One love. One heart. One country.

back from Nairobi

When I fist arrived in East Africa at the end of July, I came through Kigali, Rwanda because it’s the closest international airport to Ngara, Tanzania. As I climbed down the stairs and onto the tarmac – my very first time breathing African air since being medically evacuated from Cameroon with severe malaria in 2008 – I caught the somewhat faint scent of smoke in the warm air and knew it was the end of the dry season. Farmers in the areas around the city were clearing their fields by burning them, and the smoke was collecting in the city.

I had a fleeting glimpse of a major East African city then (outside of Africa, Kigali is best known as the epicenter of the horrific genocide of the late 90’s, but today it is a peaceful, bustling, and rather prosperous city), but since then I had not left the remote region of Ngara, Tanzania (nestling the border of Burundi and Rwanda, Ngara is the former site of a large UNHCR refugee camp) for 3 months. In the past month, however, I have finally had the chance to experience two more East African cities – first Nairobi, the capital of bordering Kenya, and then Dar es Salaam, the economic capital of Tanzania.

Traveling to Nairobi by bus with our Production Assistant, Edron was a somewhat tiring but overall very positive experience. On the first day, we took a 5 hour bus ride to Mwanza, Tanzania, the nearest city to Ngara. The most direct route from Ngara to Mwanza is through a narrow finger of Lake Victoria – the  third largest freshwater body of water in the world (after Lake Superior and Lake Tanganyika) – and so our bus drove onto a ferry while we sat on the deck and looked North to see what we could of the giant lake for our short ferry ride.

The following day, we boarded another bus, this time an overnight bus that would travel directly to Nairobi. Edron had bought herself a Chinese smart phone in Mwanza, a relatively cheap device which could take pictures, record audio files, and connect to the internet, so she spent much of the trip taking funny pictures and making recordings – all of which, incidentally, were later erased by Edron’s mischievous nephews. I passed my time by reading Dave Eggars’ What is the What – very appropriate with its mention of an overland trip to the big city of Nairobi from the UNHCR refugee camp in Ethiopia.

The scenery was not particularly interesting for someone already familiar with Africa, although at one travel stop there were giant pelicans roaming the parking lot, and at another we spotted baboons. When we crossed the border, I knew we would need Kenyan Shillings before having a chance to get to a bank the next day, so I managed to exchange some money but got completely ripped off with the exchange rate (due, Edron and I are quite sure, to appearing as a rich foreigner who wouldn’t know any better) and had to fight with the manager just to get back half of what I was owed. I should have asked Edron to exchange it for me.

The bus was quite comfortable (compared to some things I’ve traveled in) during the day, as it was not too hot outside, and a breeze was available by opening the window. As night arrived, however, it became quite cold outside. Streams of rain sometimes poured through the window as the bus shifted, and since I was sitting next to the window this was not a good thing. Luckily I had my rain jacket with me. Even this did not keep me warm, however, since the window had a tendency to open on its own accord – just as I would be nodding off, it had a habit of opening just enough to let a slice of frigid air stream in that would immediately wake me up. I would close the window again, but after what seemed to be a few moments, the cycle would repeat itself. Eventually, I managed to close the window without emerging completely from my state of rapid eye movement, I think, because I did manage to get some sleep somehow. And the few times when the bus stopped during the night, I thankfully shut the window snugly and curled up for a few minutes of bonafide deep sleep.

We had begun our trip at 1pm in Mwanza and arrived in Nairobi at 4am the next morning. Just in time to get a taxi to the hotel, take a shower and short nap, and join SERRV’s week-long East African Partners Workshop.

Having worked with SERRV on the volunteer end in the U.S. since my days as an undergrad at American University (about a decade ago now, hrrmph), it was sort of a dream come true to be participating in a workshop of theirs while representing a producer group. The people responsible for making those cute magnets from recycled Coke cans (Bombolulu) and those striking Ugandan baskets (NAWOU) were now sitting next to me and across from me in a humble conference room at the Methodist Guest House in Nairobi, Kenya. This was cool.

I had thought that my days of listening to lectures about “continuous improvement” and “production bottlenecks” were over, but I was wrong. Our chief facilitator, Mike Machulwa, brought up all of these things, but put them in a practical and useful context, and the other participants added practical examples as well. Mike is a successful social entrepreneur and an excellent presenter, and the other participants were mostly very experienced fair trade producers, some of whom had been working with SERRV for more than 30 years.

As excited as I was to be taking in the information presented and meeting these producer groups, Edron was probably 10 times more excited. This was her first time outside of Tanzania, and less than 1 year ago her position was office cleaner, however she has been working her way up the ladder quickly due to her zeal for learning new things, her outstanding people skills, and her solid work ethic. Despite Mike’s promise that we would be getting all of the Powerpoint slides on a CD after the workshop and her tenuous grasp of the English language, she constantly scribbled notes in English and whispered excited comments to me, asking if certain questions or contributions would be appropriate to the current discussion.

After the first day of sessions, SERRV’s producer liason met with Edron and I to discuss our organization and look at the product samples we had brought. She was very pleased with what she saw, and with the development initiatives in which WC is involved. From her comments, it seemed very likely that SERRV would begin a partnership with WC in the near future, however she will first need to convince the Product Development Team.

I really didn’t have time to see much of Nairobi beyond the Methodist Guest House.  However, in general, Nairobi seemed to be a cross between Africa and the West. Signs of the West included shopping complexes with mega-grocery stores, and one that I saw even had a bungee ride that I’ve seen in Europe, which is essentially an adult version of those baby jumper devices that people hang in their doorways. Most people spoke good English as well, unlike in Tanzania. They also seemed to be in more of a hurry, and more focused on money than socializing – again, unlike Tanzanians.

Before leaving, we also had the chance to go to the COFTA office – COFTA being the network for African fair trade producer groups.  We learned that we need to join our Tanzanian network – TANFAT – before we can join COFTA, and need to join COFTA before joining WFTO – the World Fair Trade Organization (formerly IFAT).  It’s a rather lengthy and somewhat expensive process, but we think it will be very worthwhile, and if we manage to become members by May, we can attend the bi-annual WFTO conference in Mombassa, Kenya next year.


3 responses

  1. grandma

    Love reading about what you are doing. I leave the 21st for Wiconsin. We will miss you but you will be warm!!!Merry Christmas grandma

    December 18, 2010 at 2:01 pm

  2. Fred Shermock

    Gotta love your recounts to us here in now 12″ of snowpack and fab skiing as-of Christmas day. Your world is so fascinating and so different than any point-of-reference we might have had in our life. It’s quite wonderful, thank you for the updates, details and stories, we thoroughly enjoy them!
    Uncle Fred

    December 26, 2010 at 2:12 am

  3. Peggy Stalheim

    At last, a post about your trip!

    December 28, 2010 at 8:10 pm

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