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Archive for the ‘Kenyan Culture’ Category

We were walking through the village where I’m staying last night and came across the stream where many locals get their drinking water.  As you can see in the pictures below, the stream contains a makeshift dam with a pipe in it that acts as a faucet.  This is known as an “improved” water source because in theory it prevents animals and people from contaminating the water.  However, as we stopped to look at the stream, we noticed several frogs (along with quite a few bugs) happily swimming in the water.  Not more than two minutes later did a little boy come by to take water from that stream.  Not that I had any doubts about why this program was necessary before, but times like this really reinforce how truly important it is.

Frogs in the drinking water

Frogs in the drinking water

Frogs in the drinking water

Frogs in the drinking water

Boy getting drinking water in Kenya

Boy getting drinking water in Kenya

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I like to take at least one weekend day to write about something non-work related.  Today, I thought I’d teach you how to respond to 80% of the questions you’ll be asked if you ever visit Kenya.  What’s more, I can do that with just one word, Mzuri.

Random Kenyan boy

Random Kenyan boy

You see, at some point in every Kenyan child’s life, somewhere around the age of 3 or 4, they’re apparently taught what to say if they ever see a Mzungu.  That phrase, which must be yelled with tremendous enthusiasm is, “How are you?”

After you answer with Mzuri, which means good, the next question will always be, “How are you?”   The following question will usually also be, “How are you?”   In fact, it’s pretty common for a group of children to repeatedly yell that over and over, regardless of what you answer, until you’re out of sight.  Of course, they may also decide to join you and wander a mile down the road while holding both your hands.  One kid who was maybe 5 years old saw me from a good 50-75 yards away and after shouting, “MZUNGU!”,  went into a dead sprint until he caught up with me.  At which point he asked, “How are you?”

Of course, if you really want to freak them out, you could respond back with something like, “Mzuri.  Habari asabuhi?” (Good.  How are you this morning?).  At that point, some will answer you with “Mzuri”, but others will burst out laughing and start yelling that there’s a Mzungu speaking Kiswahili.  By the way, if a Kenyan is laughing at you and you ask what they’re laughing at in Kiswahili (Unachecka nini?), they won’t answer you and will instead just laugh more.

Kenyan children

Kenyan children

Tomorrow is Market Day in Kiminini, when there are live performances to promote products.  I’ve seen these in passing, but have never gone to check them out up close.  Weather permitting, I’ll head over tomorrow and take some pictures.  I also hope to show some of the marketing mock ups for the water filters, so make sure to come back and see them.  In the meantime, enjoy your weekend.

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I came across the blog post of a new Kiva Fellow, James Allman-Gulino, who recently came to Uganda to work in micro-finance.  James points out that the public infrastructure in Uganda is so poor that perhaps big picture issues like proper roads and health care must be addressed before tools like micro-finance can truly work to alleviate global poverty.  I’d add education to that list as well.

I’ve had this conversation a few times recently and it ultimately comes back to the same broader problem.  I’m no expert on African politics, but my understanding of the situation is that taxes on the wealthy are not always collected and distributed properly (to put it very mildly).  This leads to schools that must be funded largely through private tuition, which easily costs $800 USD per student per year at the high school level (this may include room & board plus supplies).  For a typical rural family earning less than $1,000 USD per year, it makes sending the children to high school and beyond exceptionally difficult if not impossible.  The result of this is a massive population that is not adequately educated in topics like health, science, math, and business.  It’s therefore not surprising to hear people in the villages tell me that they know their water is clean because they don’t see any worms in it, or that they didn’t do the analysis to realize that there are cheaper alternatives to boiling water or risking typhoid.  It’s also not surprising that many people don’t have the skills to grow their small businesses or develop products and technologies they can sell to wealthier nations to grow their national economy.

The other problem with the lack of tax dollars going towards infrastructure projects is that it blocks the creation of tens of thousands of jobs nationwide.  How many people does the American government directly or indirectly employ through public works projects?  Those payroll dollars then circulate throughout the broader US market, enabling economic growth and a relatively good standard of living.  Of course there are the other benefits of more efficient distribution of good and services that lower costs and increase the serviceable market of businesses.

Typical village businesses

Typical village businesses

Typical Village Road

Typical Village Road

Sadly, I don’t have a solution to this problem.  Shy of the African governments and upper class deciding that they’re ready to make large personal sacrifices to help their countrymen or organizations like the Gates Foundation building thousands of schools and funding them for several generations, I’m not sure how this core problem gets corrected.

I think the international development organizations are commendable in doing what they can to try to alleviate poverty and suffering.  I believe that they do make a real difference in people’s lives, though they may never fully eradicate social injustice.  That said, I do believe their is room for improvement in the non-profit sector in terms of working together to achieve economies of scale.  I wonder how many different small organizations are working in Africa right now to improve access to water, education, health care, and financial opportunity.  I also wonder how much more effective we might be if we formed stronger partnerships.  Why should a hundred groups spend a small amount to each educate a few hundred people on clean water when we could pool our funds and launch a massive campaign that would reach a whole region?  If I spend money building a water kiosk to promote clean water, why should someone else spend the same money building a stand down the road selling mosquito nets?  Couldn’t we just build two stands that sell both, enabling us both to double the reach of our program?  It’s certainly sometime I’ll be thinking about as I proceed with my project.

Sorry for such a long and preachy post.  I’ll try to stay more upbeat in the coming week.  In the meantime, I very much welcome your thoughts on this or any related topic.  If you want to check out the Kiva blog, the link is below.

http://fellowsblog.kiva.org/2010/05/09/new-models-for-kiva/

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As promised, I thought I’d take the weekend to upload my backlog of photos.  I’ve been privileged to meet some wonderful Kenyans and volunteers since I’ve been here.  I’ve also enjoyed all the animals that wander around the streets or come to visit me in my hut.  I’ve posted well over 30 pictures in Flickr (link to the right), but here are a few of my favorites.  I’ll continue to upload pictures and posts every day or two, so don’t forget to check back regularly.

Alastair and Steve

Alastair (KCP Volunteer) and Steve (Kenyan college student)

Paka Mweosi

Paka Mweosi - my adopted pet (Black Cat in Kiswahili - clever, huh?)

The gang

Josie, Esta, and Emmanuel - Friends and Kiswahili tudor

Kenyan baby sheep

Random baby sheep on the side of the road

Kiki and Caleb

Kiki and Caleb - Kids in the extended family

House guests

House guests

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I mentioned in yesterday’s post that you really need to dig to uncover the truth in the field interviews. There’s a powerful combination of people wanted to give the “right” answer, people assuming the Mzungu knows best, and people thinking that maybe they’ll get something for free if they express interest. Today I had a bizarre conversation with a woman who knew we were from the water filter plant that basically went like this:

Do you treat your water today?
– No. Nobody is sick and the water is clean
Are you familiar with WaterGuard? Have you ever tried it?
– No . There’s no need. The water is safe.
So would you be interested in purchasing a 1,500 shilling water filter?
– Yes, I would very much like to purchase a filter
Why? You said the water is clean and no one is sick.
– I’d want it as a precaution. The water would be safer if I purify it.
In that case, why don’t you use WaterGuard as a precaution today?
– I don’t know. How much does it cost?
20 shillings treats your water for a month
– Wow, very exciting! I didn’t realize that.
So will you start using WaterGuard tomorrow as a precaution since the filters aren’t ready?
– Silence.

Actions speak much louder than words. Even with these challenges, I’m still learning quite a bit from these interviews. I’ll have another post plus a bunch of pictures over the weekend, so be sure to check in.

Kenya Village Interviews

Kenya Village Interviews

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Day 1 of the field interviews is now complete and after 6 interviews, there were some interesting findings.  One issue that I somewhat expected, but not to the extent I saw it, was the tendency for people to tell me what I wanted to hear instead of what’s really happening.  There were numerous instances where people would contradict themselves during the interview.  When I questioned them on the inconsistencies, I would often find the truth to be very different from what they first told me.  Here are a few examples.

  • One woman told me that she used to use WaterGuard, a chlorine solution, but stopped because it was too expensive.  When I asked how much it cost, she said she didn’t know.  She eventually told me that her daughter used to buy WaterGuard, but since her daughter moved to a different town, she really just never thought about buying it herself.
  • Another woman told me that she usually boils water, but occasionally uses chlorine tablets.  When asked about the price, she said firewood for boiling 20 liters of water costs 20 shillings.  Chlorine cost 40 shillings for a 20 pack of tablets, each good for purifying 20 liters of water.  I asked why she didn’t use the chlorine tablets more often, and she said they were too expensive.  When I pointed out that per 20 liters of water, tablets were 10x cheaper, she then said that she actually doesn’t buy firewood, but rather goes on long walks to collect it from the ground.
  • Every person told me they believe their drinking water source is not clean and would pay up to 1,500 for a water filter.  Several said they have gotten typhoid, which cost 2,000 – 3,000 shillings to treat.  Yet many of these same people said they don’t currently purify their water because it’s too expensive.

Fortunately, there were some valuable findings.  Please note that all 6 of the women interviewed were from the same village, in the same widow’s club.  They were also on the more extreme end of the poverty scale.  Over the next several days we’ll interview people from other areas to get a more representative sample.

  • Nearly every woman said they would be extremely interested in buying the filter in installments.  Most know the vendors in the local Kiminini market, and would feel comfortable paying anywhere from 100 – 500 shillings per month for 3-10 months until they’ve saved enough to take home a filter.  They would not feel comfortable paying in installments with a vendor they did not know, and all but one said they would have no interest in the filter if they had to pay for it in full.
  • In this group, most preferred to buy the filter as opposed to the water kiosk model because it’s ultimately cheaper.  Some were also afraid there would be days they didn’t have the 5-10 shillings to purchase water, or that they might forget to buy the clean water.  Many did say that if that they preferred the water kiosk model to their current behaviors of boiling or drinking unfiltered water, but buying the filter in installments would be their first choice.
  • Their financial situations are dramatically improved during the harvest season (Sept – Dec).  That is when most of them make any big purchases.  If we are going to spend resources promoting the water filters, it likely makes sense to do it around September or October.  Many said that even if the filters were ready now and they wanted to buy them, they simply couldn’t at this time due to lack of funds.
Kenya Village Interviews

Kenya Village Interviews

It will be very interesting to see how answers differ as we meet with people from different areas and slightly higher incomes.  I will post updates in the next day or two.

Also, be sure to check out several new pictures on Flickr.  I have pictures of the village and of the market in Kiminini.  Pictures of the water filter factory will be up soon.

Stream for drinking water

Stream for drinking water

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I thought I’d take a break from the serious stuff and share some random observations I’ve found interesting as well as some pictures of where I’m staying.  Keep in mind that these observations are based on my very limited time here so far.  If any Kenyans find mistakes in what I’ve written, please let me know.

  • I’ve been told that if someone gets caught stealing, the thief tries to run to the police station for safety.  If he’s caught by the people in the community, the consequences are far more dire.
  • Caucasians are called Mzungus.  Interestingly, some people I spoke with said Barack Obama is a Mzungu because he has “light skin” and talks like an American.
  • In Kiswahili, the primary language in Kenya, many words or phrases are different if you’re speaking about a living thing versus an inanimate object.  For example, “where is ____” is different if you’re asking where a person is versus a table.  There is no distinction based on the “gender” of the word like in many languages.
  • You don’t subscribe to a monthly/annual phone or internet plan here.  Most people prepay for minutes.  There are little shops everywhere that sell cards in many different amounts.  You can go by 30 minutes of cell phone service, text the code to the phone company, and off you go.  It’s actually a pretty efficient system.
  • Kenyans, especially less wealthy ones, by and large deal with expense management on a very short-term basis.  The same person drove me around in Nairobi for a few days and filled up the car with a couple gallons of gas ever day instead of just filling up for the week.  Similarly, I haven’t seen anyone buy more than a week’s worth of cell phone minutes.
  • There are very few leisure activities other than sitting with family and friends and talking.  Other than the lack of rock climbing gyms, it’s not too bad.  There is television, but it doesn’t seem to be a cornerstone of leisure activity like in the US.

Here are some pictures of where I’m staying.  There will be more on Flickr later today.

Common Ground for Africa

Common Ground for Africa

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Guest Hut

Guest Hut

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Inside my guest hut

Inside my guest hut

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Chickens taking cover in the rain

Chickens taking cover in the rain

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