Thursday, March 24, 2011

"This place is a dump." "You're telling me? I live here."

Daniel and I intended to get an early start on Monday morning on our gala Kinshasa tour, but our plans were thwarted somewhat by an absent minded tour broker whose altogether predictable response was "You meant THIS morning?" We spent the morning schmoozing and embarked a few hours after our requested start time. Our goal was to spend the morning "seeing Kinshasa", something that my host, with few exceptions, had not done over his first year in the Congo, due to workload, overeager security restrictions and - possibly most relevant to our discussion - a lack of things to actually SEE in Kinshasa. Our tour guide, John, was charitably a novice, but since he is apparently only one of only three nominal tour companies in Kinshasa, and the one recommended by the Embassy at that, it was unlikely that we were going to do any better.

Grande Boulevard... Le Meh
We arrived at the Kinshasa Botanical Gardens, newly refurbished for the 50th anniversary of the Congo. I need almost constant reminders about unrealistic expectations, and this provided yet another. The gardens were about the size of a city block, with a few hand labeled trees. Various characters sat around doing nothing in particular. We appeared to be the only tourist-type visitors. Confirming this dearth of attendees, two tour guides appeared to attend to our needs. Neither had much to say (and nothing to say in English, the tour was in French) except to read the labels on the trees around us to us. In the middle of the park, stood what from the outside looked like a somewhat modern conference call, but inside was a dim, whitewashed warehouse with a stage and hundreds of plastic chairs stacked up against the wall. At the far end of the empty expanse was a posterboard with images of the park before and after renovations. To be clear, renovating this park brought it up to the level of a park in DC which desparately requires renovation. We set out into the garden, and immediately stopped before a small fenced area of grass with a non-descript sapling. We were informed that this tree was a small baobob planted by President Kabila in honor of Congo's 50th anniversary. My reaction was "It's a foot tall tree..." to which the response was "planted by the PRESIDENT!". This reverential thing is not up my alley.
As we approached one tree, one park guide began to scrape the bark off of the tree for us to smell. Color me crazy, but I expected more card for the trees from the actually employees of the garden. She explained that this was the "Tree of Good Times". It smelled remarkably like cinnamon, and Daniel quickly confirmed that it was a cinnamon tree. We inquired why they gave it another name, and our tour guide explained in English, "Because it is an aphrodesiac and you eat it before you have sex." That's what we get for asking. We circled the dingy lot for a few more minutes, noting that the din coming from over the surrounding wall was from one of the larger open markets in Kinshasa, which explained the trash thrown over it an into the botanical gardens. I asked how many people work at the park, whose renovation (and likely ongoing expenses) was covered by the European Union, and I was told "We don't really know how many people work at the park headquarters off-site, but on-site there are seventy-three employees. My jaw dropped. Seventy three employees standing elbow to elbow could easily span the park. That explains why we got two park guides. As we departed the park, I caught out of the corner of my eye an informal gratuity paid to our park guides by our tour guides. This was in addition to our entrance fee. This would become a recurring theme throughout our day.

We hopped back into the car. Daniel had requested the guide to provide us with a view of the Congo river so that we could take pictures of Africa's fasting running river, but had not specified a location. We drove for a long while, and Daniel seemed somewhat alarmed when we passed the airport, taking him out of the "approved zone" for American diplomats. The majestic Mount Mangengenge (good luck with that) of the Crystal Mountain Range loomed over us as we meandered along the road. We kept driving until we abruptly pulled off the road onto a dirt path and parked. Disembarking, we found ourselves in Kincole a "small" "fishing" "village". Some explanations for my overquoting... in Kenya I saw crossroads which technically counted as villages even though they were not populated by more than a few families. Compared to this, Kincole was far from small, with uncountable people streaming in every direction. It was certainly on the river, but I didn't see any actual fishing going on. In fact, save for the rickety kiosks set up along the path to the river, I didn't legitimately witness any sort of commerce going on, just a lot of milling about and sitting around. And as for a village, the housing that was in site was even more primitive than the norm here, with thatched roofs tentatively teetering on crooked wooden beams. We crossed a small creek by way of two broken dugout loosely chained together to make a small footbridge. The anonymous bridge-keeper at the end of the second boat accepted a small gratuity from our guide to let us pass. I inquired with our guide as to whether there was any progress being made here, whether any technology or technique had found its way into these simple fisherman's lives in order to elevate them to something more than a mere subsistence existance. His reply was that "Here they live the same way as in Jesus's time." and it was clear this was not out of any religious nostalgia. He said the only innovation they've experienced is plastic, and even that is used sparingly.

I took out my camera to take some pictures of what was for me a bracing and new vista, and was immediately challenged by our tour guide. You see, photography is basically illegal in the Congo. The desolate, dirty, teeming riverbed where we stood is "of strategic value", don't you know. And anyone with a camera is immediately suspected of espionage. Although there were no police visible, our guide informed us that many people there are in informal contact with security forces, and would be more than happy to inform on any white person they saw. And by the looks of it, my pigmentation was not a common sight in these parts. As Renna put it, "We are Martians to them." Never one to leave a dumb rule unchallenged, I took out my Flip video, which does not per se resemble a camera, makes no noise and barely lights up, and started filming the scene around us from my palm. Please excuse the orientation and blurriness of the shots, it was the best I could do under the circumstances. We returned to the car, crossing back over the bridge, our guide compensating the bridgeman once more. Looking back over the scene behind us, I said "This place is a dump." to which Renna responded "You're telling me? I live here."

Once back to the car, we found it locked with our driver nowhere to be found. At this point commenced a game we would play for much of the rest of the day called "Where The Heck Did Our Driver Go?" Play along if you like... first, get dropped off in a remote location. Then walk a while to your destination. Conduct whatever observations you want to there, then return to either an absent driver and a locked vehicle, or a missing vehicle altogether. Then wonder, either to yourself or aloud, "Aren't we paying this guy to drive us around?" Then sit tight as the driver eventually emerges from whatever side alley, local store or other personal endeavour he is pursuing on your already truncated tour time, and shake your head slowly from side to side while exhaling. Try it, it's fun!
Small "village" along the road

I challenged our guide on the way back regarding what exactly he was during as a tour guide. He had brought us to two completely unremarkable places, and prohibited us from taking pictures once there. His explanations could generously be described as minimalist, but he was basically ignoring us. I said, "Why would somebody want to come to the Congo", and he replied "It's hard." As we discussed, Congo has none of the necessary infrastructure for luxury travel, and even adventure travel is limited by the hostility of the government and the meager budget of its adherents. The photo thing was clearly frustrating to him as well, and he said that he is constantly trying to explain to Congolese that people want to take pictures of where they go, it's a basic premise of tourism. He said that the Ministry of Tourism had proposed a law which would permit photography, but even that would be restrained by poorly enumerated "strategic areas". In fact, he told us that he had been thrown in prison on numerous occassions for escorting tourists, taking pictures and arguing about it afterwards. I'm no expert, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that your tourism industry is unlikely to take off if you reguarly arrest one of its sole facilitators. The whole enterprise - the unattractive attractions, the random restrictions, the occasional incarcerations, had an amusing neo-Soviet flavor to it, but that was just the beginning.

Our next stop was the presidential palace and the mauseleom of Laurent Kabila, the rebel leader cum liberator who overthrew the longtime dictator of Zaire, Mobuto Sese Seko, and was then killed by one of his bodyguards in his office in 2001. His son Joseph has run the country ever since. We drove through a passel of large government buildings including the Central Bank, Ministry of Budget and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs up to the gate of the mauseleum. There, some ill-tempered red-beret guards informed us that this was not the proper entrance (though the gate was ajar and lead directly to our destination) and that we needed to make a large loop through their internal revenue service office around to the other side. Our driver must have had a doctor's appointment or something, because as we turned around to catch a lift to the other side of the plaza, he was already gone. It was quite toasty by this point of the day, but we hoofed it through some parking lots and past some crowds of people, and a couple of lackluster vendors by the side of the road. Finally, we ran into a second set of ill-tempered, red-beret guards, these with a small card table set up in front of them. They demanded identification, which we had not been told would be necessary, but fortunately I had my passport and Daniel had his DC Drivers license. They argued with our guide for a while about a variety of topics in rapid fire French. Once again, some francs flew back and forth, one guard rose, toted his automatic weapon over his shoulder and started to lead us around to yet another side of the plaza, while his buddies "held onto" our documents, i.e. left them strewn on the card table. Our guide asked him how long this would all take and the guard barely shrugged. Helpfully, our guide turned back to us and also shrugged. Confidence was brimming by this point, and I had one of those "Am I doing something extraordinarily stupid right now?" moments, but I was too amused to turn back.
We then made it to what must have struck them as a security checkpoint, but to me was a guy in a concrete booth with a magnetometer wand. Mind you, we were going into an empty plaza. The guards wanded and frisked Daniel, stymied by the beeping from every metal snap on his shorts. They went through every compartment of his camera bag, examining the camera, video camera, tripod, and tiny metal disk that connected the tripod to the camera, scrutinizting each item with extraordinary interest before challenging us as to it nature, purpose and justification. The whole transaction almost came unraveled over a cinnamon protein bar that the guard apparently mistook for a single serving package of plastique, because he started mashing it up even after Daniel and our guide insisted it was just food. Daniel offered to eat it right on the spot if that would end the confusion, but the guard brusquely motioned him away. I thought I had this transaction figured out, so I held the three things on my personage out to one side, passed the body wanding without incident, immediately turned on the video camera, showed it to the guard to his satisfaction, used the camera to take a picture (which was ironic, of course, because pictures of guards are prohibited, and the sample picture I took was of a guard), and then passed my wallet under the wand to show that it contained no metal. Unimpressed by this attempt at efficiency, the guard proceeded to go through my wallet, which contained all of my remaining currency. I objected briefly on the grounds that there was no metal in it, but only began to protest more strenuously when he began to walk away with my cash! I snatched it back without incident, and our guide began negotiating our entry from scratch once more. A few hundred francs later we were on our way into the plaza with a guard accompanying us as a minder. We verified with the guard that here we would be able to take pictures and he confirmed that we were.
Dead Guy Under Glass
We arrived at the center of the plaza to the mausoleum itself, the flag draped casket encased in glass, in front of a stone obelisk emblaoned with a lion's head over a motto that roughly translates to "Don't Mess With The Congo". This is sheltered by a large stone tent, held up by four massive fists, each with broken shackles and chains around their wrists. A large standing statue of Kabila stands vanguard in front of it, flanked by lions. At no point did our guide attempt to enlighten us regarding any of this, but as we happily snapped away on our cameras, a new guard who is stationed at the crypt itself rousted from his plastic throne and demanded to our guide that we stop taking pictures in this strategic area. Heated words, greased palms, crisis averted. See a pattern forming? The monument was impressive, but utterly abandoned and I contrasted it with the traffic that even the most insignificant memorial receives in DC given the accessibility that Americans rightly demand to their public grounds. Our curiousity sated, we returned, retrieved our documents without incident or bribe, and proceeded back to where one might have expected our driver to be. Alas, the hunt continued. Our guide called him, but got no answer. We meandered around and finally spotted him at the end of one road. The guide immediately challenged him as to why he didn't pick up, and they determined after a short back and forth that our guide had the wrong phone number for the driver. 

We proceeded home to the Rennas for lunch and to join Adela who had worked the morning shift at the Embassy. The Rennas instinct was to simply dismiss the jokers for the afternoon and guide our own tour, but they insisted that this was a package deal, and they insisted on taking us around in the afternoon. We had some quick leftovers for lunch and planned what we wanted to do. Our first destination was nearby and very familiar to the Rennas... the Bobuto College of Art which also doubles as a large, civilized souvenier shop. We selected this over the thieves market, which is not quite as dastardly as it sounds, but involves haggling and hassling, which I wasn't particularly in the mood for. Bobuto was organized, price tagged and low pressure. I found a couple of attractive and not outrageous pieces to bring home, and then checked out the Rennas' special "back room" where they buy their authentic African Art, not the tourist crap that caught my eye. These pieces had price tags ranging from the hundreds to the thousands, and all looked like they would be ideal additions to the emerging Renna collection, whose contents I will no doubt visit in the Smithsonian once Daniel has completed his Ambassadorship in 2030. In the interim, I wouldn't let either Renna in there with a wad of bills that I ever intended to see again.

The peaking rapids of the Congo River
My loot procured we proceed to try to actually go find the river that I had heard so much about all this time. Rather than the Rennas recommended destination, the guide informed us he was taking us to Le Tin Tin. This completed the set for the day, in that the only place in the entire itinerary that Daniel had ever visited before was the art school. Everything else, now including Tin Tin, was brand new.  I assumed it was just a coincidental designation, but it was actually a small riverside cafe named after the old racist comic world traveler, with statues of all the cast members to prove it. We bounded down onto the rocks by the rushing river, Africa's fastest and one of it's longest, where shirtless Congolese using sledgehammers chipped rocks away from the exposed riverbed to sell for construction by the side of the road, and where the 4 foot high rapids looked close enough to reach out and grab, although it would certainly be the last thing you ever grabbed. As we started snapping away pictures here, we were joined by - wouldn't you know it - another soldier, who promptly informed our guide that we were not permitted to take pictures here. This scene, viewed from afar at the cafe, was what caused Adela to facebook that "Dan and Dave were just arrested" when in reality, our tour guide had simply yet to apply the legal tender lubricant to the palm of the solider who quickly became our "attendant" defending our rights to take pictures in this place. (I should just stop calling him a tour guide at this point and opt for the French term bribeaur or extortionaire instead...) I marveled for a while at the unnavigable, but also completely unexploited, power of this massive natural resource before me. It seemed a parallel for so much of the Congo, where untold natural wealth serves as a backdrop for people eking out the same fragile, subsistence living that they and their families have endured for generations.
Breaking big rocks into smaller rocks to sell for a pittance

A Cloudy Congo River Sunset
We ended the day by heading to the more typical sheltered diplomatic dwellings along the tranquil portion of the river across from Brazzaville. One of the Renna's Embassy colleagues Jan was kind enough to host us on her roof for a glance at the sun setting over the river. The gated neighborhood was akin to what I saw in Girgiri outside of Nairobi - a world apart, with smiling  white people jogging with their tiny dogs on boulevards bordered with grass of uniform height, living an existence drastically apart from the country in which they represent their nations' interests. The Rennas choice to live in a synagogue accessible location has not exactly put them in direct contact with the population either - they still have a large stone wall with a heavy, solid metal gate manned 24 by 7 guard and in Gombe, the chi-chi-est of Kinshasa's communities, but I get the sense that even their brief forays into the streets constitute more exposure to "Real Congo" than the majority of the sheltered diplomatic community gain over the course of an entire posting.

The level of surreality of the whole Congo experience was an 11 on a 10 scale. I have tremendous respect for what Daniel and Adela are doing in that they forgo on a daily basis so many of the communal and societal benefits that we enjoy in service of our country and its interests abroad. And certainly while they are at post, they do enjoy life on the upper crust of local society both as diplomats, Americans and individuals living on a first world income. But seeing the degree of community interaction that they enjoy here, understanding how limited we would feel versus our context, borne out of communal plenty, of extreme societal customization where only people of similar outlook, life status, religious observance, economic level and language qualify for our inner social circles, and projecting that onto life with children, I don't think I would be cut out for the life they have chosen.

I described it to Daniel in the context of a short story whose name I forgot almost as soon as I read it many years ago. The two characters interact throughout the story in both their daily life and in their dreams, but only in the fullness of the piece does one realize that their reality and dreamlife are disjoint... one is in a dreamstate while the other is in reality and vice versa. I feel as if visiting Congo was my dreamstate and the Rennas' reality, whereas their visit to Washington is hosting their dreamstate in my reality. In any event, we look forward to welcoming them as warmly as I was welcome by them when they arrive in DC this summer for breeding season.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Congo Bongo

Purim Day began with megillah reading as it would anywhere. We returned home from shul for seudah prep, and for the creation of a sumptuous/atrocious delicacy/monstrosity called "Ojos De Haman". This is a custom imported from certain areas of Morocco by the Rennas that involves baking a challah in the shape of a gruesome visage, with hard boiled eggs based in as the eyes. Children then pluck out the eyes of Haman at the Purim seudah. Eep. Adela made a masterpiece, and it came out quite delicious.

The Rennas had invited a group of folks over for an early seudah to conclude before the end of the holiday. Mostly Israelis, I was fascinated by the stories that brought them to the heart of darkness, some for telecommunications, other for construction and many for diamonds. Daniel and Adela hosted an absolute basar fest, facilitated by their outsized grill whose original use was undoubtedly for the roasting of an entire intact lamb. Despite the volumes of South African kosher meat unearthed from their freezer, by the time the plundering Israelis had finished feeding, only a few franks remainined. While the Rabbi's young daughters frolicked in the Renna's pool in the backyard, bottles of wine were being emptied as quickly as the meat troughs. Daniel, being less accustomed to imbibing to excess than many of us, promptly passed out on the couch. Amazingly, people still had room for the hamentaschen we had made the night before and they received strong reviews.

Undeterred by our feasting appetizer, we quickly suited up back into costume - I in my Masai garb, Daniel in his West African Bubu, Adela this time as a cowgirl - and skittered over to the Rabbi's seudah in his roomy apartment above the synagogue. A typical Chabad Jack Daniels-driven affair in all but its geography, the l'chayims began early and often. Not wanting to be rude, I indulged in the local custom, naturally. The singing alternated between the Rabbi starting some niggunim, Renna and I harmonizing on some Purim faves and the Israelis on the other side of the long table belting out some Mizrachi oldies. At one point the Rabbi gave a drasha on the connection between Purim and Yom Kippurim. Blame it on my inebriated state, but I could not trace for you exactly how it led to a middle aged Russian Israeli guy polishing off 20 ounces of vodka in a single draught at the Rabbi's behest after which we sang Mareh Kohen, but I am certain that's where it ended up. The food came in about three waves - salads, fish, then steak and chicken, with a meek Congolese servant in a bright white tunic presenting each dish to the Rabbi first for his approval before it could be taken around the table.

 I'm not one to bite the hand that feeds me, and it was undoubtedly a Purim seudah for the ages, but it struck me at multiple times during this event - what the hell are we doing here? This is one area where I certainly don't get Chabad. There is no community here as such. There is a Rabbi and his family. There are a series of transplants and itinerants. It is lovely that said transplants and itinerants have a place to daven and get a Kosher meal, though few of them would demand or even seek it for themselves were it not provided and at no effort of their own. Nobody would recommend founding a permanent community here, or enticing Jews to live in the Congo, the Rabbi himself rolls his eyes when you ask him what it is like to be there, even though he just celebrated two decades here. The community exists, in short, because an extraordinarily wealthy Orthodox Israeli copper dealer decided to self-fund a moribund community chiefly for his own convenience. Not to hate on a baal tzedaka who could have spent his money on 10,000 more selfish or material items... but the existence and composition of the community still baffles me in theory and in practice. That said, it is a huge quality of life boon to the Rennas and even if that were the only purpose it served for three years, I would be grateful for its presence.

It was late by the time the seudah ended, but not too late to catch a few minutes of Saturday Night Live on AFN at the Rennas. After those very few minutes, I excused myself and promptly passed out. A full day of Congo touring awaited me in the morning.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Shoshanat Congo, Kinshasa V'Samecha

My flight from Kenya was uneventful, with Kenyan Airways providing a professional and comfortable ride. Given the variety that my kosher meal represented compared to my menu this past month, I've never enjoyed airline food so much! I arrived at the uninspired and inscrutable Kinshasa airport having memorized Adela's detailed disembarking instructions, which were as accurate as they were meticulous. The Embassy expediter, Pitchou, was waiting for me with my name on a sign, the second time in a month and in my life where that's happened. I collected my luggage and went outside to meet Daniel who was fully regaled in business suit, kippah and US Embassy ID Card - not remarkable for Daniel, but dissonant with everyone and everything else around him. Which now that I think about it, is *also* not remarkable for Daniel :-)

We hopped into the waiting massive SUV sporting diplomatic plates. As  I tried to close the impossibly heavy door, I realized the vehicle was also bulletproof. The small tank whisked us to the Embassy, through a city scene which was not unlike everything in Kenya except Nairobi. People milling about engaged in informal commerce, brightly painted concrete storefronts which looked capable of falling at the first tap of a wrecking ball, dilapidated infrastructure incapable of sustaining the traffic, small indicators of the crushing poverty such as the children selling thin plastic bags filled with water by the sides of the road, and the risible such as the guy going car to car selling stacks of square waffles, a paean to the Congo's Belgian colonial roots.

I took a quick tour around the Embassy, met both Adela and Daniel's colleagues, and caught up on some news of the world on the Armed Forces Network while they finished up their days work. We headed out into the city for some food shopping, include onto the "Boulevard" the somewhat more upscale 8 lane road which has some more robust construction, a few towers and a supermarket that accidentally stocks some kosher cheese. The more shocking food shopping was at Hasson and Frere, a massive supermarket cum department store which in addition to a sprawling, completely non-sequitur selection of toys, appliances, electronics and clothing, stocks a broad variety of frozen kosher meat, a full four racks of only Kosher wine, including a few labels that are made exclusively for the Congo. Did not see that coming in the middle of Kinshasa. Turns out it is owned by a Satmar friend of the Rennas who spends half his time in Congo. Go know.

I realized pretty quickly that I would be a language idiot for this part of my journey, as my feeble attempts to respond in Kiswahili to people who speak Lingala and French were not destined for effectiveness.

We got home to prepare for Shabbat at the Rennas gorgeous villa. A continuing exercise in contrast, they live in an Embassy guarded home surrounding by a tall whitewashed wall. Inside the opaque iron gate which grants access to their driveway, is a beautiful four bedroom home complete with a pool, a gorgeous garden, a roomy kitchen with modern cabinets and granite countertops, and a lovely patio with a massive built-in brick grill all tastefully decorated with the prodigious collection of stunning African Art that the Rennas have amassed over the years. All this just steps from the Beit Yaakov synagogue.

Speaking of the synagogue, we walked over there as night fell (with our retired policeman escort in tow) and enjoyed a Sefardi style kabbalat shabbat davening with the approximately 25 attending French-speaking Israelis (and a few others) and the very warm and welcoming Rabbi Ben Tolila who just celebrated 20 years of Chabad in Central Africa last week in a gala affair. The drasha was almost completely in French, so I won't pretend to have gotten the subtleties, but the topic was almost certainly Shabbat Zachor.

The Rennas provided a magnificent spread for Shabbat dinner, and my stomach began to adjust to the expectation of "real" food again. We had plenty to reminisce about and lots to catch up on, and we schmoozed up until I was ready to pass out, having started the day at 3 AM based on the time difference. It was the warmest of welcomes, exactly as one would expect from the Rennas, though unexpected given the remoteness of this massive country and the degree to which they toil to get access to the staples of Jewish life.

Shul on Shabbat morning was more of a typical Chabad endeavor, although I would imagine that Renna's mussaf is probably the only instance of a "Keser Yisnu" pronunciation anywhere in the world. (Sorry to any for whom that joke is unintelligible, but it would simply take too long to explain.) The Rabbi and Rebbetzin hosted us above the shul in their apartment for a luxuriant lunch for 25 or so people replete with l'chayims and delicious chamin. After mincha and some schmoozing, we headed home for quick nap and then to prepare for Purim.

Always happier at the kids' table...
Dining and drumming with an Indian princess,
 the Rabbi's youngest daughter "Sushi"
Sitting around singing Mizrachi songs after the feast
Although it turned out that the Rennas and I were the only people over 12 years old to arrive in costume (they in their African bubus and my in my ersatz Masai garb, we had a great time listening to RBT read the megillah and enjoying an outdoor repast of "couscous royale" with the whole community. Fortunately, we were able to snag seats at the kids table first. No substitute for missing my own kids in their costume parade, but we did get to hang out with Spider-Man, Jasmine, Snow White, some Hindi princesses and others before rejoining the unadorned crowd. After dinner, we joined the remaining Israelis in a big Mizrachi singalong.

Returning home late, we still had a little preparation to do for the Rennas' Purim Seudah tomorrow, namely making a large batch of hamentaschen for dessert. This was best accomplished out of costume, but we prepared a nice looking couple of trays for consumption tomorrow. 

More to come tomorrow, and Chag Purim Sameach from the Congo!

Friday, March 18, 2011


A quick, funny anecdote from the airport. As I was waiting for my flight, I detected the unmistakable strains of a selection from Subliminal’s debut album HaOr V’HaTzel. I whirled around trying to determine which of the pitch-black faces around me might number the iconic Israeli gangster rapper among their musical preferences. I mean, really, “Yadayim Bashamayim” in the midst of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport? WTF? My mind reeled as I tried to rate the relative likelihood of the people within my listening radius to stock that tune, and select who I would interrogate as to how they got turned on to Israeli hip-hop in the middle of East Africa. As my survey yielded no one who was even listening to music, let alone that music, the reality sheepishly dawned on me. I opened my laptop back and turned off my iPod nano which had gone off with my regularly scheduled wake-up alarm on shuffle. Duh.

Over and Out

And just like that, my Corporate Service Corps experience has come to an end!
We departed Nyeri early on Thursday morning for a rushed journey back to Nairobi. The staff at the Green Hills feted our time there with a massive display of grilled meats, whose intention I appreciated even if I was unable to partake. The blurred landscape on our speedy streak down Thika Road for the last time gave me a few things to look forward to in my return to the States... things like highway lane dividers, infrastructure that doesn't appear to have been recently hit by a fragmentation grenade, and traveling in something other than white knuckled panic.

Once in Nairobi, we enjoyed a lovely lunch at an upscale Chinese restaurant in the Kenyatta International Conference Center called Tin Tin. I wouldn't have done much other than observe even on a normal day, but given that it was Taanit Esther and I was fasting, my food abstention was particularly easy to notice. Nonetheless, I was fortunate to sit in between Dr. Getao, our client, and Jane Jamieson who is the regional coordinator for Digital Opportunities Trust, the NGO that IBM contracts with in order to pull off the CSC program. Jane, who was visiting from her home in Turkey, was in an unmistakable selling mode, and I certainly couldn’t blame here… there are ample opportunities for follow-on projects here for future CSC teams. That said, the discussion was very pleasant and ranged from amusing stories of Dr. Getao traveling the world on a shoestring budget as a third-world academic to Jane’s experiences with Ramadan in various sites around the Muslim world.

We proceeded from there to Harambee House, the Kenyan executive seat, where Dr. Getao’s presence gave us the all-access pass past the various security layers. To work off our lunch, they arranged for the elevators to be out of service, and we walked up the ten flights of stairs to the executive suites where we would be conducting our final presentation. The audience was our “Team Chui”, Dr. Getao and her leadership team, the rest of the group of IBM CSCers, a couple of DOT folks including Alex, Muriuki and Jane, and a large group of the East Africa IBM team, including the congenial and impressive Tony Mwai, the Country General Manager, i.e. IBM’s top guy in Kenya.

Team CHUI... what WHAT!

The presentation came off flawlessly. Nimeesh from Ottawa launched us with reintroducing our objectives, reviewing our eye-opening visits to the various government ministries to see their existing processes, and breaking down our research, including explaining the six main areas we selected to focus on and the findings we had in each area in the current Kenyan legal code. Anna from Seoul then launched into our first group of legal global best practices including sample legislation focusing on standard data structures, data centralization and eliminating redundant systems, gleaned from the review of dozens of laws from around the world, some of which she translated herself from the Korean. I took over to finish off the legal examples for open government and public data, protection of PII and data privacy, freedom of information and data security. I then reviewed some of the potential areas for Kenya to be a global e-government leader by putting in some regulatory framework to leverage Kenyan’s mobile phone explosion to better deliver services, and gave them a straight-talk review of some of their draft legislation, detailed its legislative archaeology in some 30 year old legal principles and outlined the threats that it entailed to Kenya’s efforts to roll out e-government. Luan from Zurich then brought us home with the strategic summary, “Monday Morning Action Plan” for immediate steps that need to be taken, and then a long term roadmap stretching over years for how Kenya (and Kenyans) can realize the benefits of these frameworks in their lives.

The question and answer period was a very robust back and forth with Katherine and her deputies all drilling down into the details of our findings and conclusions, debating the strategy back and forth a bit, and candidly discussing some of the political considerations or obstacles that may shape their approach. All of them including the DOT and IBM teams gave us phenomenal feedback and over-the-top appreciation for how much we were able to advance their knowledge and plan of action on this subject in such a short period of time and without any legal or regulatory expertise on our team. Not to pump up our already inflated egos further, but they’re right. The four of us not only came together in a very brief four weeks to form a very highly functioning team, but we pulled out all the stops working late into many nights mastering an area in which we had no prior background, learning the legal, regulatory, administrative and bureaucratic landscape of a country none of us had ever set foot in previously. And the presentation and full report which we delivered were top-notch, giving Dr. Getao – who is at heart an academic and a technologist – the bootstrapping she needed on how her office can obtain the authorities necessary to execute her agenda. It’s not worth beans coming from me, but Dr. Getao said as much in her thanks and farewell, and told us we can all share pride of ownership when the first e-Government Act of Kenya passes Parliament sometime next year, inshallah. Our team is extremely proud of what we accomplished, the value that we delivered, and the potential impact it can have on Kenyan society in the future. And if I never read another piece of Finnish legislation again, it will be too soon.

It had started to rain lightly while we were presenting which gave the only needed excuse to inextricably snarl the already congested downtown Nairobi traffic. So the four of us sat in the car for about 40 minutes before we were even out of eyesight of Harambee House. We proceeded to the very comfy Crowne Plaza hotel, where I was able to break my fast on the generally unadvisable but situationally unavoidable hard liquor. A few carrot sticks sufficed to put something non-alcoholic in my belly, but I was fortunate that the adrenaline, team pride and sense of accomplishment helped to weather the fast without any difficulty. The rest of the team eventually joined us with high-fives and fist bumps all around for a job well done. I’m sad that I won’t be able to participate in the other two subteam presentations, the media event and the celebratory dinner, not to mention the variety of follow-on safaris upon which most of the team is embarking, but the necessities of Shabbat, Purim, family and work dictated otherwise.

We headed back to the Country Lodge where exhaustion began to set it across the team. Since my early morning flight the next day would necessitate me leaving before anyone else work up. A round of tearful goodbyes ensued as the intense circumstances and close quarters bonded us as an entire team, but particularly tightly as a subteam. I’m thrilled to have gained an international network of close colleagues and friends and hope to welcome all of them to Washington over the coming years and maybe even pay some of them visits over the fullness of time.

I leave Kenya with very mixed emotions. I’m very homesick, and more than ready to resume life. I’m certain I will miss the camaraderie, pace and effectiveness of our lean, mean, focused and fun-loving team, not to mention the simplicity of life with one project, no supervision, no administrative requirements, no need to shop, clean, cook, drive, pay bills, or handle any of the little distractions of daily living. The time for focus and reflection over the course of this month has been of immeasurable value. The rare value and sheer unlikelihood of the opportunity to travel abroad to work on a strategic project with highly skilled colleagues at company expense bolstered by my regular salary not only at no risk but to the advancement of my career is simply remarkable, and I’m acutely aware at how fortunate and blessed I am to have had the opportunity. The next CSC application period opens in another month, and I’ll be an avid advocate for my team and colleagues getting their names in the mix. Heck, Deb might kill me for saying so, but I would do it again in 2012 or 2013 if I could.

In the meantime, I’m very excited to be heading to Kinshasa, making Congo the whopping number 6 on the list of countries Dave has visited in his life, for Purim with the Rennas. I plan to hew closely to the detailed entry instructions that Adela provided in chapter and verse to navigate the airport on my arrival. I’ve got a Masai costume in the works for megillah reading which I expect to be a hit, I’ll try to post some shots. I’ll miss Deb and the kids terribly for costumes, megillah, mishloach manot and seudah, but it certainly will soften the blow to be with old friends. I don’t think that the Rennas were expecting anyone not related to them by blood to schlep to them in the DRC, if they were to make a list of other people least likely to make the journey, I’m quite certain I would rank near the top possibly behind only Beyonce, the Unabomber and the ghost of Levi Eshkol. Actually, I might have been in a tie with the wraith.

After a whirlwind Shabbat, Purim and an extra day of touring around Congo that will no doubt be enjoyed but was forced upon me by the vagaries of flight cancellation, I’ll return home for the joyful reunion with the Sloan brood. The separation has been very painful, and is really the only flaw in what has otherwise been an inspiring, exhausting, fulfilling and magical month. Oh, and I need me a double order of Max’s schwarma followed precisely three hours and one minute later by an entire mushroom and extra cheese pizza pretty much immediately after I land at Dulles. Make it happen, Washington! J

Unexpectedly, I’m tearing up a bit here in the boarding lounge for my Kenya Airways flight, which cannot be putting my fellow passengers at ease, so I’ll sign off for now, wish myself a Safari Njema and plan to end this blog with a rundown of the Congo and a note indicating my safe return to DC, iy”h.

Kwaheri Kenya.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Victory over Racism

OK, maybe that's a mild exaggeration, but after being refused service on racial grounds on three occasions (and an additional time because the barber is closed on Sunday), I have successfully gotten my hair cut! This may not seem blog-worthy, but I lost about 3 pounds, am 8 degrees cooler, and my tefilin and hat both fit again.

I admit this may seem like less than earth-shattering news in light of Japan, Libya, Israel, etc. but it's all I've got to offer today.

This is our last day in Nyeri, we'll spend the day practicing our presentation before delivering it to the government tomorrow in Nairobi. I packed this morning, and will be off to the Congo in another 2 days, and back home in less than a week! How the month has flown... well, maybe not for Deb.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Different World

My loot from the Masai Market in hand, I set out to reconnect with a friend from college who is stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Kenya. The directions I gave the taxi to arrive at her place were quite convoluted, and I quickly realized why. Neither the U.S. Embassy nor the embassy housing are in Nairobi, but rather quite a distance away, in a vast gaggle of embassies and U.N. facilities in a suburb that reminded me of Burleith or Foxhall in Georgetown. After four separate security checkpoints, the last of which included a brief interrogation and through search of the taxi, we entered a gorgeous group of modest sized houses with modern facades, gleaming SUVs sporting red diplomatic plates in the driveways, carefully cultivated lawns, roads as smooth as glass, not a speck of paint missing from the walls, and some white kids playing basketball on a flawless court with bright white netting. It was like we had not only left the city, but left the planet. Ellen and her new husband Felix were extraordinarily gracious and we were able to spend a few hours relaxing on their terrace, reminiscing, catching up, and talking about the state of affairs, and the likely state of the future, in Kenya. Felix’s insights as a former Kenyan journalist (he films documentaries now) and Ellen’s from her various interactions with Kenyans all over the country, confirmed some of my deep-seated American cynicism and exposed a bunch of issues, good and bad, that were new to me. The degree to which political gossip is a mainstay of Kenyan discussion was clear as soon as another Kenyan, Eunice, joined the conversation. I think some of this stems from a sense of powerlessness developed over years of having no other outlet with which to even symbolically reign in Kenyan leaders, but clearly another part of it stems from the ludicrous antics of the Kenyan first family. Ellen will be back in DC for a year starting this summer, and hopefully we’ll be able to keep in touch on that side of the world as well.

Felix was kind enough to give me a ride back to the Tea Room (an establishment long since closed, but still the term of reference for the main matatu stop in Nairobi), where I hopped a matatu back to Nyeri.

One of the most amusing parts of matatus is their naming conventions. Apparently, matatu decoration was an art while the industry was still the wild west. Now matatus are by regulation white with a yellow stripe down the side that lists their route and maximum capacity. However, the last vestige of this radical individualism is the names painted or placed by stickers on the top of the front windshield. I've made a small collection of matatu names which I present here for your reading enjoyment.

     Unique Shuttle
     Exalted King Coach
     Ultimate Leader
     Spirit Queen
     Watch Out
     Da Blues
     King of the Road
     Yours 4 Da Asking

... and my #1 with a bullet ...

     Relax, God's In Charge

It's not as roomy as it looks here
The view in my matatu
My matatu was unnamed, but left almost immediately, a bonus, with me in the back corner seat next to a six year old girl who was not allocated a seat on her own. Her eyes went wide when she saw me - my pigmentation is not common on matatus at all, let alone those heading to Nyeri. Her mother seated next to her said something that loosely translated “Just sit next to the mizungu and don’t complain, he probably won’t bite.” The little girl stroked my arm a few times, played with my backpack straps a bit and fell asleep on my lap after a few minutes on the road, despite the bone-jarring bumps which are fare of any travel on Thika Road these days. The ride was largely uneventful, but there was a hilarious moment when the matatu pulled off the side of the road for no obvious reason, and a *mob* of people charged the van from every side, pulled open the windows from the outside and shoved their arms into the van up to their armpits and started shouting. Far from a terrorist ambush, dangling from their invading limbs were stalks of bananas, bags of mangos and sack of fresh cut sugar cane. I was too constrained and amused to actually participate in one of these transactions, but I would say that at least half of my matatu-mates did some of their produce shopping right there in their seats.
My teammates had returned from Lake Nakuru hours before I got back, and were ready to go to dinner soon after I dropped my bags. After a quick jaunt to the Outspan, we came back to our hotel where it was “disco night” with a DJ playing to a completely empty terrace. Not to let a good set of music go to waste, the team created an impromptu dance floor and spent a few hours cutting the proverbial rug. I am indebted to my American male colleagues for ensuring that my utter lack of anything resembling dance skills did not render me a complete outlier.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Slums and Souvenirs

Sunday was an overcast day in Nairobi, but I quickly set out to accomplish the few items I had set out for myself. The first and simplest was quickly thwarted, as although all the barbershops list hours starting at 8 AM, none of their signs mention that they are uniformly closed on Sunday. This country has some sort of vendetta against giving me a haircut. I proceeded into the city center to verify that there heretofore unmentioned City Hall Masai Market souvenir fair was indeed present. Its vendors were just starting to set up, so I followed my original plan to go to YaYa Center, a suburban shopping mall which hosts the published Masai Market on Sundays. I caught a “City Hoppa” bus (I assume that it’s a play on words since Hapa in Swahili means “here” but I’m not at all certain) which engages a staff of two – one driver and one hawker who shouts at people on the street to entreat them to board instead of opting for a competing bus company or any of the parasitic matatus that follow the identical route. The hawker also collects the 20 KSh fee (about 25 cents). The bus arrived at YaYa Center much more quickly that I expected and I missed the stop. Since it was still early though, I decided against disembarking and taking another bus in the other direction and instead decided to ride this bus for the loop, see a little bit more of the neighborhoods of Nairobi, and then jump off when it came past the mall going in the other direction. The circuitous route took me through some truly lovely tree-lined suburbs like Hurlingham, but then passed through those into Kawanguare, a suburban Nairobi slum. Many of the people were boarding in their Sunday best heading into town for church, but that made them stand out against their environment even more. Clapboard shacks with corrugated iron roofs as homes and kiosks. Not a shred of green to be seen, as whatever scrubby weeds surfaced were quickly mowed down by the emaciated livestock. Mountains of open garbage as tall as the window on our bus with goats rooting at the top and children rummaging around the bottom. The estimates of how many people live in Kawanguare range from 250,000 to 500,000. Having struck up a conversation with my hawker by this point, I asked him what these people did for work, and he replied “Nothing”. He said that many of them expected to inherit farms, but when those lands were transferred away from them through a variety of unsavory means, they came to the city seeking sustenance. But in his words, “They have no land, no jobs, and no hope.” Although that is likely an exaggeration, it is true that this is an area with some of the most extreme poverty in the world, with people living off about US$1 per day. He did say that the schools in that area are slowly but steadily improving, and agreed that education was the only hope for preventing the slums from being inherited by another generation.
Even the Nebulons are getting in on the action...
Disembarking at YaYa Center could not have provided a more sudden or stark contrast. For those of you in the DC area, YaYa is like Tyson’s Corner Center, but with even more white people. Exclusive brand names stores, gleaming marble floors, upscale coffee shops, even a street team in full space-age regalia hawking the new Samsung smartphone for a sum which exceeds most Kenyan’s annual income. 

It keeps going...
... and going
Arrayed in the parking lot were close to a hundred mats, splayed on each were hundreds of African tchatchkes ready for the haggling. Every step I took though the market was met with “Hello friend! Jambo! Karibu Kenya! What is your name? Where are you from? Please come with me just a moment to see my shop, looking is free, but you must hold the wares to know their quality and for you as my first customer of the day I have a special deal which I will not be able to extend for very long, so please let me feel like I am working today, sister please start wrapping these products for our foreign friend. Wait, but you are not buying, let me give you another price just for spending this time with us, and you are still not buying? Do you prefer this price? I feel this is our special time, and that we should do business together, but you are walking away. Do you promise you will come back? I will hold this piece for you, but you promise you will return?” Rise, repeat, multiply by one hundred, I am not exaggerating. I wended my way through the warren of pressing venders jotting notes down on what prices I was hearing and what products I was interested in procuring as gifts. Finally, I looked at my list and realized that if I were to go negotiating each of these gifts from vendors separately, I would be there all month. I decided to take a chance and try to make the system work for me. I beckoned one of the particularly earnest sellers, Mike, over to me and explained the system of agency, whereby I would provide him with a list of products, he would procure them for me at the best prices, and then I would negotiate with him and only him on a price for the bundle of goods. If I like the price I got from him, I would only need one agent, and if I didn’t then I would engage another agent to compete with him. Industrious as all Kenyans I’ve met, Mike eagerly set out on his task, engaging a deputy to help on his search. I sat in the shade with a mango juice, while they busily traversed the shops, bringing me products to verify. At the end, I had a pile of about 25 gifts, and hadn’t lifted a finger. Mike started with an absurdly high price for the group, and I re-explained that I could easily get another agent to engage on the same task. He immediately cut his price in half. I negotiated him down to about one third of his initial asking price, happily handed over the cash, and received the hefty bag of loot in return. Before letting me go, Mike asked me what course I studied in school. I told him Software Engineering and Business, and he paid me what I can only take as the ultimate marketplace compliment, “You are a tough customer.”

Coffee, Tea and Nairobi

Friday morning, the team decided to take in a little local color before work by going to one of the many ubiqutous coffee plantations in the area. At least, that was the intention. The Postal team had made a very good friend and number one fan in the local postmaster and he hooked us up with a guide and an entre. The hitch was that we when we showed up, we were met with a non-coffee, non-plantation destination. It was a tea factory. We went through and saw the tea leaf delivery, the withering, macerating, drying, crushing, and sifting machines.  Then we advanced to the tasting room, where about 10 different pots were brewing, and Francesco took the lead, swirling and spitting as one might at a wine tasting. Remarkable how many different styles (their relative value apparently changes with the desires of the market) can come from just one batch of leaves.
Vast bins of drying tea leaves
I <3 Conveyor Belts
Tea varieties all from the same batch of leaves

Francesco hard at work

Not to be deterred, we inquired after a subsequent coffee visit, which was happily granted. After a 5 minute drive that took 35 minutes, we arrived at yet another factory, this one devoted to coffee. The smell of freshly roasted beans was ambient from the moment we got out of the car, though there is no industrial roasting at this particular plant, just enough for quality control and tasting. We went through the demonstration groves, where the agronomists at the coffee mill show the farmers optimal practices for maximizing the quality and yield of their plants. Apparently, one the farmer delivers the beans, there's very little that the mill itself can do to increase the quality of the resulting coffee... much of it is determined at the plant itself. Steve, the British intern showing us around the plant, was quite accommodating of all of our questions and most importantly arranged for a fresh cup of joe for all of us - and by fresh I mean beans that were roasted one floor below, having been beans on the tree mere weeks before. As you might imagine, it was delicious.

This whole process turned from a quick one hour jaunt into a 3.5 hour morning event, which stressed out some of my teammates, as they had a trip planned to Lake Nakuru for the weekend. I was on a little bit more relaxed schedule to head to Nairobi, since I was planning to take a matatu. I don't recall to what degree I've covered matatus thus far, but they are small Nissan minibuses that are the most common form of inter-city transportation in Kenya. Picture five rows of three seats with a steering wheel in the front, inside an interior the size of a Honda Odyssey. Foreigners typically shun them, and for some good reasons... up until recently, matatus were completely unregulated. Speeds were unlimited, as were numbers of passengers which could number above 20. Fatal accidents were common. Drivers were either unlicensed, stoned or both. Vehicles were unguided road missiles, and held to no mechanical standard. After accidents, drivers would typically abandon their junk heap vehicle and just run for it. These practices have been largely reformed now with police constantly pulling over matatus to check the licensing and state of the driver, ensure that insurance and inspection are up to date, check the number of passengers, but the stigma still remains.
Matatus are cheap. By comparison, a private taxi from Nyeri to Nairobi is about 7500 Ksh one way, or about 85-90 dollars. A matatu ride from Nyeri to Nairobi is 250 Ksh, just under 3 bucks. Yeah. So my colleague Francesco walked me down to the matatu stop, I bought my ticket, he snapped a photo of me in the matatu as my last will and testament, and waved goodbye. I sat in the "jump seat" by the sliding door, which avoided the "death seat" next to the matatu driver. The only downside with a matatu is that they leave when they are full, which in my case took about a half an hour. In that half hours time, you are a captive audience and a sitting duck for every two bit vendor with any wares to ply. Fruit, drinks, cookies, samosas, candies, phonics books, calendars, combs, grilled meats of unclear origin, religious texts, and padlocks, all circling the lot full of vans, shouting and looking to swoop down on any flash of cash since they're largely selling the same stuff. My van finally filled (with 17 passengers instead of 15 if you count the two kids unbelted in their parents laps), and we pulled off onto the highway. The "African Massage" was in full force, but honestly once you have accustomed yourself to the white-knuckle, breath-catching panic of passing by swerving into the oncoming lane on a well-trafficked highway, there's really very little incremental terror doing it in a matatu versus a taxi - only that your heirs will have less to inherit in the latter case.
I made some small talk with my sleepy matatu-mates who were pleasant if not particularly conversational. When we made a brief stop to drop someone on the outskirts of Nairobi, I hopped out to make room for the exiting passenger and was immediately approached by an aggressive panhandler who quickly became abusive when I refused him. My fellow passenger leaped to my defense, pouring calumny on him in Swahili until he backed away, flipping all of us off in the process. Matatu Solidarity!
I made it to downtown Nairobi unscathed and in enough time to make it to my modest accommodations, shower and head over to the synagogue for Kabbalat Shabbat. Many of the folks I met the first time were not around, which made it difficult to gain entry past the synagogue security guards, but fortunately, I spied a former head of the shul, "Veitzman" (first name, yes, you may be Israeli if your first name is Veitzman) who granted me access. I quickly discovered why things were particularly buckled down as my entry was immediately followed by the arrival of 4 black sedans and a chase car with siren blaring. Out walked a gaggle of obvious Israeli security goons, the Israeli Ambassador Yaacov Keidar (who is a regular attendee there) and the Israeli Minister of Internal Security Yitzchak Aharonovich, who was in Kenya for official meetings. Davening proceeded with the normal hodgepodge of tunes and styles, with some of the regular mizrachi mix taking jabs at the bitachon crew for not singing along.
The next morning we were not only without a minister, but also without a minyan. We davened mostly from our seats, and I was glad to be able to help out at least a little bit, leyning most of the parasha from a chumash. I should mention that we were lacking a white minyan, which is to say that there were sufficient African Kenyans present to make a minyan, but despite the fact that many of them have been coming to shul there for two decades, or in the case of the younger kids their entire lives, none of them have been put in touch with any sort of conversion process. Certain shul members have definite opinions on why this has been the case but I'm not going to get into shul politics by blog.
After davening, I ran into David and Michael, two East Africa trekkers - one from Australia, the other a GWU graduate who just finished his service in the Israeli Army. Since my plan for the afternoon was already wander-lunch-nap-wander, I amended it to wander with friends-lunch-nap-wander, and enjoyed trading stories of Kenya.
Saturday night, we were all invited to join a lecture that the visiting Minister was giving at the social hall in the shul. I was happy that my Hebrew has not atrophied so badly that I couldn't keep up, as the Minister addressed topics as varied as Iran, fire-fighting, the Itamar Massacre, Gilad Shalit, mafia protection rackets, the various Middle East revolutions in progress, Hamas, Hizbollah, electoral realignments, "broken window" theory and others. It got heated at one point, when someone asked about the recent settler evictions, and the minister simply replied "Ani lo rotzeh l'daber al zeh." (I don't want to talk about that.) It was a good talk, though I think I probably could have given it. Not to be conceited, but I've got the process on being an Israeli minister pretty much down pat. (apologies to the non-Hebrew speakers for the Hebrew, apologies to the Hebrew speakers for the poor Hebrew transliteration).

Audience member: Kvod haSar, mah ata choshev al <noseh>?
Sar: Tishma, <noseh> zeh lo davar pashut. Zeh inyan m'od me'urkav, v'm'od matrid. Yesh beYisrael achshav vikuach tziburi al <noseh>, v'kamuvan yesh vikuach gam b'memshala. Anachu ovdim achshav al <noseh> v'nireh ba'yamim v'chodashim hakrovim mah ha-tozaot.

Try it yourself, you too can be an Israeli minister! Use Syria, tunnel smuggling, prostate cancer, Idan Raichel, Krembo, you name it. All you need now is a few hundred thousand votes and you're good to go.

Friday, March 11, 2011

High Five

 It’s been a very rewarding couple of days for our team, and hopefully we’ve even got room to improve from here. Before the reveal, maybe it’s worth giving a little bit of insight into what our daily schedule has been like over the last few weeks that we’ve been researching and drafting our report. We’ve typically been getting up around 6 or 7 AM, joining together for breakfast at 8 AM, starting work at 9 AM, working until 1, breaking for an hour for lunch, resuming at 2 PM until it’s time for dinner at 7 PM, dining for an hour, then heading to the bar, laptops in hand, to work from about 8 PM until midnight or later, then going to bed for a few hours until we get up and do it all over again. Our team recognized early on that we had a massive body of research to tackle and a lot of report drafting to do, and we grabbed on with both hands from day one.
That hard work got put to the test on Tuesday as we gave our government sponsor a preview via phone conference of the draft report that we intended to present to her extended staff the next day. Although all of us were quite confident in the quality of our work, I think the shared fear was that we were not going to tell Dr. Katherine Getao anything that the head of the e-Government wouldn’t already know, and that she would look at us and say, “Right. So?”
Far from the case, she was attentive and inquisitive from the first substantive slide. One of my teammates believes she counted 20 “Fantastic”s over the course of the call. She gave us a couple of additional areas for investigation, followed up to clarify a few points that were new news to her, and expressed her excitement to see the final report. Though it was very gratifying to hear it, we soon shuffled off to bed, as we had another 5:30 sortie to Nairobi the next morning to present our preliminary report to the CIOs of Kenya’s 42 government ministries. Since I have already had a chance to present on numerous occasions, I left this one to my teammates, which meant I got to sleep the whole car ride. We arrived at the conference center at the Kenya Institute of Education, and heard Katherine give a heartfelt, humorous and very ambitious presentation on the e-Government strategy for the next year. Her staff reviewed some of the subtopics in the strategy, and then it was our turn. Anna had created a visually stunning presentation, and Nimeesh and Luan both did a great job sharing it with the assembled ICT officers. The questions came fast and furious, substantive and on point, and I used my perch in the center of the seating area to clarify our key principles and outline the opportunities that Kenya has to “leapfrog” a number of stages of technological development, and learn enough from the world’s experience with e-Government to “cheat” and start on the last page of the book, as it were. The reception to our points was very warm with both Dr. Getao and her staff immediately integrating some of our points into their responses to crowd questions. At lunch, I was able to sit with Katherine, together with one of the architects of the Kenya Vision 2030 plan and a gentleman from the Ministry of Information and Communication who has been instrumental in drafting and passing many of Kenya’s laws pre- and post-constitution. I will admit to a thrill when during the somewhat heated lunch discussion regarding whether these principles were better promulgated as new legislative authority or simple regulatory edicts, and what position they would occupy vis a vis some of the laws already in process, Dr. Getao at one point said “Yes, but are you listening to what IBM is telling us???”
The conference was a bit eye-opening hearing that the status of some of the projects that our legislative proposals will legitimize was more rudimentary that we had hoped, and we will need to adjust some of our included timelines accordingly. And we did get ambushed by some laws in draft form that no one had bothered to circulate to anyone in e-Government but that will directly affect our outputs, but by Thursday morning we had already tamped those down and were working them into our final report. Overall, it was extraordinarily gratifying to have many hours of hard work pay off with an eager and engaged reception and a very satisfied client. The next few days we’ll spend ensuring that the final full-length report if of similar quality and contains the few tweaks that Dr. Getao requested.
We celebrated this milestone with some boisterous alcohol-fueled card games, neither of whose names are of a quality to be published in this blog, in the bar with the extended team. This weekend, most of the team will head to Lake Nakuru, while I hitch a matatu ride to Nairobi for one more crack at the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation, a long-awaited meet up with my dear college friend Ellen who works in the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, and some frantic souvenir shopping for what seems like an endless list of deserving recipients. One week from now, we’ll have finished our final client presentation and I’ll be on a plane to Kinshasa… how the time has flown.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The News You Refuse

I'm fortunate to count numerous journalists among my friends, so many that it's drastically skewed my perception to the positive. It occurs to me only in retrospect that all of them without exception are print journalists... and my infrequent exposure to the clowns on cable TV never even met the definitional criteria by which to affect the average. I have learned my lesson.
Our early morning meeting with the reporter started amiably enough with introductions, and random recollections from each other's respective hometowns manufactured from the mists of history playing the role of international travelers' small talk. "Ah, Rotterdam, I remember it well" and such.
We then dug in to what exactly he wanted to report on. We briefly detailed our respective projects, and he requested whether there were any "human interest" stories among us. I stammered and try to convey that the human interest stories were not the CSC participants, but the CSC beneficiaries, the citizens persevering while their country simultaneously experiences the birth pangs of democracy, attempts to modernize their economy, government and civil society, and teeters on the edge of chaos and violence, in a neighborhood too well accustomed to both. He persisted in inquiring about human interest stories on the team, but relented in the face of our blank stares and agape mouths. He then asked what we would be doing over the course of the day. As it so happened, we had a meeting scheduled with the district commissioner (an appointed mayor for the larger region - a frank, competent lady in charge of coordinating the efforts of 42 different government agencies in her location, and the first woman ever to hold her slot), but that didn't catch this newsman's fancy. The other teams were going to be working on their reports, debating ideas for innovation, and distilling them down into presentations - also nothing that raised his eyebrow.
He then literally said "Will anyone be doing anything with a screwdriver?" My already dumbfounded expression hit the pavement. "One of the unique aspects of the IBM program," I said, "is that rather than digging ditches or building houses - and trust me no one would want to live in any house I built - we're using our professional skills and honed expertise to bring more value to Kenyan society than we could by turning screwdrivers." I may as well have said it in Yiddish for the impact it had.
John, our teammate from marketing, quickly took control of the situation, clearly more accustomed to dealing with this type of vapid kabuki than any of us. He suggested a return visit to the school for the mentally disabled or the orphanage that we had just visited the prior Thursday, a proposal which immediately hit paydirt. I gagged a little bit, and turned off like a lightswitch. As Luan's boyfriend put it, "If he wanted a show, we could have sent him to the theater."
Are we really so facile as to demand only news which looks good? I will admit to not being an unbiased observer, but I actually think the problems we are working on (and dare I say some of the solutions we've come up with) are quite compelling. Our stories are counterintuitive to many Western notions about what is afoot in Africa, and represent the best chance for an emerging market country to pull itself up by the bootstraps out of a backdrop of plentiful basket cases into a somewhat prosperous, largely functional state. In Africa! Go know.
Our subteam ignored our newsman visitor for the rest of his foray here, which saved me the trouble of telling him where he could put his screwdriver. Instead, we had a very productive visit with the DC, and set up our presentation for the e-Government conference in Nairobi on Wednesday. On Tuesday, we'll give our client Dr. Getao a sneak peak, and then get up at the crack of dawn to trudge down the Thika Road. Once more, into the breach, dear friends, once more...