Nairobi Knights

Getting to Nairobi is not half the fun, as they say.

But here I am, back in Africa for my second trip. I didn’t think I’d be returning, but the project on which I am working — a regional real estate training center — is going very well, and the International Real Property Foundation suggested I return to continue the work we started in October.

I really do love Africa, and I left my Bahamas cottage early so that I could return to Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda — the three countries which are involved in this project. All three countries are building real estate trade associations in order to stabilize property business practies and better educate practitioners, and the IRPF suggested that all would be better served by a regional education project in which resources could be shared and synergy created. My job: to help set up the infrastructure which would facilitate the success of the project.

As you might imagine, it’s a long flight: eight hours from Detroit to Amsterdam, and another eight hours to Nairobi. And, of course, Schipohl Airport in between.

The plane was packed on both legs of the journey (and oversold, of course, on the flight out of Traverse City to Detroit–what else is new?) To upgrade to a business class ticket was about $2,000 more than the already exorbitant price of the airfare, so I requested an aisle seat in coach class and hoped that the screeching small child wouldn’t be directly behind me. He wasn’t: he was four rows back. Nothing wrong with his lungs, though, and they were well exercised by the time the night was over!

But I’m not complaining. My theory is that the farther away you get from the US the better the airline service becomes. The food’s not bad, the airline personnel have a much better understanding of the term ‘customer service’, and the airports are designed to accomodate real, living people–at least Schipohl is,, with its many restrooms, restaurants, free internet, lounges, shopping, and casinos.

Nairobi at night — and during the day, as well — is another matter. Originally a swamp (the word ‘nairobi’ means ‘cold water’), the city was the first railway camp for the Uganda railway in the late 1900’s. It later became the capital of Kenya, and many hotels sprung up as the hosts for big game-hunting tourists.

The city is one of the most diverse places I’ve ever visited. It exudes a frenetic energy, both day and night. Traffic is impossible, as most roads seem under construction and every intersection has huge pot holes and large sections of missing pavement. Massive yellow hunks of Chinese-made contruction equipment lurk everywhere, covered with red dust and ready to spring into action, clogging lanes of traffic.

Mass transit in Nairobi consists of swarms of motorbikes and an equal number of minibuses known as Matatus. The matatus seat 14 people, but nobody ever monitors the number, so there are usually more passengers than seat belts. Also, since they’re not licensed, the ability of the drivers varies widely and I’m told these vehicles are involved in a high number of traffic accidents each year. No wonder.

My second day in Nairobi I set out by taxi to visit the Kenya US AID headquarters, located at the US Embassy. The ride there was harrowing: construction, Monday morning traffic, live stock in the road, large trucks sharing the road with 2-wheeled pushcarts. Many pedestrians as well–and no sidewalks. No self-respecting pedestrian ever walked to a corner to cross a street, and no motorcyclist ever stayed in one lane of traffic, either.

The Embassy grounds, however, is the oasis in the middle of the storm. Once through the gate (“May we have your cell phone and your memory stick, Mma?), the lawns are clipped into submission, and a large tent roof shelters a part of the grounds from the hot sun. To reach the head of the US AID organization in Kenya I passed through three security gates (TSA look like kindergardeners in comparison), and my hip implant and the magnetic latches on my pocketbook attracted quite a bit of attention.

Once I reached Mr. Hope’s office (now THERE’S an appropriately named administrator!), I found an affable and welcoming man who seemed supportive of our project and very dedicated to the work being done in Kenya–particularly in the areas of agriculture and health care. (A few facts: life expectancy in Kenya is 51 years for women, and 50 years for men–and dropping!. The child mortality rate is 78 per 1,000 births. I could go on….)

“We’re anticipating a 30% drop in funding for our US AID programs,” Hope told me. “And we really don’t have much we can do except cut programs. We don’t get discretionary funding.” Of course he did mention that there is an earmarked fund of 4 million dollars a year for orangutang preservation. “Over 5 years at 4 million a year–that’s a lot of health issues we could be working on.”

Orangutangs, I muse on my way back to the hotel, get a lot more funding than Kenyan real estate professionals. Later in the afternoon I will spend time with Moses Kiambuthi, the newly hired CEO of the Kenyan ISK (the leading real estate association) and we will plan the agenda for the first meeting of the Real Estate Education Center for Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda. We’ll gather together a small but determined group of volunteers who will begin their work together to build toward a common goal of a stable real estate business environment in a rapidly growing (and often chaotic) corner of the world.

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One thought on “Nairobi Knights

  1. Dear Judith – I am awed by your verve, your adventurous spirit, your leadership abilities. I think only one who has successfully raised children could be as perceptive as you are. You “read” people so well. I am loving to learn of other countries, their history, their people through your observations. Thank you for sharing.

    Love, Nan

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