Five Things I Learned From My Time in Kenya

(Wang/TYG)

August 16, 2013 • Online Content, Summer 2013 Blog, Summer Blogs • Views: 1350

BY CHRISTINA WANG

The following list focuses on the things that I learned during my time in Kenya – in and out of the Honey Care office – in my first truly immersive foreign working experience. Prior to my stint in Nairobi through Honey Care Africa, I’d never really truly immersed myself for long periods of time in a country where I neither spoke the local language nor was just there to tour or sight-see. In that respect, and many others, my time in Kenya was an incredible and eye-opening experience – and the following are just a few of the things that I learned during my time there.

1. Mobile banking’s biggest success is in Kenya, and evidence of this can be seen all over the country.

The most developed mobile payment system in the world is located in Kenya. M-Pesa (“M” is for mobile, and “peas” is Swahili for money) is a money transfer and micro-finance service that offered by Safaricom and Vodacom, the largest mobile operators in Kenya, and allows people with a national ID card or passport to send, receive and save money with any mobile device. I saw M-Pesa stalls on practically every street corner and in almost every store, from the small family-owned shops to the huge supermarkets. I met up with a friend for dinner who told me that even some of the behavioral economics research he was doing with participants from Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum, was completed with the help of mobile payments.

This is particularly remarkable since M-Pesa has only been around since April of 2007, which is when Safaricom launched the service. However, Kenya has quickly become the model for having the most successful mobile banking system in the developing world. The implications of M-Pesa’s success are huge, as many people in Kenya live in rural areas that are far from formal financial institutions located primarily in cities, and the mobile-banking service has essentially eliminated the need to travel long distances to withdraw or deposit money. Two years after its launch, the number of M-Pesa subscribers exceeded the number of bank accounts, and to date, there are 15 million users of M-Pesa with over 2 million transactions conducted each day.

(Wang/TYG)

(Wang/TYG)

2. Sometimes, in development work, small things you took for granted will go wrong, and then the plans you had go out the window.

I can’t pretend to be an expert in development work – this project was my first ever foray into the development arena – but I can take hints from my experience this summer that this is probably true for others in the field too. On several occasions, we would wake up and go to the office, only to find out that people had either left or just not come because the power was out – and with it, the indispensable Wifi. We later found out that one of the places that some of the employees went when this happened was one of the cafes at Nakumatt Junction, which had pretty reliable Wifi for the affordable price of one menu item.

And while this is a pretty funny story to tell, I think the take-away for me was the potential implications that situations like this probably have with development projects around the world. Working in development means that an environment completely immersed in reality, which is something I suppose I should have always known but didn’t really realize the extent of until I got on the ground. During the entirety of the first semester of the course, we had been learning about theories about the challenges of social enterprise: the tension between social impact and financial sustainability, the expansion of services to the true “Bottom of the Pyramid” and customer segmentation tradeoffs, etc. However, I think it was only when we saw Honey Care’s day-to-day work did we realize the additional, unexpected practical challenges that come with operating in an environment that is always changing. But perhaps it is this that makes development work so unpredictable and exciting!

3. It’s easy to get lost in “expat life” if you don’t watch yourself.

Since we knew nothing about Nairobi before arriving, our company mentor helped us pick an apartment, figure out our first few weekend plans, suggesting restaurants we should visit, etc. We ended up living near Nakumatt Junction, which is, from what I could tell, one of the areas of Nairobi that was populated with the most expatriates. The junction was scattered with a KFC, a froyo shop, a Sony store, and cafes that sold two-thousand-Kenyan-shilling pizzas. Only once we started getting out of the obvious “expat bubble” did we realize that we hadn’t been getting as much out of our Nairobi experience as we could have been, and nor had we been seeing an accurate representation of the city. We made a concerted effort to get a better glimpse of everyday Kenyan life – we frequented a family-run restaurant in Jamhuri Park (where Honey Care’s office was located) and got addicted to a meal of beef stew, vegetables and “chapati”, an unleavened flatbread that serves as a staple for many Kenyan meals; we took “matatus”, which are privately-owned minibuses that will take you down pre-determined roads for five percent the cost of a taxi, and even hopped onto the backs of strangers with motorbikes!

4. The experiences of being a woman in other cultures around the world are a completely new ball-game.

While the concept that being a woman in America is not the same as being a woman in Afghanistan (or in Kenya for that matter) was never really a point lost on me prior to my trip, I was still surprised by relevant encounters and occurrences as I made my way around the country.

We took a weekend off and went on a safari in Masai Mara, an amazing Kenyan national reserve near the southwestern border between Kenya and Tanzania. During one of our three days, we had the opportunity to visit a Maasai village, and were given a tour of the grounds and got a peek into the daily lives of the Maasai people. The Maasai are traditionally polygamous (and the village we visited also was), and we were told that a wife will build a hut for her husband, who will then spend equal amounts of time in each of his wives’ huts so as to not choose favorites. As the man giving the tour to us explained, the Maasai men hunt and protect the village, and “the women do basically everything else”. As I later read, some Maasai villages also undergo female circumcision, which draws a great deal of criticism and is often called female genital mutilation. Many times we also watched as the men ordering around the women to do requested tasks. Suffice it to say, women have significantly less rights than their husbands, but as our guide stressed, are nonetheless regarded as important members of the community.

And while I realize that Maasai culture is a particularly extreme example and certainly not representative of modern Kenyan culture, and understand that different cultures have different customs and values that have a large role to play in determining the differences in gender roles, it was a sobering reminder about the disparities in the experiences of being a woman in America and being a woman in much of the developing world.

5. Generosity knows no borders – language, culture, or otherwise.

Of all the remarkable people I met in Kenya, Salome, Christine, Margaret, and Bonafice are perhaps the people who stand out most in my mind. Salome and Christine worked in the honey packaging plant at the Honey Care headquarters, Margaret in sales and NGO networking, and Boniface was the cluster manager in Kakamega, a town in Western Kenya that we visited to see some of the field operations of the company. The four of them, and almost everyone else we got to know during our time in Kenya, reminded me of the remarkable generosity that human beings are capable of expressing, with or without the barriers of language, culture or background. I can still speak only a couple words of Swahili, and will probably never see many of them again, but they were all incredibly and unjustifiably generous to us with their time, welcoming of us into their homes, and patient with us in our language limitations. I learned so much from each of these people: about their daily lives, about the history of Nairobi and Kenya, and about the kindness that people are capable of showing to complete strangers – and it is these things, more than anything else, that I will remember most about my time in Kenya.

Christina Wang ’15 is blogging this summer from Nairobi. Contact her at christina.wang@yale.edu.

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