A few pictures of me and a few of my data visualization students!
(This is Part 1 of 2 on my trip to Maasai Mara, the next will have pictures!)
Last weekend I visited Maasai Mara National Park on a safari trip with my wife and two friends. The Mara, as it is referred to locally, is about 200 kilometers west of Nairobi, a 6 hour drive over roads in various stages of disrepair or a 45-minute flight in a 20-seater bush plane. We opted to drive, and though I probably would shell out for the flight netxt time, driving gave us a better sense of the scenery and local sights of Kenyas central highlands.
Our first stop just one hour outside Nairobi was a viewing station for the Great Rift Valley (more on this in a previous post). Maasai Mara is located within the valley, up against its western border, where it widens out into a shallow plain at an elevation of 5000 feet. The game reserve covers about 600 square miles, and it is a small and the northernmost portion of the Serengeti ecosystem that covers 12,000 square miles across Tanzania and Kenya. The word “Mara” means “spotted” in the language of the Maasai tribe (who predominate in Narok county where the park sits), and it describes the landscape well – rolling hills of tall grasses punctuated randomly by bushes, acacia trees, and rocks that spot the landscape. Masai tribes still live in the neighboring land, and our drive took us through farms, villages, and schoolyards where we saw locals cloaked in the traditional red plaid shuka scarves used to protect against sun, cold, and dust.
Even before entering the park we saw our first wildlife, and once it started it just didn’t stop – lone individuals and full-blown herds of antelope, zebra, warthogs, and wildebeest grazing nearby. Though I had been on safari before, nothing quite resembles the shock and wonder of seeing megafauna just feet away from you. It’s entirely incomparable to a zoo; it feels more like you and fellow tourists are the species on display, intruders in an environment that belongs entirely to the wild animals.
A safari vacation is strictly scheduled around animal behavior that tends to be more exciting and varied at dawn and dusk – in the mid-day sun most predators are resting and most herbivores are quietly grazing. Our day at the Mara Intrepid Lodge involved a series of game drives in which we boarded a 4×4 jeep and explored the game reserve on well-worn dirt paths and through streams and forests in search of animals with our driver/guide: a pre-breakfast drive from sunrise at 6:30 to 8, a mid-morning run from 9 to 11:30, and an evening drive from 3:30 to sunset at 6:30. Some parks allow nighttime game drives, but the Mara does not. When not on a game drive, we spent time eating (most lodges are all-inclusive as there are no dining options nearby) or exploring the lodge. With its pre-scheduled and mostly sedentary itinerary, this trip was quite different from most vacations I tend to plan, but it was accordingly much more relaxing and hassle-free.
Aside from the previously mentioned awe of driving through the natural habitats of large wild animals, the most amazing part of exploring the Mara was the sheer number of animals that surrounded us. Once inside the park and closer to the largest congregations of herd animals, the sheer weight of animal mass was mind-boggling. I’ve never seen such an expanse of animals, stretched from horizon to horizon. There were so many grazing herbivores – zebra, antelope, and wildebeest in particular – that the 6-feet-tall grass was chewed down to the ground across entire landscapes that they had already passed through.
The Mara is one of the stopping points along The Great Migration, an annual journey of over two million wildebeest, gazelles, and zebras that travel from the Serengeti in Tanzania through the Mara in pursuit of food and water. Although we visited a few weeks before this event, the most dramatic point on this route is when the wildebeest stampede through the crocodile-laden Mara River that traverses the park, leaving thousands behind in the river, dead or dying – trampled, eaten, or drowned. The herds of wildebeest mass on one bank, coming closer and closer to the edge, until one lone individual (usually slipped or pushed off by his neighbors) sends the whole herd across in a panicked scramble.
To participate in this feeding frenzy come a host of predators, and on our game drives we saw most of them enjoying the glut of prey assembled on the plains. We first viewed group of lions resting in tall grass after a kill, then a lone female dragging a warthog carcass out of sight under a bush. We saw a mother cheetah and cubs resting by a river on the first day, and on the last day we saw the same family eating an impala it had just chased down. We were even lucky enough to catch two lions mating – a brief affair with some biting and grunting, and over in about 5 seconds. We also saw a number of crocodiles in the Mara River, but because it was too early for the river crossings they were mostly basking in the sun or lurking ominously but uneventfully beneath the water surface. Also filling the river with their massive bodies (and equally massive and horrible-smelling excrement) were hundreds of hippopotami. Hippos are considered extremely dangerous, responsible for more deaths than any other African animal (besides humans and mosquitoes) due to their extreme aggression. In the water they appear lazy, though periodic displays of grunting from bull hippos at crocodiles or rival males who strayed too close to their female harems were truly frightening and made me grateful for the steep banks of the Mara River.
Though their numbers were fewer, our sightings of larger herbivores – elephants and giraffes especially – were among my favorite animal encounters. The trunk of an elephant is an incredible appendance; it seems almost like its own organism in how it explores and grasps leaves and branches. We saw many herds of elephants (always, always eating – the African elephant can eat 1000 pounds of food each day!), some groups of mothers and children and some solitary males, including one aggressive individual who started to charge our jeep.
Unfortunately we didn’t see two animals I was hopeful to catch. The first is the white rhino, which was understandable as there are only an estimated few dozen left in the park due to poaching. The second is the leopard, which although more numerous than lions in Maasai Mara they are much harder to spot due to their solitary and reclusive manner. Three safaris down and still no leopard seen – but I’ll keep trying!
One of my objectives in spending a summer in Nairobi was to immerse myself as much as possible in the culture and people of the region. This goal drove my decision to work as a country ambassador for Zidisha, a job that required me to meet one-on-one with low-income borrowers trying to start businesses across Kenya. The job description was definitely outside of my comfort zone; as my friends and family can attest, I’m not the natural choice for someone to host a stranger for hours, let alone one from a completely different culture. In retrospect, though, I couldn’t have chosen an activity with a better combination of personal education, growth, and fulfillment.
Conducting interviews that stretched for hours over leisurely lunches, walks, and house visits was at first challenging and occasionally awkward when I hadn’t yet built a reserve of insightful questions. In this regard, I was helped immeasurably by the fact that Kenyans as a group are incredibly warm and welcoming, and everyone I met made it easy and inevitable to interact as friends instead of clients. Once I established a good interview and note-taking rhythm, I stopped focusing on my high-value questions and instead let my natural curiosity about their lives and backgrounds take over. All people, and Kenyans especially, love to talk about their families and childhoods, and my natural interest in local culture and generational dynamics made for especially deep conversations.
Like a true New Yorker, my biggest frustration in the first few weeks of work was my average pace: one borrower visit per day, enforced by the madness of Nairobi traffic and the generally relaxed schedules of business and personal life. I tried to optimize by scheduling nearby back-to-back visits , but due to life on “Kenyan time” these double-headers inevitably ended up being more trouble than they were worth. So I took my foot off the gas and leaned back into the Kenyan pace, allowing me more time with each borrower. Another frustration, one I was not able to reconcile so easily, was the troubling and continuous presence of low-level corruption in various business functions: obtaining licenses, securing distribution, ensuring security. I didn’t see any direct evidence of this – except for a mysteriously-resolved police stop of my speeding matatu – but through conversations and insinuations it was clear that bribes and favoritism were just an accepted part of doing business in Nairobi.
Despite these setbacks, my work this summer had all the characteristics of a truly rewarding and enjoyable job: regular and solvable challenges, a never-ending learning curve, and the personal satisfaction of helping someone new each day. I’m also grateful to have developed a bottom-up perspective on development in the third world by directly examining the pain points and inefficiencies – in infrastructure, transportation, credit, security, stability – in entrepreneurs’ careers, both successful and struggling. (I hope to build a framework around these observations by teaching myself some basic development economics.) I also really enjoyed learning about the benefits and drawbacks and challenges of microfinance, which falls squarely at the intersection of finance and technology – an area I’ve spent most of my professional career, albeit in a very different economic stratum. Finally, I loved the constant excitement of meeting new people and sharing their stories, hospitality, and gratitude.
My most valuable function in meeting Zidisha borrowers was to give them a chance to communicate their capabilities and dreams to a larger audience. I met some truly remarkable people, whose stories were often hidden by technological or language barriers or simply from modesty. I met people who had suffered incredible financial and emotional hardships but maintained optimistic outlooks for their future. I met people who were incredibly determined to achieve success, to lift themselves and their families out of financial insecurity. And I met true leaders and visionaries who saw their life work in the context of the social and economic uplift of their communities.
This summer, I crossed paths with some of the hardest-working, warmest, and most inspiring people I’ve ever met, and the experience of spending my time and attention to help them succeed is something I’ll never forget.
Nairobi has an expatriate community that seems simultaneously very large and very small. For the purpose of this post I’m going to use the colloquial and somewhat contentious definition of “expatriate” to mean someone of Western origin who is living or working abroad, though both Kenya and Nairobi have large populations of Somali immigrants.
Some expats work for the thousands of NGOs that are based in Nairobi, primarily in development, but across industries of health care, education, and government. The UN headquarters for Africa is located in Nairobi, and it employs many people and proportionately very many expats. Still more expats are employed by for-profit companies: at the large Kenyan corporations (Safaricom, Kenya Airways, Equity Bank); at international firms that typically use Nairobi as a hub for East Africa; and at start-ups. There is also a smaller number of visiting students.
Expats are concentrated in two broad areas: the suburbs of Kilimani, Kileleshwa, and Lavington to the west of downtown; and around the UN complex and Muthaiga neighborhood adjacent to Karura forest to the north of town. Within these neighborhoods, expats are heavily concentrated into particular sub-regions with nicer buildings and facilities for working, shopping, eating, drinking, and sleeping. A typical weekend day might be centered around an itinerary at an upscale mall like the Yaya or Sarit Centre: indoor yoga classes, shopping and groceries, a movie at a theater, coffee and pastries at a cafe, dinner at a local or ethnic restaurant, and drinks at a rooftop bar.
Yet even in the most populated districts, the relative population of expats is small. In Kilimani, the suburb in which by my estimation the most expats live, as I walk through the streets on weekends during the day I see one expat perhaps every 20 minutes after having passed ~500 locals. I have yet to see a single white person on a matatu or bus, though I know there are expats who take them regularly. (Although there are many who eschew public transportation due to concerns about safety, traffic, and reliability.)
Perhaps because foreigners in Nairobi seem to be massively outnumbered by locals, the circles within communities of foreigners are exceptionally small. Having spent one month in Nairobi, I estimate that given a random non-local person I might encounter at a social or professional event (keep in mind the selection bias here), I have:
- a 25% chance of already having met them, in that I know their name and what they do
- a 50% chance of being acquainted through a strong connection: someone I live with, a fellow student or alum of my college or business school, someone I work with or near to, or someone I’ve shared a drink with in the last month.
- a 20% chance of being connected via a weak connection or two indirect strong connections.
I can’t imagine there are more than 5% of expats who don’t fall into one of these categories.
I’ll give you a few anecdotes to demonstrate the incredibly small diameter of the expat social graph. On the weekend of my day trip to Mount Longonot with roommate A and friend B, after we set our itinerary we realized that a handful of B’s friends were doing the same trip and we decided to coordinate with them. On the way to Longonot, we stopped at the Great Rift Valley lookout point and ran into B’s roommates, who B didn’t realize were also headed in our direction. Reaching our destination, we found not only a handful of B’s colleagues but 8 other expats who were doing the same hike, including A’s boss and two of his coworkers as well as three people I had met the night before at a barbecue. One more anecdote: on a rooftop bar my first weekend in Nairobi, I was talking to a group of business school students who were celebrating having hired the first outside employee at their startup after interviewing over 20 people. Who had they hired? Another one of my 3 roommates.
It is a very odd feeling to spend my daytime hours amidst thousands of random Kenyans, none of whom I have more than a remote possibility of knowing, and my nights and weekends among the same 200-ish expats whose contact information I usually don’t even bother writing down because I’m so confident I’ll see them again.
Today I had an “encore” of my data visualization class in which I presented the course material to students in the data science program at iHub, a coworking space and technology incubator in Nairobi. The two-hour seminar format required me to exclude much of the content from the three-week course but also forced me to distill the information into a high-density summary. The result is a short presentation on the basics of data visualization that might be a good summary for those who haven’t looked at the full curriculum.
Nairobi has been buzzing all month with updates and rumors about President Obama’s visit to attend the Global Entrepreneurship Summit last weekend. Now that the event – and it was truly a city-wide event – has passed, I can share my observations on its impact on the lives and opinions of citizens. In fact, I was out of town over the weekend (and luckily so, as I probably wouldn’t have been able to do much of anything productive), so some of this information is secondhand.
Obama’s visit was a logistical nightmare for Kenya and for US security forces. Historical events like the US embassy bombing in 1998 and the Westgate mall attack in 2013, along with more recent terrorist activity in Kenya’s northeast provinces along the Somali border, set a nervous backdrop for the event and created expectations of unprecendented security measures. Rumors circulated in the building weeks that Nairobi police would close off all major roads and jam cell service for the full weekend, prompting many people to work from home and some businesses to close down. The government in fact advised all “non-essential” businesses to close for the weekend, and it rounded up and escorted “loiterers” out of the city center. Fortunately, the weekend passed without incident and with only mild service interruptions – mainly in the regions Obama was directly visiting: the UN headquarters area for Saturday’s conference keynote speech; and the Kasarani stadium for Sunday’s speech to the general public. In other places, the roads were in reasonably good shape, as it seemed most people were at home watching the event on television or just taking the weekend off.
Barack Obama’s father was born in a small town in the Siaya province in the southwest of Kenya, along the shores of Lake Victoria. (Despite rumors to the contrary, Obama was born in Hawaii where his father and mother met in university.) Although Obama’s father was a member of the Luo tribe, and though most political figures are sharply polarized along tribal lines (often by design, to rally their extremist or xenophobic constituents), most Kenyans view the US president as belonging to them all – “our son” is a common epithet on advertisements and in speech. While Obama’s success has thus lifted him above tribal lines, it is certainly true that Luos are especially proud to call him their own. Every Luo I met in Nairobi this month made sure to mention the president’s visit, and many of them (certainly more than seemed statistically possible) claimed that their family home was just miles from Obama’s father’s house, or that they shared a distant relative.
Regardless of tribe, most Kenyans view Obama as primarily a family member over a politician. Though aware of his political stances and challenges (Nairobians in particular love debating about politics and politicians), most discussions I had focused on non-political subjects like the length of his stay in Nairobi, his competency in Swahili and tribal languages, and whether he might visit his step-grandmother in Siaya. To the extent that locals discussed the substance of Obama’s speeches over the weekend, a few wished he had spent less time speaking about development objectives and cultural milestones and more time on his personal connection with the country.
Obama’s visit fully occupied the cultural and media attention of the city, with every newspaper and many billboard devoting prime real estate to welecoming back their native son. “Karibu Obama” – welcome Obama – was written everywhere. Highway medians were tilled and sown with flowers along the presidential route. Radio emcees advertised special “pre-Obama week”, “Obama weekend”, and “post-Obama week” prizes and giveaways, and most cab drivers I spoke with congratulated me on being hailing from Obama-land. I even heard a radio commentator mention that hospitals this week are reporting record number of newborns named Barack, Michelle, Sasha, Malia, and – bizarrely – AirForceOne.