26 9 / 2013

I’m still reeling from the horrible tragedy that unfolded at Westgate Mall over the past week and I still can’t seem to fully process, much less articulate, the mix of emotions that many of us living in Nairobi (or like me, those who have just left) are feeling. There was fear, terror, sadness, a deeply numbing feeling of emptiness, and anger. 

My friend Ian does a good job of summing up how I feel right now. But I think it will take a long time before I can articulate my feelings in any reasonable way. For now, it’s still just silent tears and this constant thrum of my heart beating, “Why? Why? Why?”


It now has been five days since the start of the attack at the Westgate mall in Nairobi.  There was a sense of relief, for Erin and me at least, when the siege was declared over on Tuesday evening, although the information coming from the Kenyan government has been spotty and inconsistent, so who knows what was really going on and when it was really, definitively, over.

I imagine that someone will try to put together a comprehensive account of what has happened over the past several days inside the mall, and outside among the police, military and government officials who were trying to figure out what to do about it. I will certainly be interested to read it. Perhaps I’m too unforgiving, but the media here seem to just accept official government statements without pointing out inconsistencies or demanding more details. The official body count is probably going to rise – it doesn’t appear that any hostages were released or rescued towards the end, and we had kept hearing that there were still hostages inside. I’ve read that there are still 50-60 people unaccounted for – perhaps many of those were hostages. There are rumors that the position (or positions) established by the attackers inside the mall, defended by very large machine guns, were virtually impregnable and so the government detonated explosives underneath their position, collapsing several floors of the mall and killing the attackers and anyone held by them.

The whole episode is almost unimaginably awful and the sheer loss is just sickening. So many people dead, so many injured, so many who suffered the trauma of the attack and/or the trauma and heartbreak of losing a friend or family member. The dead were mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, children, friends, colleagues. A young guy who Erin knew through work was among those killed – we had brunch with him early in our time here, and Erin would bump into him periodically – and by all accounts he was a wonderful and wonderfully talented person, working in Kenya because he cared about poverty and wanted to make a positive contribution to addressing it. A friend of his wrote a touching tribute here:


But all of the lives lost are tragic, regardless of who they were and what they did. Erin and I had a really pleasant evening at Westgate the night before the attack – had dinner with some friends and debated going to the casino before winding up eating frozen yogurt and chatting until 11:30pm. (I know, we get CRAZY when we go out!) I hope our waiter that night, as well as the woman cleaning the floor as we were leaving the mall, are OK. Little did we know that, somewhere in the mall that night, there was already a stash of machine guns and ammunition that would be used to such horrific effect the next day.

I think a lot of us here in Nairobi are still in a state of shock to a greater or lesser degree – having trouble believing that the images are real and that it all actually happened. It’s terrifying to see those images at a place you know well and have gone pretty regularly. And while, yeah, we were there the night before, we know someone who was at the mall shopping until 45 minutes before the attack started. A couple of other people were planning to go but didn’t for whatever reason. I’m grateful that we weren’t there, but it’s chilling to think that we could have been and what we might have experienced, what could have happened.

I don’t know what living in Nairobi is going to be like in the aftermath of this. I wish I could be coldly rational about the risk here – now is probably the safest time to go hang out at a mall or outdoor cafe. It’s probably later, after time has passed and we’ve been lulled back into complacency, that another attack or incident is more likely. But I think it’s probably human nature to want to hunker down now, and then venture out more when the coast appears clear.

And the drive to the mall must still be, statistically, vastly more risky than the time spent at the mall itself. One thing I try to keep in mind is that many Kenyans live their lives every day facing a huge amount of risk – daily commutes in reckless matatus, robbery and assault in dangerous neighborhoods, disease, violent conflict between tribes in some of the remote regions of the country. In a way, the shock and fear I feel in the aftermath of Westgate simply gives me a better understanding of the life experience of many Kenyans who, unlike me and my family, don’t live behind a heavily protected compound wall.

But it’s having kids here that really makes me crazy in thinking about all this. (Makes me more than my usual amount of crazy, I should say.) So much of what I love about living in Nairobi is an environment that I think is good for my children – how K is cared for by a wonderful Kenyan woman, how A goes to school with kids from Kenya, Japan, Denmark, and a number of other countries. Our kids are so little that all this probably has no impact whatsoever, but it’s such a pleasant thought that they’re absorbing lessons in tolerance, color blindness and cultural acceptance by living in this atmosphere. But would we risk too much by staying here? How much risk is too much risk? How do you even know how much risk you are actually in? There are random shootings in public places all over the US, with increasing and frightening frequency, it seems – you can’t be completely safe anywhere, so are we really at so much more risk living here? (The answer is probably yes, but I still think it’s a valid question.)

I’ve already shared this piece on Facebook, but here it is again:


I appreciated that the author emphasized the silver lining of this awful event – that Kenyans, who often identify much more closely with their tribe (Kikuyu, Maasai, Luo, Luhya, Kamba, Kalenjin, etc.) than with their nation, really seemed to take this attack as an assault on the entire country and mobilized to help each other in a way that seems pretty rare here. It was really moving to go give blood on Sunday and see the crowd that was there with me at the hospital for the same reason. And I was moved by the images of plainclothes police officers moving through the mall immediately after the attack, helping people get out safely with only their puny handguns to protect them against the military-grade firepower of the attackers.

Of course, I saw an interview today with a guy who was in many of these photos – turns out he wasn’t a police officer, but only a civilian who carries a gun and took it upon himself to go inside (his brother had been having a meeting at Westgate when the attack took place). I read that many of those responding initially may not have been police, but just vigilantes who went in and tried to help. Brave, I guess, but if true, where were the cops?

Still, there were elements of the emergency response that seemed pretty impressive, at least in context. (This is the same city, remember, that let its international airport burn down because the fire trucks at the airport lacked water and trucks coming from elsewhere to respond to the fire got stuck in traffic.)

I probably shouldn’t call the civic response a silver lining, though. Everything about this is a deeply felt, tragic loss, and I’m only at the periphery. I can only imagine what victims and their families are going through.

19 8 / 2013

It’s dawn. 

And I’m already late.

I’m supposed to be on the road to visit a branch. But the power went out while I was sleeping and my phone (and stand-in alarm clock) died silently during the blackout. I’m supposed to be conducting focus groups with farmers so that we can figure out how we can better serve them and enable their businesses to grow.

But I’m really late.

I rush out of bed and flip the switch to the bathroom. The power is still out, the light doesn’t turn on. 

I rinse my face in ice cold water as quickly as possible.

No power, no shower. Now I’m cold, wet, rushed. I used to expect the power to be there when I flip the switch. I used to expect the water to come out of the tap when I turn it on. But that was in the US.

Here I hold my breath just a little bit every time because I never really know what will happen. And some days, like today, my heart sinks when that which should be as reliable as the sun rising just suddenly isn’t there. Dammit. Not today.

I throw on clothes and grab my bag and rush downstairs to greet my driver with an apology on my lips. He is not there. He is late too, because the traffic in city center is epic this morning. The president has decided to drive across town causing kilometers of gridlock. I sit down on the steps, feeling the frustration of a day that hasn’t even started sitting on my shoulders.

Waiting for the driver I have an hour with my thoughts: will I still have enough time with the farmers to get their input? Will they be open and honest with the loan officer, even though I’m sitting right there…the mzungu from the big city, from the head office? Or will they just be polite and tell me what they think I want to hear: that our organization meets all their needs, perfectly.

I feel myself getting increasingly more anxious when finally he arrives. Relief floods me. Finally. But that relief hardens into frustration almost immediately when I realize that since we’ve left late, during the height of rush hour, we are now sitting at a standstill in Nairobi traffic. The unpredictable nature of the traffic and the omnipresent headache caused by inhaling diesel fumes is something I’ve come to expect. Even in the largest city in Kenya and one of the most developed in Africa, the roads are riddled with potholes, the beat-up matatu minivans drive aggressively and cause endless jams, and although the traffic cops are ever-present they seem more concerned with chatting with one another at intersections than actually directing traffic and alleviating the congestion. So we settle in and wait.

Another hour passes and by inching along, now we’re finally escaping the inertia of town traffic.

And then we get flagged down.

It’s December, the month Kenyans buy Christmas presents and the month before school fees for the next year are due, a time when everyone needs some extra cash.

Including, and in particular, the traffic cops.

We haven’t been pulled over for driving aggressively, or overtaking illegally, or speeding, or disregarding traffic lights. We’ve been pulled over at a traffic stop ostensibly set up to randomly check for driver documentation. And while my driver has all the documentation required for our car and his driving license, I do not have my passport with me. Because I am not legally required to carry it on me. I also don’t have my birth certificate or high school diploma or resume.

The cop demands we pay a “fine.” We haggle. And haggle. And haggle. I try to keep my cool despite the fact that this is blatant corruption and I want to get in this guy’s face and call him out on his abuse of power. On any other day I would just sit on the side of the road in this game of chicken, patiently waiting until he folds. But today we’re already so late. I don’t have time for this. Thirty more minutes passes until finally I give in and pay a “fine” for not having my passport with. But we have to go.

Finally escaping the city we drive into the country. The roads are good for about an hour, and then we turn off the highway and enter the rural areas to find the farmers that we’re trying to meet with today. We slow to a crawl. I’m lucky to be driving in a car with four-wheel drive instead of a motorbike or a local matatu, and yet still the car slows to under 10mph, inching along the bumpy dirt road. I imagine what it would be like to try to transport eggs or milk or children along this road.

Finally. We arrive, dusty and tired and a bit saddlesore (and seasick) from the constant bumping up and down on the rural dirt roads. We pull up to the farm where our group of farmers have been waiting all day to talk to us.

And no one is there.

“Nicole I’m so sorry!” Purity, our loan officer, exclaims. She is the only one still sitting in the clearing. “But we waited and waited and waited and finally all the farmers had to get back to the market. They couldn’t wait any longer.”

We are 5 hours late for our meeting. I understand.

 I would never expect clients to wait on me for 5 hours in the States, why would they do it here? Especially when the market calls and the opportunity cost for a farmer to spend time away from his farm is so great.

And so, after a long and frustrating day of failure of utilities, infrastructure and even corruption, we have achieved… exactly nothing.

As the sun begins to go down, we pile into the car and turn around to go home.

And during the traffic on the way home, I have plenty of time to think about all the answers I now do NOT have:

How is the dairy cow loan working for you? Are the payment terms ok? Do the group trainings help at all? If not, what can we do instead? Would you be interested in receiving your loans vis SMS on your phone? How much would you be willing to pay for that service? Is there anything we should do differently to make the group meetings more efficient? What else do you need from us? How can we help you in the future?

A beautiful opportunity to understand how we can change our product offering and operations to better meet the needs of our farmers. Lost. Lost to the friction of everyday life here. I am deflated.


He wakes nearly two hours before dawn every day, quietly dressing while his wife fixes him tea and they try not to wake their five children. He exits their small home and pulls on his mud and shit-stained knee-high rubber boots and begins the list of daily chores: feed and water the cows and the chickens, clean out their stalls, milk the cows, collect the eggs, and weed the sweet potatoes, spinach, onions, and carrots.

He should be able to finish these daily chores by 7am, load his motorbike with liters of milk, drive the 5km to market and be selling milk no later than 8am.

He plans to get a full day of sales.

He begins by making breakfast for the cows. He gathers the napier grass that he’s set out the day before to wilt down and standing under the moonlight, he begins loading the grass into the family’s chaff cutter. And then suddenly the machine makes a high-pitched whirring sound, shudders, and stops.

He checks the diesel tank. But it’s full.

He pulls out the grass and rearranges it to clear any blockages. He finds none.

Suddenly he notices that despite the fact he replaced the blade only weeks ago, it now lies at his feet in two pieces. He doesn’t have a replacement blade on the farm.

His chores are put on hold. As the sun begins to rise in the sky he speaks to his wife about heading into town. He tries to call his friend in town who runs the shop he’ll visit, but his mobile phone has died overnight. He plugs the phone in to charge but the power has been out since last night – this outage is the culprit behind his dead phone in the first place.

He borrows his wife’s phone but she’s out of airtime so he can’t make a call. And he is wasting precious time. He hurriedly waves goodbye and climbs onto his motorbike.

Two bumpy, dusty hours later he arrives in town. He visits the agriculture shop but finds that they are out of the part he needs. They don’t expect to get new parts until the next day, but he knows from experience that estimate could stretch into a week or more.

He tries another store, on the opposite side of town, a one hour walk. They have blades, but none that will fit his cutter.

And then the rains begin.

As he walks back through the muddy, winding paths of the town he stops to purchase his wife more airtime so the day won’t be a total waste. But he can’t drive home yet because the rains are coming hard and fast and the dusty roads are transforming into muddy rivers. He ducks into a roadside restaurant to wait out the weather. His stomach growls at him, but the few shillings he had have already been spent fueling his motorbike for the trip. He orders a cup of tea instead.

Two hours pass.

Finally the rain lets up and he hops on his motorbike, anxious to get home before the sun sets and he can no longer see the gaping potholes in front of him. The ride home takes twice as long. His motorbike gets stuck in the mud nearly every kilometer. He is covered in filth by the time he can finally see his farm over the ridge.

The sun has sunk beneath the rolling hills of bright green tea, and darkness has settled. He enters his home and sits down next to the candlelight as his wife puts a plate of beans and maize down in front of him.  It’s his first meal of the day.

His morning chores remain unfinished and the fact that he never made it to the market today is heavy on his mind. As he sinks into his mattress on the floor he thinks of the days wages that are now lost. But soon he’s asleep.

In a few short hours he’ll rise to do it all again.


If you’re poor and trying to make a living for yourself and your children, the certain friction that you will encounter at uncertain intervals creates an atmosphere of constant risk.

You don’t know exactly when your attempts to improve your family’s livelihood will get derailed, but you know for sure that they will.

And if you’re not poor, but you want to build systems, solutions, and companies that empower or serve the poor, then the certain friction you will encounter at uncertain intervals creates an atmosphere of constant struggle.

You don’t know when your attempts to improve the lives of others will get derailed, but you know for sure that they will.

So when I’m driving through the rural towns and I see men who should be working just sitting with their friends, drinking in the middle of the day or milling about chatting but most certainly *not* working…well, I can understand that reaction. Why invest your time and energy in building a business when the power’s just going to go out and drive away customers and you’ll inevitably have to watch your profits walk out the door in the form of bribes?

The friction in the system is insidious, pervasive, and destructive. It is unpredictable and uncertain. And it cascades and it builds and it reinforces itself in a nasty positive feedback loop seemingly designed to beat people down. It can easily stop you dead in your tracks.

And when I see young entrepreneurs trying to build businesses that will deliver goods and services to the economically poor pull their hair out after trying unsuccessfully to get their goods to the rural areas in a cost-effective way, well, I understand why they might give up and take a job with some corporation where the paycheck is regular and the challenges are simpler.

But. Not everyone gives up.

Countless farmers continue, day in and day out, building their farms, their assets, their families. I met Josiah just outside of Murang’a. Years had passed since he bought his first dairy cow and he and his family had endured countless setbacks and frustrations. But he never gave up. When I met him his home had transformed from a single room into a three-room home powered completely by biogas, which he fueled with the dung from his cows.  His seven children were all in school, the oldest in university and getting their technical degrees to become engineers, the school fees funded completely from his tea crop profits. The family was fed with fresh fish from his tilapia pond, and they gathered on soft couches at night to watch television and play music together.

Every day he battled the friction of broken infrastructure and a culture of corruption. But every day he tried again.

The outcomes are worth it. This much is clear. But it’s damn hard to tap into that deep determination, to tap into that hope of a better day and a better life so that we don’t give up. So that we actually make it out the other side and realize those positive outcomes: safety, security, education, health.



10 8 / 2013

"Sometimes we love with nothing more than hope. Sometimes we cry with everything except tears. In the end that’s all there is: love and its duty, sorrow and its truth. In the end that’s all we have—to hold on tight until the dawn."

19 7 / 2013

10 7 / 2013

"You begin saving the world by saving one man at a time."

Charles Bukowski

03 7 / 2013

25 6 / 2013

"I am so not livestock."

24 6 / 2013

"And I will hold on with all of my might
Just promise me we’ll be alright"

 - Mumford

22 6 / 2013

Things you might find at a typical going-away/welcome/random party at Juhudi Kilimo:

  • DJ Snake (aka our boy genius IT analyst, Alex) spinning on the wheels of steel…or at least on his laptop
  • Barbequed goat (note: nomnomnom)
  • Box wine and lots of Tusker
  • Best-dressed or best traditional dance contests
  • Random outbreaks of dance, unrelated to said contest
  • Cake, cut and served by the guest of honor
  • Lots of toasts and speeches
  • And always, CIO Gilbert as emcee


CFO Shadrack, receiving his prize for winning our dance contest after a unanimous decision.

17 6 / 2013

It’s like stepping into honey.

I’ve been in the US for two weeks and the moment the airplane lands after my 24-hour journey, I can tell I’m in Nairobi.

There is a round of applause when the plane touches down. Everyone disregards the seatbelt sign, unloading baggage from overhead while the plane is still taxiing. As we exit the air is warm but not humid, but as we wait for the bags to arrive at baggage claim 30 minutes pass…40…50…an hour. Finally the bags arrive.

It takes another 40 minutes to escape the congested parking lot, with cars double-parked and blocking everyone in, drivers nowhere to be found.

As we approach my apartment the lights are off. No power.

After dragging the luggage up 4 flight of stairs I start the shower in an attempt to rinse off the day’s travel. No hot water.

Oh yes. I’m back.

The seamless efficiency of the US is gone, having dissipated somewhere over the Atlantic. In its place is the muddy, sticky, bumpy, of-course-the-lights-are-out-why-on-earth-would-I-expect-things-to-be-working feel of Kenya.

But there’s something else. While we wait for over an hour for our bags to arrive a little girl, maybe two years old, runs between the leg of strangers waiting for their bags. She falls down and starts crying, but the man closest to her instantly scoops her up in his arms and soothes her. He is, technically, a stranger to this girl. But here, there are no strangers to children. Kids are safe among a crowd of Kenyans because they all look out for each other. If your child is suddenly missing at a restaurant, she is not really missing. She is probably around the corner playing with a Kenyan nyanya (grandmother). In the US, this kind of trust in strangers is unheard of.

And later, as we drive home from the airport my driver finds that one of the roads is closed. He pulls over to ask a stranger for advice about alternate routes. The very first person he asks stops to give him directions. I imagine myself trying to do the same thing in DC or NY, and I imagine the parade of people who would march by, ignoring that I had even spoken to them…

So the efficiency of the US is missing here. But so is the sterile feeling that comes with it. Things are slow and bumpy here, but at least there is a community of people willing to help you if you fall.

I want the efficiency of the US and the warmth and community of Kenya. Does a place like that even exist?