Within my first few weeks of living in Nairobi, it became clear that I would have to rethink how closely I heed the warnings against venturing around “Nairobbery.” Surely there is some truth behind the anecdotes of petty crimes against visitors and even long time residents in the city. Besides, it wasn’t too long ago that major attacks grabbed headlines either in the heart of Nairobi or on the coast of Kenya. However, the warm embrace of my co-workers and everyday folks around the city began coax me out of my shell.
There is no reason I should spend my planned 6-month stay simply shuttling between the fortress-style compound I lived in, which came complete with 8-foot walls, and the well-guarded office parks or malls that were part of my day-to-day life. That level of protection may have been warranted in their day but, today, there has to be ways to avoid being so sheltered and missing out on “authentic” Kenyan experiences.
It’s easy to take for granted, but getting recommendations from my cohort in the African Business Fellowship, the contacts provided at Orbit Chemicals - my host company, and the African Leadership Network’s (ALN) program coordinator, helped me settle in easily. In very short order, they were able to help me find a comfortable and fully-furnished apartment, which comes with the daily cleaning I understand is standard in central areas of Nairobi; a gym a short walk down the road; a skilled and reliable barber after only two tries – brothers know this would be tough even in New York; a butcher that supplied fresh cuts of locally grown lamb and chicken; a vendor that delivered fresh vegetables to your door in massive quantities for low prices; a laundry pick-up and delivery service; and while I used my company provided driver on the week days, Uber was always a few taps away on the weekend. All of my first-world problems were easily sorted out.
In subsequent weeks, through an events arranged through the program, other Fellows, and co-workers, I had many networking opportunities. For example, one weekend we landed at a barbecue at the home of the ALN's Vice President of Strategic Relations, Isaac Fokuo, where we connected with several influential Kenyan professionals. I quickly learned that the professional world on the continent is very small and interconnected, and the folks at ALN are always less than 2 degrees away from people in the top echelons of business, industry, and politics. This was further highlighted through a recent event hosted at the U.N. on the future of African agriculture, where ABF Fellows received a special invitation. The event was also attended by President of Kenya Uhuru Kenyatta, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Econet Founder and Chairman and ABF benefactor Strive Masiyiwa, and several other African dignitaries. So, the support to make in impact in your professional life is certainly there.
Through other events, such as a movie night hosted on the rooftop of PAWA 254 featuring the story of Sembene Ousman, considered the father of African cinema, I was connected me with an intellectual and beatnik slice of Nairobi - a crowd that reminds me of my close friends in Crown Heights and Bedstuy, Brooklyn. I ran into many of the same people attending the multi-media exhibit on the various types of human trafficking across the continent. This brings me a little closer to the grassroots of Nairobi and, in upcoming weeks, I’m looking forward to accepting invitations to visit villages in rural Kenya, as well as visit the Eastleigh neighborhood, known as Somali town – places where knowing someone makes all the difference in your experience. All in all, the people on the ground have made my transition to working in Nairobi seamless. If a core mission of the African Business Fellowship is to make U.S. professionals feel comfortable and connected with work life in Africa, they have achieved at least one victory with me.