Blackout at Kenyatta International
True to the spirit of Kenya, the power was restored at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport after a two hours blackout (which I later learned affected not just Nairobi, but a good portion of the country). The hundred or so travelers who sat in near dark of the restaurant at the end of the terminal expressed their relief. But when the power died again and the interior lighting returned to emergency fixtures only, the crowd erupted into laughter for the true humor of the situation. It’s Kenya. The power comes and goes with the apparent will of the rains, a nearly daily event which may last for a few minutes, or several hours.
At 9 PM the power returned and seemed to be content to remain on. I enjoyed a little more than two hours battery with my laptop, catching up on email which had evaded my attention for the past two weeks. Nearly thirty written and placed into cue, to be sent via the cyber cafe 8 exits away.
I sit here now, just an hour before boarding my flight to London Heathrow and then to Munich, Germany for a Power.org conference. This, the final leg of my nearly three months round-the-world tour: three weeks in Japan, three weeks in India, a week in Singapore and the Philippines, and then three weeks here in Kenya.
Arrival at Pistis and reunion with the children was wonderful. Handshakes, hugs, smiles, and laughter–I felt as though I had never left. A hot plate of ugali and spicy greens eaten with fingers from the bottom of a frisbee or simple metal dish, and I was again in my Kenyan home.
It was my intent to spend very little time with physical projects and more time helping CMD-Pistis improve its business management. I met with the Bishop, Gladys, Leonard, and their new CPA to listen, learn, and share how they may integrate cashflow management as a look to the future, proper book keeping as a record of the past. Leonard and I collaboratively built a project management spreadsheet to help guide the many daily, mid- and long-term projects at CMD-Pistis. It is such a joy to give someone a new tool, a hammer, drill, or spreadsheet. Leonard and I are very similar, both in age and mindset with too many ideas to execute in a single lifetime. Therefore, what I offered him was more than just a spreadsheet, but a new way thinking that I had discovered only a few years prior.
I feel really good about the work I did with them, offering my experience as an entrepreneur who has made every mistake possible and yet pulled through, time and time again for nearly a decade. I wish sometimes that someone would have guided me more carefully when I started Terra Soft, perhaps helping to avoid some of the larger pitfalls. But experience avoided is wisdom lost.
But things were not quite the same.
Through conversations with Wycliffe, Jacintah, and Leonard, I learned that during the January skirmishes entire families took shelter and lived in the bath house, the stalls providing a place to lay down bedding and sleep in relatively safety. Stephen the architect, with whom I worked extensively last year, fled his home with his family, all living in the same bath house that he designed and built just a few months prior. How ironic. How humbling. Only one month ago did the last family move out.
But two weeks prior to my arrival, twenty six or twenty seven students were taken to the hospital with dysentery, pointing to high density, unhealthy living conditions.
My first day in the compound, I noted and took charge of two outstanding projects: completion of the bath house plumbing and complete cleaning and repair of the kitchen stoves and pipes. Apparently, the cleaning job I paid for last year, initiated the morning I left, was incomplete. The fundis had done little more than beat the sides of the pipes with one of the wooden paddles used to cook ugali, rice, or beans.
I solicited a young man who worked at a local metal shop just around the corner from the school to provide an estimate for proper repair. Last year, their price was too high. But this time he worked under the table for less and in just one Sunday morning and afternoon skillfully disassembled the kitchen stove pipes, cleaned them properly, and built a new metal lattice that holds the wood off the bottom, enabling airflow beneath the burning wood.
The bath house required only two afternoons of adjustments and parts replacements by two plumbers hired at the recommendation of Charles, with whom I worked last year. The walkway to the school remained in fairly good condition, the stones that lined the drainage trench reset in a stronger configuration. The food storage system remained strong and clean, the mice population for the most part no longer mingling with the bags of corn, beans, and rice. The outside of the compound wall had been painted with large, fun “ABCs”, a colorful animal associated with each. Someone directly funded this project, and so even at a time when food was scarce, the schools aesthetics were enhanced. This was later a topic of conversation with Leonard, Gladys, and the Bishop–what to do when funds are directed by a remote donor but other needs are more pressing.
The funds we raised in January were put to good use, food on the shelves, some shoes on feet, new beds. Thank you again to everyone who so quickly contributed. But not ample to fully support the needs of Pistis. Too many remain without shoes. Too many who do not know how to hustle to makes ends meet. Too many who do, carrying forward the skills they learned on the streets with behavior that undermines the school’s organization and rules.
With nearly thirty new orphans, the compound is noticeably at its maximum occupancy. A new girls’ dormitory was recently constructed from an existing steel frame structure, the fifty odd girls moved from their former, highly congested quarters of a single classroom where many had been sleeping in adjacent classrooms, their bedrolls returned by morning.
The ash of wood and bone.
No one can prepare for what happened in January. Having been in Nakuru both before and following the skirmishes, I was but a visitor to a scene of the crime, stories told by the remnants of homes, by the ashes of wood and bone mixed now with soil, and by the voices of Jacintah, Leonard, and Wycliffe.
I remain in horror with the knowledge of what humans can do to each other in times such as those, war at any level so easily toppling the structure of organized society into fear, self-preservation, and chaos.
At the same time, I am in awe for the spirit of humanity, for the desire to press ahead, to pick up and continue. If I were unaware of what transpired just a few months prior, I would not have known. My own sense of “something is not quite right” was due almost entirely to my knowledge of what had transpired. I could not help but look at the faces of those who passed me on the streets, those who solicited me for a boda-boda or matatu ride to town or for the sale of a trinket I did not need, and wonder what role they may have played. Did they stay home and protect their family? Or did they sharpen a machete and take to the streets?
Through the stories I have received, and through my own experience, I have learned that the definition of “friend”, the construct of trust is not consistent from culture to culture. Integrity is not given the same value. Even “value” carries a different meaning when values themselves may be a luxury unaffordable to those who just barely survive.
The Value of Time and Materials
Last year I had dinner with an electrician and a seamstress, a newly married couple who lived in the compound across the alley way from Pistis. We spoke briefly of business, of the frustration I had experienced in the seemingly ill-founded quotes I received on a regular basis when working with local contractors.
I asked the young man how he conducted his quotes. He looked down at his feet, laughed lightly, and said, “I offer a quote for what I need that day, and what I believe my customer is willing to pay. If I need a new television, then that is what I charge.” He was uncomfortable in sharing this with me, but not ashamed. It is not the only means of doing business, but where price tags exist only in super markets, bartering is the cultural norm. I quickly provided a description of a proper time and materials estimate, and he honestly stated he had never conducted such a thing. He thought it was a good idea, but did not think it would work in Kenya. I had made it work last year, but yes, it was a struggle.
At first take, this seems absurd. I drew judgment. But when I stopped to think about it, to place the conversation in the context of this country and not my own, at a time before Western commerce was introduced, there is an elegance in this system. I considered that the electrical wire itself, the sockets, the switches, the bulbs, even the labor carried no intrinsic value, much in the same way that the native Americans saw no value in the European settlers buying and selling land–for it was not theirs to own in the first place.
In this mindset, this cultural norm, the accepted means by which value is applied to a job is not necessarily based on the work itself, but on the value that either party perceives to be appropriate and eventually agrees to exchange. One may find honor in this. And if it were not for the fact that mis-quotes result in unfinished projects due to materials which do in fact carry real value in the market place, this style of barter and commerce is in many respects balanced and fair, those who can afford more, pay more.
But when building foundations are laid, and then left to crumble, or when a series of bids are so completely off that the contractor finds himself borrowing funds from a new job to complete an old, the web of dishonest stories invokes mistrust. Who will complete the project and who will change their cell phone number when the funds run dry?
In this circular story are often indirect answers given with diverted eye contact. I experienced the same Kenya as I did last year, but my perception has changed. While handshakes, smiles, and warm brotherly greetings continue to penetrate my cautious exterior, inside I know that a true friend in a place such as this must be earned over many, many years, or perhaps, never found.
Goodbye, for now.
Cameron, Board member for SPAN and I delivered a notice of termination of funds and volunteers to the management of CMD-Pistis for reasons I am choosing to not share here, in this public forum. The document was well researched and sincerely worded, but in retrospect too harsh in its demands, a cultural lesson learned. The debate that followed escalated. Friendships fell to confusion, family bonds were broken. Cameron and I left Nakuru with tears in our eyes for a level of innocence replaced with reality. I remain confused for who and what to believe. I continue to process what transpired and try to understand with an open mind–judgment a tool for justice, not a bridge to reconciliation.
These people have been through hell and back and we will never understand what that means. We know only that as an organization, SPAN must draw clear boundaries for what we support and what we do not, we look forward to a time when we can again come to Pistis to be greeted by the laughter of children whose futures are forever uncertain, but their ability to move ahead without parents nor family to fall back upon, unwavering.