that’s unusual

The other end of the spectrum

“I save motorcyclists lives”

So at the opposite end of the spectrum from visiting projects in slums is delving into the treasure trove world of technology start-ups that Nairobi houses. There seem to be countless social – and just-plain-regular – enterprises springing up to solve problems using technology. And I was lucky enough to meet a lovely chap who delivered the killer elevator pitch above.

This Bishop Magua Centre is five story building that houses all manner of incubators for these start-ups which are working on an incredibly diverse array of issues from improving maternal health monitoring, to delivery systems for ladies running market stalls to save their necks and backs, to light-up jackets that increase the visibility of the boda-boda (motorcycle) drivers who I am certain have a death wish. The only thing that isn’t original seems to be the names of these incubators which invariably have the word “hub” or “lab” in them: NaiLab, iHub, mHub, Fab Lab etc etc…

So Michael – aka Mr Pops – and I met at a networking event where I was studiously trying to avoid networking by focussing on my Tusker beer. But his project intrigued me and all of a sudden I remembered this tiny little computer I had sat at home courtesy of a leaving present from Mr Sam Smith! I’d been trying to think of a project for my Rasperry Pi for a while now and all of a sudden it was obvious!

Over the course of the next few hours I plotted and schemed with Michael who seemed more than happy to indulge my desire to combine my love of all things GOLD with some nifty programming.

Now, I don’t quite want to give away the details of our endeavour just yet…but let’s just say the components are on order and the electronics stuff is going to look like this apparently:

sweeney v1.0-page-001 sweeney v1.0-page-002

The parts should arrive on Tuesday fingers crossed. Then starts the coding and soldering, and I’m hoping for a finished product sometime in the next few weeks. Let’s just say it should be special!

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It’s not always like this…

“Why are they protesting?”

“They don’t want the Government to increase tuition fees. But then the Government said they weren’t planning to do that so they changed to protesting to get fees reduced”.

 

I (sort of) could have been having this conversation in the UK. The slight difference was the tear gas that had everyone in the room hugging hankies to their faces and sneezing like we had all developed severe cat allergies.

We’d received the security warning the night before: all state university students were planning protests starting at 9am. The advice was to avoid the city centre – especially if you were driving so as to avoid scratches to your car from stone throwing and protracted insurance claims. My office is right next door to the University of Nairobi, home to the most notoriously violent students in town. I’ve no idea how such rankings are calculated but this is what I’m told!

I decided to run to work early to get into the compound before anything kicked off and all was peaceful until about 10am. Then the shouting started. And the pops of tear gas canisters. By lunch I’d almost stopped noticing what was going on outside with it becoming some sort of bizarre backing track to the report I was writing. But by 2pm the air was so thick with tear gas that my eyes were running even sitting in my office with all the windows closed.

Courtesy of Twitter I was able to follow what was going on outside (and borrow these photos – thanks Twitter!). This is the road running outside of my office in one direction – it’s normally jammed with traffic.

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Around 3pm the word went out that if we wanted to get home we should leave before rush hour as the students would aim to take things up a notch when they could cause the most chaos. I put on my trainers so I could move quickly and popped my head out of the security gate. Bad idea. There was a huge group sat outside the gates who took one look at me and delighted in daring me to step outside. My colleague who had come to check if the route was clear went stoney silent. I asked what they were saying. She just said she couldn’t repeat it…

We left the askari’s (security guards) locking the gate and skirted round to the back entrance where there was a heavy riot police presence trying to keep the road open to cars. We decided the time was ripe to make a dash for it! Five minutes later and I was past the “front line” and strolling through the eerily quiet city centre.

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Nairobi is no stranger to these protests that get slightly hairy. A couple of months ago it was the matatu drivers protesting new government regulations that brought the city to a standstill. But so far I’ve never really felt scared and it’s been relatively easy to keep clear of trouble.

To be honest I almost didn’t write this post. In light of the bad press Kenya is getting right now I didn’t want to fuel anymore negative impressions! But this is a small part of the reality of life here. It’s not an easy city. Bad stuff happens. Is happening. I would be lying if I said there wasn’t a funny mood “in the air” right now in the wake of the recent bombings and the increasing anxiety about what will happen next. Chat on the expat Facebook forums is full of questions about what the latest security alerts are.

But that’s part of the problem. The rumours, the scaremongering, the spreading of fake security updates (alongside the real one’s of course) which, to be fair, many UN workers excellently go to lengths online to counter and explain that no such alert has been put out by their employers.

I don’t know who really knows what the level of threat is right now but I know my Kenyan colleagues are dismayed. Not just about the actual, horrendous bombings. But about how their country is being portrayed internationally and the effect this is having on vital industries such as tourism.

It’s also hard to know what the Kenyan Government will do next. They have stepped up the night time raids of suspect suburbs and conducted mass arrests, picking up hundreds upon hundreds of people at a time. Carrying an ID card has always been compulsory here. But now police stand in certain areas stopping everyone that passes and the threat of arrest if you’re found without one, or with papers slightly out of order, is very real. Al Shabab’s line is the bombings are due to the presence of Kenyan troops in Somalia and it’s becoming increasingly common to hear people saying the Government should just withdraw. I don’t know if that option is even being considered politically but the tension between the Kenyan and Somali populations is growing ever more strained and hostile.

Saying all this, it feels like these issues are limited to Nairobi and Mombasa. And even here normal life carries on and I have never felt unsafe. I just hope Kenya stops being in the news soon….

 

 

A day working for Vivienne Westwood

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The Go Down Arts Centre was one of the first places I fell in love with in Nairobi. It’s an awesome arts hub down the long, dusty road leading from my part of town to the city centre. I walk past every day and it stands out among the industrial garages and the London Gin Distillery (?!). There are rows of studios rented out at low cost to upcoming artists, a free, monthly mini-festival for upcoming bands and … most surprisingly… a workshop that makes handbags for designers ranging from Stella McCartney to Vivienne Westwood!

The first day I found Ethical Fashion Africa a friendly office assistant gave us a tour showing us the genuinely pleasant sewing workshop and, best of all, the stockroom; a room lined with shelves displaying the name of the designer and samples of all the glorious beaded, screen printed, tasselled, sequinned and patch-worked bags. Semi-jokingly I asked if I could have a go making one…

Cut to 8am this Saturday and Anna and I turn up bright and early to help the screen printing team deal with a Vivienne Westwood order. Rather amazingly, we were told that coming to “have a go” at the busiest time of the year would be absolutely perfect. I can’t quite imagine a UK business saying that to a random visitor!

IMG_3592Our lovely tutors were Moses and Elizabeth, who patiently let us sloop the paint round the screens, trying to make sure it was as even as possible. Our work received grades from “oh dear” to “it’s wow!” so I wouldn’t say we were naturals but we certainly managed to pass the quality control inspection procedure.

Moses and Elizabeth have worked with Ethical Fashion Africa for two and four years respectively and both love it. As did I. The place is an amazing example of a social enterprise generating good employment for over 100 people; although that many “colleagues” made grabbing a mandazi at 10am tea break difficult in the rush!

Unfortunately, no chance for us to buy any of our handiwork as the bags produced can only be bought overseas at, I imagine, unspeakable prices. But it gives a vague thrill to think someone might be carrying around something I smeared some paint on in a unique little corner of Nairobi.

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The Ethical Fashion Africa website is down but here is the Vivienne Westwood link: http://www.viviennewestwood.co.uk/w/news/this-is-not-charity-this-is-work

And apparently you can pick up “our” work on Asos these days too: http://fashion.telegraph.co.uk/news-features/TMG10586947/Vivienne-Westwoods-Ethical-Africa-bags-launch-at-Asos.html)

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A week in the life

I thought I’d write an outline of a week in Nairobi. A day wouldn’t really capture it I don’t think. It would be more like “go to the office, go home, cook, sleep”. But a week gives a little insight into the highs and lows… get ready for a long one!

Monday

8am on a Monday morning is Devotion time at work. All staff congregate in the chapel and there is a rota for people to lead the hymns, prayers and bible readings. We always start at least 30minutes late but being on time is so ingrained in me I always arrive promptly and get stressed if I’m running behind time. This is the same for everything in my office life despite the fact I know I will be sitting waiting for anywhere up to an hour.

Devotion usually lasts an hour or two. Most of the hymns are in Swahili which is great because lyrics tend to be so repetitive that by the end of a stirring rendition I’ve usually expanded my vocabulary. I’m not sure how useful lamb, blood, and soul will be in daily life but I know them!

Last week (cheating I know) we had a guest preacher come in. Normally Devotion is a very happy affair with clapping, dancing and a bit of messing around. But this preacher was angry. He could feel witch craft in the room. Coming from someone in either the Housekeeping or Restaurant team. The room really was abuzz like I have never seen it before and I have to admit I worried briefly whether it was my scepticism he was catching whiff of…

At the end, as we filed out, my favourite colleague snuck up to me and whispered that she had wanted to turn and look at my face during “all of that”. It was a nice return to normality…Turns out this preacher once died and came back to life and so he is taken very seriously.

The rest of my day involved sitting in front of my computer typing Word documents. Just like the UK that bit.

Tuesday

Tuesday morning is first running club of the week. Up at 5.30am. 7mile run to work and round the park with the gang.

Meetings, meetings, meetings. Again, rather like a working day back home.

Favourite part of the day as always is 10AM TEA BREAK! Today’s topic of conversation was a good one. We got onto the topic of evolution…because of a monkey sat near our table eating a banana like a human (honestly!). One of the girls said watching that almost made her believe in evolution. So I asked everyone else if they believed in evolution to which the answer was a resounding NO!

I tried to dredge up my GCSE biology to counter the arguments which essentially revolved around if it is real a) why aren’t we still evolving and b) why aren’t the species in-between humans and monkeys still around if they once existed? Apparently I did such a bad job of arguing my side my colleagues didn’t even believe I convinced myself! I think it is more that I’ve never had to try convince anyone evolution is an actual thing before. What I love though is that we can discuss these pretty contentious topics and no one gets offended. My colleagues are great and the best bit about work.

Worth noting my office is very close to Nairobi National Museum which houses all the fossils of the various steps on the way from monkey to human (please see ‘Saturday’ below).

Wednesday

Work from home Wednesday! As I work in a private office and have very few direct working relationships with colleagues in the national office it can seem a bit of an effort to go into the office when I can recreate the experience – minus the 3 hour roundtrip commute – from the comfort of my sofa. Whistle through my work and feel very productive. But I miss chatting and laughing with my colleagues at 10am tea break…

Thursday

Thursday means second running club of the week. See above for details. Work was terrible for a number of reasons. One of those days where I wonder what I’m doing and miss home a lot, a lot. No point lingering on this…but things are not always fun and exciting living overseas.

Stop off at the new sugarcane juice bar near my house in an attempt to end the day with something good. It is yummy! 50 bob (30p) gets you a glass of sweet, freshly pressed sugarcane with a dash of lemon and ginger and maybe a wasp if you’re lucky. No take aways though so spend a few minutes perched on the bar stool chatting to the other customers about our days.

Friday

What a day! I’m developing a funding proposal around creating youth-friendly sports centres at the moment and have struck gold by meeting an ex-pro basketball player who is passionate about getting first class facilities into the communities around the country. Today we are going on a tour of centres around Nairobi to glean inspiration. We go to Nyayo Stadium first where all the international events are held and admire the rubber basketball court (I now understand the different surfaces used in basketball and know what I need to do to attract the pro-teams to our facilities!).

Next up is a community centre in Eastleigh. Now Eastleigh is the only “no-go” area in Nairobi according to the FCO website. It’s where the large Somali population lives and, due to the on-going tension between Al Shabab, the militant Islamic movement from Somalia, and Kenya over Kenya sending troops into Somalia, it is the site of frequent terrorist attacks and bombings. Last week a prominent Muslim cleric was shot dead in Mombasa and tension levels are higher than normal. In fact this trip was scheduled for last week but was put off over security concerns.

So there is slight trepidation as we edge into the area in a slow moving jam of cars. The first place we go through is called California. It literally couldn’t look less like its namesake with tin shacks, piles of rubbish and person-pulled carts flooding the streets.

But the centres we visit are gems tucked away from the chaotic streets interjected by glitzy hotels where apparently huge businesses deals are done. And all of a sudden it is prayer time. We come to a complete standstill as the road is blocked by hundreds of men grabbing whatever material they can find to use as a prayer mat and proceeding to bow down in a most extraordinarily beautiful sight.

And that was just the morning!

The afternoon brings the inevitable. Something I’ve been secretly feeling smug about avoiding until now. I have my phone and purse stolen. Nairobbery finally strikes!

I had no idea it had happened of course until I went to find my money to pay for some milk. And it wasn’t there. But it only took a split second to realise who the culprit was. I had taken a bus home and was sat on the backseat in my own world enjoying the seriously pumping sound system on this particular matatu. My neighbour tapped me on the shoulder and said he had dropped some money down the seat, could I get it for him? I spotted the coin and handed it over. “No, no, there’s more down there”. I squinted. Nothing. But he insisted. I hunted for a while until I got fed up by his insistence. Of course it had just been a distraction technique.

And so to the pub to drown my slight irritation. Piccolino’s is the name of our local and it is a slightly frumpy place with a narrow outside balcony overlooking a carpark, with flashing neon lights shaped in a heart. But we love it. A friendly waiter named John, an excellent and cheap vegetable curry and cold Tusker = heaven.

We always leave pretty early so we can still walk home before it gets too late to feel safe. But this time I’d spotted a new bar on the main Shopping Centre and feeling up to handling to the obligatory stares we walked in to the obvious bemusement of the barman. Two muzungo ladies!! Woah! The place is actually ace despite the odd vibe given off by the fact the barman serves you from behind a massive cage. Favourite bit: when he had to walk round and out of the cage to give me my glass as it wouldn’t fit through the bars…

Saturday

A day trip to Nairobi National Museum with two other volunteers. I swallowed my malaria tablet far too close to bedtime the night before and was up half the night with horrible heartburn. Now it is only agony when I swallow. Not constant.

But the museum is excellent! It takes us through the culture, history and wildlife of Kenya with a good dose on the archaeological finds from the “cradle of mankind”. Things I learn include:

  • There once was an elephant with such beautiful tusks the President of Kenya assigned FIVE personal bodyguards to protect him from poachers at all times. Ahmed lived until a ripe old age and he does indeed have a mighty fine set of tusks.
  • I apparently weigh the same as a porcupine…hmmm!! And Fonda and Anna weigh the same as baboons.
  • The oldest man to go to primary school in Kenya was 79. When primary education was made universally free he signed up and carried on attending right up until his death. Here the school system works differently to the UK so you simply stay in a year group until you are able to pass the standards for that level, rather than moving up every year regardless of attainment level.This means you can can get an incredibly diverse set of ages in a class. Maybe not normally as diverse as up to 79….

And we learn how the British, during colonial rule, divided the country up into strict territories and made people wear tags which specified which district they belonged to. Anyone found outside of their district, without the required permission, was forcibly moved back. The result? The strong divisions along tribal lines that now blights so much of Kenyan political life and lie at the root of so many of the countries problems including the post-election violence in 2007.

On the bus home I see someone riding a camel down a main route in the city centre, sky scrapers all around. Brilliant.

Sunday

Long run day for marathon training! I’m planning to do 15miles. 2miles more than I have ever run in my whole life! My flatmate has advised me I need to start training in jumpers to simulate how hot it will be up at the reserve we are running the actual marathon on (she was up there last weekend). So I don my thermals…luckily Nairobi is overcast today so it’s not TOO ridiculously hot. But I’m setting off at 10am to make sure I get a dose of the midday heat.

The run is long and difficult but I get the runner’s high at a few points. I scrap caring about my time when a massive troop of baboons scamper across the road in front of me and over to the gate of Nairobi National Park. I like that they are using the gate like any other visitor when they could scale the wall no problem.

Home to sleep then sit on the roof “terrace” in the evening sun. A little boy is currently swinging from a rather fragile looking water pipe above my head. I’m almost out of Kenyan tea and the sun is also almost gone. The week has encompassed times when all I want to do is go home and times when I feel the opposite, and can’t imagine going home. It’s awfully confusing. And pretty much the same every single week.

Time to do my hand washing…