Archive for August, 2011

Kenya Dispatch: Day 4, Nairobi

August 8, 2011

(Read Day 1Day 2, and Day 3)

I stayed at the Ole Sereni hotel for my last two nights in Nairobi. It was much closer to the airport than the first hotel I stayed at. The Ole Sereni’s backyard is the Nairobi National Park, an endless expanse of African savannah.

Nairobi National Park, giraffes in the distance

We woke up at dawn to meet our driver Wushira, and headed out on safari. We drove around the corner from our hotel and entered the National Park. Unbelievably, we were suddenly in the midst of African wilderness, though we could still make out a few buildings of downtown Nairobi in the distance.

As we entered the park, the wild animals were just waking up. Our first spotting was a group of 6 giraffes, gently meandering a few feet from the road. We drove cautiously by them and snapped pictures.



As we drove further into the park, we were lucky to notice a male lion resting no more than 20 feet from our truck. We alerted Wushira who quickly cut the engine so that we could observe the lion with the least disturbance. It was a breathtaking. He was so big and powerful, and fortunately not overly interested in us or our van. After several minutes he got up, and slowly sauntered away from us. We drove on.




We saw a range of antelope and dear type animals including impalas, hartebeest, bushdeer, Thomson’s gazelles, and eland.


As we came over one hill, we we stunned to find ourselves confronted by a large gang of water buffalo. The buffalo are stern animals. One simply stared us down, not moving an inch or looking away from our truck until we moved.

We passed through a wooded area, and a large group of baboons and blue monkeys came out to play. They wrestled with each other, swung from trees, yelled, chased, and posed for our cameras.

The “Big 5” animals in Africa are lion, water buffalo, elephant, leopard, and rhino. There were no wild elephants or leopards here in the Nairobi National park, so our last remaining hope for one of the Big 5 was a rhino. We noticed a couple other cars parking on another road in the distance, so we drove down to them and saw a group of 4 rhino off in the distance playing hide and seek behind the bushes and trees. We weren’t able to see them up close, but did get a good clear view of them and their fierce horns from the safety of our truck.

Of all the animals we saw, my favorite we definitely the zebras. Maybe it’s the graphic designer in me, but their bold style is spectacular. We crossed paths with two different large herds of zebra. They’re really beautiful animals, and I ran out the battery on my camera trying to capture a good video of them up close.

After the safari, we visited the Elephant Orphanage, which takes care of orphaned elephants found in the wild. They stay at this orphanage with round the clock care from a few months old to approximately 2.5-3 years old. When they’re ready, they are sent in groups back to the wild, where it will usually take almost 5 years to become accepted into an existing elephant family.

Baby elephant

Last stop was at a giraffe farm, where visitors can go up on a high porch and giraffes will come over and eat out of your hand. The giraffes were beautiful, and among the family was a baby giraffe, maybe 6 feet tall.

We ended the day with beers on the patio of our hotel overlooking the park where we glimpsed a few more giraffes and a couple ostriches running around as the sun went down. We enjoyed a great meal and called it a night.

I fell asleep easily, ready for an early flight out of Nairobi in the morning.


Kenya Dispatch: Day 3, Kisumu and Sauri

August 7, 2011

(Read Day 1 and Day 2)

Over the past year, Undercurrent has been working with Millennium Promise (their brand new website was created by the stellar team at FreeAssociation), to help the non-profit organization figure out how they can best use the internet to share the incredible stories of their work, and inspire supporters around the world to play a meaningful role. My trip to Kenya was organized by Millennium Promise to show me and other supporters the results of the organization’s efforts.

The Millennium Villages Project is an ambitious initiative designed to show the world and its leaders how people can work together to lift themselves out of extreme poverty. It was envisioned by Jeffrey Sachs, a leading economist and head of The Earth Institute at Columbia University, and has been led by John McArthur, CEO of Millennium Promise. The project has 14 sites across sub-Saharan Africa, each with unique climate and environmental challenges. The project began in 2005, and since then has made tremendous progress towards eradicating extreme poverty in the areas where they work and accomplishing the Millennium Development Goalsset forth by Kofi Anaan and the UN back in 2000. The Millennium Villages Project is demonstrating an integrated model for tackling the challenges of extreme poverty; showing that it’s not enough to only focus on water or health resources or infrastructure or food or education. In order to catalyze lasting and sustainable change, we need to address them all together.Sauri, which is about 30 miles Northeast of Kisumu was one of the first Millennium Villages, and is a shining example of how successful this integrated model can be. In the short time since its inception, the project has dramatically increased maize yields (the primary agricultural crop in this area), lowered malnutrition among childred under the age of 2 from 9% to 2%, and established high levels of elementary school attendance.

Vincent, Clinical Health Officer

Our first stop was at a health clinic. It was run by a young man named Vincent who was the Chief Health Officer here. Vincent is not a full-fledged Doctor, but he effectively acts as one addressing the vast majority of major health issues in his local area. At this clinic, Vincent and his staff of nurses and community health workers treat about 8,000 people (out of approximately 65,000 total in Sauri). They have a pharmacy on site, health counseling for both children and parents, testing for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, and most vitally the ability to provide safe aided child-birth. Though the facility was modest, it was also clean and very well taken care of. Vincent beamed as he told us about the clinic and their work, justifiably proud of their role in the community.One of the most fascinating things he told us was about their efforts to prevent the spread of HIV from mother to baby. If they know that a pregnant mother is HIV positive, they now have the ability through a careful drug treatment program to ensure that the baby is HIV-free within several months after the birth. But achieving this success depends on being able to overcome deep rooted social stigmas about being HIV positive, being tested for it, and using formula instead of breast feeding the new baby to discourage the transmission during the baby’s infancy.

Our next stop was to visit an 18 year old named Gregory who had built and now runs his own drip-irrigation tomato greenhouse. With matching funds and materials provided by the Project, Gregory was able to build his own green house, set up a water collection and irrigation system, buy a full harvest of disease resistant tomato plant seeds, and with great effort and care, grow a full crop of tomato plants. Gregory can then sell the plants either at local market or take a public bus into Kisumu to sell them there. Tomatoes are a fairly lucrative crop, and if he keeps the plants healthy he could have as much as a 300% return on his original investment by the end of his first year.

After Gregory and his tomatoes, we visited a honey farm, where African Killer Bees (yes, they were actual Killer Bees) form hives and produce delicious organic honey. The honey farmers have formed a coop, and share the facilities and packaging of the refined product. The coop has given them stronger bargaining power and the opportunity to get their brand of honey certified with a national seal of approval.

School building with the alphabet painted on the side

Next stop was to visit one of the elementary schools in Sauri, which is run by a passionate and ambitious headmaster named Millicent. This inspiring school has its own lessons to teach struggling schools in the U.S. Millicent has created a club at the school for some of the older children, aged 10-15, called the 4K club. The 4K club runs a working farm at the school. They grow their own bananas, kale, and other vegetables which are used for the daily meals at the school. In addition they run a tree nursery that sells to people in the community. If a parent of one of the younger students buys a young eucalyptus sapling now, 10 years later it will be worth enough that it could be sold to pay for their child’s secondary education.

The school-run farm

A kitten in the school’s kitchen

The school has a computer room where the students take classes, and adults from the community can also pay to learn computer skills of their own. One recent student had flourished here and was now top of his class in secondary school, sure to go on to do bigger and better things with computers and digital technology.

Secondary education (the U.S. equivalent of High School) is prohibitively expensive here. Families have to pay approximately $500 per student per year. Only the children of the wealthiest families expect to be able to attend. For the rest, they must turn to a range of charitable alternatives, some from the government, some from philanthropic individuals and foundations, some from programs like the Millennium Villages Project. Even though scholarships do exist, they are hard to come by, and even the most promising minds are not guaranteed an opportunity to advance and pursue a higher education.

A small cafe/shop by the side of the road

As we drove between stops, I was continually surprised by how many people we saw everywhere. The landscape implied that we were in rural farmland. In the U.S. driving across western Pennsylvania, you’d hardly see anyone who wasn’t in a car. In Sauri there were people everywhere we went. The large and dense population is one of the biggest challenges here, as there simply aren’t enough resources to go around. In Vincent’s office at the clinic we saw a demographic breakdown of the local population on his wall. Over 40% of the population are under the age of 15. In the U.S., only 20% of the population are under the age of 15.Our last stop of the day was to visit a formerly-retired engineer named Luke who now runs a fish hatchery. On Luke’s farm, he and two co-workers have built an elaborate system of pools and water piping systems. Luke has a thriving business of raising baby catfish and tilapia, which he then sells to 200 different fish farmers in the area who raise them and sell them at market when they’ve grown.

Luke shows us a tilapia

Luke was clearly a savvy entrepreneur. He wore a dark suit with a colorful purple necktie. Earlier in the morning he had attended a school board meeting.

Luke shows us a Mobydick flower

Once Luke gets his newest pond operational, which will be lined with plastic to prevent losing any of the small hatchlings in the mud, Luke will have a highly efficient business that he expects to thrive for years to come, as the demand for fish remains high.We said our thanks and goodbyes and headed to the Kisumu airport to wait for our flight back to Nairobi.

The Millennium Villages Project model is clearly effective. Implemented successfully, it has the power to enable a community to develop the means to lift themselves out of extreme poverty and take the first step towards a better life for their families.

Digital communications technology, as we think of it in tech-savvy New York, does have a powerful potential role to play here. But, there is still a ways to go before the people in Sauri have reason to appreciate what being connected to millions of outsiders around the world through the internet might do for them. Rightfully so, they have more important things to think about on a daily basis.

I know that there is an immense interest and passion from millions of potential supporters elsewhere around the world. There are people who care deeply about the kind of work that is going on in the Millennium Villages Project. They’d like to help in every way possible: from learning, contributing their ideas, becoming advocates, and helping to raise funds. But, the voice of the people on the ground who are living this change and making this change for themselves and their communities remains muted at the global level. And their voice is the essential catalyst to unlock massive global participation. Digital communications technology has the power to amplify their voice such that it reaches an army of digitally empowered supporters and inspires them to take action.

Mankind has never in its history had a technology like the internet that has enabled groups of people – separated by time and place – to work together effectively to achieve common goals. And I passionately believe that we’d be failing humanity if we failed to use the opportunity created by the internet to solve the issues of global development and global health together as a digitally connected global society.

(Read Day 4: Safari in Nairobi National Park)

Kenya Dispatch: Day 2, Nairobi to Kisumu

August 5, 2011

(Read Day 1 here.)

On the cab ride back to the airport, I paid closer attention to the scenery than I had when I arrived. Friday afternoons are busy in Nairobi, and the streets were crowded with both cars and people. We passed a long stretch where flowers and young trees, like at a nursery, were arranged row after row along side the road; I wasn’t sure whether they were selling them or planting them. We passed through Nairobi’s downtown which consists of a handful of relatively tall buildings, ranging from maybe 30 to 50 stories. Among the mostly foreign billboards, I was surprised to see a familiar Johnny Walker ad, advising me to “Keep Walking.”

People cross the road without regard to the number of lanes or intended speed of the drivers on it. Motorcycles frequently darted between cars, skipping ahead of the traffic. Riding on one motorcycle off on to the side of the road I saw a family: father driving, mother sitting behind, and toddler child up front in father’s lap. Vendors idled in between lanes in the more congested stretches selling bunches of bananas.

We were lucky to find that our flight out of Nairobi to Kisumu was delayed by a mere 15 minutes. Evidently, it’s not uncommon for domestic flights to be delayed by many hours (not all that different from the U.S. actually).

Flying from Nairobi to Kisumu

Kisumu is located on the eastern edge of Lake Victoria, one of the largest lakes in the world, and a beautiful sight as we landed with the sun setting over the water. Immediately on exiting the plane, the atmosphere felt entirely different. The airport hardly has any buildings to speak of. Clouds passed overhead, and the air was thick with a sweet smell of rain and dirt. The smell reminded me of wooded lakes I’ve visited in Maine.

It was the end of the work day as we drove from the rural airport into the center of town. We drove along side the lake front and passed a Golf Club. The cinderblock wall around its perimeter was painted yellow, and warned against putting up any unauthorized posters. The buildings in town were well occupied, with car dealerships, furniture stores, and other assorted lakefront-related businesses and warehouses. The industrial milieu reminded me of the parts of Brooklyn like Gowanus and East Bushwick that are still clinging to some character in spite of oncoming gentrification.

For dinner we drove about 1/2 hour out of the downtown to a friendly restaurant located right on Lake Victoria. It was too dark by the time we got there to really appreciate the view. (Being only a few miles south of the Equator, daylight hours run like clockwork here: 6am to 6pm.)

When we sat down I was briefly terrified to see that our table was covered in what looked to me like mosquitos. The last time I had applied bug repellent was early in the morning, and usually mosquitos treat me like a sweet and delicious blood buffet. I wasn’t looking forward to the bites and the added risk of Malaria I was about to face; to my relief, we were informed by one of the locals with us that these were actually a familial cousin of the mosquito who did not bite.

Dinner was a tastey buffet of curries, meat, and chicken, with rice and a flat bread somewhere in between a tortilla and Indian-style naan. I spoke with leaders from the local Millennium Villages team. Our host is the Director of the entire Sauri Millennium Village Project. Another team member was responsible for developing new businesses for the fledgling economy; one oversaw the elementary schools.

By the time we returned to the hotel, everyone was exhausted and eager to sleep. In my room, the staff had kindly set up the bed net for me, to prevent any real mosquitos from getting at me while I slept. These are the same simple bed nets that have more than cut Malaria infection by more than half in the areas where they’ve been distributed. I crawled under the net. The room was pitch black. I fell asleep.

(Read Day 3: Kisumu and Sauri)

Kenya Dispatch: Day 1, Nairobi

August 4, 2011

En route from LHR to NBO

I arrived in Kenya early in the morning, after 14 hours of flight time plus another 7 hours of time difference. On some level the long trip seemed an appropriate way to underscore how far Kenya is from my life in New York.

A driver was waiting for me after I passed through immigration, holding a sign with my name on it. As we drove from one side of Nairobi to the other I had trouble keeping my eyes open, exhausted from the flight. Between mini-naps I glimpsed bits and pieces of the city. We traveled on crowded highways, and took what elsewhere I would have assumed were detours on dirt roads.

There’s a lot of construction going on here. Occasionally the signs have a bit of Mandarin on them, evidence that Chinese industry is making as much investment here as any other foreign country (if not more). The buildings change quickly from guarded Monsanto factories to apartment high-rises to small makeshift kiosks with Coca-Cola logos painted on the side. One moment we were passing a new shopping mall that wouldn’t seem out of place in middle America, and the next we were passing a tiny town of homemade corrugated metal homes.

Along the highway in Nairobi

All along the road people were walking and sitting and socializing. I noticed that almost all of the roads, big and small, had well-worn pedestrian paths running beside them. If this were rural Denmark, or even Vermont, I’d guess that they were recently built by some progressive local Government to inspire more jogging or bike riding. Here in Kenya, the paths look more like they are the bi-product of a population with a lot more people than cars, and a cultural predilection for transportation by foot.

When we arrived at the hotel, we were greeted at a gate by a security guard who asked to check the trunk (presumably for hidden explosives). The hotel was beautiful. It felt new and handsomely designed with a subtle mix of global contemporary style along with a dash of local flavor.

Tribe Hotel, Nairobi

The hotel had a pool, a spa, a good restaurant, cocktails, and wifi; it was like any equivalent hotel in any other major global city. Except that this hotel did not feel part of the city. Guests didn’t come and go as they pleased, wondering out to explore the city around them. Locals didn’t meet up in the hotel lounge after work. This hotel felt more like a secluded oasis for international travelers who each came to Nairobi for reasons related to the interests of other people and companies thousands of miles away, and reasons largely unrelated to the individual lives of the people in the city around them.

(Read Day 2: Nairobi to Kisumu)