Dearest Family and Friends,
I hope this email finds you all well! I am not one for mass emails, but given technological and time constraints I don't have much of a choice :) So, I guess first and foremost, greetings from Africa!!
For those who may not know (which means I have really been missing in action for longer than I thought) - I have been working for an organization called TechnoServe for the last year – http://www.technoserve.org/. My experience has been absolutely wonderful, and I am now on my first trip to 'the field' after spending most of the last year in the Washington, D.C. headquarters of TechnoServe. I am traveling in Uganda, Kenya, and Rwanda over the course of about three weeks working on a variety of projects for the organization. The main project I am working on during my trip is conducting a needs analysis with our staff and clients around the gaps in financial literacy. After my travels, I hope to develop a toolkit of training materials and modules around basic accounting, finance, and financial management to be used by our staff, and the farmers and small entrepreneurs we work with in the developing world. Detailed below are some tid-bits of my travels so far – pictures to come next week!
The first step in my journey was Uganda. This story is a bit off topic, but when I lived in New York I had a doorman that once told me he had never been to the suburbs. Over the course of time that we lived in that apartment building, the doorman made a trip to Delaware – when he came back, he was in complete shock that the grass was green and well-kept, the houses were spaced so far apart, and the sidewalks were so white the reflected sunlight! “It was like a scene out of a movie,” he told me. At the time, I found that comment amusing, having grown up in the suburbs, but that was the same reaction I had during my time in Uganda, especially after seeing the country-side. The red marrum dirt contrasted with the green, lush forestry, and the bright colored clothing of the locals was unbelievably beautiful, that it really did feel like a scene out of a movie.
The five days I spent in Uganda were a complete whirlwind – each day I seemed to be waking up earlier and earlier, and going to sleep later and later – but the days still disappeared before I could even blink. We arrived late on Monday evening to a very nice hotel in Kampala; on a side note, it’s actually quite interesting – Kampala has a large number of VERY nice hotels because a few years ago there was supposed to be a big conference in the city and everyone overestimated the number of hotel rooms that would be needed. In any case, the hotel was nothing close to the living conditions I expected at all!
On Tuesday, we visited some women entrepreneurs on our Women Mean Business project (empowering female entrepreneurs and helping them build businesses). On Wednesday and Thursday we made an overnight trip into the country to visit some farmer cooperatives that are part of TechnoServe’s East Africa Dairy Development program; we saw the first running chilling plant on our project in the small village of Kiboga towards western Uganda (HUGE impact on farmers because their milk can now be bulked and sold to processors, instead of spoiling because of lack of refrigeration and long distances to end producers). For anyone interested, I can elaborate on the actual ‘business’ behind the work we do, but for fear of already losing most of you at this point in my lengthy email, I will cut this short!
We stayed in a small town during this trip, and after a long day in the field, I had about an hour (without Internet, if you can imagine!) before dinner, so I went for a quick walk down the one-lane street by our hotel. I didn’t get very far before I was swarmed by a group of school children who wanted to know where the mazungu, foreigner, was from. I ended up answering questions (and taking pictures) for about 30 minutes on what it feels like to live in America and whether or not President Obama is my friend. Again, I have to interject a side note – EVERYONE in Africa is fascinated with Obama – I find it so humbling, but also quite ‘daunting' in a sense. Not only the school children, but for example, before going into some of our dairy project sites, we had to stop at the district commissioner’s office to ‘ask’ permission to be on his turf. The conversation was uneventful, but the most striking part of the meeting was that his office had an oversized, framed picture of Obama as the focal point of his office. This was not the first or only time I saw this.
On Friday we visited some more local projects (a dried fruit packaging company that TechnoServe is working with and another women entrepreneur that creates jewelry out of recycled paper), and had dinner at an incredible rooftop Indian restaurant in Kampala. Finally, on Saturday (July 4th) I slept in (until 9am!), did some work in the hotel, and then spent the day walking around the streets of Kampala and browsed around a Ugandan Craft Village. On a random chance, I ended up celebrating the 4th of July ‘American Style’ at an evening party hosted by the U.S. Embassy. The U.S. Ambassador and his family, some Marines, several ex-pats, a Ugandan dance troupe, and a children’s singing group that learned all the patriotic America songs (From Sea to Shining Sea, God Bless America, etc) were all present at the event. The food was your typical (veggie) burgers, potato salad, and coleslaw – and there were even sparklers and a massive firework display at the end!
So, there ends the story of my time in Uganda – as my plane took off over Lake Victoria to Kenya, the view with which I left Uganda was a perfect summary of the serene, lush, and peaceful place I was able to briefly explore in this short week...
Webale (Lunganda for Thank You)!
Dearest Family and Friends,
Thank you to all of you who responded to my email from last week J It’s so nice to read your friendly hellos and thoughts on my trip, especially now as I am beginning to get homesick and exhausted!
…I last left you as I was flying from Uganda to Kenya, so with no further ado that is where I will pick up!
If my description of Kampala was ‘serene and peaceful,’ then my description of Nairobi is the exact opposite: bustling and utterly chaotic. I should have expected Nairobi to be the big metropolis that it is – with the usual sights of street vendors and hagglers, traffic-jams so bad that going across the street takes hours, and the unavoidable disparity between rich and poor – but I think because so many of my impressions of Africa were shattered after landing in Uganda, I wasn’t sure what to expect of Kenya!
In any event, I arrived in Kenya on Sunday afternoon and spent the day taking care of logistics (buying sheets, getting a new phone, stocking up on groceries, etc [and having a panic attack reading some of the prices for things!!]). I had intended my week to be much calmer than the 20-hour days in Uganda – hoping just to focus on the day-to-day meetings and make only two field visits – but somehow being in a big city with a great group of colleagues and a long list of social activities made week just as hectic…but infinitely more fun than expected! On a side note, I have to mention that every restaurant I ate at in Kenya was AMAZING – I think my mouth is still watering from the night I went to Japanese-Lebanese restaurant (the weirdest combination I have ever heard of too…but such delectable food!)
The Slums. On Wednesday, I made a trip to Mathare, Nairobi’s second largest slum with a population of close to 800,000 people in a space that is less than 4 square miles in area. One of TechnoServe’s biggest projects in Kenya is called “Young Women in Enterprise” – the project is funded by the Nike Foundation and is focused on giving young women, ages 15-22, from impoverished areas, the entrepreneurship skills they need to be successful as they get into more vulnerable ages of their lives. The program just finished its pilot and will start up again in full force in the next month. I went with our team to find office space in the slum for our staff.
As you can imagine, the experience of going into a slum – the sounds, sights, smells, and emotions evoked – are as intense as can be. I can still hear the constant chiming of the words by the group of kids who followed me for at least half a mile repeating, “how are you? how are you?” nonstop like a broken record. Mind you, I stopped to say hello back to the chorus of kids, and cheerfully (and slowly) responded, “I am very, very fine…how are you?” The multiple occasions at which this happened, my new fan club looked utterly shocked, paused for a minute, and then started singing “how are you? how are you?” again in unison. I was their celebrity spotting for the day.
I honestly expected the experience of going into a slum to be devastating and sad, but it was actually not quite that way. Yes, it’s heartbreaking to meet a 26 year-old grandmother, and it’s hard to see so many people living in such poor conditions…but on the flip side, a slum is a community, and it’s a support system for those who don’t have anything else. And if you take an even closer look – there are jobs and roles, boundaries and gathering places, churches, schools, movie halls, soccer fields, and markets. I realized that instead of feeling sad, it’s almost ‘good’ that the slum exists because without this community, who knows how much worse it could be.
Like I said, the experience is still so intense that instead of fully processing the depth of what I saw, it’s probably easier for me, a privileged mazungu driving into the slum in a big SUV, to tell you that that there is a bright side to the whole situation. I imagine being able to leave at the end of the day gives me that rosy opinion.
After that happy note…
Sightseeing. I actually was able to spend some time in Kenya sightseeing! I know I promised pictures in this email, so here you have it J
I spent my morning on Friday visiting the Giraffe Center in Nairobi – probably the best $10 I have ever spent! The giraffes at the center are so adorable and friendly and they literally come up to you and eat out of your hand (my mom is cringing right now reading this…at least they are vegetarian!). After visiting the Giraffe Center, I went to an elephant orphanage. If you were wondering, elephant babies are so cute, and so large! It was amazing to see how attached these little babies were to their human trainers – it’s actually quite a unique phenomenon…
Saturday was my complete vacation day – I went with one of my favorite colleagues and her husband out to a place on Lake Naivasha called Crescent Island. Crescent Island was where the movie Out of Africa was filmed and to shoot the movie, the filmmakers brought a ton of animals from the wild onto the island. The animals were never taken back to the wild, and over time have become so accustomed to people that they can’t survive in the wild anymore. The few hours on Crescent Island could be one of the coolest experiences I have ever had. We were less than 10 feet away from Zebras, Gnus, Antelope, and Giraffes…and by the end of the day, we had seen 14 different animals on our walk around the island. Did I mention our group of five and our guide were the only ones on the island for most of the time we were there? Out of this world.
So I quickly end my longer-than-necessary narration on my week in Kenya. I hope you are still enjoying – one more country left to tell you about.
Asante Sana (thank you in Kiswahili),
Dearest Family and Friends,
Greetings from back in Washington, D.C.! My travels are now over and I am home – with renewed energy (once my jetlag is over, that is!) and continued determination to take all the lessons I have learned from my trip and refocus on my work and the mission of my organization.
I owe you one more installment from my travels so here goes!
Rwanda is one of the most beautiful places I may have ever visited. Kigali itself is situated in the middle of sprawling hills and the view from 360 degrees, no matter which part of the city you are in, is out of this world. The architecture and climate seem less like Africa and more like the middle of Tuscany in Italy with its lush greenery, European-style bungalows off of curvy dirt roads, and clear blue skies. I tried multiple times with my camera to capture the view I saw as I brushed my teeth on the balcony of my house in Kigali or the view of the lakes and hills and farms as we drove through the country-side, but somehow I wasn’t able to quite get it right!
Despite a shaky start (quite an entertaining story – but too long to write about here so if you want more details, shoot me an email and I will send you my write-up on that!), my week turned out to be the most balanced, perfect way to end to the trip. The pilot accounting and financial management training my colleague and I had designed (and the main purpose of our trip) went even better than I expected, which was terrific. I spent a day and a half out in a village where we were doing some of our work which was also fun and an awesome ‘roughing it’ experience – the no electricity, pit-restrooms, only get water when it arrives from the city, no vegetarian food except for french fries, etc. life – but in a good way because it reminded me that life is about connecting with others, and nothing else. I met some really incredible staff members whose friendships and lives will inspire me forever. I rode a ‘moto’ – a.k.a. scooter – though the hills of Kigali which was exhilarating, and probably something I would have never done had it not been a no-time-to-think-on-the-whim decision!
On a quick aside, I will insert my two funniest/most random stories from my trip to Rwanda here:
- On the day I was leaving the village of Nyagatare in central Rwanda, I made the short walk from the “hotel” where I was staying at to our office. It was around 6:30am and on the way, I ran into a kid – probably 15 or 16 years old – running some errands. He asked me how I was and I responded that I was well. He then proceeded to tell me in his best English that he was going to go fill up his water cans from pump ahead. I wished him luck and then finished the walk to the office. After about 15 minutes, the kid reappeared in front of the office. There were quite a few other people around (security guards for the office, our driver, another couple of other teenagers running errands). When I saw the kid, I asked if he had succeeded in filling his water cans. He become quite shy all of a sudden and wouldn’t respond to my questions in English. I explained to the security guards that the guy and I had had a conversation earlier in the morning. Everyone started speaking in Kinyarwanda, of which I understood nothing, so I proceeded with my day. Finally, about a half an hour later, we were ready to head out for Kigali. As I sat in the car, the kid opened my car door, bent down in a curtsy, and with these glistening eyes told me, “You are the queen of my heart. I love you.” …I, of course, didn’t quite know how to react – or whether to be flattered or scared – so I burst out laughing, locked my car door, and drove off waving (and laughing)…
- On my last day in Rwanda, I was walking the 500 yards from where I was staying to our office to say my final goodbyes to staff and head to the airport. As I was walking, I saw these really cute little girls running in my direction. I wondered where they were going, and then all of a sudden realized they were running to me. The little girls (probably three and four years old) ran right into my skirt and just stood there, hugging me. Their mom came up a few minutes later and started poking my forearm and shook my hand. Then they walked away and continued their day as if nothing abnormal had happened, as I stood there elated, but definitely perplexed by the entire event.
And finally, the last thing I did before I left Rwanda and Africa, was to visit the Genocide Memorial in Kigali. In just a few minutes the experience made me realize that every second of every minute of every hour of every day that I am alive, I am lucky and blessed…and that very few other people in the world are that lucky or that blessed.
So that ends my travel journal from my trip. I feel like these emails only scratched the surface of some of the events that happened, things I saw, or realizations I had. I have so much more to say and so much more to reflect on, but for now, as I return back to my iPod-listening, (mini) SUV driving, gym-going, air-conditioned life, as I said before, despite the incredible beauty and amazing people I saw, the biggest lesson I have learned from my travels is that every second of every minute of every hour of every day that I am alive, I am lucky and blessed…and that very few other people in the world are this lucky or this blessed.
Murakoze (Thank you in Kinyarwanda),