I landed on Kenyan soil exactly 30 days ago. Since that time I have learned a few Kiswahili words, met several native Kenyans, broken bread with other ABF-ers, visited 4 major Kenyan cities, and set a deliverables timeline for my ABF placement. Each activity has been extremely fulfilling and enriching to my continental experience.
The first time I arrived in Nairobi around 2011, I stayed on the campus of Kenyatta University as a poor graduate student focused on completing field research for a doctoral thesis. I lined up interviews and focus groups to help me better understand how, if at all, Kenyans utilized their stock market. Thus, my researcher lens was in full focus.
During this visit to Kenya, the fellowship has given me the opportunity to view Kenya through multiple lenses. This blog is a summation of 4 weeks in Kenya told through the perspective of a researcher, employee, ABF-er, and tourist.
After several discussions with ABF/ALN staff and the CEO of my placement company, I felt properly prepared to embark on this enriching journey. Before boarding the plane, however, I had one more ABF conference call to discuss tips for doing business on the Continent. At the time I thought, “Are our cultures so different that ABF management assumes this topic must be discussed at length – even to this group of ‘rockstars’?” Well after 18 hours of flight time I would find out for myself.
I landed at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport on Sunday afternoon and it seemed exactly the same as landing at John F. Kennedy International Airport on a Sunday afternoon except one minor, but noticeable detail. So, it seems like air conditioning is not uncommon throughout Nairobi, but it definitely is not used as much as it is in the United States.
The line to receive and review visas was made very uncomfortable due to the lack of air conditioning and the sheer volume of new/returning entrants into Kenya’s capital city. Despite the thick, musty air of the visa queue, I was ready and excited to enter the city. I finally made it pass the queue to meet the driver outside the terminal after a 3-hour wait.
The next observation, despite being a Sunday afternoon, was the hectic nature of Nairobi traffic! I do not even know how to articulate what I saw. Imagine the traffic of New York City and Los Angeles without traffic lights or adherence to traffic laws. The wild ride was worth the wait as I was the first ABF-er to open the gate to our new residences – Natural Oak Apartments.
Natural Oak is located in the part of Nairobi called Kilimani, which is known to be more “posh” or more upwardly middle-class than some other neighborhoods. Clearly Kenya, or at least parts of Nairobi, has catered to a higher-end consumer.
My placement company, Mabati Rolling Mills (MRM), is the largest and oldest steel roofing company in Kenya. It is part of a larger family-owned conglomerate that sells steel and roofs around eastern and southern Africa. During my first week, I met with the heads of all the companies within the conglomerate and was quickly received with warmth. Interestingly, one inquiry was initially presented during meetings with the heads of the Indian conglomerate persisted throughout the company.
The question, asked by Muhendis (Indians in Kenya, which actually make up a sizeable portion of MRM management) and black Kenyans, was likely supposed to be an exploration into my native heritage. The exchange usually follows this pattern:
MRM worker: “Ah Curtis, Habari Gani! Karibu Kenya. Karibu MRM.”
Me: “Asante, Asante!”
MRM worker: “So where are you from?”
Me: “I am from the states. I reside in DC but originally from Detroit, Michigan.”
MRM worker: “Ah yes. DC. You guys voted for Trump? Sad. Sad.”
Me: “Yes. Yes. It happened.”
MRM worker: “So where are you from?”
MRM worker: “No. Where are you really from? Where is your grandmother from?”
Me: “The States. Georgia.”
MRM worker: “Oh are you one of those Black Americans that does not know where he is from?”
At this point, I have discovered that the problem with the question is the answer. My response is usually, “yes, I am one of those Black Americans whose ancestors are connected to the transatlantic slave trade. But I know the general area of which my people are from due to DNA testing.”
The response to this elicits an emotional rainbow that begins with overwhelming sadness, intrigue, excitement, and finally sincere jubilation that “I have returned home.” Karibu Kenya!
My third week included business travel to MRM service and distribution centers. I shadowed Jaimal Shah, who is the head of the Thika service center. Thika is located approximately 30 minutes outside of Nairobi’s border and home to many Kikuyus – a major Kenyan tribe. A discussion on Kenya’s tribal relations would require more than one blog space.
I interviewed employees at the Thika service center in order to get a general sense of the culture and organization structure of the plant. The service centers are large, noisy manufacturing facilities that are not the best place to wear a suit and nice shoes (live and learn).
MRM sent me to the western region of Kenya to continue gathering information on their service centers. I flew to a city called Eldoret where I stayed overnight at the Eldoret Golf and Sport Country Club. This was my first encounter with Kenyan elites and the sense of entitlement was palpable. Nonetheless, I had a pleasant time and it was an exquisite place to rest my head.
In the morning, Joe John, the head of the Eldoret Service Center, drove us through “upcountry” to Kisumu. I was able to capture the serenity of the Kenyan countryside and was also able to snap a few Kenyan runners during the ride.
After a hectic week of business travel, I am very happy to be back at Natural Oak Apartments. I was able to see Nairobi to the Rift Valley and everything in between. I socialized with Kenyan elites (kind of), talked about tribal relations with members of several different tribes, had tea on the tea estates of Kericho, ate goat instines with vegetables (not bad), listened to the aspirations of several manual laborers and white-collar professionals, stayed in a 5-star hotel, and at the end of the week returned to Nairobi via Kenya’s own Kenya Airways.
Truly a magnificent experience through any lens and I have two more months to go!