Monday, November 23, 2009

Alternate endings: Kenya vs. Nigeria

For more than a week leading up to the World Cup qualifying match, the entire country seemed to anxiously anticipate the afternoon where Kenya's humble Harambee Stars would face the formidable Nigerian Super Eagles. The Daily Nation ran articles every morning, NTV aired segments every night, and Capital FM debated throughout the day whether the Eagles would win and qualify for the World Cup, or if the Stars could pull off a miracle and somehow qualify for the less-globally-popular but relevantly-as-significant Africa Cup of Nations.

The fact that the World Cup trophy was on display in Kenya for two days was icing on the cake. Or perhaps a dangling carrot, given that the Stars have never qualified for the World Cup, were demolished 5-0 the previous week against Kuwait (yes, Kuwait), have lost 9/10 matches against Nigeria, and have a coach that now refuses to show up for practice.

In spite of all this, the support and enthusiasm throughout the country somehow remained undefeated, and as the week progressed, I quickly realized that this was not a match I could afford to miss. It also seemed like the perfect opportunity to rally the CT United squad and spend time with them, given our league had abruptly ended a few weeks back. Despite their aspirations to play professionally, many of them had never been to a professional match, so I knew they would be excited (Although I still might have been more excited!).

So after a hectic scramble to get the team tickets, the 9 of us finally made our way to the stadium; and as our green, red and white head-wrapped Matatu driver passed hundreds of wananchi waving the same national flag, it was clear that we were now front row witnesses to the conclusion of the story that the country had been creating all week.

It was also clear that we weren't the only ones who shared the same heightened sense of eagerness and purpose, as we soon found ourselves surrounded by thousands of fans, all trying to simultaneously squeeze through a police guarded gate that would only fit one average-weighted person at a time. Nearly suffocating and (every 30 seconds or so) propelling forward by a wave of power from behind, I began to understand why FIFA had limited the venue's capacity by 40% after their match against Tunisia.

After about 20 minutes, the waves became so strong that two police officers sunk over a barricade they had futilely assumed would funnel fans in to the stadium. After embarrassingly rolling to their feet, they then resorted to mob like tactics and started clubbing people with their wooden sticks. One officer in particular seemed to randomly whack every 3rd or 4th person that squeezed through the gate: My friend Raj took a reflected club to his fore arm, while the rest of us managed to squeeze by unharmed (although I did take my sunglasses off in fear of a face blow!). Needless to say, I didn't get any pictures of this.

Once in the stadium, we were immediately greeted with the electrifying anticipation that slowly managed to fill the half occupied stadium, and by the time the Stars kicked the first half off, the stadium was alive with vuvuzelas, "Let's go Kenya" chants and songs that I definitely couldn't properly pronounce let alone spell.

And within 15 minutes, despite all the odds, the fans got exactly what they were singing and dancing for, as No. 10 Dennis Oliech split several Nigerian
defenders and snuck a low left corner ball that bounced over the keeper's sliding legs into the middle of the goal. Before the keeper even realized what happened, the entire stadium erupted in disbelief and undefiled joy, as fans ran up and down the rows, spraying water, blowing horns, screaming as loud as possible, and hugging even the oddest looking stranger. It was as if Barack Obama had just been announced president elect again!
But unfortunately, stories don't always end as planned, and the press had to tell a tale the next morning of a team that was ultimately completely robbed by an offside Nigerian goal and an ignored blatant foul that would have resulted in a penalty kick for Kenya. (See highlights here). Despite the 3-2 loss, however, fans throughout the country had another story to boast: One of renewed faith, of restored confidence, of rewarded hope. Despite what the score indicated, CTU and the other 30,000+ fans walked away from the stadium victorious, embracing a story that would remind them why they will never cease to wave their flags, wear the jerseys, blow the vuvuzelas and sing their songs, even if their team won't play in the World Cup or the Cup of Nations.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Zanzibar: Paradise or paradox?

Perhaps no word could better describe the remote island of Zanzibar than juxtaposition… A sea of perfection encapsulating an island of poverty.

Only hours into our trip, this realization was first felt during our Friday afternoon descent into Stone Town -- the island's capital city -- as our 10 passenger, double propeller aircraft penetrated the island's coast, and suddenly miles of transparent water and white sand were displaced by thousands of grey and brown rusting iron roofs.

This unforeseen realization grew as we leisured through the narrow, brick-patterned / moped-filled streets of the town, and Linda took pictures (posted below) of the amazingly beautiful architecture that was often propped up by webs of Braveheart-like poles that looked nowhere near as sturdy as the spears from the movie. And at Nungwi Village, our honeymoon worthy resort undoubtedly seemed more like a mirage than an oasis to the villagers who lived directly outside and yet couldn't even enjoy a paved road or a store to buy throat lozenges or ibuprofen/pain-killers (or at least I asked around tirelessly and couldn't find one).

So, in light of this unsettling juxtaposition, our short time in Zanzibar definitely created a mixed and lasting impact. In addition to enjoying the beauty of the beaches and the company of my colleagues, the trip profoundly emphasized the significance of my consultancy at TechnoServe -- of which I was celebrating the conclusion -- and development work worldwide. Poverty is evasive and does not discriminate: not even a paradise island such as Zanzibar has been able to escape, yet…

Friday, November 6, 2009

Sacred tears (part 3)

The rains have finally come -- After cloudless months and colorless crops, heaven could no longer contain Kenya's ocean of tears.

As the country's landscape is transformed from Cairo to the Congo, I'm preparing to transition out of my first consultancy at TechnoServe and on to the next at Acumen Fund. I think back to the beginning of our food security initiative, and how much has changed while so much has sadly remained the same.

Despite the rains, the country is still in dire need of food. The Daily Nation still reads in the same amount of millions: 10m face starvation. 15m bag maize deficit remains. 4m demand instant food relief.

And yet there are signs of hope: new approaches developed as institutions realize that we can't expect new results from the same tactics. The government has revived irrigation schemes in order to graduate from a dependency on rainfall. Private and non government organizations are partnering to develop a warehouse receipting system that will provide grain storage and reduce the current 30-40% post harvest loss. Private stakeholders have introduced weather indexed crop insurance that will compensate small scale farmers when drought attacks again.

And TechnoServe is developing a strategy for orphan crops that are drought resistant and can serve as substitutes for maize. Three months ago, our focus was exclusively on maize, the most important staple crop in Kenya. With time, however, we realized the overwhelming need for Kenyans to diversify, and to adopt crops that are not reliant on rain, that are not as susceptible to certain diseases/weeds, that don’t rot during storage, and that receive higher / more stable prices. So we've developed a strategy for several key orphan crops and are in the process of pitching to several key foundations/donors so that the projects can begin before the next drought hits.

As I've mentioned before, economic development is a very complicated beast to tackle, and food security has proven to be especially challenging. Our hope though, is that through this initiative, we are one step closer in eliminating these deplorable fill-in-the-blank million figures and conquering food insecurity once and for all.