Arriving in Africa

Nairobi Airport: Ground crew briefing for the arrival of an airplane

Bet you didn’t expect to hear from me quite so soon, did you? It’s still another couple of months before I head for Eleuthera, though I must admit I’ve bought my tickets and I’ve threatened Kervin to get busy working on restoring his old car so I have something to drive. I am ready to go!

It’s been a busy few months since I came back to Michigan: I’ve had lots of consulting projects, all very interesting and engrossing. I had a heart attack over Memorial Day weekend (which I like to call the Munson Medical Center’s annual experiment to see if it can run a hospital without doctors–though that’s not really very fair, as I had excellent and attentive care). And I managed to go on a cruise up the East Coast from New York to Nova Scotia with some wonderful friends–the only thing that really got hurt on that trip was my pocketbook, thanks to the great deal on fire opals in the cruise ship jewelry shop. Oh yes, and that exotic sea scrub cleanser that they sold me in the ship’s spa after my massage.

That was September, and now it’s October and I’m in Africa–Nairobi to be exact.I’m here as a part of my consulting activities for the International Real Property Foundation. I’ve been affiliated with them for 12 years or so, and under their auspices I’ve travelled to much of Eastern Europe, Russia (including Siberia), and Armenia. I’ve played my Irish whistle at raucus banquets in Tiblisi, taught in ‘resorts’ where the electricity was intermittent, climbed 36 flights of stairs when the elevator broke, and worn formal gowns to dinner parties in remote castles.

I’ve taught business ethics in the oldest Christian nation in the world, tried to start a computerized multiple listing service in a country without regular electricity and exclusive property listings, and spent two days helping the Russian Guild of Realtors build a curriculum for a country-wide certification program after the government decided not to license professionals any more. This particular assignment is to assist three independent countries (Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda) work together to build a regional training center for real estate professionals. During the next two weeks, I’ll be visiting each country, meeting with leadership, and conducting training in ethics and in association management.

Here are some random lessons I’m learning on this trip:

1. You gotta get a lot of shots to come here. My flute-playing doctor friend in Traverse City runs the infectious disease clinic, and a simple yellow fever shot visa requirement turned into an hour interview, three shots (I was too OLD for the yellow fever shot!) and some prescriptions to protect me from diarrhea and malaria, and a lot of advice (like don’t drink the water, don’t use ice cubes, don’t eat at buffets, don’t eat fruit you can’t peel yourself). I told the nurse it was a good thing I hadn’t had to visit them before: I might never have strayed far from Fouch Road!

2. Getting here isn’t half the fun. It’s a long damned trip to Africa. At least 16 hours in an airplane, in fact–and I’m not counting the airport lines and the TSA pat-downs which we artificial hip persons always have to get. Preparation counts! Bring along plenty to drink; ear plugs to protect you from 7 hours of close proximity to a screaming, ill-behaved child; and a variety of activities (work, games, books, magazines) so you can trade one boredom for another. A lifesaver for me on this trip: individually packaged sterile wipes and disposable tooth ‘brushes’ that fit over my finger so I can clean my mouth after a meal.

3. Professional appearance means something. I know Americans don’t like to think that way, but a well-run airport may change your mind. Amsterdam is a prime example. The announcements are in well modulated tones, unhurried and carefully articulated. Employees wear clean, pressed uniforms and are friendly and willing to help, no matter how off-the-wall your question might be (Hey! I know you’re cleaning toilets, but how do I get to gate Q 57?) Transportation carts are immediately available for the handicapped and elderly (ok, so I am both). And there’s WIFI everywhere!

4. Some service industries take themselves seriously. I had more good food on these KLM/Delta flights–not fancy stuff, but food that works well on airplanes–fruits, cheese, pastas. No micro charges for bathrooms or earphones. And people here in Nairobi have been service oriented as well: this morning at breakfast (included in the lodging fee) it seemed that every employee looked me in the eyes, smilled and wished me good morning–even if they had to go out of their way to do it. My taxi driver couldn’t make change from my big bill and said, “Here’s my card. Just leave it for me at the taxi stand when you get change.” And the clerk in the electronics store couldn’t make change either, and took my money across the street to the bank, making sure to being the reciept which documented the exchange rate currently being offered.

These aren’t new lessons, of course…but here, half-way around the world, they are just as meaningful as ever. Maybe more so.

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