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Kenya's Superhighway

super-highway through Kenya is under construction, complimented by the development of a new trucking industry and ocean port.  Chinese investment in the region is spurring such projects, leading the construction of the Thika Road. By expanding an existing route, this development will connect Kenya's local economy with the surrounding region, ease traffic, and facilitate the movement of roughly 80 million people.

The road construction includes the expansion of existing roadways to interconnect the new project with preexisting infrastructure, improving access to universities, cinemas, and the national museum.   It also includes flyovers, underpasses, and a full drainage assemblage. Construction hasn't been entirely smooth, as tensions over hiring processes have led to large scale protests. Many land owners were also dissatisfied to lose their land to the project. The project will take three years and three construction companies to complete the project, but will have large scale impact on the regional economy.

Economist Jeffrey Sachs once stated that one of the greatest projects our world could pursue to overcome poverty is to build an efficient transportation route throughout East Africa, "rather than a two-lane, broken-down road," that presently serves as the only transit corridor from Mombasa to Burundi.  Perhaps the Thika Road expansion is will lead to other such projects, and Sachs' vision will become a reality.

History of Somalia and a little East African Hip Hop

- I found a great website today that has saved me a lot of frustrations, Mogadishu Images.  For weeks I had been tracking down antiquated photographs, maps, and postcards of historic Somalia and attempting to locate the existing structures on google maps, only to discover that someone else was likewise doing the same thing!   I strongly suggest anyone with an interest in the anthropology, architecture, or history of the region to check it out.

- The initial research for my current project in East Leigh has been concluded.  I'm still working on the write up, but I plan to submit the document next week for publication.  It will surface sometime in January.  Once I know more about the date of public release, I intend to supply a brief video version of the article online.

- After some phone calls, Waaya Cusuub, the hip hop group  I had mentioned in my previous blog entry about  Somali hip hop protest of Al Shabaab in Eastliegh, is interested  in collaborating with me for a new track. Although I presently work with some hip hop artists in Nairobi,  this will be a opportunity to expand into a new market with increased visibility.  I just finished a track last week that I'm going to send them.  You can listen to the rough draft below.
If it says unavailable, just click the track name at the bottom, The Sand Beneath The Whale.


 The Sand Beneath The Whale by Mitchell Sipus

Eastleigh Hip Hop Boys -Waaya Cusub - Straight from the Streets of Nairobi's Little Mogadishu

Waaya Cusub, the New Era, is a hop hop group based in Eastleigh Nairobi, also known as "Little Mogadishu."  As Somali refugees living in Kenya, they live with the frustration of not being allowed to access viable employment or education opportunities, and are stuck in Kenya with no near chance of ever repatriating back to Somalia.

Yet these particular boys, and their female partner Falis, have directed their frustrations into hip hop music that not only discusses their situation, but also criticizes Al Shabaab as the basis of their problems.  Within the song Al Shabaab Al Qaacida weeyan, No To Al Shabaab, they accuse the militant group of causing more damage than good.  They also perform in Af Soomali, English, and Kiswahili to access the wides audience possible.   

The chorus of the song roughly translates as:
" Who is responsbile of that massacre? Al-shabaab."  
"Who is responsbible for the setback? Al-shabaab."

I don't really know any Somali, but the Swahili part's that I understand basically say that these guys love peace and Al-Shabaab is killing their freedom.  Oh yeah, and there is a part I must be misunderstanding, because I'm hearing "Unanua paka" which translates as "You kill cats."  That can't be correct.

As Al-shabaab's presence extends deep into Eastleigh, owning local businesses and maintaining an imprecise but noticeable social presence, the songs of Waaya Cusub have put them in danger.  Al-Shabaab retaliated by issuing a fatwa against the group, demanding that they are killed.  So far nothing has happened to them, as few people are going to acknowledge such crazy extremism by this militant group, but it is clear that raising their voices on behalf of their community has been at great risk.

Going to Nairobi? Stay with my friend Tom at International Guest House.

Today while figuring out some logistical issues for a research project I'm coordinating in Eastleigh, Nairobi, I happened to stumble across the website of my good friend Tom Kamau.  Today I when I found his new website, International Guest House, I felt that I should make a point to share with everyone. I'm not normally inclined to promote a particular business or product, but this is an exceptional case.

Last time I was in Nairobi, I was in a very difficult situation.  Given the large gap between rich and poor, it can be a challenge to find a place to live.  To find an apartment in Nairobi with only a couple hundred dollars in my pocket, I had no visible options.  It would not have been safe to move into one of the slums, nor could I live with my friends in East Leigh.  I also wanted a place within walking distance of downtown where I was working everyday.   I was left to wander the city and find a place, with only a few days to do so.

One day I was wandering through Upper Hill, looking for a particular guesthouse  I used to frequent, only to discover it had been fully abandoned.  Walking down a side street I saw a sign for the International Guest House, and after passing through the gate, I met Tom Kamau and discussed my need for housing.  When I met Tom, he was a long time successful businessman who was struggling with the sudden loss of tourism prompted by the US recession.   He also understood that I was in a difficult situation and out of kindness offered me an apartment on his property within range of something I could afford.

I immediately moved in, and found that Tom continued on multiple occasions to provide help with any problem I might have.  In exchange I tried to find ways to help Tom better market his business and attract more guests by discussing website development and online marketing strategies.  Unfortunately I had to leave before I could really do as much as I wanted, but as Nairobi is one of those difficult places to avoid, I'm certain that I will always continue to stay at the International Guest House every time I return to Kenya.  If anyone else happens to be in the area and needs a place to stay, make a point to check it out.

The Something that went Bump in the Night

Today blew my mind.  Not in the immediate way, but in the slow burning manner, where you know that something crazy is happening but can't quite describe it.  I suppose the phrase 'the calm before the storm' would better describe my thoughts, but in all honesty there is nothing calm about it.  Perhaps ' the storm before the storm' would be a better metaphor.

Things started out normal enough.  I woke up, drank some tea, read some emails, made some phone calls.  Nothing unusual.  I went into my office and again pretty much did the same thing.  I had an appointment with a large technology outsourcing company this afternoon, and looked forward to their driver picking me up at 2:30.  As Nairobi is a massive sprawling city on par with New Dehli or Amman Jordan - far larger than Cairo, thats for sure - I thought the offer for transportation was a simple courtesy and that the firm was simply sending me a cab, maybe even footing the bill.  Greatly appreciated as the company is located about 20 minutes outside of downtown and taxis are expensive.  

At 2:30 my phone range, and I could hear the sounds of traffic and wacky music in the background.  A man with a strong non-western accent told me he was nearby and to meet the car at the sidewalk.  I smiled, imagining some rundown taxi with smoke pouring out the back and loud afro-reggae blaring on blown-out speakers.

I step out into the sunlight, when suddenly  a bright shiny minivan pulls up with tinted windows, adorned newly painted company graphics wrapped around the entire vehicle.  Inside were three Indian guys with blue-tooth ear pieces, a stack of freshly printed marketing materials on irrigation systems, and the loud pulsating beat of Cher's greatest hits - the Techno Dance Remix.  For the next 30 - 40 minutes these guys whipped this van around the side streets of Nairobi like it was central New Delhi.  Pulling into oncoming traffic, swerving around slow vehicles, nearly clipping pedestrians as it backed up a one way street, I had flashbacks of India while gritting my teeth in modest terror.   It was truly bizarre, as I looked out the window at a landscape iconographically African, and yet felt somehow transported further East.  Somewhere between the cigarette smoke and the men singing along to Cher's "Do you believe in Love after Love" with thick Indian accents, I had the feeling that today was no longer just any ordinary day.

When we arrived at the office building (ahem, office complex), I was struck by its massive size, empty floor level rooms, vacant hallways, and sprawling parking lot.  Not sure where to go, I followed one of the guys from the van.  We made small talk in the elevator while I tried not to stare at the 4 shiny gold earrings in his left ear, that matched his massive wristwatch, and assortment of rings.  We stepped out of the elevator and into the lobby of tomorrow.

While of recent years America has struggled with the issue of unemployment, it is arguable that many of the other countries in the world have instead been battling the issue of under-employment.  Hungry for an opportunity to succeed within the global economy, more and more people have sought to acquire the skills and knowledge to be at the economic forefront.  Some economist have described this process as having occurred "while America slept," but however you look at it, the global playing field has leveled.  India for example, has more universities and a higher enrollment rate than any nation in the world.  We all know that China has expanded its industrial production along the entire coast line and is presently building its mineral and natural resource sector within its interior.  Certainly America has worked to advance its own position as well, most notably with the recent Stimulus Plan, but under the constraints of a privatizing education system and hard-line free market position, the US just doesn't have the same mobilized labor force nowadays.  At least not for the higher order of labor that actually will build income in the contemporary marketplace. 

What I saw today was only a peak at what is out there, and thats the crazy thing.  I walked into a multi-million dollar operation that employs 100's of  people, twice per day, to write software, handle large accounting portfolios, language translation, transcription, data input, software testing... you name it.  If you have a project in mind, and they don't have the means at the moment, then they are more than happy to acquire those means within a matter of hours.  Within days or hourse they can train their staff on new software, or even custom write software if the task is unusual.  The manager told me of a recent development in which a client asked for a tele-marketing service within America - but that the phone number on the caller ID is to be displayed as an American phone number, not Kenyan.  This request was able to be accommodated immediately.  In fact, if you live in the US, you might have already spoken with one of these people on the phone, as they handle some MASSIVE accounts over there.  Oh, and don't forget about the accounts in Britain, Australia, Canada... 

When I asked if they have difficulty obtaining qualified employees, I was told that the situation is in fact, just the opposite.  There is such a massive labor force of qualified individuals within East Africa, that they really can hire as many people as they choose, and whenever they choose.  The general manager then made a joke, that of course the people don't quite have much experience and so this is only a medium scale business in Kenya - light years behind the capabilities of India. 

I smiled, as if I knew what he was talking about.  But all the while, I knew that I was actually clueless about the capability of India.  I still am.  Sure, I might of taken a dip in the Ganges river, but I never went to Bangalore.... I'm starting to think it might be like visiting a different planet.

I stayed for about 2 hours, talking with administration and associates.  Everyone was very friendly and there was a lot of energy in the room.  Hip hop music blared in the background while the sound of typing cut through from cubicle after cubicle after cubicle...

I  walked around the facilities - training rooms, cafeterias, voice centers, programming, hardware... - with my tour guide.  Every room was separated by a solid metal door, with a lock that reads your finger prints to open.  I was told that the locks also keep track of individual employee entry and exit times, which may be important as a security measure as they handle a lot of banking, finance, and investment projects.   I also noticed the occasional poster of a Hindu god or the smell of incense.  If it wasn't for the large room full of Kenyans diligently working or the booming African hip hop in the background, I might have begun to think I was somewhere else.

Around 6 the director of the company was kind enough to drive me back to my office. We spoke for a little about the company and his own experience.  When I asked how long he has been doing this, he said he got into the business about 6 years ago in India, and worked for someone else.   As for the operation I saw today, he started it about 2 years ago.  He told me that the biggest challenge to starting this sort of business is access to sufficient start up capital, because you must start big.  That too compete in the information market of today, you need several hundred employees who can begin working immediately, with back up support systems, IT and hardware infrastructure, the ability to purchase all the necessary software and space... while no job is too big or too small, it is always possible for your operation to be just too small, and so you must go from non-existant to gigantic simply overnight. 

I asked "Is this difficult to do here?"

He responded, "No, not at all."

Fanye Kazi

I always hated the phrase "good hustle," but somehow I can't really think of another way to describe my day.  Except maybe the word "exhausting," or the swahili translation fanye kazi which means "make work."  

Needing to find a place to stay, I hiked all over a particular neighborhood within Nairobi, where I used to stay in 2007.  It was very strange, as so much has changed in Kenya.  Some things have changed for the better, and somethings have not.  Many businesses have improved, disappeared, or been replaced.  I can say that many businesses now appear more 'upscale' and quite nice, traffic seems more relaxed, and the air is much cleaner.  Of course that idea might also just be the consequence of living in Cairo for the last 15 months.  But I don't remember cars staying in their lanes or people using cross walks.  

I did eventually find a place to stay at a place called International Guest House.  Even though it has a fancy name, it was actually completely empty of foreigners. I was told this is low season, and after December it will be packed. The owner and I spoke for quite awhile, as he went to college in Kansas and upon starting his own tourism company in Kenya, he has traveled through much of Europe, America, and Africa.  He has been to Cairo several times, and he also owns a bus company that transports children to and from school within Nairobi.  

As we spoke, I explained my situation, that I don't have very much money, am starting a new job, need to find an apartment, but will constantly travel between this apartment and the Dadaab camps, so I don't want a very expensive place since I will rarely be there.  He offered to rent me a room at the rear of the compound for 100 dollars per month.  It is a very private single room, furnished with a bed, cabinets, and an attached bathroom with shower.  I explained that I want a 'normal' life, and do not want to be living like a hotel guest for my time in Kenya, so he agreed that I may freely use the kitchen and appliances.  He also offered that if I require anything special, like a microwave/minifridge/heater etc., that we can arrange a system, wherein he will purchase that item back from me at a discounted cost.  In this manner I won't waste any money on buying stuff, only to abandon it in 6-9 months.  

It is certain that finding accommodation this safe or convenient for 100 dollars per month will be very difficult in Nairobi.  If I was Kenyan, this would be normal, but as a foreigner the going rate is at least 400 dollars. It is also in my preferred neighborhood of Upper Hill, about a 15 minute walk from the National Hospital (ATM location) and bus station.  It is a good location because it is clean, green, and adjacent to downtown.  It is also near Westalands, where many ngos operate and expats live.   I have certainly lived in nicer places, and seeing where I will stay now really makes me miss living in Cairo... but this is probably an ideal situation for me.  The owner, Kumaou, gave me a ride back to my current place and I told him that I will see him in the morning.

Refugee Camp International Development Consultancy

Some Good News

What a week!  Busy, productive, and satisfied.

The last couple months have been rather frustrating, as my search for a new and interesting employment opportunity has been rather tiresome.  Although there have been plenty of jobs to apply for, it has taken incredibly long for to hear responses, arrange interviews, and get results.

However, last night I officially accepted a position.   Although I was initially uncertain about the capacity of this organization to undertake the ambitious projects they are pursuing throughout the world, I have come to the conclusion that their ambitious work is backed with by a talented, brilliant, and dedicated staff whose objectives correlate greatly to my own.  I am quite pleased to join the team, and look forward the further expansion of this partnership.

This NGO approaches international development and aid from a different perspective than might be traditionally assumed.  Rather than giving aid, they give work.  In their words, it is a micro-work organization, that brings computer based work to women, youth, and refugees living in poverty.  Over several years, I have witnessed individuals within an array of companies work hard to acquire skills necessary to participate in the global economy, yet with few opportunities to put these skills to use, these efforts have remained unmerited.  It works to target the locations where skilled populations with limited economic activity are located, and collaborates with various institutions and business partners to generate income facilitating activities by means of online data entry, research, or product testing.  Samasource is a global operation, pursuing projects throughout Africa, Asia, and low in-come communities within the United States, such as within rural south-west Mississippi.

I will now oversee all projects within Kenya.  This includes 18 projects located within Nairobi, 2 within the Dadaab Refugee Camps, and the potential expansion of camps within other towns or nearby countries in the future.  This is a very exciting opportunity for Samasource, the Kenyan and Refugee populations, and myself.

Pursuing development within a protracted refugee settlement is a complicated issue.  In the classic model of humanitarian aid, the disaster happens and international agencies show up to dump lots of stuff on people - food, skills development programs, micro-loans, building materials, security, and clean water.  Certainly these things are important, because we have a responsibility to help one another in the world, and no problem can be solved if people are dying of starvation, sickness, and war.  But after awhile, new problems emerge. The infusion of food aid, might undermine the ability for the food markets to recover. For example, as free sugar will always cost less than the locally grown or sold product.  People who might have made a living growing, shipping, or selling sugar, will no longer have a livelihood and will need to find new methods to stay afloat.  Such problems have a way of spiraling out of control.  Clearly at a certain point, adding more stuff is no longer the answer.  The trick is to then start identifying strengths and to work toward removing the obstacles that keep these strengths from blossoming.  Problem is, so far no one has been able figure out how to determine this 'point of transition.'

When I was in Dadaab I noticed that the construction of a

cell-phone tower had become a major strength within the development of these camps.  After is was constructed, thousands of individuals scraped up whatever money they could find to get some sort of cell phone.  Maybe several families would buy one together, while others could be purchased through loan programs.  With a cell phone, refugees could stay in contact with relatives abroad, make arrangements for money to be wired, learn about weather conditions before grazing animals and a multitude of other advantages.  Money began to flow into the camps, and then new businesses emerged.One man would purchase an electric generator and re-charge your phone batter for a fee, while another would get hold of a used computer and provide email access via the cell phone network.  Next another man would start a business teaching computer classes so that interested men and women could expand their opportunities.  Keep in mind that people living in circumstances of conflict induced displacement are not 'poor illiterate farmers.'  These people had livelihoods and professions in their nation of origin.  Many were carpenters, lawyers, truck drivers, secretaries, and mechanics. Seeking to improve their livelihood and support their family, people always seek to adapt to market demands.  The problem with a refugee camp however, is that government policies restrict viable economic growth.  Although someone might acquire an array of computer skills and have access to a computer, it does not necessarily translate into having a job.  Someone else will need to provide that.

By giving work, they are providing a means to for individuals to help themselves.  By opening the door to the global economy, a major obstacle on the pathway toward stability and development has become available to that population.  Projects such as those undertaken by Samasource might be the essential element within overcoming the gaps between humanitarian relief, development, and a functioning stable economy.  I am grateful to have this oppurtunity to work on the forefront of such a project, and look forward to a healthy and vibrant experience in the near future.

I will be relocating to Nairobi within the next couple weeks.

Movin' with the beat

I've been a little quite again as its been difficult to write any captivating posts lately.  Everything is constantly in that "in between state."  I guess this is okay though, as its really just a matter of transitioning from one set of life circumstances to another.

I've continued contact with Samasource, and while I don't want to state anything prematurely, I believe that the relationship is unfolding well enough and its possible that I might end up in Kenya soon enough.  This is a transition I really look forward to, considering how much I enjoy African societies, cultures, and languages.  I've been in contact with an array of friends in Nairobi, and am working on making some new connections at this time.

One new project that I have been working toward actually concerns my side hobby of producing hip hop music.  I had recently learned of a new record company, Gatwhich Records, founded in Nairobi by hip hop artist Emmanuel Jal.  A former child soldier in Sudan, Emmanuel has been touring and recording albums within Europe and America for several years now, his most recent release,  Warchild, is a favorite in my collection and highly recommended.  Anyway, I contact the record company he recently started and they are interested in hearing some of the music that I have been recording in Cairo for the last year.  As I might be moving to Nairobi within the next few weeks, this could be a good opportunity to further expand my recording project, as I hope to work with more hip hop artists across the continent.  If possible I would really like to use this as an oppurtunity to showcase the guys that I have enjoyed working within over the last year in Cairo.

To share some of these recordings, I recently uploaded more tracks to my Youtube account.  These are not music videos per se, but simply a few photographs taken by my Australian friend David Lazar (this guy is an international award wining photographer, so check it out!!!) of the guys, with the camera panning and the music playing.  I am attaching below a sample clip of my recent production with Slim J, called Number One Romeo.  This is definitely one of my favorite songs.