Sunday, June 20, 2010

Kristen for Kibera

Kibera is the largest slum in Africa.  It is about one square mile of unpaved alleys, rusting tin shacks, and open streams of sewage.  Approximately one million people live in Kibera (roughly 1 in 5 Nairobians, and 1 in 50 Kenyans overall).  The HIV prevalence, crime, and chemical dependency statistics are clear off the charts.  The name literally means “jungle” in one of the local languages, and is synonymous with just how bad urban poverty can be.

But it is still in habited by people, and people as a general rule are a resilient lot.  Kenyans in particular are similar to Americans in the dogged belief that this bad day is just a stepping stone, and with the right amount of hustle, better days are just around the corner.  One of these people is Lucy.  Lucy runs the St. Vincent de  Paul Day Care & Nursery School (, a pre-school and kindergarten for at risk kids in Kiberia slum.   She provides them with small classes, motivated teachers and a solid foundation for primary school, something comically lacking in the local public school system.

She also does outreach in their homes, checking up on which parents – often single mothers – are on the edge.  She encourages them to seek regular medical care for their children and for themselves if they are pregnant.  She tells them about drugs with can prevent mother-to-child HIV transmission.  She encourages them, whether they are married or not, to try to start some kind of small business, because waiting for a man to come home (or not) with some money is not going to get your children out of the slums.  She has recently started a rescue center on a piece of donated piece of land outside the city, for children who were abandoned or just could no longer remain at home.  And she does all of this on a few thousand dollars a year given in mostly small donations over the internet.

I am one of her small donors (very small – literally a two digit donation once), and took a morning off while in Nairobi to join a few other visiting donors to meet her and see her school first hand.  We also visited the home of two of her students, getting a firsthand walking tour of Kibera.  I like to think that I am not easily impressed by people anymore, but what Lucy manages to do on so little is incredible.  Even the non-monetary resources, getting college student volunteers from Holy Cross for the summer, convincing the UN spouses group to donate food, have the huge challenges of coordination.  I am no slouch at developing world logistics, and I couldn’t organize a taxi where she works.

In any case, I am going to skip the funny anecdotes for this time, and just recognize a dedicated woman’s achievement.  It was a much needed Barack style shot of hope – after two weeks of listening to taxi drivers tell me whose tribe is better than whoseother.  And having six people be killed in a grenade attack at a political prayer rally across the street from my hotel last week.  And working 12 hour days trying to help a country that seemed hell bent on screwing everything up.   Here’s to you Lucy, for making me think that maybe this country isn’t total *%&$ed.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Wisdom of Bobby Kelly

Bobby Kelly was an outfielder for the Yankees in the later 1980s. According to baseball lore, one off-season, he and his agent walk into the general manager’s office and Bobby tells the GM that he has played well this season and thinks that he should be the starting center fielder (I think he was platooning behind Dave Winfield at this time). The GM is quiet for awhile, then nods and tells him, you know what Bobby, you are right, you do deserve to be a starting center fielder. I will take care of it. Bobby and his agent leave and go off to celebrate. Starting center fielder for the New York Yankees. Next day Bobby is traded to Cincinnati – where he was in fact the starting center fielder.

I love that story. In fact, most of you have probably heard me tell that story before many times over the years. So I should have known better when I walked into my boss’ office last January and announced that I wanted to travel less. I got traded to Tanzania.

So for the next few months I will be based in Dar es Salaam. I gave up my apartment in DC, packed everything into storage, and now here I am. Well, actually right now I am in Nairobi, but that is just until Saturday, then I go back to Dar for the next couple months. But in the meantime, a few noteworthy things that have happened in the last 8 days…

Last weekend I was still in Dar, on a 48 hour stopover to desperately unpack into my apartment, and then repack for two weeks in Nairobi. But one night a few people I know decided to sneak me into a party at the ambassador’s residence of a certain northern European nation. The party started out how they all do… sipping tepid white wine in the heat while the ambassador gives a painful speech highlighting whatever the country’s current development policy of the week is, then the two national anthems, and making chit chat while you polish off whatever tasty little national morsels come by on trays. All according to plan. At some point though, the night took a turn for the weird. The cultural attaché had booked a lively hip hop band. Which cleared out a good chunk of the crowd, but the booze was still flowing so we hung around. At some point the ambassador got up on the stage and started shouting for everyone to shut and listen to him because he was the ambassador (I think he even still only had one drink in his hand at this point). He said anyone not drinking and dancing should get off his lawn. Then proceeded to physically herd us towards the bar, after which the cultural attaché dragged us onto the dance floor. The interns at this point were drunk enough that they were physically dangerous to dance near. One actually sweated completely through his suit coat. But in the end, no one got hurt and when we got tired of dancing we got the hell off the ambassador’s lawn. With a free CD from the hip hop band.

Then I flew here to Nairobi. The flight is only an hour (about the distance from New York to DC), but as with all these things, it was a fiasco. So I got to the hotel and just grabbed my shorts and sneakers out of my suitcase and went down to the gym to run it off a bit. As I stepped out of the elevator, I immediately noticed that something wasn’t quite right. Usually it is me, a handful of BA stewardesses, and one out of shape Dutch guy. The gym was packed to the gills with American dudes. Too old to be embassy Marines, but obviously not just regular joes. After my run I asked one of the staff what was going on. Oh, I was so lucky, the American VP Joe Biden was arriving tomorrow. Oh. Shit. It turns out my compatriots at the gym were only the advance team. Over the next 24 hours, at least a hundred more showed up. The Nairobi InterContinental was going on full lockdown. We had to enter and exit through the parking garage. No taxis or within 100 m. Metal detectors in every door frame. Bomb sniffing dogs in the corridors. A sizable portion of the Kenyan military decamped to the car park. All adult males wearing those stupid little earpieces. Wait lists for treadmills. Interminably slow room service. This was a problem. I kept going up to random meat heads and asking, nay pleading, to be told when he was leaving. “Who’s leaving ma’am? I can neither confirm nor deny there is anyone here.” Three days. The last of the Secret Service cleared out just in time for the World Cup to start and the downstairs sports bar to fill with embassy Marines.

But today I decided to take the day off, get out of the hotel/office loop, hire a driver, and see a couple of the remaining Nairobi sights on my checklist. This included the Kitengela Glass Factory and the Nairobi animal orphanage. The glass factory was way out in the middle of nowhere in the suburbs, but was totally worth the trip. It is run by some insane white dude who bought a farm and started teaching the Kenyans how to blow glass using recycled beer bottles. One thing led to another and now there is an artist colony out there… complete with Gaudi style mosaics and giant metalwork sculptures. You can wander around the workshops and they do glass blowing demonstrations. I was amazed enough to buy a pitcher and glasswear set (for an obscenely low price given the rising dollar). My driver, who accompanied on my wanderings, was just floored. He just couldn’t believe how glass was made or that Kenyans were making it. We gave a couple of the workers a lift to the main road, and in exchange the workshop manager gave the driver a small gift. Over the moon. You would have thought he was the one that paid me to take him out there.

The animal orphanage is part of the Nairobi National Park system, and to the naked eye, just seems like a really depressing zoo. (All of the animals have little placards about how their parents were killed.) But, for those in the know, it is a golden opportunity to bribe your way into the cheetah cage. (Something else the driver was incredulous about – he could more readily understand bribing your way *out* of the cheetah cage.) I have a couple of other pictures of me smiling and looking at the camera, but I like this one because it is more true how I actually felt about the experience.

Well, that is all for now. Ghana just beat Serbia and the entire country just lost its shit. I am going downstairs to the bar for a Tusker and to see Germany mop the floor with the Aussies. (Less than two weeks and I already care about soccer – this trip might leave a scar.)

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Swedish ABC's

So this year the cleverly named ABCDE (Annual Bank Conference on Development Economics) was held in Stockholm. One of the papers I had co-written was slotted to be presented, and luckily for this junior co-author, the other two were otherwise occupied last weekend. So I got to go attend lectures, eat salmon, meet interesting people, and just enjoy the beautiful Stockholm summer. Unfortunately I did not have as much time as I would have liked to check out the city, but I did manage to seek out to stroll around a little.

And in honor of the Bank footing the bill for 4 days in Sweden so that I could deliver a 20 minute presentation and answer one question at a session that started at 7:45 am (seriously – Swedes are nuts – though fair play the sun rises at 3:45), I will do this blog entry in powerpoint slides.

Slide 1 – “Stockholm as a Beautiful City”

Stockholm is beautiful. Apologies to any loyal Norwegian readers, but it has got it all over Oslo. The city is built on a series of 14 islands, connected by bridges and surrounded by water clean enough to swim in. The old city (like many old cities admittedly) is a maze of narrow alleys, colorful buildings, and old churches. Everything is spotlessly clean and perfectly preserved.

Slide 2 – “Common Swedish Delicacies”

When people ask me questions about places that I have been, they inevitably want to know “what did you eat?” And, as I didn’t want to waste my precious lapses from vegetarianism on a common Swedish meatball I could get at IKEA, I sought out some alternatives. I ate lots of salmon – smoked, grilled, broiled. Lots of herring. Which to me was always this nasty creamy goop we had to eat on New Year’s Day for good luck, but the Swedes to some amazing things with it. The tangy mustard version was particularly good. (I should note that these are all breakfast foods. I was almost beside myself with joy when I went down the first morning. You should have seen the look I gave the waiter when he asked if I wanted *eggs*.) I also ordered the elk prosciutto at a restaurant. Eh. Elk should stick with whatever it is that elk generally do, they are a little lackluster as a designer meat product.

Slide 3 – “Royal Gossip”

I love monarchies. The whole idea in the information overload age is inherently dangerous. In America, the spotlight is on the president and his family for 8 years. And with enough spin control and armed minders, you can keep pretty much anyone in line for 8 years. After that, the fascination fades. (Would any of us care if Amy Carter were to be caught smoking crack with underage chimpanzee?) But royals have to stay in the spotlight their whole lives. Eventually something is going to be newsworthy. And in Sweden right now there is royal gossip fever! The crown princess is marrying a gym teacher. The nation is scandalized by her choice. Even worse, it was leaked to the press that her father was going to walk her down the aisle. The nation is aghast. How dare such a role model capitulate to outdated patriarchal traditions! Sometimes I think conservatives are really funny, sometimes I think liberals are even funnier.

Slide 4 – “Really Big Boat in a Box”

At these things, there is always a conference dinner. They are usually held at impressive venues and offer the unique opportunity to get drunk enough that you can’t show your face at *next* year’s festivities. Our dinner was in the Vasa Museum – which houses an intricately carved double decked gun ship that sailed for about 20 minutes in the 17th century. “Ballast” was apparently an idea still in the development stages back then, and one stiff breeze sent the whole kit-and-kaboodle down to the bottom of the bay for 400 years. Fortunately the freezing water makes it too cold the for the little microbe beasties that usually eat wooden ships – so the Vasa is amazingly preserved. And huge. Makes for an impressive backdrop for a fancy dinner.

Slide 5 – “Holy Shit, Did You Know Who Alfred Nobel Was?”

So something that they don’t much mention at the ceremonies, but Alfred Nobel, the man who endowed the famous Nobel Peace Prize, was a weapons manufacturer. No joke. The guy developed high explosives at the turn of the century – accidently killing his brother in a “lab incident.” The Nobel museum casts this somewhat inconvenient truth in the idea that everyone has the chance to redeem themselves. I guess, but man if Fox News got a hold of the idea that Obama accepted money from a socialist foreign arms dealer, Glen Beck would fantasize him into a muhejeen in the Afghan highlands in a matter of minutes.

Slide 6 – “Conclusion”

That pretty much sums it up. Following the conference I went to the airport to get my luggage out of hock (SAS lost my bags again – but as I learned from my trip last month to Norway, I should not expect SAS to deliver my baggage at the same time when it delivers me. Therefore this time I was smart enough to pack everything I needed for the conference in my carry-on), and headed down to East Africa. I am currently on a flight from Dar es Salaam to Nairobi, and I went to a really amusing foreign embassy party this weekend, but you will have to wait on that (I need to keep some things in my pocket for next week’s post.)