Gunfire and good sense break out in Nairobi…

So, today was an adventure. There were large political protests here in Nairobi, centered in a park across the street from the hotel where I live. Last week and two weeks ago about 80 people in two coastal villages were killed by armed gangs. Most people attribute this to El Shabab, the Islamic terrorist group responsible for the Westgate Mall attack last year, and many atrocities since then. And by most people, I include both the families of the villagers who were killed and El Shabab itself, who has claimed responsibility. But then the government, who has been embarrassed by their inability to do anything to stop these attacks, tried to claim that the Somalia-based El Shabab was not responsible, an instead pinned the blame on local Kenyan opposition parties trying to force the current ruling party from power.

This egregious claim is what triggered the protest. On the whole, President Kenyatta has been reasonably popular, but the patent absurdity of the government’s official interpretation has pissed a lot of people off, and the main aim of the protest was to let the country’s leadership know that people didn’t believe their story.

Both my office and my client are in very secure sites, but I was not comfortable driving past the site of this protest to get to or from there. So, acting on the advice that I just posted in this blog, I decided to be respectful and work from my room today. As result, I had the opportunity to observe this protest for most of the day.

I am not very good at counting large numbers of people, but I would estimate there were about 5,000 people gathered in the park across the street. The protest was noisy — many vuvuzelas were put to good use today — and I had a chance to observe a lot of it from my hotel room. It remained peaceful throughout the day; the police seemed wary but respectful.

A noisy, yet peaceful throng

A noisy, yet peaceful throng

But then, around 18:00 local time a large number of people started walking towards the Supreme Court building, and gunshots rang out. I counted a total of eight shots; they sounded like they came from a pistol rather than an automatic weapon. These shots were not followed by any screaming, panic, or other excitement. Just the contrary, everyone seemed to calm down and disperse, the police as well as the protesters. My surmise was that the police had fired shots into the air as a way of telling the crowd to disperse.

My hotel went immediately into lockdown; I continue to be impressed by the efficiency and professionalism of their security team. The hotel’s security manager phoned me and confirmed my interpretation that the gunshots were fired into the air to disperse the crowd, but said they did not want to take any chances. About an hour later, the crowd had fully dispersed, the police were gone, and the lockdown was lifted.

A large group of storks stood by, observing passively from the nearby trees, ready in case their services were called for,

A large group of storks stood by, observing passively from the nearby trees, ready in case their services were called for.

What was interesting to me about today was how smoothly it all came off. Everyone I observed or spoke with throughout the day: protesters, police, hotel staff, IBM colleagues, and clients, handled what could have been a very difficult day with grace and professionalism. All it would have taken is a single stupid act from just one person on any side of the confrontation, and things could have gotten very ugly very quickly. But nobody did anything stupid. Everyone behaved, and nobody got hurt. Score one for humanity today. I wish I could say that more often.

A well-intentioned, truly horrific idea…

World Organisation for Early Childhood EducationMy good friend Cate Meehan, who serves as the faculty director for early childhood at Canterbury Christ Church University is in Ireland this week, attending the annual conference of the World Organization for Early Childhood Education, or OMEP as it is known by its French acronym. I always look forward to it when Cate attends a conference. She is very good at picking which conferences and which sessions to attend.  Invariably, she garners exposure to a treasure trove of ideas both new and old, and she excels at evaluating these ideas critically and integrating the ones that pass muster into her ongoing work.

Today though, she forwarded to me a link to a very specific idea, or more accurately, to an organization that is dedicated to the pursuit of this idea. Cate knows me very well, and I’m assuming she sent me this link because she knew how I would react. The idea is unequivocally noble, and I have no doubt that the people who founded the organization did so with the best and purest of intentions. But it is precisely those good intentions that make the idea so terrifying, and I’d like to share it with you.

The link she sent me was to a project called the Endangered Languages Project, sponsored by an organization called the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity. To quote from their web site:

The mission of the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity is to accelerate, strengthen and catalyze efforts around endangered language documentation, to support communities engaged in protecting and revitalizing their languages, and to raise awareness about ways to address threats to endangered languages.

So why do I find this mission so terrifying? Isn’t diversity a good thing?
Diversity is undoubtedly a good thing. And while I don’t have a stack of peer-reviewed evidence at hand, my sense is that most competent scientists and business people have rich first-hand experience on the immense value diversity brings to any team-delivered endeavor. Amongst many other benefits, diversity is one of the single most effective mitigants to the risk of groupthink. And since language is surely one of the richest repositories of cultural intelligence that we humans possess, it would stand to reason that letting a language die carries an immense societal cost that we all have to pay. So what’s the problem?

The problem, in a word, is poverty. Have a look at the map that the Endangered Languages Project maintains. It is very well executed, and clearly communicates on one well-designed page the plight of many of these threatened tongues. But look closely at how these threatened languages are distributed. Without exception, the densest clusters of endangered languages are found amongst the poorest areas of the globe. People in these regions live in such dire poverty that even those of us who work in the developing world could not begin to comprehend what it means to live under such oppressive misery. This correlation between a high concentration of endangered languages and abject poverty is far from coincidental.

What does it take to get out of poverty? Myriad opinions exist on this of course, but surely some of the critical success factors would include education, financial inclusion, and the opportunity to engage in some kind of commerce or income-earning activity. In our lifetimes, we have seen innovations in all three of these areas that have changed the face of the world forever.  According to the World Bank, the percentage of people in the developing world living in extreme poverty has fallen from 43% in 1990 to about 21% now (see source here).  In other words, since the dawn of the internet, the number of people in extreme poverty has been cut in half.  Fantastic news. But here’s the catch: access to these poverty-killing innovations is almost completely restricted to those who are able to speak one of the world’s major trade languages. Consider some specific examples:

  • Khan AcademyEducation. The work being done by the Khan Academy is truly revolutionary and surely ranks with electricity, contraception and the internet as a world-changing innovation. But Khan Academy and other projects like it are only available in languages that are in wide enough use to make it a worthwhile endeavor to translate the huge amount of content.
  • EQUITY-LOGOFinancial Inclusion. Micro-lending is a life-changer around the world, and increasingly, traditional banks and lending institutions, like my client Equity Bank, are finding that providing capital to those who have never had access to it before is an invaluable addition to their business model. But once again, gaining access to even micro-lending sources is gated by the ability to have
    a conversation with, or read a contract provided by,
    the capital provider.
  • EtsyCommercial Opportunity. Today’s digital market place gives every craftsman with a smartphone the ability to sell their wares around the world. Cruise Etsy some time and see how many people from the far-flung corners of the world are offering the work of their own hands. And despite this proliferation, the emergence of the digital marketplace is still nascent. In my time here, I’ve shown Etsy to six Kenyan artisans and shop owners . They had never heard of it, but they know it now.  Within two weeks, four of them
    emailed me back within two weeksasking to take a look at the sites they had set up.  but youhave to know English to use it.

So you see, knowing a major trade language, like English, Mandarin, Spanish, or French is an absolute requirement to be able to access these poverty-killing innovations. Those who cannot speak or read one of these trade tongues are utterly condemned to a life of every increasing misery and despair.

But surely it is not an either-or proposition? In many countries like Denmark or the Netherlands, the ability to speak three or more languages is actually the norm. The issue, though, is that education is a zero sum game. Not in terms of money — education still offers the best return of any investment you can make in a human life — but in terms of time. In 2012 I had the opportunity to visit Runan Wan, a rural, impoverished school in Yunnan province in southern China. Many of the children who attended this school had to walk over two hours each way for the privilege of attending. The meal they received at the school was often the only full meal they were likely to receive that day.

Teaching the students of Runan Wan how to play Spoons

Most of the students and teachers at this school were from the Naxi ethnic group, as was the principal. I had a conversation with this principal, and asked him what percentage of the time they spent learning the Naxi language. He replied “None. Most of these students will stop school at year six. Every hour of education they receive is precious to them, and every hour spent on something that won’t help them improve their lives is a lost opportunity they will never get the chance to regain.”

So yes, I understand that letting these languages die has a huge cultural cost. And I am all for spending time, money, and effort to document and archive these languages, so that we can preserve as much as we can of the rich cultural heritage they contain. And anyone in a wealthy country who wants to learn Cornish or Basque as a hobby will undoubtedly discover huge cultural riches by doing so. But spending a poor student’s precious allotment of time in school on a language that bars them access to the amazing panoply of poverty-killing innovations today’s world has on offer is putting them in chains far stronger than iron.


Machetes and Solar Panels

One of the first things I like to do when entering any new country is pay a visit to a nearby supermarket; a stroll down the aisles provides a unique and informative view of the country and the people who call it home.

So it was that when I first arrived in Nairobi, I stopped in at the Nakumatt on Koinage Street in the city center, not far from my home at the Intercontinental Hotel.  And in a back corner on the upper storey of this two-floor supermarket, something quite curious caught my eye.  Not far from the cleaning rags and power strips, there was a loose clutter of machetes on sale.  And next to the machetes were offered a collection of solar panels of various sizes and power configurations.

machetes and solar panels

Regular household necessities

This tickled my sense of irony.  I took a blurry snapshot of the pairing and made a humorous post on my Facebook page.  But as I came to spend more time in Nairobi, and began to get a better appreciation of its people and culture, I came to realize that this strange juxtaposition was an astoundingly apt metaphor for life in this part of the world.
If you stroll into a Safeway in the US or a Tesco in the UK, I can guarantee that you will find neither machetes nor solar panels for sale.  One is too primitive; it would be viewed as a weapon rather than a tool. The other is too advanced; western consumers have yet to insist on the kind of empowerment they would need to wean themselves of dependence on utility companies, that empowerment is a necessity of survival here.  Judging by empirical evidence, it would appear that US and UK supermarkets deploy their limited shelf space more profitably by offering us a greater choice of potato chip and breakfast cereal flavors than you could find here.

That theme of shudderingly primitive and astonishingly advanced permeates Kenyan life.  For instance, Kenya is the world leader in mobile payment systems, both in terms of technology and penetration.  Not the leader in Africa.  Not the leader amongst developing countries.  The world leader.  No other country comes close, not even advanced countries with otherwise high technology penetration rates like Singapore, Korea, or the countries of Scandinavia (I’ll do a full post on MPesa and the unique market conditions that caused it to grow and flourish soon).  But this breathtaking level of innovation is often limited to areas of narrow focus, and conditions beyond those margins are truly barbaric; the other day, for example, I learned from my bosses Katharyn and Sreeram that the number of mobile phone users here exceeds the number of toilet paper users.

So there you have it.  A microcosm of life in Kenya.  Machetes and solar panels.  On sale at a Nakumatt near you.




Picking up the pen again… an ongoing adventure in Africa

Hello everyone,

After a hiatus of about a year and a half, I have started feeling the urge to blog again.  As some of you know, I have been working in three African countries — Kenya, Nigeria, and Ghana, since the start of 2014.  I started learning and absorbing all manner of interesting ideas, concepts, and folklore from the very beginning, and I suppose I could have started blogging from the outset, but for some reason I held back.  Lots of people write about Africa and what goes on here, and I didn’t feel qualified or informed enough to do anything but add to the noise.   But after half a year of being here, I am starting to feel like I do have something to say.  The reality on the ground here is a lot more nuanced that reading international news sources would have you believe, and I’d like to give you all a view of

  • How things are on the ground here, as compared to how they are written about
  • How the same events you read about are perceived by people who live here, and finally 
  • How the context for what happens here is framed by a history that is far richer than the post-colonial vacuum that most international news analysts have trouble seeing past

As before, I’m not interested in creating another business/politics/history blog.  There lots of excellent examples of these out there already.  I just want to give a personal narrative of my adventures here and what I have discovered as a result. 

Talk to you all soon.