Monday, October 19, 2009

Collision on Gitanga Road (and the rest of Nairobi)

As I walked out of the house to the concluding and relatively discomforting days of Nairobi's warm season, there seemed to be a heavy, unidentifiable tension in the air: Gitanga Rd was alarmingly quieter than the usual jungle of matatu horns, public service vehicle exhausts and herds of wananchi (citizens) stampeding from Argwings to Bishop Rd.

As I continued on a few steps past our gate, this atypical silence was quickly sliced into pieces by a hacking sound very foreign to that of the usual tree-bird kisses. A few steps later, the source of intrusion became apparent… A gang of men -- dressed in black and blue 3 button suits and double windsored ties -- were slamming long metal poles into wooden kiosks along the side of the road, destroying the small businesses that served as life support for about 20 struggling women in the community, while the men's colleagues carefully placed the women's bananas, tomatoes, eggs and other products into their freshly cleaned, white sedans.

As I got closer, a man standing safely across the street informed me that the men were from the City Council, the local governing body that controls the majority of life in Nairobi . Even more overwhelmed and confused, I asked what the women had done wrong, only to learn that my new friend was equally as perplexed. None of the wananchi seemed to know, resorting to white flag explanations of lost hope such as That's just how the City Council is

Three hours later, after returning from my meeting, I had the chance to speak with the women who had sold me 10 eggs and 6 bananas just days before. In a broken voice, one of them (Susan) told me that the City Council claimed their group didn't have a license and was a nuisance to the residents in the area. She said that they hadn't received any notice, and that this wasn’t the first time this had happened: Over a year ago, they women had much bigger kiosks, and the City Council tore them down, saying that they would only be allowed to have small kiosks that sat on the ground. Humbly, the women obliged, only to be betrayed a year later by the same poles and sedans that had destroyed their kiosks and whisked away their produce.

The secretary of the women's group shared with me a flyer for the society that they had formed (the Kilimani Juakali Sacco Society Ltd.), and confessed complete confusion about what the Council desired them to do moving forward. To stop selling completely wasn't an option -- their families depend on the income they bring home -- but they also knew there was nowhere else to sell, and that it was nearly impossible to get a license. They had tried numerous times before. Feeling completely useless, I asked if they could share with me their contact at the City Council, so that, if nothing else, I could at least understand this incomprehensible, paradoxical, and seemingly hopeless situation.

A few days later, during a meeting with Jae Talam, a senior inspector with 17 years experience at the City Council, I was told bluntly that the organization only issues licenses for kiosks to individuals they deem fit to run a business (i.e., their friends). After admitting the undeniable subjectivity in this process, she went on to say that even when they are granted, the licenses are very conditional: if a single neighbor calls to complain then the kiosk are shut down. Businesses that operate in permanent buildings are the only enterprises awarded the luxury of a demolition-proof license.

When asked about the assurance the women had been promised last year regarding the smaller kiosks, Jane pointed to the new Town Clerk, who was recently appointed (not voted in) and had changed many of the policies and by-laws. She then quietly shook her head, indicating that it was very unlikely that the women had been notified of these changes.

No longer able to control my disbelief -- or to diplomatically position accusations as objective, open ended questions -- I confessed to Jane that I couldn't understand how the single governing local authority in Nairobi could justify the complete discouragement of the majority of the city's population (i.e., the poor) from engaging in market place transactions, while also seemingly exploiting them for the inventory of the council members' own cupboards and wallets. The story just didn't add up…

Embarrassingly, Jane confessed that the City Council was indeed failing in their efforts to engage the poor and that more needed be done. She discussed a strategy to allocate an open space (similar to the Maasai Market) where women could sell their goods, but admitted that it would not be nearly enough real estate and would provide high transportation costs for the women.

Not in the least bit encouraged by this strategy, and overwhelmingly confused and defeated by the rest of the meeting, I thanked Jane for her time and retreated to the exit. As I nearly crawled through the gloomy hall, I looked through a muggy window and noticed an enormous room, filled with a department store of clothes, bordered with a school of desks and chairs, and decorated with a museum of art pieces. All collections of the Nairobi City Council.

Friday, October 9, 2009

'From nothing to something' (Part 2)

It's an inescapable reality that if we're going to live the life of our dreams, it's going to take courage, willingness to risk, to attempt, to fail, to get back up.
-Erwin McManus

The morning of WEEP's Maasai Market debut rose upon us like the sun in the Rift Valley -- even though we were fully expecting and anticipating it, the size and magnitude was still exhausting.

As I lay in bed, restlessly listening to about every other 5 seconds of a Rob Bell podcast, thoughts of fear and doubt began to subtly eclipse my initial conviction to allow the women to enter this phase independently. Instead of dwelling on all the potential catastrophes, I tried to dream of the positive: the women surveying their home, meeting their neighbors, displaying their carefully crafted creations, and selling to their first customer. As I slowly remembered my goal to empower the women towards independence -- and as Rob said something about ordinary people doing extraordinary things -- my 20th century Nokia began violently attacking both my night stand and my day dream.

Almost before I was able to press the faded green button and cautiously ask 'Hello?' I was captured by the words that I had been mentally fleeing all morning. There's a problem. Ironically surprised that Murphy's Law seems to be one of the few that is consistently implemented throughout Kenya, I listened quietly as Mary (the Mathare coordinator) explained how our neighbor had occupied our space and refused to withdraw. I suggested she call the Maasai Market chairman -- knowing full well that I could have called him -- and pressed the equally faded red button feeling like a dad who had just allowed his first born daughter to get bullied on her first day of kindergarten.

As I tried sipping on tea to avoid slipping in to cardiac arrest, I slowly re-entered consciousness and remembered our training the week before. I remembered the dreams each woman shared, and the indescribable struggles that they had overcome just to be able to dream those dreams. I remembered stories of impossibly low cd4 counts, of husbands' abandonments, of begging on the streets and of feeding garbage to their children just to survive. In the same moment, I considered our current situation and almost laughed at how trivial it seemed. Somehow, I just knew things would work themselves out.

When I went to visit the ladies at the end of the day, the magnificence of their display was rivaled only by their radiant and exhausted smiles that they displayed. Sitting on the ground (something we discouraged in training), they jokingly asked me if I wanted to buy something. After they ensured me for the 3rd time that the day was going really well, a smartly dressed mid-20 year old woman wearing one of their bracelets approached their space with a wide smile, proudly proclaiming I told you I'd be back! At that moment, I knew the launch was unquestionably a success. They had returning customers. An aspiration we had brainstormed tirelessly the week before.

As the women closed up the sale with their new friends, I had the chance to review the day with Mary. Even though the smiles forming on her face narrated the whole story, I still asked what the numbers were. To my utter surprise, we had sold a total of 15 products and had received orders to produce several high margin items. In our first day in the market, we sold almost 5,000 shillings worth, while the typical vendor in the market sales an average of sh2,000 a day.

It was by far my proudest moment in Kenya to date. The women had overcome the odds, pushed through the speed bumps, and somehow created the courage to continue in the pursuit of their dreams.

And as is often the case when people pursue their dreams, they were not the only beneficiaries: the other 30 women back in the centers (who are not yet ready for graduation) were watching closely; Not only meticulously evaluating in anticipation of one day selling in the Market, but also quietly praying they would have new orders to fill and would no longer be idle / income-less. I began to imagine their smiles and laughs as Mary summed up the day for me: We have several new product ideas, have developed a relationship with a new wholesaler, and have several new orders, all of which will keep our centers far more than busy for the next week.

WEEP's new home (and neighbor)

New friends and customers

Negotiations 101

Exhausted but proud after a long day.