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It is a Thursday in early September. Each Thursday morning I have scheduled a meeting with the lady who manages the fabric / handcraft business. She also manages the small shop. We have been working on a business development plan, based on 10Ps – products and services, people, pricing, packaging, presentation, placing, physical evidence (of being able to sell profitability), process, promotion and professionalism.
A few weeks ago, we had a good discussion about her concerns about the business, what it does and what it could do. She and her team are very committed, and, in my opinion, the work that they produce is of extremely high quality and very attractive. She takes pride in the fact that her team is taking increasing responsibility for managing their work. In the past, they used to come to her with problems, or alerted her if a customer arrived on site.
Now, they come up with solutions and deal with customers themselves, alerting the manager only if they would like her guidance and direction on a particular concern. At the start, the manager felt a bit insecure at this initiative – she informs me that Kenyans have historically been ‘trained’ to defer and accept authority unquestioningly from a more senior source. However, that seems to be changing as the younger generations find and exercise their voices. (As a case in point, the lady informs me that, as a child she had aspirations to join the police. However, her father insisted that she entered a career in textiles). If the lady was absent from the premises for whatever reason, she received lots of calls on her mobile, often concerning relatively mundane issues that did not require to be addressed by someone of her position. However, the staff were not sufficiently empowered at that time, and this caused her to feel ‘needed’.
The lady is extremely relaxed and very positive that ‘her girls’ are so empowered, assured and confident about manage day-to-day issues capably and competently. This has freed the lady herself to tackle more strategic and tactical business demands, rather than the merely operational. At one of her recent regular team meetings she distributed copies of the 10Ps material that we had produced, and invited all of her girls to consider them and provide further input. This acknowledges that her girls are ‘at the coalface’ – the document would stimulate thoughts in their minds about what may and may not work and have them think up better ideas themselves. This would encourage further creativity, ownership, positive risk-taking and motivation amongst her girls as they see their ideas implemented. After all, it is OK to make a mistake. The person who never made a mistake never made anything.
I am so encouraged by the lady’s positivity. In turn, she welcomes the time that we spend together, talking things through and thrashing ideas around. I read recently that a horse on its own can pull a certain amount of weight, but two horses together can pull five times as much. We also discuss that there can be no further compliment for a manager that she works herself out of a job, by creating the support, mechanisms and encouragement such that someone coming along behind can take over the mantle.
The lady informs me that one of her most successful routes to market is to occupy a stand at a trade fairs and exhibitions. These are frequented by retailers seeking to source suppliers of quality stock, members of the public and other exhibitors, including complementing merchants, banks and micro-business partners. It is an excellent showcase opportunity and forum for networking. The business attends several every year, and the lady is analyzing which ones are most profitable or otherwise worthwhile – attendance takes her, one of her supervisors and / or her small team of staff away from other important business activities, including design, scheduling and production.
This morning, tomorrow and the next day, the business occupies a stand at a trade fair, facilitated by an organization that promotes the growth and development of small- and medium-sized businesses. The lady invites me if I would like to come along for a while today to see what I think, and to see if there are any ideas that I can come up with. Sometimes, if we are doing something for a while, we do not always see the obvious.
It is around 10am. The lady visited the venue earlier with her supervisor and another of her girls. They traveled with their wares in one of the pickups. The two girls are still there, and the lady herself has returned to base to collect some more stock and me. She suggests that we travel by matatu – the small, notorious 14-seater decrepit little minibuses that ply the various routes. However, I do not like them, and I do not like the attitudes (poor customer service, dangerous driving, formal documents obtained corruptly) of many of their owners and operators. It will also take longer. I suggest that we drive into town in my car.
So, we head off. It is hot this morning – sunny and high 20s. This is in contrast to the two months of cool, cloudy and overcast weather that we had for the past couple of months (apparently the coolest – or as locals say the coldest – since records began). The climate here is increasingly very variable and volatile, even on a daily basis, much like in the rest of the world.
During our journey, the lady briefly explains to me some of the country’s political highlights and dark times since Kenya became independent from Britain on 12 December 1963 – the country is gearing up for the 50th anniversary. First, there was President Jomo Kenyatta, who largely inherited a political infrastructure and other institutional facilities from the colonialists. Then in 1978 came Daniel arap Moi, who brought about so much strife, repression and corruption. He was ousted from power in 2002 and superseded by Mwai Kibaki, the Country’s third President. Kibaki was re-elected in controversial circumstances in late 2007, sparking much violence, widespread insecurity and vicious unrest (giving rise to many deaths, much mutilation and physical displacement of large numbers of people (over 1,200 recorded deaths and 650,000 displacements). These atrocities form the backdrop to the (much reported) trials scheduled for this autumn in the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague. The current President (Uhuru Kenyatta, elected in April this year), Deputy President William Ruto and a radio presenter will be tried in connection with the horrific human rights abuses inflicted on the populace at that time). This is all very helpful and informative background to me as I try to get my head around things a bit better here.
We drive up to and across the big roundabout at Uhuru Highway (the big yellow building that I used as a landmark a couple of months ago), go along Kenyatta Avenue for a bit and turn left onto a side street, and left again onto a stony and rough piece of ground used as a city centre car park. One of the operatives directs me where to park, but I tell him that parking there (perpendicular to and directly behind three other parked cars) will block them in – “What if they return before me and want to get out?” He doesn’t appear to have thought about that. “OK, over here then”. “But no,” I say, “then I will be blocking those cars in.” We leave him standing there and I ease the car forward towards the corner, looking for another space in which to park.
One of his colleagues comes over. He directs me to park across one of the exits to the compound. I tell him “but that is an exit and I will be blocking the exit”. He doesn’t seem to mind. The car park is otherwise pretty full and, in the absence of an alternative, I ease the car forward and back a couple of times in response to his beckoning gestures and put it into position across the exit. He seems happy enough. It seems like the exit is an ‘unofficial’ one anyway, a route whereby cars can escape if their drivers want to evade paying the parking fee.
We get out of the car and cross the side street. I carry the extra stock, carefully concealed in a couple of black plastic bags. We walk along some of the pavements and cross a few streets and main roads. The lady points out some landmarks, such as the notorious nightclub over there in the round building.
We turn left, walk across a busy main street and along another side street. My companion points out other places of interest – the rotunda of the Kenya International Conference Centre (KICC) and parliamentary buildings are just over there. Here is the city’s largest Tuskys (a national chain of department stores).
This part of the city centre is surprisingly clean, bright and quite cosmopolitan. There are also some small trees and other shrubbery. It is really quite pleasant. As I explore here, it amazes me how the sights, sounds and general atmosphere of places change so markedly, morbidly and menacingly as day becomes dusk and as dusk becomes darkness.
After about 15 minutes of walking we reach the venue. It is in a small park just at the junction of Moi Avenue and Haile Selassie Avenue, tucked into a corner. We enter the park through a small gate and past a security hut where we pick up our ‘Exhibitor’ badges. A few steps in and on the right there is a large granite stone. It reads that this park marks the site of the former US Embassy, razed to the ground following a terrorist bomb attack carried out by Al Qaeda on 7 August 1998. The attack claimed the lives of over 200 and injured 4,000 more. (There was a simultaneous attack at the US Embassy at Dar-es-Salaam in neighbouring Tanzania). An adjacent building was destroyed in the attack, and the huge building that stands beside us was also damaged significantly.
The park is an attractive refuge – some grass, a few shrubs and a circumferential pathway that is bordered by loose, rounded stones. There are some park benches. People are resting and relaxing in the mid-morning sunshine. Off to the left there is a memorial sculpture crafted from metallic, ceramic and concrete debris salvaged from the rubble of the explosion.
The exhibition tents are laid out in the centre of the small park. Ours is just up the path to the left – the first tent you come to – beside one of the park benches and beside the memorial sculpture. Beside it there is another tent, promoted by another Children’s Home. Backing on to it, there is a tent promoting some sort of American-made strips of fabric sealed with Velcro. They are about 18 inches wide by about 36 inches long. The idea is that you wear it around your tummy and seal it with the Velcro. It is for ladies who have just given birth and is designed to hold their saggy bits back together until their bodies resume a trimmer and more shapely figure. Their promotional material reads “Say goodbye to your post-pregnancy belly with the Belly Bandit”.
Beside the Velcro tummy-tuck stand there is one at which some ladies from the Kibera slum offer their wares – honey, peanut butter, moisturizing cream and French-style berets, all made by a cooperative of ladies who call themselves ‘Women Of Hope In Kibera’.
Our stand looks good. Really, I am impressed by the colour, craftsmanship and care that goes into making our products. There are cushions, aprons with matching oven gloves, drapes and other beautiful items. I tend to convert local prices into sterling, and I am amazed at the relative (from a UK perspective) low prices of these items. Surely they could sell for more? I make a mental note to fill my cases with a selection of produce and bring it back to the UK with me to sell in December – they would make lovely Christmas presents for people.
The supervisor and her colleague have had a quiet morning so far in terms of sales. It is the start of a new school term, so people do not have much money left – there is a big dent in their bank accounts after coughing up the latest installment of school fees and related costs. Also, it is Thursday morning – a relatively quiet time for shoppers – most people will be working just now in the nearby offices. But it has been worthwhile nonetheless in terms of inquiries. I decide to go off and explore what else is at the exhibition to contextualize and to pick up some ideas.
The stall keeper next to ours also has some attractive and interesting products. Again, the quality is very good – and the range offered is different to ours in terms of materials and styling. The attendant tries to sell me some stuff – “But I am from the stand next to yours” I say. We are in direct competition.
In all, there are about 12 stands. The ones that interest me the most are:
• The stand operated by the hosts – the organization that promotes the establishment, development and success of small- and medium-sized enterprises. At various intervals throughout the three-day event they offer training workshops, each lasting a couple of hours, teaching on topics such as sales and marketing and financial management. I am hoping that our supervisor will be able to attend some of these sessions.
• Advertkawaida Business Solutions Limited (www.advertkawaida.com ) is a software company offering a customer management system (you can record inquiries and manage things like billing, debt collection and profitability for a range of business operations on this). The software developer gives me a quick demonstration. It seems reasonably priced. As a financial management tool, it would complement our existing software which focuses on financial reporting, rather than management. And its modular approach means that each of our seven commercial operations could be monitored independently. Our businesses may not yet be mature enough to reap the returns from such an investment at this stage. Nonetheless, it is an idea that I will log in the back of my mind. I accept the promotional material handed to me.
• Futurecom Institute of Professional Studies (www.futurecomcollege.com) has a couple of people on its stand. I am interested in the possibility of some people in our ‘Twenties’ group developing themselves a bit further professionally, making themselves more marketable, skilled and attractive to employers. It would also open doors for them to become self-employed, or even employed in such a way that could result in the creation of further complementary revenue-generating opportunities for us. With the attendants, I discuss training in computer packages (including desk-top publishing), engineering and motor mechanics. The courses seem to be priced reasonably, taught locally and structured flexibly. They can be ‘bundled’ into bespoke packages as well. I take some of the promotional material for future reference.
• There is a lady from Top Bride Collections (www.topbridecollections.com). Her business offers wedding gowns for hire or purchase, and wedding cakes. One of our businesses specializes in providing weddings with all of the accompanying trimmings and related services, using the lawns and other grounds on our compound. Apart from cakes, it does not provide the other services offered by Top Bride Collections. Maybe the two businesses can get together and discuss opportunities to cross-sell each other’s services. I take the promotional material to take back to the relevant commercial manager at base.
• My favourite stand is jointly operated by another Children’s Home and a horticultural business. They sell fruit-yielding plants, vegetable seedlings and decorative shrubs. From what I understand, many of the seedlings and so forth are grown by the Home. When the horticultural business has a customer, it purchases planting stock from the Home and provides the necessary knowledge, skills and expertise to plant the customer’s garden. To me, this is such a great idea. Is this something that we can (a) replicate; (b) train some of our ‘Twenties’ people in; and / or (c) go into some form of joint venture with these people? On hand is Linda, a girl of around 25 from East Germany. This is her third or fourth trip to Nairobi, and she plans to be here until November. She specializes in ‘urban farming’ – developing small, productive gardens on customers’ lawns, rooftops or balconies, growing fruit and vegetables. In my mind, this has huge potential here. Although the majority of local produce is plentiful and cheap, there is still something very satisfying about producing your own. In my (pretty much middle-class) estate of apartment blocks I estimate that there are about 125 similar units, each with two balconies. There is huge potential for some homegrown. I make an appointment with Linda. She will come to my apartment on Monday evening to measure up and discuss what can be planted and grown in my apartment, and what is likely to produce a yield during the time that I am scheduled to be here (mangoes and avocados would be nice, but the plant takes a few years before it produces fruit).
So, armed with some promotional material and some ideas logged for further consideration, I return to our stand. We rearrange the furniture a bit to make the display more accessible and more attractive. It is a bit windy, so I take some of the smooth stones from beside the pathway and place them on some of the paperwork and fabrics to reduce the billowing. Some (relatively simple) thoughts come to mind. Maybe we should have a large sign that lists what we offer. Our promotional material could be more profitably informative – describing what we do and make, rather than providing a history of the operations. I think that our representatives could be a bit more assertive, vocal and forthcoming, affording themselves more of a ‘presence’ – being out in the open, approaching potential customers and inviting them to the stand, rather than lurking behind the scenes, waiting to be asked.
The first one of these is fairly easy to fix. The second one will take a bit more time. And the third one is a bit more tricky. From what I have seen and read about, Kenyan people are generally more reserved and less ‘in your face’. They are very polite and are responsive rather than more visibly pro-active, waiting to be spoken to before they speak themselves. So, this is a cultural issue to which I must be sensitive. Part of me would like to have a go at manning the stand for a while to see if a more assertive approach produces more sales, but I do not want to undermine the team that is there already. I don’t know them very well yet, so I have not established any form of authority to squash their style and pour on their parade. So, I will keep my observations to myself for the short term. Perhaps this is something that can be considered, discussed and addressed in advance of the customer care training that I have been asked to design and deliver soon. We talk about the sign, what it would say and where we would put it. We also talk about a website. Once we have launched the one for the property maintenance business, we will turn our attentions to one for this business.
The guy in the stand next to ours tries to sell me stuff again. At least he is trying. And then he recognizes me from before (it is not as if there are many other white people around). He is OK – it is good to see other Children’s Homes being proactive in operating small commercial ventures too.
I turn my attentions to the tent backing on to ours and start measuring up with the Velcro things. There are three of them of various sizes, designs and colours on display – black, purple and green. I try on one of these Belly Bandits, on top of my shirt. It is surprisingly comfortable and does a good job of retaining my ever-increasing and splurging middle-aged girth. I’m not sure what the attendant makes of me. I tell her that I have not yet given birth. “I am expecting triplets. Maybe this will help to disguise my pregnancy belly.” I step back a bit and call out to Margaret, the girl who is supervising our stand. I don’t think she expected to see me dressed like this. I can tell by the animated look on her face. Maybe she thinks I am a bit mad. Maybe I am.
I decide not to buy a Belly Bandit today. I make my way to the next stand, the one operated by the ladies from Kibera. I try on one of the berets and tilt it sideways. Maybe the urban farming stand has a string of onions that I can drape around my neck. “Hey, Margaret, what about this?”
The honey and the peanut butter are offered in pots of various sizes. I am reminded of the girl in our Twenties group who also sells honey and who wants to venture into the peanut butter business too. I talk to the vendor about the honey and the peanut butter. She is also selling three or four varieties of face cream that she and her colleagues have made as well. I remove one of the lids, the vanilla one I think it was, and I take a sniff. It smells really good. I ask the vending lady if I also spread this on my bread.
Our fabrics business manager comes over for a look too. She likes the face cream and tries a small sample. I like the peanut butter. I ask the vending lady if I also spread this on my face.
I buy some face cream for my companion and I buy some peanut butter for me. And I take some of the vendor’s promotional material so that I can give it to the girl from our Twenties group so that she can follow up. She lives far enough away not to be in direct competition with the ladies from Kibera. Maybe they can teach her about making peanut butter.
It is now around lunchtime, and I think our immediate business here is done. Margaret and her colleague can hold the fort, and the manager and I can leave and go back to our other work. We bid our goodbyes and make our way to the exit in the corner, past the huge granite stone that commemorates the people who died in that horrific bomb attack 15 years ago. It was at around the same time of day as now, and I can imagine the scene – huge devastation, destruction and death. It is a hubbub of activity and humanity. People used their bare hands to scrape for days through the rubble, recovering the destitute, the dying and the dead.
We had back along a wide, open street – a bit like a boulevard. The traffic is surprisingly light. My companion points out more landmarks – the KICC again, the Hilton Hotel, the Parliament Buildings and the Mausoleum where flags are flying at full mast. Across the road is the Holy Family Basilica, the city’s Roman Catholic cathedral. It feels almost European just now, perhaps Italian, or even French. Outside the KICC, some car manufacturers are setting up their stands for the Motor Show, due to take place this weekend.
Suddenly a couple of gun shots ring out. Ahead there is an armoured personnel carrier. The troops, dressed in riot gear in the back are carrying large guns and hand-mounted launchers for tear gas grenades. I am a bit slow to register these things, and I just think to myself, ‘Oh, there were some gun shots. I’m sure it will be OK. And anyway, I heard them, so right now I am not dead.’
But my companion is a bit more agitated. She has been here before. She suggests that we hurry. I am a bit reluctant to hurry, because I do not want to exhibit a sense of jumpiness or panic or contribute to or cause a stampede. Better leave that bit to the fleeing wildebeest of the Maasai Mara. I am not too worried anyway (maybe growing up in Northern Ireland during The Troubles conditioned me somewhat), and would rather take the time to get my bearings a bit and decide on a course of action. But my companion knows the lay of the land better than I do, and I don’t want her agitation to increase as a result of my default slower (and perhaps more measured) approach. So, we cross the road and scurry down a small side street and evade any immediate harm. After all, today, just over there in the Parliamentary Buildings, the MPs are voting against the country disengaging itself with the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. I may be a bit cynical, but various MPs and other political proponents seem to be doing a lot of ducking and diving and meandering and manouevring right now to derail the ICC’s proceedings in connection with the trials of the President, Vice President and radio presenter. This is being reported widely in the local and international media. I am very surprised and encouraged by the press freedom here. As I mentioned before, I wish that the powers that be would read some of the opinions and respond sensibly and appropriately to them.
(A little later on in the day’s proceedings, during yet another heated debate about the proposed disengagement, one of the senior male politicians slaps a female opponent very hard on the face, in full view of other politicians and the international media).
Across the way, as my companion points out, is the Main Post Office. There are no postal deliveries here. Instead, people are allocated a Post Office Box (PO Box) number. It is an individual’s responsibility to visit the post office from time to time and inspect his mail file and retrieve any mail that may have accumulated since his last visit.
Then we are back beside the big yellow building that is my landmark. My colleague explains to me that this is Nyayo House (nyayo means ‘footsteps’ and is a phrase coined by Moi to suggest that he was following in the footsteps of Jomo Kenyatta, his predecessor). Built almost 40 years ago during Moi’s presidency, the basement houses several floors of rooms that were designed and built solely for imprisonment without trial and for torturing people accused of sedition or treason. It was totally brutal, barbaric and inhumane, and many people perished. Earlier this century, as part of a cover-up, I understand that attempts were made to knock down these basement chambers. However, they form part of the structural integrity of the 27-storey building. So, the chambers were opened to the public. (There is an excellent, short book which describes some of the background to the atrocities and the experiences of some of those who survived imprisonment. You can read the book via this link: http://library.fes.de/pdf-files/bueros/kenia/01828.pdf).
We arrive back at my car. I reverse it out of its position and we go to exit the legitimate way. The fee is KSh 300 (about GBP 2.25 – very cheap by Western standards for a couple of hours’ parking in a city centre car park). However, the fee doubled at the start of the month. In addition, there is widespread discontent at a new value added tax (VAT) of 16% imposed on many goods since the start of this week. Like many things here, this hurts the poorest the most, especially as it is applied to veryday necessities. The price of milk, for instance, has gone up from KSh 45 to KSh 55, and the cost of bread increased proportionally too. So, the people who need it most, and for whom it is most expensive are buying less (with corresponding reductions in the amounts ordered by the retailers, with subsequent gluts of perishable goods experienced by the suppliers).
Some retailers are fraudulently applying the price hike to other goods which are not officially affected by the tax, illegally profiteering at the expense of the masses. In my view, and in the opinions of others as expressed in the newspapers, this is yet another example of a poorly planned and inadequately thought through policy. Some of the more cynical commentators say that it is a way that the government is raising funds to pay for the expensive trips to The Hague enjoyed by the many MPs going there ‘to support’ Deputy President Ruto. These visitors have become the laughing stock of the world at a time when they should be at home doing the job that they were elected to do, and are being paid so handsomely to do. (Incidentally, the VAT is now applied to newspapers too. The Daily Nation and the Standard now each cost KSh 60 instead of KSh 50. There is a KSh 50 bank note – an easy denomination to enable the purchase, but one which is now much more difficult for the small vendors, who must carry sufficient numbers of scarce coins to give as change from KSh 100 notes.
So, the fabrics manager and I reflect on the morning’s activities as we return to base to proceed with the other activities of the day. It is sunny and hot and the dashboard gauge indicates that the outside temperature is now 32C. We will see about a sign for the exhibition display, and I will make many other mental notes.
It is now the end of September.
• The country is reeling from another devastating terrorist attack last weekend at Westgate, a shopping centre in a relatively affluent part of the city. It is being branded as the worst single terrorist atrocity in the country since the attack at the US Embassy on 7 August 1998. It transpires that the Holy Family Basilica is also a potential target.
• This week, the flags at the Mausoleum flew at half-mast during the official three days of mourning following the attack.
• Elements of the government appear to be in disarray following the attacks. There is a bit of a blame-game going on, and much confusion and public concern about some sort of cover-up regarding the explosions at the mall and the true extent of casualties.
• On Tuesday, an international day of prayer will be held at the KICC. The ICC granted the Deputy President some leave to return to Nairobi in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, and has extended the leave up to and including Tuesday, with the proceedings scheduled to recommence on Wednesday. The Deputy President and his defence team are looking for a further leave of absence. However, the ICC is standing firm.
• There seems to be some movement, either actual or planned, in terms of reducing the VAT on some essential items.
• For me, it is hard to believe that later this week I will have been here for 13 weeks. On Wednesday, I reach the 90-day limit on my visa. I plan to go to town on Wednesday afternoon to extend it. Amongst other government departments, the Department of Immigration Services is located in Nyayo House.
A few weeks ago
It is around mid-August and it is ‘shopping spree’ time. We have around 5 of these each year. At each time we select a different chain of supermarkets. This time, it is the turn of the successful Kenyan-owned chain called Nakumatt. Last time (in July) it was Naivas. Next time (in early November) it will be Tuskys. A few weeks ago, the Commercial Manager wrote to senior management at Nakumatt and its various store managers requesting permission to undertake shopping sprees at each of the 12-15 Nakumatt stores around Nairobi.
Shopping sprees are hard work, but they are good fun. A team of us don red bibs, carry some wooden boxes (about 2 feet square and 3 feet deep) take some collection tins and a bunch of brochures to each store. We plant ourselves at the entrance (usually two of us) and another two at the exit. Those of us at the entrance great the arriving customers and hand a brochure to each, explain that we are collecting donations today for the orphans at our Home, and suggest that customers are welcome either to make a cash donation into one of the tins, or an item listed on the leaflet (sugar, flour, nappies, children’s books, pencils, soap, …) and place it in one of the boxes on the way out. The two of us at the exit will thank the customers, direct them to the boxes and collect cash in the tins. All of us are responsible for discussing our work further with interested people (some customers want to know, for example, how to sponsor a child, if they can undertake voluntary work, or where they can make larger donations, say of clothes, books or games).
We try to have a Mzungu (white person) on each team. Generally, if customers see a Mzungu at the entrance, or if a Mzungu explains why we are here, they will be more trusting (why would a Mzungu make so much effort to come to Nairobi and masquerade as a charity worker to steal a few groceries?) and more likely to make a donation. Today, I am the Mzungu for my team, and I have been asked to lead it. This is my second spree since I arrived here. On my second day here in July, I got stuck in to the Naivas event, which was a great success.
On Wednesday, all of the teams congregate in the main hall for the Chief Administrator’s briefing. This is really quite a fun affair, and I am pleasantly surprised at how animated she becomes, explaining, and even acting out, that we are doing this for the benefit of the children, we should encourage people to have big hearts, we should smile and be happy. The event will last for three days, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
My team is allocated the Nakumatt supermarket at Westgate. Westgate is a shopping mall located in the more affluent Westlands part of town, an area frequented by the wealthier local populace, celebrities and foreign nationals. It is possibly the most ‘upmarket’ shopping mall in the country, with a number of designer boutiques, international banks and fancy goods retailers.
All of the teams are allocated ‘targets’ – an amount in Kenyan Shillings (KSh) for goods and cash donations to be collected at each supermarket. The targets are challenging and are based on past experience, plus a little bit more. After all is counted up at the end of the spree, two teams (one with the highest actual amount collected and one with the highest positive variance (the difference between target and actual)) will be treated to lunch. The lunch will also be a debrief in which the winning teams will discuss how they achieved their results and other lessons learned, which will be ‘fed back’ to other teams for future events.
At KSh 150,000 (about GBP 1,200), our target is the largest and most the aggressive. I am determined to smash it.
On Friday morning, the teams pile into the pickups with all of their bibs, boxes, brochures and tins. There are a couple of teams in our pickup. I sit in the front so that I can get my bearings properly and therefore drive my car on the next couple of days, thus freeing the pickup. We drop a team at another Nakumatt, and we make our way to the one at Westgate.
A short time later, we swing to the right and take an immediate left into Nakumatt’s delivery yard. We disembark the pickup. The pickup disappears on another mission. We approach some security guards, who direct us to the general manager. The general manager checks the authorisation documentation that I have, and directs us through the store and onwards to the customer service counter. Once there, I reproduce the documents. We set up station.
We locate ourselves at the main customer entrance to the Nakumatt store, two of us on the inward approach and two at the exit. True to form, customers are sometimes reluctant to accept a brochure from my Kenyan colleagues (who are some of the loveliest people you could meet), but they accept one from me. In addition to Kenyans, there are people from India, China, Australia, Canada, the United States of America, Canada, South Africa, the United Kingdom and other nations – Asians, Africans, Europeans. We hand out our brochures, explain what we are doing and why we are doing it.
At the entrance to Westgate’s Nakumatt, we are positioned on either side of a large, grey replica of an African elephant. There are around 6 people at the customer service desk just behind. They are promoting various household goods – soap powder, disposable nappies, biscuits. A short time later, a couple of attractive looking girls who look like they are in their early 20s arrive and set up their stall next to us. They don police uniform in fancy dress. They are promoting Axe – a deodorant spray for men – buy two today and you get a free tee-shirt.
So, our day goes exceptionally well. Our boxes fill up many times, and we repeatedly empty their contents into a series of large shopping trolleys. The tins are getting heavy too – although, such is the generosity of people here – there are also many bank notes inside. As each trolley fills, we place it beside – almost underneath – the large replica elephant that stands silently beside us.
At around 2pm, we have so many trolleys filled with generous donations that I telephone base to request an interim collection by pickup truck. A short time later, the truck arrives. One of my colleagues assists me to wheel the trolleys through Nakumatt’s delivery bay, into the loading area and to offload them onto the pickup. We are touched by the generosity of the kind customers here at Nakumatt, Westgate.
There are times when we are extremely busy distributing brochures, talking to people and collecting goods. There are times when it is relatively quiet. At such times, I make small-talk with the staff at the customer service desk. One girl called Rosalind is keen to come to the UK to study or to get a job. She asks if I can help. She asks for my mobile phone number. I talk to the lady who operates the left luggage counter. I chat with the security guards. I laugh with the young guys who line the trolleys up neatly. I also talk with my colleagues. Two of them are employees from the Home, and two are external volunteers. One of the volunteers (who I will call Alice) is at college, studying website design. She also volunteers with St John’s Ambulance.
I also go and buy four aerosol cans of Axe – two for me, and two for the other male volunteer. We each receive a free tee-shirt.
Saturday passes too, and is an exceptionally busy day at Westgate. There are lots of single young people, groups of people and families here today – shopping, eating, relaxing. There is a cinema upstairs and lots of cafes. There is also a Maasai Market, selling curio.
On Sunday, Alice and I drive here after church. We arrive at around 10.30am. At around 6pm I think that we should wrap up and call it a day. Westgate’s Nakumatt is still very busy, with lots of customers pouring in. We recognize some of the faces from Friday or Saturday. I am tempted to remain until around 10pm so as to maximize the opportunity. However, I am mindful that, as leader I am responsible for my people – both here and at base, those waiting on us to return with our donations – so for their sakes, we call it a day. Earlier, I sent for a pickup truck, and now we wheel the remaining trolleys full of donations to my car, parked inside and round the back.
I go inside and I thank the store’s manager for hosting us and say our farewells to Rosalind and the customer service staff, the security guards and the two pretty Axe girlies.
A few days later, after all is counted, the Commercial Manager informs us that our team had the highest collection of goods by value (not surprising given that ours was the highest target) and that we collected about KSh 250,000 of donations – 60% over target. I am delighted. The team worked so hard, with such dedication, commitment and determination. There will be lunch at the café next Tuesday for the two winning teams. I contact each member of my team to inform them of the good news.
The following Tuesday
All of my team joins for lunch to celebrate our success. Alice, however, is a bit downbeat. I talk to her to find out what is wrong. She explains that, as part of her coursework, she is required to find and secure a client who would like her to design a website. She has until Monday to engage such a contract, otherwise her college will not permit her to continue her course. She met a prospective client in town this morning. However, she is not hopeful. Her college contact who arranged the meeting was a bit amateur. In spite of Alice’s diligent preparation, expectations and high hopes, her contact let her down. It seems that her client will abandon the opportunity.
One of my roles is to help to develop the commercial operations here. I love this role. One of the businesses, a plumbing / joinery / property maintenance business, desperately needs a decent website. It has a number of contracts with some good, paying customers (including some international Consulates) and produces some excellent workmanship. Word needs to get ‘out there’. I explain all of this to Alice. Can we be her client?
Alice cheers up. This is great. I really am pleased. She does a lot for us – volunteering for sprees and, in her capacity with the St John’s Ambulance, attends Sports Days and other events. I later find out that she also volunteered in one of the houses where the children live. I am so happy that we are able to ‘repay’ Alice in some way – in return for a website, Alice will have a client and Alice will not be thrown out of college. I agree to meet her the following morning to discuss the detail.
The following morning
I arrange to meet Alice at 10am the following day, Wednesday, at the Silver Springs Hotel. It is about a mile away from where I live, along the dual carriage way in the uphill direction. I get there a few minutes early and find somewhere to sit over in the corner to the left, at the coffee shop.
Alice sends me a text. She is stuck in a jam (as usual here, the traffic flow is not good) and will be a bit late. That is no problem.
It is a warmer morning than of late. I move away from my position in the hotel’s coffee shop. In the central courtyard, open to the blue sky and sunshine, there is a swimming pool. Surrounding the pool are some lovely examples of local shrubbery and a few palm trees. Under some of the trees are some tables. I sit at one, and I take out my laptop and notebook.
It is wonderful to come across an oasis, and this is one of them. The hotel is about four stories high – just enough to drown out the otherwise ever-present rumble of traffic from all manner of motor vehicles – many of which may not have seen a mechanic’s spanner for decades, if at all. Here, there is only a distant murmur. The pool is a cool blue, and looks refreshing. This is a nice place. I will remember it for again – a peaceful solace in the middle of too much mayhem and madness.
It is getting near to eleven, and Alice arrives. She spots me, and comes over. I invite her to sit down. We chat for a while.
One of the many valuable aspects I find is that so much depends on developing trusting personal relationships. This is in marked contrast to some of my experiences in the United Kingdom, where people are not people. They are resources – another disposable commodity. (It really used to irk me when, in a previous life, people said ‘I need another resource for a couple of weeks’ or ‘have a look at the resource schedule’. How dehumanizing, demotivating and utterly base).
So, Alice and I chat for a while. She apologises for being late. I tell her it is no problem, it is fine, it is good to see her. She is in her early twenties. She describes some of her childhood experiences, and some of the lessons she learned in life – the value of hard work, not taking things for granted. She spent some time working as an au pair in Mombasa. To fund her college, she helps in her mother’s coin business. That means that she gets up at 5am and goes out seeking customers (micro-vendors in her neighbourhood) from who she can buy coins (denominations of KSh1, KSh 5, KSh 10, KSh 20) in direct exchange for bank notes. She then goes to the city centre and sells these coins to the more major retailers (chemist shops and so on) for notes. For each KSh 1,000 (about GBP 7.50) batch of coins the retailer will pay her KSh 60 (about 45 pence). Her mother then pays her an allowance from an accumulation of these 45 pence commissions, and Alice funds her college.
I tell Alice that we receive lots of donations in coins. Maybe she can exchange some of her notes for our coins.
Otherwise, I am moved at the resourcefulness, courage, commitment, character, fortitude, work ethic and determination exhibited by Alice and her mother. I am inspired, and I am humbled.
Alice would like a Stoney – a ginger beer. I order coffee. As Alice enjoys her Stoney, the milk for my coffee is served in one of those silly little stainless steel jugs. It is more like a ‘point-and-shoot’ – you pour the coffee at the cup, rather than in it. The contents dribble out down the side of the jug and onto the table and down my leg and onto the floor. Maybe it will also make its way into the cool blue pool.
So, we talk about the website. I would like a home page, and others suggesting the benefits of buying from us, services, products, citations, and ‘contact us’. And I don’t want viewers to have to scroll down. I want optimum functionality. I want people to see quickly what our business can do for them, how they can get in touch and how to get in touch. I do not want any faffing around.
Alice makes notes and discusses some ideas. This is great. She knows her stuff. She produces a letter from her bag – from her tutor, requesting an appointment letter from her client (us) and outlining other terms and conditions. I scurry off to the hotel’s business zone and request a scanned copy, emailed to me. (While the attendant is scanning it, I remark on the beautiful hotel, its grounds and how it sponsors the beautifully maintained roundabout ‘island’, just outside at the junction. She informs me that it is the best-kept roundabout in town. I am not surprised).
I rejoin Alice and I return her letter. I tell her that I will discuss this with the Chief Administrator, and will draft a contract letter right away. I will also construct a logo (one of the Ts and Cs).
I ask Alice how she will spend the rest of her day. She will do some coin work. I offer her a lift to the city centre and she obliges. I pay the bill and her matatu fare to get here, and off we go. I drop her in town, somewhere off Kenyatta Avenue. I drive back towards base.
At the beautiful roundabout, I am going straight across. And some idiot in an old bus pulls out straight in front of me. What an idiot. He comes a big shunt, a total T-bone. I slam on my brakes. My newspaper slides suddenly off the passenger seat hits the floor. The anti-lock brakes shudder. I stand on the horn. I wait for the bang as the vehicle behind me slams into my rear. But there is no bang. There is no vehicle behind me. I miss T-boning the bus by inches. Why did the stupid bus driver not let me have my right-of-way? The road is clear behind me. What a total ass.
Anyway, I make it back to base. I am pleased. Alice is pleased. I draft the contract letter. Tomorrow, I am planning to deliver a training course for supervisory staff. We are coming up to the quarterly staff appraisals. My training is entitled ‘Effective Skills for Appraisals’. Next week I will deliver the training to the Heads of Department.
I am pleased with the materials that I have designed, with some input from a former colleague and good friend from the United Kingdom. There is a printer shop at Wilson Airport nearby. So I will take my master copies there this afternoon, and I order 16 copies.
I drop the master copy at the printer’s. It will take about an hour. For the next 30 minutes I explore the industrial area around the airport.
There are about 100 businesses here. They range from aviation training colleges to police offices to tax authority buildings to cafes to other printers to auto repair facilities. The latter are located furthest away from the main road, where the access road becomes one of dust. There are mechanics and there are body repair ‘specialists’. Having had an interest in cars for the last 35 years, the latter interest me in particular. The operatives work outside, and they spray outside. Given the crazy driving here, there are lots of accidents, and you can spot a damaged-repaired car almost a mile off. The paintwork is far from factory-finish – all matt and of a low quality. And now I know why. There is probably more dust and dirt blowing through the spray-guns than there is paint.
I make a mental note of these businesses. In my mind, there is potential for some sort of synergies with our businesses – perhaps in terms of selling them some training services, or for marketing what we provide – facilities management, conference facilities and our café.
I return briefly to my office, and then go back to collect the print work. On the way, a lady begs me for some money. I have some cash in my wallet – enough to pay the printer, and a bit more. Do I give something? The answer is no. Mzungos (and others) here are easy targets. Show your wallet, and the next thing is that a mugging is likely – easy to pull me aside in the airport’s industrial complex and rob me. Not today, thank you.
Anyway, the print work is poor and shoddy. I will not tolerate poor standards of workmanship for my colleagues who strive for excellence. I will not use that printer again, even if I have to write out 20 copies of 40 pages using a blunt yellow crayon and my left hand.
The training goes fine and the supervisors and Heads of Department complete their quarterly staff appraisals.
Saturday morning, a few weeks later
I meet Alice again at the hotel. We have coffee. It is such a nice hotel, but the milk is served once again in the silly little metal jug. I pour mine at my cup and my shoe is wet again as a drizzle of hot milk lands on it. Maybe if I place the jug on the floor and stamp my size 10 on it and it will be a better pour.
Alice shows me her mock-ups of our website. It looks so good and I am well-impressed. She has put so much effort into this. She was worried about how I might react. Maybe I would put my size 10 through the laptop as well. But no, this is a remarkable achievement, and I love it. She has done such a fantastic job with the logo I designed and sent through, blending it carefully into a decent and consistent colour scheme and comprehensive construction. She also set the photographs I sent her decently and appropriately. Now, we just have to work on the text and a few details and the site can go live. I transfer the images to my laptop to show them to the respective managers at base, and we part.
Today I am on foot – my car is in for service, so I stuff my laptop back into my rucksack and pad it out with the cushions and that roll of toilet paper that I brought from home to make it look like the rucksack did not contain just a laptop and therefore look more attractive to opportunist thieves. I make my way towards home, walking along the pathway downhill beside the dual carriageway, and in to the left and out of reach of anyone who might try to snatch my bag from a passing matatu. As I pass through a small crowd I walk tall and puff my chest out and put my shoulders back and my arms fall into the shape of an ‘O’ and I tense my stomach in case I get punched in it. This is my attempt to make me look big and tough and troublesome. But I probably look more like a deranged orang-utan. One of the people in the crowd asks me for some money.
‘Not today thank you’ I reply.
Early the following week
I show the mock-ups of the website to the respective commercial manager and he is delighted. I am really pleased with it too. I let Alice know and I send her some more photographs to slot in.
Alice has been making good progress. I ask her when she may have another version. She is not so sure just now – she has other coursework to balance. That is OK, she is conscientious, good, decent and cares about what we are doing, so I know that she will do her best and get it done and relationships are important here.
Alice volunteers for St John’s Ambulance. Over the past few days I know where she has been. I texted her periodically to see if she is OK. She has had little sleep. She has been volunteering back at Westgate.
This morning, as I dressed, I was aware of the Axe deodorant that I sprayed.
Tonight, Westgate so sadly smoulders.
It is early evening and I am enjoying my long weekend by the Mombasa shore.
The Volunteer Coordinator (VC) and I drove here a couple of days ago. Earlier this afternoon we went out on a glass-bottomed boat with about ten other people to look at the fish and the coral and to swim and snorkel around the sides. There were starfish, and zebra fish were the most common. I’m not entirely sure why they are called zebra fish. I did not see any legs. Maybe it is because they are black and white.
I sat on the roof of the boat because it is nice up there and there are fewer people. I got told off for jumping into the sea from the roof of the boat. Apparently I could have banged my head on the coral and the coral doesn’t really like that. Oh well.
So, now it is nearly tea time. The VC is having a shower or something, and I make my way out across the beautiful grassy area towards the main restaurant. Beside the small, dark pond where the large frogs sit on the luscious lily leaves and croak loud songs of love to each other, some brightly dressed Maasai people have laid out some tables. They are selling curio – that wonderful eclectic mix of African art and craft that I like so much. This evening their display includes hand-made necklaces, bracelets, paintings, pictures made from banana leaves, and Maasai blankets. It all is beautiful, colourful and intricate.
I make my way to one of their tables.
“Hello my friend” says one of the Maasai, clothed in a red robe. He introduces himself as John.
“Hello” I respond. “How are you?”
John thrusts a small leather necklace into my hand. It is decorated with a giraffe carved carefully from cow bone.
“I can make this myself” John says.
“It is very beautiful” I reply. “Did you make this one?”
“Yes my friend. And for you, a very good price.”
I laugh, and I tell him that I will have a look at some more things.
John takes out his small notebook and pen.
“What is your name?”
“OK Michael my friend. For you a very good price. Here, I write my price. Then below, you write your price.”
“You’re funny John” I say, and I laugh.
I pick up another small necklace. It has a zebra. The zebra’s head is very big.
“Did you make this one John?”
“Yes. I made it. It is a zebra.”
“Yes. Its head looks a bit like an elephant’s trunk.”
“You are funny Michael my friend. For you, a very good price.”
I laugh and John laughs and we shake hands. I tell him I will look at other things first.
A beautiful Maasai girl, dressed in a long, blue robe is at the same table a little further along. She is also wearing some fine headgear, intricately made from silver metal and colourful precious stones. She also wears subtle bracelets and anklets.
She whistles softly towards me.
“Here” she says, as she thrusts some beautiful pale blue, turquoise and finely painted earrings into my hand. “These are made from turtle shells. Buy them for your wife.”
I laugh. “I do not have a wife.”
“You’re funny” she says. “No wife? Your girlfriend then.”
I laugh. “I do not have a girlfriend.”
“OK, your ex-girlfriend then.” And we both laugh.
The Maasai girl is very pretty – tall, elegant, slim, bright eyes, some ceremonial scarring on either cheek. She is confident and outgoing. I like her. I ask her name and she tells me.
John comes along. “Michael my friend, for you, very good price.”
I laugh at John and tell him I am busy. “Is John your husband?’ I ask the beautiful. “No, he is my neighbour.”
“If you want to marry this girl, first you must bring one cow” says John.
All three of us laugh.
I tell the beautiful Maasai girl that I like her whistle. “I whistle for the giraffe” she says. And she does it again. It is a gentle, ‘woodwind’-type of sound. She tells me that, in keeping with Maasai custom, when she was very young she had one of her lower teeth (a middle one) extracted. To make the whistling sound, she pouts and blows air through the small gap. To me, it is quite endearing. She says that the giraffes love it. They pause from eating the leaves from the tall trees and look round and they see the Maasai whistler and they approach. She tells me that they would not approach a Mzungo – unless the Mzungo could whistle like that and was wearing Maasai clothing, because the giraffe know the Maasai.
The beautiful girl is offering some wonderful curio. She also tries to sell me a colourful beaded bracelet, but I prefer the pictures made from banana leaves. They are of giraffe, zebra and some huts with two people stooped outside. I like a giraffe one and the hut one with two people stooped outside. She tells me that she likes the hut one as well, and prefers another featuring both a giraffe and a zebra, not just a giraffe.
We have a bit more banter, the beautiful Maasai girl and me, and it is nice. And John comes up again with his zebra necklace and says “Michael, my friend, for you, a very good price.”
I decide to take the two pictures that I like, and the beautiful girl and I agree a price. I find a necklace that I like and John and I agree a price for that too. A Maasai mama looks on, and she tries to sell me something too, but I say no, I have enough now.
The beautiful girl wants to talk on, and she pulls up a chair for me to sit with her, behind her table. But first, I scuttle off to find the money to pay for my purchases.
I come back, and the beautiful girl tells me that at 9.30 she and the rest of the Maasai will be performing some Maasai dances. “Class” I say (I like saying ‘class’ if I am pleased about something). And I ask John, ‘Maybe you can show me how to dance like a Maasai.” John laughs. He starts chanting a bit and rocking up and down and backward and forward, remaining solidly on his feet. I do the same. “Mmmmm-chhh-chhh-mmmmm-chh-chh” and all that. It is great fun. We do a few more moves, but they are all the same to me.
It is time to eat, and I thank the Maasai and I say that I look forward to ther dance. The beautiful girl asks me for my phone number, and I write it down for her and I walk past the small dark pond where the large frogs sit on the luscious lily leaves and croak loud songs of love to each other and I make my way to the restaurant and I sit outside and I enjoy my dinner.
At 9.30, the Maasai dancers appear in the square space in the open air outside the restaurant and they begin their chanting and their dancing. There are leather shields and colourful costumes and chanting, “Mmmmm-chhh-chhh-mmmmm-chh-chh”. The men face the women. There are about 25 Maasai altogether, the men dressed in red and the women dressed in red and blue. The women also wear several layers of brightly coloured beaded necklaces, like plates of different sizes, with the centres removed.
There are times when two or three of the men suddenly leap high into the air from their standing position, and shout “Yee-oh”.
This is good fun. And I also shout “Yee-oh”.
At the end of this dance, the women mingle around the audience, looking for men to join in. One mama approaches me, and I also make my way to the square space in the open air outside the restaurant. The mama places one of the plate-necklaces over my head. I spot the beautiful Maasai girl who whistles for the giraffe and I say to the mama that I would rather dance with the beautiful girl.
So, I take the hand of the beautiful girl and we dance and I chant – “Mmmmm-chhh-chhh-mmmmm-chh-chh”. I tell her I am sorry, and I don’t really know the words very well. I’m not sure what the theme of this dance is. Maybe it is about hunting or fighting or general happiness or some rite of passage or something. My timing is a bit behind the other men when I leap high into the air and do the “Yee-oh” bit.
“You’re funny” she says.
Then, that bit is over and I return the plate necklace to the mama. It looks like she didn’t find another dance partner. But I was happy to dance with the beautiful Maasai girl, who is as elegant as the finest of giraffes and the most beautiful of gazelles.
I return to my seat beside the VC, who was taking photographs of my dance-floor antics. There are a few more dances from the Maasai, and then they disappear, back to man their stands of wonderful curio.
A few moments later, and my phone bleeps. The beautiful Maasai girl is texting me, asking me to stop by and say goodnight. The VC shuffles off to the Lookout Bar and I shuffle off to the curio table.
This time, I sit in the seat that the beautiful girl places next to hers. It is 10pm now, and, for the Maasai, it is chilly. She covers herself in a large red shawl.
John comes over. He wants now to sell me his wooden staff. I laugh. “You’re funny John”.
“Michael my friend, for you a very good price” and he places the staff in my hand. I like it, but I have no immediate need for it. “It is a very good staff, John.”
“For you, my friend, a very good price” and he takes out his notebook.
It is not clear to me what pricing method he uses. It seems to be a bit random. He writes ‘5,800’ (about GBP 45) and I laugh and John laughs and the beautiful Maasai girl laughs. John asks me to make an offer.
“I don’t want to insult you John”. John scores out the 5,800 and replaces it with 3,800. I ask the beautiful girl what she thinks, and she takes the pen, scores out the 3,800 and replaces it with 3,200.
I sit close to the beautiful girl. We have some nice chats – Maasai, family, faith, fun, giraffe. She is very attractive.
John says “Now, if you want her for your wife, the price is 10 cows.”
“I will pay 100 cows for this one” I say.
John laughs. “You’re funny. 3,000 for the staff.”
It is getting near the time for the Maasai to pack their stalls and go home. The beautiful girl tells me that her table is very heavy. It stays in a store round the back of the hotel. I tell her that I will carry it for her.
“For the staff, now 2,500” says John.
She and John and the others pack away the curio and the staff. I dismantle the table. I ask the beautiful girl what her plans are for tomorrow. She says that she goes to church at 7.30am and then gets home by 1pm and after that, she has no plans. I ask her if she would like to come back to the hotel tomorrow afternoon and she says yes.
I help her to carry the table pieces to the store and she clasps my hand and we walk up to the small dark pond where the large frogs sit on the luscious lily leaves and croak loud songs of love to each other. I kiss her gently on the cheek. And the beautiful Maasai girl who whistles for the giraffe wisps delicately into the darkness of the night.
And she is gone.
It is 1.30pm. I think I will take the beautiful girl for a walk along the shore. Just as I am thinking that, my phone bleeps. “What would you like me to wear?” – it is a text message from the beautiful girl. I return a message, asking her if she would like to go for a walk along the shore. Back comes a text. “What is a shore?” I return a second message, replying that it is the beach and is she OK with that, and to wear whatever she feels comfortable in.
She tells me that she will phone me when she gets here.
At around two o’clock I make my way to the front of the hotel complex, out of the main gate beside where the pink flowers and the purple flowers and the white flowers grow, next to the road. It is very hot, at least 30C, and very sunny and the air is still.
I send a text message to the beautiful girl. “I can walk towards where you are coming from. When I go out of the main gate, should I turn right or left?”
A moment or two later, she texts back: “Yes”.
And I laugh. ‘You’re funny’.
Then, she texts me to say that she is at the gate. But I am at the gate
and she is not. So I dial her number, and she replies that yes, she is at the gate. I ask the gatekeeper if there is another gate and he says yes there is another gate and he points me in the direction of the other gate, just along the road a bit, round to the right and past the pink flowers and the purple flowers and the white flowers.
I spot the beautiful girl. She looks stunning, radiant. She wears a black beany fashion hat, and a long, black, red and yellow slinky summer dress. She has a fine black scarf draped delicately around her slim neck and across her fine shoulders. On her feet she wears fine black sandals adorned with a few colourful beads. She wears a subtle, silver bracelet and a matching necklace. I greet her with the same kiss on the cheek that we parted with last night. I tell her that she looks stunning.
We make our way through the gardens, past the small, dark pond where the large frogs sit on the luscious lily leaves and croak loud songs of love to each other, through the grass, down the steps and onto the beach. The tide is in, almost fully, and we make our way along the pure white sand.
We walk in the water and we get our feet wet.
When we reach the small headland with the big rock, the water is deeper – maybe eight or nine inches. With one hand, the beautiful girl clasps the hem of her dress. With her other, she reaches over and clasps my hand.
We walk on, feet wet, hands clasped. We walk until we can walk no more – we are at the end, and there is now only water. We find a place on the rocks and we sit. We have some nice chats. We talk about the Maasai, family, faith, fun, giraffe. She tells me that, last night the dancing mama told her off for stealing he man. She tells me that John told the dancing mama to clear off and leave the beautiful girl along.
She is very attractive. She whistles, and I laugh. “You’re funny” I tell her.
The beautiful girl discusses with me that she would like to become a pharmacist. She also likes to read physics books, and some stories. We sit there, and it is nice, the beautiful girl and me.
Out to sea there is a coral and we listen to the larger waves crashing over it. The waves closer to shore in the shallow water are soft and gentle and swirl and sweep and swish. We like the sound. We watch as a large crab creeps its way along a small crevice in the rock, just in front of us. It is scuttling after a small lizard, maybe two inches long. The crab is too awkward, and the lizard darts away sharply from the clasping, closing claw. The crab will bide its time and will wait patiently for another small lizard.
We look up and watch as the clouds change shape and change colour. They are white and yellow and pink and blue and grey and orange. It is warm on the beach, not as hot as on the road. There is a cooling breeze, and the cooling breeze blows along the colourful clouds.
We sit there and it is nice, the beautiful girl and me.
And now it starts to get dusk. It will get dark very quickly. I can see that the beautiful girl is feeling chilly. I take off my shirt and she puts it on, on top of her slinky summer dress. I have brought a towel, and she drapes it around her shoulders too. She offers me her scarf, and I drape it across my shoulders. It smells gently floral from the fine body mist that she wears.
We walk back along the shore, back towards the hotel, back towards where we must part. We get our feet wet. I offer her to buy her something to eat, something to drink. She declines politely. She has exceptional manners. She is very soft and she is very gentle and she is very tender and I like this beautiful Maasai girl.
She says that she will walk to the store, and from there, she will travel my matatu to her rented room. I tell her, no, I will drive you to wherever you have to go. I want to drive her to wherever she has to go. And I will not have her travel in a matatu.
So, she waits as I run in for a quick shower and to change from my sodden, seaweed-smeared trousers. And then she walks with me. We walk past the small, dark pond where the large frogs sit on the luscious lily leaves and croak loud songs of love to each other.
We make our way to the car and we drive out through the gate and along the road where the pink flowers and the purple flowers and the white flowers grow. I take her hand.
We go past the store and past the accident where the large lorry has just crashed into the back of the small car and the matatu has just crashed into the back of the large lorry.
And we keep going a bit. And we have some chats. And it is nice, the beautiful girl and me. And then, after a bit more, she says to slow down. This is where she lives.
And we kiss goodnight.
And the beautiful Maasai girl who whistles for the giraffe wisps delicately into the darkness of the night.
And she is gone.
Going for a snork is good fun. In general, you need a boat, some sea, a few fish, a bit of coral, some goggles and a snorkel.
It is 10am. We planned to leave at six.
Today, the Volunteer Coordinator (VC) and I are setting off for a couple of days’ break in Mombasa, Kenya’s second city and East Africa’s main port. It is also a popular holiday destination for Kenyans and tourists from all over the world. It is 500km (300 miles) away from where we are in Nairobi, in a south east direction on the western shores of the Indian Ocean. Being at sea level, it is at an altitude of almost 6,000 feet (about 2,000 metres) lower than Nairobi. That means that it will be much hotter and more humid.
There are several travel options available to us. The quickest, and most convenient, is to fly. Air Kenya offers several return flights daily. There is an overnight train service that operates sometimes, along the Uganda Railway. There are some clunky old grid bus services.
We opt to drive.
The garage serviced my car earlier in the week. Yesterday evening the dashboard engine management light came on again, and the garage diagnosed a fault with the fuel pump. Fortunately it had a replacement in stock, and it is being fitted just now, hence our delay.
When driving from Nairobi to Mombasa, it is generally adviseable to set off very early, so as to avoid the worst of the heavy traffic (the road is the most popular route selected by heavy goods vehicles for transporting goods from Mombasa port to inland Africa), and so that you can arrive in Mombasa before darkness falls, just before 7pm.
Generally, it is not a good idea to drive in Kenya in the dark – there are few road signs, almost no street lighting, the headlights and taillights of many vehicles do not work, road markings are few and I have yet to see some ‘cats’ eyes’. Also, the risks of getting lost, run off the road by another vehicle, or carjacked also increase markedly during the hours of darkness.
The garage returns the car to me just before noon, and we set off. We go down the hill along the dual carriageway, left at the roundabout, bear right and then right at the next roundabout. That gets us on to Mombasa Road. We follow its multi-lane carriageway past Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (the one that was on fire a few weeks ago) and we mix and mingle with the rest of the Mombasa-bound mayhem.
The A109 Mombasa Road is dual carriageway for no more than about 20km, and then it is single carriageway for the remainder. It comprises a stretch of Trans-African Highway 8 (TAH 8), the Lagos (Nigeria) to Mombasa Highway, in total stretching some 6259km (about 3,911 miles). The Nairobi to Mombasa section is around 500km, or 300 miles.
We are stuck behind some slow-moving juggernauts. We are averaging 40kmh (about 25 mph). I reckon that, if we maintain this speed, we will reach Mombasa by midnight. But sure, let’s relax and enjoy the trip. It will be fine and it will be good fun.
Approaching in the opposite direction come many convoys similar to ours. Being Kenya, the drivers are so impatient. If a slow-moving vehicle heads the convoy, the courteous thing to do would be to allow the vehicle immediately behind it the first opportunity to pull out and overtake. But no. Given the slightest suggestion that there may be just about enough space to overtake, the vehicles towards the rear end of the convoy will try their luck. They swing out and try to accelerate past all of the other vehicles. The other vehicles in between also swing out and try their luck. Soon, in a convoy of about ten vehicles, three are thundering along in their left-hand lane and the other seven are all trying to pass each other. So, the six vehicles behind the lead overtaking one are effectively overtaking ‘blind’.
The driving behavior on this road is generally crazy. The route is rather infamous for bad accidents, many of them head-on, and quite devastating as two or more vehicles of up to forty tonnes each collide heavily, often with many fatalities and horrific injuries. If the road is blocked by such carnage, there is no immediate alternative, so it may often remain clogged for some time until heavy lifting gear (let alone any emergency services) manage to arrive on the scene.
In my experience, the buses are the worst, in terms of risk-taking and because of the huge potential for mass injury and loss of life. It is only three weeks since a devastating bus accident to the northwest of Nairobi claimed 41 lives and almost the same number of injuries. The problems of mass overloading, unroadworthy vehicles and corruption amongst the police authorities are well-documented. By law, such vehicles are required to be fitted with a speed regulator, limiting their speeds to 80kmh (50mph). They are required to attach a vignette to the windscreen to show compliance. However, it seems that it is easy to over-ride a vehicle’s speed regulator with a bit of tampering.
Only a month or so ago, on our trip to Lake Naivasha, the police waved our own bus to pull in along the Great Rift Valley escarpment to Maai Mahiu and tried to remonstrate with our driver that he needed also to have a large certificate of compliance in addition to the vignette (total rubbish – the certificate is for office records, the vignette is sufficient). Being a children’s home, our buses are fully compliant, with no tampering at all. The safety of our children and the reputation of our organization are absolutely paramount and we will not compromise. I was seated in the front of the bus at that time, and my blood boiled as the police man (he is no man) tried to ‘reason’ with our loyal driver for a bribe, pointing his baton directly in his face. In the meantime, all manner of crazy overtaking and other hazardous manouvres were taking place on the road just beside us, but the police turned a blind eye. The majority of those culprits were matatu drivers – poor pickings – they would not have the money to pay the bribes, and, in any event, police officers and other ‘public servants’ actually own many of the wretched little trucks. I think the police officer sensed my rage. I could not help but glare at him scathingly. I was livid, so cross. How dare he think that we would bribe him? We were not at fault and he knew it. He was trying his luck at squeezing some cash from a bus load of 25 Mzungos. No chance. He even asked our driver to go to the front of the vehicle and look at the various vignettes (for insurance and so on), so that he would be out of sound range from the rest of us. But the vignettes were directly in front of me on the windscreen – even easier for me to glare at the wretched little portly, trumped-up self-important police ‘man’. Our driver remained calm and said nothing. I was trying to rein my neck in a little, Maybe my indignation did not help. But it was very difficult for me. Eventually the little police ‘worm’ gave up. Our driver returned to his seat, the policeman argued some more, pointed his baton aggressively and I continued with my glare. I was tempted to record the nonsense on video and post in on YouTube as others have done. We pulled away, and the wretched little worm had to seek his pickings elsewhere. In general, from what I have read, seen and experienced, I do not like the police police here and I do not trust them.
So, back to the Mombasa Road. It is 45 minutes since we left, and we are motoring along at 40kmh. Still another 450km to go. There are times when I can put the foot down and shoot past a truck or two. Although it has quite a large body, the car has a three-litre V6 petrol power plant in front of us, and that is generally up to the task, especially because there are just two of us in it. I have driven it when full of passengers (it has a capacity of seven seats) and that is a bit more straining for it. We will be fine. As we leave the sprawling urban mass of Nairobi in the rear view mirror, the vista opens up to many large rocky outcrops and desert-like scrub and savannah land. There is some shrubbery around, and the earth is terracotta red. It is very beautiful. We could not enjoy this from an aeroplane seat.
After just over an hour or so we have cleared most of the lorries that were immediately in front of us. Interestingly, they are from at least five nations. In addition to Kenya, I see vehicle registration plates from Uganda, Rwanda, Zimbabwe and even a couple from the United Kingdom. There are times when I can put the foot down and maintain a steady 100kmh (about 60mph). Any faster than that, and I would be verging on reckless. Although this is probably the country’s busiest major road, its surface is only good in places (thanks to the Chinese, who undertake many of Kenya’s infrastructure projects). The stretches that are good are very good – smooth surface, long straights, even some paint separating the two lanes. Then, suddenly there are the usual potholes, poor edging and very uneven surfaces.
The other times when I slow down is when there is a convoy coming in the opposite direction. As expected, some of the drivers will try their luck with an ambitious overtake, even though it is clear that I, and whatever is behind me, are coming at them. Sometimes, a long flash from my head light main beam is enough to have them ducking back into line again. Sometimes they just flash back at me and maintain course. At some wide points I am able to hold in a bit to the left and we can pass safely, three abreast. However, one time the verge was not wide enough, and all I could do was stop and say out loud (it helped me anyway) ‘Sorry buddy, but there is just nowhere I can go’. At the last second the thundering juggernaut swept across the road and in front of the approaching convoy’s lead vehicle. Thankfully, on that occasion there was no idiot following blindly, directly behind him, or my car would have required more than just a fuel pump at its next visit to the garage.
My companion, the VC, says that he is going to start counting the times I say ‘idiot’.
And so, on we go. We clock up 80km, then 90, then 100. Every 50km or so there is a small village, or trading post. There are about 20 of them altogether. Here, the ground on either side of the highway widens to allow vehicles to stop. There are huts, small shop-shacks and hawkers selling their wares. I filled the fuel tank before we left, but it is reassuring to know that some of these areas also include petrol stations. The road surface through these settlements usually deteriorates markedly. There are some small ‘rumble strips’ – three or four grooves cut in the road, perpendicular to the direction of travel, to warn of a looming ‘sleeping policeman’ – a larger hump of tarmac straddling the road to slow vehicles down. Otherwise, these bumps are extremely hard to detect – they are not painted or sign-posted in any way, and the large vehicles parked on either side cast shadows across the road. If I hit one of them at speed we would certainly know about it, and so would the precious car.
The small shops, stalls and hawkers generally sell locally produced tomatoes (which are still very pale), oranges (which are still green) and red onions (which are purple). Each village may have 20 such roadside retail outlets. In some villages, six or seven hawkers each plant themselves in the middle of the road, usually on the huge speed humps (where they hope we will be slowed sufficiently) hoping that the drivers will buy some of their oranges and their tomatoes and their red onions. Perhaps we will have finished eating the oranges, tomatoes and red onions that we may have purchased in the previous village just behind us.
After covering 100km from Nairobi, the dashboard engine management light comes on again. This is a tricky one. Do we (a) stop and call base; (b) turn around and return to Nairobi; (c) stop the car, switch off the engine and try to re-start it (sometimes the electronic system checks when the engine is restarted are sufficient to identify the problem and solve it internally); (d) crack on; or (e) some other option that doesn’t enter my mind. I select option (d), a calculated risk based on experience. I have had Toyotas before, and sometimes the light goes on and stays on and there is no immediately identifiable and rectifiable problem. Stopping in the middle of nowhere on a busy highway is not really a good idea. It may be dark before help arrives, and remaining stopped in the dark is an even worse idea.
Soon, it is obvious that we are descending. The large rocky outcrops give way to wider, more open plains. There are still some large volcanic plugs dotted around. They look wonderful. It would be great to stop and climb one. It would probably take a few hours. I make a mental note for another time. There are some miniature sand tornadoes. They appear and disappear quickly. The VC tries to photograph some, but they outwit him.
There is some wildlife. My companion spots a giraffe in the distance. There are a few monkeys and baboons by the roadside. Some wildebeest. Elephants are in this area, but today we don’t see any. They usually take half an hour for lunch, so maybe they are taking their meals in shifts as we motor along. I overtake a bus branded in the livery of one of Nairobi’s several universities. It is a battered and very sad looking creature.
A short time later and the same bus looms menacingly in my rear view mirrors, waiting to pounce. I am doing 100kmh. He should be restricted to 80. Clearly some tampering has gone on somewhere. Crazy. He swings out and roars past. Why? It gets him a space ahead of me, but soon he is behind the lumbering juggernaut that I had set my sights on. The bus remains behind it for a bit. Soon, there is a long, straight bit and I am able to put my foot down and clear them both. Am I turning into one of these maniacs?
So, I ease back and maintain a steady 100kmh. From time to time, in my mirrors I see the two vehicles jostling for position and road supremacy. Also in the rear view mirror is the bright, hot sun and it makes its way towards its western settlement area. I note that, when we drive home on Monday, I will have the bright sun in my eyes for much of the way.
The gauge reports that the outside air temperature is rising. In Nairobi it was 25C, and it is now 32. The flora is getting a bit greener. This area must have had some rain.
Other than at the villages that we pass through, there are none of the silly little matatu 14-seater minbuses that repulse me so much (as does the attitude of most of their drivers – blatant disregard for safety, rules or courtesy). It is (a) uneconomic for them to pursue this intercity route; (b) their drivers would get lost; (c) their drivers are scared of the bigger, bullying buses and other HGVs; (d) the journey would accelerate their physical demise and ultimate shake-down into a huge (and long overdue) matatu grave pit; or (e) all of the above.
Soon, our road separates Tsavo East National Park on our left from the smaller Tsavo West National Park to the right. These are two of the oldest parks in Kenya. The parks provide a ‘corridor’ for migrating, or wandering wild animals, and there are some signs (!) to warn us. Again, it must be lunchtime for the game, but a few goats wander out in front of us from time to time. There are also some loose donkeys and cows, and now and again we pass some fresh road kill, which looks like it might become goat stew for someone’s supper.
It is approaching 6.30pm and starting to get dusk. It is almost seven hours since we set off.
We have not stopped. We ate some crisps as we motored along. Because there is ample opportunity to stop somewhere for a toilet break (lots of small bushes around), I haven’t needed to go. I know that (a) as soon as it is dark; (b) if we hit heavy traffic; (c) we enter a built-up area; or (d) all of the above, from experience I will desperately need to go and will be unable to, and that makes things worse. We have about 100km until we reach our destination. So, I stop and we each make ourselves more comfortable. I do not switch off the engine, lest it decides not to restart (the engine management light is still illuminated).
We set off again and darkness descends rapidly as usual, being so close to the Equator.
There are some more villages. One in particular takes a long time to get through. People are milling around everywhere. It is very difficult to see them. There is no street lighting and they dodge in and out and around the slow-moving traffic. I think that because they can see us, they think that we can see them. There goes another rumble strip. A big bump is coming up soon. Brace yourself.
Not much later and we pass Mombasa’s Moi International Airport on our right. Earlier this morning I looked at some maps online and drew a mental picture. After the airport, we go on a bit, turn left at a roundabout, go a bit further and across a bridge, then turn left onto Nyali Road, go along for about 6km, turn right and then faff around a bit until we arrive at the hotel.
So, we do OK up to and along the Nyali Road. It is about 8pm on Thursday evening and the road is hugely congested. There should be two lanes of traffic in each direction, but it squeezes itself into three. After 2.5km I am squeezed into the right hand lane (or maybe I chose it to get out of the way of the squabbling matatus). A bit further, and it becomes a filter lane for a turn to the right. I try to wriggle back into a left lane. A police man sees me and comes up to the window to ask what I am doing. I explain that I need to go on further, and that I am in the wrong lane. He asks where we are going. Voyager Beach Resort, we reply, and he insists that we make the right turn.
This bit is not in my mental map.
He says, keep going until you come to a Shell or BP station and turn left. Then there is a roundabout. I ask him what do we do at the roundabout. He says there is a roundabout. Yes, I say, but what do we do at the roundabout. He says there is a roundabout.
He urges us to hurry and turn right and get across the road. I expect him to ask for a bribe, but he does not. He would not get one. I would sit there and block his road. Surprisingly, he seems quite pleasant.
So, we turn right and get across the road. And, after a bit, we come across the Shell petrol station. We turn left. Then there is the roundabout. We go straight across. Then there is another roundabout. It is dark and there is no street lighting and there are no signs. We go across the roundabout. Then there is another roundabout. From my mental map, I think that the ocean is somewhere to our right, and our hotel is on the shore, so I turn right. We stop someone and ask for directions. He mutters something so we go in the suggested direction, a bit further on.
I am glad to have the VC’s company – always better when there are at least two people in a situation like this. It reduces the immediate pressure a wee bit, someone to laugh at things with, and it also means that I am less likely to need the toilet so soon as my stomach muscles are a bit more relaxed.
We were sent ‘up the garden path’ so we ask someone else. She gives some loose directions (people do not seem to use expressions that indicate distance), and we move a bit further. The early part of the directions are OK – turn right at the T-junction, past the big crocodile sign and then there is a golf-course – but after that, the detail and accuracy falls away markedly.
We pass the golf-course, and then there is nothing. I think the ocean is still to our right. We ask a couple more people for directions, including the security guard at another resort who suggests that his colleague sets off on his motorbike and we follow him. I don’t think so.
Then, finally, and after more faffing around than I expected, we stumble across the entrance to our resort. The ocean was on our right. We are directed to our parking bay and, after about 8.5 hours, the car’s engine can finally be switched off and allowed to cool and rest. That was good fun.
We enter our resort.
It is very beautiful.