Mariah Carey is everywhere

I arrived in Kenya on Wednesday evening (two nights ago) after a long flight from New York via London. Because of weather delays from New York, I had to literally run the length of Heathrow Airport just to catch my connecting flight to Nairobi. Apparently my bags didn’t move that fast. The British Airways reps assure me that the bags will be coming hopefully within the next day or two. In the meantime it’s been amusing to see how long I can stretch the small supply of clothing and toiletries that fit in to my carry-on luggage.

I was met at the airport by Nancy, who is the unit manager of Ebony Foundation’s  Nairobi office. That night she arranged for me to stay in a small, quiet hotel in the middle of town. I was a huge fan of the hotel, mainly because the first sound to greet me in the lobby was Janet Jackson’s “That’s the Way Love Goes,” followed closely by Marvin Gaye.

The next day I woke up feeling quite well-rested (although slightly bug-bitten, as I forgot to put up the mosquito net in the hotel room – rookie mistake, I guess). Nancy took me to the Nairobi office briefly, and then we set out on the 3-hour drive to Nakuru, the fourth largest city in Kenya and where the headquarters of Ebony is located. From what I saw of Nairobi, I was reminded greatly of India. The similarities can be attributed to their ongoing development – overcrowding, the perpetual and palpable cloud of dust and smog in the air, a “controlled chaos” flow of traffic on the roads (cars, bikes, pedestrians, animals), and the bombardment of Western-style advertising, particularly for cell phones. That feature struck me in India too – I think it’s fascinating that the developing world has come to house such large and insatiable markets for mobile telephones. People who literally have little else to their name can often be seen walking around with a phone to their ear. Absolutely fascinating…

As we drove away from Nairobi, the landscape began to change. Gone was the bustling and dirty city burgeoning under its own development. It was replaced by a single, clean and well-maintained road surrounded on both sides by expansive stretches of ruggedly beautiful landscape – you know, the types of scenic images you see on the discovery channel of African plains. (A sidebar on the driving: I’m from New York City, where navigating your car through hordes of taxis and tourists requires skill and an adept hand at the wheel, but it’s nothing compared to how drivers here operate. It’s as though everyone is trying to see how close they can get to hitting something – another car, a goat, a bicyclist- without hitting it. And that’s to say nothing of the technique of overtaking the slow truck in front of you on the single-lane road to Nakuru: cross over so that you are rushing top-speed in to oncoming traffic and then darting back across the divider line to safety at the last possible second. All in all, it makes for an interesting ride.)

A few hours (and an extremely bumpy and pothole-ridden detour road) later, we arrived in Nakuru, the fourth largest city in Kenya. It’s a cleaner and less Westernized town than Nairobi, but still definitely pretty developed and modern by my standards. I met James, the director of Ebony, at a surprisingly good Chinese restaurant called Bamboo Hut. After lunch, James and Irene (another employee of Ebony) took me to check out several accommodation options, which included a homestay and a few hotels. This will be temporary until Ebony’s guesthouse option is up and running, which should be sometime next week. I was really touched by the sincerity and care James and Irene showed me. Personally I would have stayed in any of the options they brought me to, but they themselves ruled out several saying that they were too dirty or too old. It’s a true mark of how hospitable and friendly Kenyan people are (because I’ve encountered the same warm spirit in everyone I’ve met so far) that they were so picky on my behalf, a person they had only known for a few hours.

I think the best part about my first full day in Kenya was when I realized, to my amusement and chagrin, just how pervasive American influence is overseas. I purposefully did not bring my ipod with me because I wanted to disassociate myself with the familiar routines and parts of my comfy and privileged life in America. I figured that not having my own music would only help me further immerse myself in Kenyan culture and society. Alas, all I’ve heard on the radio so far are popular American songs. Driving around Nakuru, James hummed happily to the Backstreet Boys and The Eagles. I had to suppress a smile when his phone rang – James’ ringtone is Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together” – a tune that he’ll proudly tell you he picked himself. I even heard a celebrity news report about Lindsay Lohan’s latest trouble with the law.

James is the director of Ebony Foundation, one of Kiva’s partner MFIs in Kenya. Ebony has been around for the past ten years or so and officially became an NGO MFI approximately 3-4 years ago. Ebony originally started out as an idea that James had with his siblings. His parents were uneducated but were able to make a living for themselves and send all of their children to get university-level educations from the business they started. From this, James had an idea – if his parents could earn enough money to support themselves without any official training or skills, then imagine what industrious Kenyans could do if they were given the opportunity. Ebony thus originally operated as a consulting firm, providing entrepreneurs with the technical skill and business training to start and operate their own businesses. Soon they realized, however, that the biggest thing hampering the success of the entrepreneurs once they were trained was a lack of capital. Logically, Ebony made the step to becoming a provider of microcredit.

Ebony currently operates two distinct programs. The primary credit and loan program is the bulk of their work. The other program they have is an initiative to start up a virtual banking system for their clients. It’s Ebony’s ambition to offer banking services to the remotest rural parts of Kenya in an unprecedented electronic system via mobile phones. The program is still in development but sounds extremely promising to me. James told me that it may be ready to be rolled out towards the end of my time here, so hopefully I can report more on it later on.

That first night, I had dinner at a sports bar called Taidy’s that could have been in any major American city, except for the Kenyan news playing on the gleaming new flat panel TVs. I ate with James and a few other Ebony staffers. Over dinner James and I discussed Ebony’s history and the state of Kenya’s poor in general. I was really impressed with his breadth of knowledge and his visible excitement and passion for his work. You can tell that he’s a man who really knows what he is doing and more importantly is committed to improving the lives of his fellow countrymen.

Still jetlagged, I called it an early night. I did remember to put up the mosquito net this time though…

This morning I awoke feeling quite refreshed, and have spent the day at Ebony’s office meeting the rest of the staff and getting familiar with its practices and procedures. This weekend they have arranged for me to visit Lake Nakuru National Park, a huge tourist attraction and a supposedly beautiful display of Kenyan natural landscape. I’ve been told it’s home to the world’s largest concentration of flamingos.

Starting Monday I will be going out in to the field to begin Journaling about Ebony’s clients.

Until then…

About the author

Tanuj Parikh