenyan citizens have making it more equitable across all regions and income levels, increasing government efficiency, and ultimately for returning the power of the government of Kenya to the hands of the people.

Throughout the day, we were buoyed by the exhortations on our behalf of Muriuki who held forth at every sight regarding "the POWer and the PASSion of IBM" that the clients were witnessing before him. He has been a tremendous asset for us, and will be a lynchpin our all our projects' successes.

We had a pleasant debrief back at the Country Lodge where we also received our cell phones, and planned our departure for Nyeri. Although much of the team was up for dinner, drinks and dancing, I was jet-lagging hard, and retired to my room for a very enjoyable Skype with Deb and the kids and Elana and Shelly who are visiting from Philly. Got to hear about sleepovers, Shabbas, movie night, school, Brookville gardens and the thoroughly enjoyed Maple Sugar festival (pictures below). I then promptly passed out.


Saturday, February 19, 2011

Safari

So much to report in the last 48 hours... I'll likely break it up into a few messages.

The early bird gets more than the worm here... woke up Friday at 5:30 AM in preparation for a 6:30 AM departure into Nairobi National Park. My guide, Vincent, arrived early and we set off.

Given that I expected to spend the next 4 or more hours with my guide as my sole human companion, we began to make small talk. It's still bracing to me how quickly tribe (or as I've been reconditioned to refer to it - community) comes into the conversation. Vincent's Luo heritage was not only the first thing he shared with me, but it seemed to color his views of living in Nairobi, politics, economics, other tour groups and even the treatment of the park. He was tickled that I knew that Barack Obama's heritage was Luo as well, and we enjoyed a bracing round of US political discussion immediately prior to arrival at the park. Early in line, we paid our entry fee and proceeded into the smallest of the Kenyan wildlife parks, but one so close to the city that planes fly over during the duration of your visit and the Nairobi skyline is often the backdrop to the animals that you see.

At this point, my sense of safari was founded. I admit, I have been conditioned to zoos, and we visit the National Zoo in DC quite often. In a zoo, the pace is typically "Animal, animal, animal, animal, animal, lunch, animal, animal, animal, animal, animal, animal, go home". This is not a safari attitude. Safari is more akin to "Drive, drive, drive, drive, squint, drive, drive, drive, drive, drive, drive, animal!, photo, photo, photo, photo, photo, photo, drive, drive, drive, repeat". It's not boring per se, but it does require a clear set of expectations and a zen-like attitude. If the animals are to be seen, you will see them. And as my guide said repeatedly "No rush in Africa."

Fortunately, Vincent stayed ahead of the larger buses, so we were able to spot animals that were chased away by the louder, larger vehicles. Zebras, hartebeests, gazelles, elands, baboons, hyraxes, ground squirrels, guinea fowl, water buffalo, giraffe, ostrich, maybe of them just a few feet from the car. It's quite exhilarating to see them in their natural surroundings, but one's plan of action having honed in on this majesty is rather unclear. Admire it, certainly. Capture it for personal posterity. But there is a certain ... futility in this magnificent voyeurism. It's momentarily exhilarating, has undeniable natural beauty, is set against an undeniably transcendent backdrop, and yet - maybe I'm just not a safari guy. I don't think the absence of lions and black rhinos made the experience any less than. I just don't think I got "it" my first time out.

The only point at which we were allowed out of the car once in the park is at designated picnic areas, which not coincidentally is where some baboons congregate. Once we stopped one quickly took up a position on top of our vehicle, transparently taunting us. There were more than a few young, and I am still amazed at how much watching the families of baboons interact recalls looking in an evolutionary mirror.

Out of the animals we saw, the water buffalo were certainly the most threatening. Built like furry tanks, their craggy horns bespoke their previous violence. After I photographed a herd of three and gazed upon them for a short while, Vincent started the car again to pull away. Immediately all three water buffalo snapped a rear leg into position to charge and visibly tensed the muscles in their powerful forelegs. If wildlife was wont to quote movies, the next words would have been "Go ahead, make my day." We drove away from the group without incident.

On existing the park, we stopped to admire the site at which former President Moi burned 12 tons of confiscated ivory in a two story bonfire to demonstrate Kenya's determination to halt poaching of its elephants. Dramatic and impactful, it goes to show that even a broken clock is right twice a day. Though any exemption from environmental criticism is quickly dispelled upon viewing the preposterously ostentatious, red-roofed villa that Moi permitted his crony to build smack dab in the middle of the park in disruption of migration routes.

From the park we scooted over to the David Sheldrick Trust where baby elephants which have been orphaned (largely due to poaching) are raised until the age of three until they begin the long road towards adoption into an existing herd, a process which takes anywhere from five to nine years, all of it under the supervision of the Trust. So far in their 30 plus years of operation, they have successfully reintroduced 130 elephants, and some rhinos as well. The 19 two and three year old elephants currently in their care came down in a parade before the assembled tourists and school children, were hand fed baby formula via comically large bottle, and proceeded to play in the mud, wrestle, and generally make themselves irresistibly adorable.

We proceeded from their to the Giraffe Manor in Karen where a similar rehabilitation agenda is in place for the nine giraffes that live on site.

These last two experiences, while certainly less wild by a long stretch, offered up close and personal views of the animals not far from their natural setting. To my mind, the ability to observe their behavior at longer length provided a more fulfilling encounter, offering at least a glimpse into the way the animal intelligence expresses itself, often in very human ways.

Much more to say about Friday especially as both the leading edge of my teammates and Shabbat arrived, but I'll save it for another post.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Nairobi 101

I don't expect these updates to be nearly as frequent once we start our project, but while I have time, I figure it can't hurt to post em up.

Some initial impressions from walking around Nairobi.

Mobs of people walk, and yet pedestrians are treated like it is their fondest wish to be a hood ornament. And when I say walk, I don't just mean walk to the nearest Metro station or walk until they get a cab. They walk. Home. Kilometers. And I'm guessing they all get home before their carbon burning commuter-mates, since all I saw in every direction was snarled traffic that made the Washington Beltway look like the Autobahn. In fact sometimes the only indication that traffic is moving is the mammoth belch of black minibus exhaust that chokes the lungs and stings the eyes. Pity the African asthmatic. Adjusting to the fact that lanes are British style here is made more difficult that lane directions are considered optional based on the congestion, evidenced by the dozen or so near head-on collisions when impatient drivers just decided to commandeer the lane for oncoming traffic. I should quote "lane" since none of the roads in this neighborhood are large enough for two cars to pass comfortably but all are bidirectional. I'll be walking.

The next, while contending for the gold in the obvious Olympics, is that I am extremely white. I mean, blindingly so. Walking down Haile Selassie Boulevard to Uhuru Highway with the masses, I became conscious of the fact that everyone was staring at me. I was not wearing a kippah, I did not have tzitzit hanging out, I did not have an enormous SLR camera strung around my neck or bermuda shorts. My baseball cap was not distinguishable from the Indianapolis Colts, Oakland Raiders or Arsenal hats being worn around me. But I sure do not blend in. That's not a feeling I have stateside or in Israel. It's humbling and discomfiting, though in a constructive way. As I got some catcalls from the passing matatus (gypsy vans), I decided to play with the tension and used my rudimentary Swahili to loudly ask the unsuspecting dude next to me to confirm what I already knew to be correct directions. He responded to me in Swahili, so I guess I nailed the accent. Lots of surrounding shoulders shrugged ("crazy mizungu...") and people went about their trek down the hill.

It's sad to see all of the federal government buildings adorned with signs of the sort "The Ministry of Water and Irrigation is a CORRUPTION FREE ZONE" ... an indicator of almost Orwellian certainty that they are not. One particularly candid one said "Help fight corruption ... Please don't offer officials bribes". Also don't feed the rhinos. Sigh.

The Israeli Embassy is next door to our hotel and has a large hand-painted side at either side of the block that says "Please Stop at our Friendly Checkpoint!" with two emoticon style happy faces underneath. I aimed to take a picture, but a pair of dour, AK-toting sentries made it clear that was not in the plan.

Nakumatt is Wal-Mart on HGH. You can bank, get groceries, outfit your electronics, housewares, clothing, change money, get a haircut, do your dry-cleaning, select fresh-cut flowers, buy school text books, order lunch, and log time in the internet cafe, all in one establishment, and I didn't make it to the second floor. It did occur to me that there's no reason that our e-government initiatives can't take locations like this into account, as they seemed well administered and smoothly run despite their sprawl.

Tomorrow the game park, welcoming the leading edge of my IBM teammates, and Shabbas in East Africa.

Touchdown

Arrived in Nairobi unscathed. Settled in at the comfortable Country Lodge. Scheduled a brief safari in Nairobi National Wildlife Park for the morning. Made contact with home through a better than expected internet connection via Skype. Now enough of talking to you lot, I'm heading out into the city. 

First Leg

A good flight is any that you walk away from – an axiom that holds true even when your kosher meal is lost, your personal video screen is busted and the Mennonite 3-year-old sitting directly behind you, in a remarkable show of endurance, alternates between shrieking and kicking for the entirety of the 12 hour flight. A show of kindness from “Sara BK”, my Ethiopian Airlines stewardess, in assembling an ad hoc fruit bowl for me bumped the experience up a notch from tolerable. I spent the flight reviewing my Swahili lessons and devouring the Lonely Planet guide I had thus far neglected, gaining new appreciation for the scant 3 years that Kenya has been acquainted with both democratic rule, and the for terrifying selection of options that much of Africa has had between kleptocratic strongmen and chaotic, often tainted, and too frequently violent democracy. I have to say I would be more optimistic about the prospects if the family names of Odinga and Kibaki were not common to both the 30+ years of autocracy and the current green shoots of democracy.

Nothing remarkable about the Addis Ababa airport save maybe for the absolute lack of anything for sale save for off-brand cigarettes, duty free liquor and a broad selection of flowy embroidered dresses which I can state with some certainty that my wife would not be interested in. The security screener saw “Place of Birth: Pennsylvania” on my passport and immediately started chatting me up about his extended family in Erie. I made polite conversation and only subtly alluded to the fact that as of this moment I had more first hand experience with Ethiopia than Erie.

There were several large church groups on my flight, easily identified by their coordinated and increasingly blunt T-shirts. One group simply stated in 72 point font “VISITING ORPHANS 2011”. I can’t imagine anything more pure of purpose or impotent of impact. My inner economist tells me that Africa’s fortunes will have turned a corner when there are more people on the flights from America for the purpose of doing things with Africa than for it. Lest you all throw the collective hypocrisy flag, I actually like the fact that one of the reasons that Kenya was chosen for our Corps destination is because IBM recently closed a large telecommunications outsourcing deal, and our small base town of Nyeri is a target for greater IT business opportunity. If faithfully executed, Corporate Social Responsibility is more effective - not more insidious - when it’s paired with a capitalistic goal. Altruism is limited to the extent of the charitable instinct, business endures. I’m convinced we can have it both ways.

Next stop, Nairobi… or “Nairobbery” as I’ve now learned, as it is apparently in contention with Lagos and Johannesburg for the title of Africa’s most dangerous city. Fortunately, we’ll be staying in the Fairview hotel for a few days prior to moving up to Nyeri, a location which received rave reviews, and is largely untouched by crime due to its close proximity to the Israeli Embassy and accompanying omnipresent anti-terrorism squads. Also, the proprietor of the hotel invited me to Shabbas dinner (h/t Jeff Dorfman).

Things that I’ve already realized I’ve forgotten, all of which should be easily procured upon arrival:

            Swahili phrase book, left on shelf at home
            poncho, as the rainy season has begun
            knife, for peeling fruits and vegetables
            flashlight, for inevitable power outages

Since the rest of my IBM team does not start arriving until late Friday, I’m hoping to use my extra day to see the Nairobi wildlife reserve, Africa’s oldest reserve, and the only one worldwide adjacent to a capital. Giraffes with the backdrop of office buildings is said to be quite compelling, I’ll see if I can pull it off.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Wheels up

Boarding my flight now and it appears that the majority of passengers
are either Africans going home or missionaries, with a few adventure
seekers sprinkled in. Maybe things haven't changed as much as we'd like
to think in the past hundred years.

Departure

Feeling nervous is serving no purpose save for highlighting just how infrequently I feel nervous, but with departure in just 2 hours, some rowdy butterflies have opened a mosh pit in my midsection. Started my malaria meds, one last luggage check, and was pleasantly surprised by a Shabbat meal invite from the owner of our hotel in Nairobi. My next post will be from Kenya!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Programming Announcement

If you're not watching IBM's Watson wipe the floor with Ken Jennings and Brad Rutto on Jeopardy tonight at 7:30 on your local ABC affiliate, you should probably reconsider your life choices.

Just sayin'

Epiphany

When was the last time you had a conference call that made you want to throw fist pumps and mule kicks? Personally, February 14th, 8 AM ET.

Our magnificent client today shared with us revelatory insights into the issues that are driving the problems we aim to solve. The scales fell from my eyes, and I threw up my hands and said Amen. Fortunately, the call was on mute at that point. Brace yourselves and I'll lay it on you.

Consider government institutions with end-to-end responsibility and authority over the various aspects of people's lives which are assigned to them. Population registry, education, voting, immigration, licenses and permits, birth, death, etc. Every topic has its institution, every topic collects its data - historically on paper, more recently in silo-ed databases, each founded for the purpose of fulfilling its ministry's mission.

The data fragmentation is natural and understandable. No institution has the mission, budget or political will to encourage, let alone force, these information repositories to build upon one another or even occasionally synchronize. No one set out maliciously to silo the data, it's just a default process that occurs in lieu of any other imperative.

Now, concentrate the portals to that data geographically and in a non-automated fashion, i.e. clerks in a capital city. Force the entire population to do their business in person with these clerks in a large country with poor transportation infrastructure. Require interaction with these agencies in order to progress in life, career, entrepreneurship and basic transactions like land registry.

Imagine the plight of the peasant who in furtherance of their own situation sets off to the capital at significant cost to both their meager cash reserves and the inconstant means in which they earn them. They succeed in their trek to the proper office only to be told that their paperwork is mildly but fatally insufficient, though of course this problem could be solved with the proper gratuity rendered to the humble civil servant on the other side of the desk. The petitioner is already straining their existence by having arrived at this point, and does not have the wherewithal or the resources to extend this transaction with extended appeals. And without the successful registry of their information by the conniving clerk, maybe their child cannot sit for matriculation exams, maybe they cannot begin the small business that would have provided the first boost out of poverty for them or their family, maybe they cannot seek a government job or run for public office. Our citizen is faced with the unenviable quandary whether to further leverage their tenuous financial position, take a principled stand which may jeopardize their condition further, or simply throw their hands up and withdraw from the system altogether thereby solidifying their place in the underclass.

According to our client, it is this last option which occurs far, far too often, and is a hidden but insidious and widespread drag on upward social mobility in Kenya.

Kenya struggles mightily against corruption at the highest levels through an independent and rightfully cantankerous anti-corruption commission but they have only truly been constituted for 5 years, and their task is vast. I would be shocked if they had the bandwidth to go after every teller who supplements their income with a few hundred shillings here and there while they're still hunting big game graft.

Imagine instead, we were encouraged, integrated access to those same critical government services through a single portal that references a common repository of master data. Disperse that access from regional headquarters, post offices, and mobile phones. And relegate the role of the bureaucrat to that of verifier instead of gatekeeper. The sense of democratization and empowerment is palpable and the ability of the corrupt to coerce and confine dissipates like a puff of cartoon smoke.

But that integrated access does not happen without the backing of the legal and regulatory authority to mandate and monitor it. Role changes encounter opposition from even the well-intentioned who question whether the disruption to the system will do more harm than good. Our mission is to create the set of archetypes and key principles for the legal and regulatory policies that will make these centralized repositories with decentralized access the de facto and de jure norm, and hopefully initiate the process that will loose the bureaucratic shackles from the hands of those striving to build their country.

Cue fist pumps.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Echo?

PS I've discovered that blogging is like a conversation on a cell phone with a weak signal. I'm not really sure if I'm talking to anyone at all, so I just shout louder. So leave a comment you lurkers!

Countdown

As with any pending transition, mental countdowns proliferate. This seems to be a combination of anticipation for the new experience and new awareness of incipient absences. Only 6 more bedtime stories to read to the kids, 5 more times to wake up in my own bed, 2 final client visits, dwindling availability of reliable internet and electricity, last easy access to prolific kosher food, only 18 more transition emails to send, last davening in a minyan, one last Shabbat together, the enumeration knows no enumeration. I'm well-versed in the art of appreciating the commonplace sublime that has populated my daily life, but even pause accentuates poignancy. Melodramatic, admittedly, as I am a service corps participant, not a cancer patient, but still weighty as a month is a far longer period than I've ever departed from my happy routine. Now if only any of that anticipation translated into a more practical motivation to pack...

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Imminence breeds panic; structure sedates

My painstaking efforts to absolve myself of my daily duties have
shredded the veil of denial I had so carefully draped over my impending
departure one week hence. Though it's breathtakingly obvious that I am
unprepared for the tasks ahead of me, the facade of planning has given
us the welcome placebo of perceived control. We've completed our work
plan, which purports to be our scheme to transform ourselves from blank
slates to domain experts in 4 short weeks. This without a single
personal contact with the client, no substantive research on our topic,
and no advice from leaders in the field. But I'll be damned if it
doesn't look good. Hubris, thy name is Microsoft Project.

These caveats are not intended to be cop-outs, mind you. I'm sold that
one of the critical assets we bring is our short fuse. We've got the
motivation to succeed quickly, a manufactured crisis by a departure that
looms even as we arrive. We're all technological chameleons, able to
pick up new proficiencies like a musician masters a new piece. I trust
that capacity will translate to these meta-technology issues. We'll plan
our work, work our plan, and deliver a product of value to our client.

Unless we suck.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Swoon

One hour of international realtime collaboration on our work plan = Dave <3 the Googles

With one eye on my own hyperbole, what is the parallel construct in history to an environment in which you could have even four-way global input editable simultaneously and instantaneously? Oh, and then with a click of a button, the entire document was translated into Swahili. And free. Google Docs Rocs.

It almost makes me feel bad that I'm boarding a plane to do this work, since so much of our high-content input could be delivered remotely. Almost - there is no substitute for the interaction with the government officials who will have to fight for and then live with our recommendations to sense priority, urgency, hestitation, concurrrence, cynicism or passion. Translating those intangibles through the body language, expressions, and social interaction of a new cultural context is an intoxicating challenge. But certainly laying the groundwork through the extraordinarily level of presence which can be achieved today with any connected collaborator should and will become the default standard for business.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Halfway there in my mind...

Sitting in a business meeting, picturing all the participants as safari
animals instead of listening. Is that normal?

Come again?

As my teammate Francesco comments on our Team Blog, the most common reaction that most of us get is not "How cool!" or "Stay safe!" It's typically "Say what?" That includes from members of my own family. Which begs the question, why on God's green Earth are all of us shlepping all over God's green Earth? So here's the best succinct summary I can offer.

It's good for Kenya.
 From the Kenyan e-Government Directorate's perspective, I think this is the equivalent of finding a $20 in the laundry. It's not going to change your life, but it allows you to do one small thing that you wouldn't have otherwise done. I expect from our initial interactions that we will find the staff there skilled but overwhelmed. And if our small group of highly motivated, highly skilled professionals with a fresh set of eyes working intensely for a short period of time at no cost to the government can produce a work product that helps move their agenda forward, that's a good thing. It's worked on dozens of Corporate Service Corps projects up until now, and our crew of talent makes them look like shlubs.

It's good for IBM.
 There is no question that IBM gets a PR boost for these activities, and companies and governments want to do business with companies that have a robust corporate citizenship agenda. And Kenya is an expanding market for IBM. But given how much press we see on corporate malfeasance is it so terrible for a company to receive good press for doing good works? Cynically, if IBM really just wanted the PR boost, they could have run this program for one year and then killed it. Instead, they're expanding it each year. IBM also gets the benefit of globally seasoned leaders that it needs given the 100+ countries in which it operates.

It's good for Me.
 This is radically unlike any professional experience I've ever had in my life. In a global economy, my history reads extremely local. The career development I can receive in one month of working with an international team for an international client is more than I could hope for from twenty classroom trainings. It might also be fun. Maybe.

Kwaheri

The Reluctant Blogger

On the list of things I was reasonably certain I would never do in life, blogging ranks near the top. Here begins further evidence regarding a mistaken reliance on my reasonable certitude.

My objections to blogging (and facebook, tweeting, vlogging and bunch of other non-English words that I find myself suddenly considering) are two.

First, a Privacy Paradox. Events of moment in my life are best shared with those close to me; others are not worth sharing. Therefore, my blog would be constituted of items too insipid to read and items I regretted writing. Hardly a compelling case.

Second, I am fortunate not to lack for interpersonal interaction. I am not eager to dilute my conversations with status updates, my small talk with wall talk, or my friends with "Friends". Quantity threatens quality.

And yet, here I type. For in this instance, I am faced with an a situation which defeats my prior objections. I am at once presented with an experience of some note which I can share uninhibited, indeed I feel obliged to do so. For in a mere two weeks, my team departs to Kenya for a month as a part of IBM's Corporate Service Corps - a corporate funded, technology focused privately outsourced version of the Peace Corps (sans abuse). In addition to my commitment as part of the program to document my experiences, I'm tremendously grateful for the opportunity and feel obligated to share it. I'll have no consistent capacity to share it on an individual basis, and certainly not as broadly as I would like - hence blogging (and its fellow travelers of lexical chazerai) seem the best option.

More to come as I suspend my apologetics and describe the experience in more detail.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Blog in Swahili is... Blog

Some background... I initially applied to IBM CSC in 2008 for the 2009 assignment year. My application was rejected, which was not surprising given the selective nature of the program. More surprising was my acceptance the app I resubmitted 2009 for the 2010 year. Subsequent to my acceptance, I waited about 9 months for an assignment. This was likely due in large part due to my severe chronological constraints comprised of chagim, school schedules, moving to the suburbs, and a sprinkling of other landmines strewn across an otherwise inviting calendar. The assignment arrived just prior to Thanksgiving 2010 notifying me that I would be part of the 2nd IBM team headed to Kenya, or - in the blase lingo of the CSC - Kenya 2.

I immediately scoured the web for information on my predecessors' travels, finding a German woman to serve as an unsuspecting victim for my insatiable curiousity. After about an hour of instant messaging, I ordered Swahili CDs and a few Kenya tour books, and sat back and waited for the rest of the team to show themselves. We began to review preparatory materials and training in weekly conference calls which spanned the globe, with teammates drawn from the Eastern United States, Italy, South Korea, Switzerland, China, Canada, Hungary, Japan, and Denmark. Our destination was determined to be Nyeri, a smallish city or largish town north of Nairobi and historical locus of the Kikuyu, Kenya's dominant tribe.

Our projects were assigned to three subteams - ours taking on the President of Kenya's E-Government Directorate as our client. I could not have asked for better teammates, with Anna (South Korea), Luan (Switzerland) and Nimeesh (Canada) each contributing creatively and consistently from Day 1. Our task is to lay the basis a legal framework for Kenya's e-Government services, specifically in the area of data, as their new constitution (b. Oct 2010) has left them generally bereft of detailed regulation. Our customer, Dr. Katherine Wanjiro Getao, Secretary of Information and Communications Technology Secretary, is the first African woman to have earned a PhD in Computer Science. Her ambition, humor and energy were all apparent in our first phone call, and after speaking with her our spirits were as high as her expectations.