Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Coming Up For Air

Three weeks ago this Friday I landed at the Nairobi airport not as a pass through passenger, which had been the extent of my stays in the glorious Nairobi airport, but as a resident of this city.  Nairobi is the epitome of the "teeming masses" cities of Africa.  Its roads clogged at every artery, people traveling every which way, by every mode of transport, foot, bicycle, car, truck, Mutatu (never, ever risk your life on these overstuffed, poorly maintained, rap music thumping death traps) and even donkey and over sized wheel barrow.  The smell of diesel lingers throughout the day and everything appears to have this film of soot.  A 20k drive from my house to one of the only areas to ride safely both from a road standpoint and a roving thug bike jacker standpoint can take as few as 30 minutes on an early Sunday morning to 2 hours during the evening commute.  Needless to say, I am out of my comfort zone.  The girl who craves wide open spaces and quiet rides to regroup and gather my thoughts and find my sanity north is living the complete antithesis life.  I cling to the brights spots that remind me, the present sacrifice of quality of life has its shining moments.

Last Tuesday when I was staying up in the northwest area of Kenya in a small town on the shores of Lake Victoria I had the opportunity to get to know one of the assemblers from the World Bicycle Relief warehouse in Kisumu.  He's a young man named Alex.  (I know, there appears to be a pattern with young men named Alex.)

Alex is always laughing.  No joke, there was not a moment in three hours in the car that he wasn't laughing, or smiling or praising his wife, his family or his life.  His spirit was infectious and he instantly engaged me.   Alex is an assembler, however, he wants more responsibility and is trying to improve his skills on the computer and in sales.  He loves to sell and is so proud of the WBR Nyati Bicycle.  He would jump out of the truck any time we stopped even for a few minutes to explain to the rapidly growing crowds the benefit of the "Nyati".  

During our ride through the rolling hills of Western Kenya, we talked about everything from family planning to Martin Luther King.  Unlike Rwanda, there does seem to be a conscious effort to plan for a family.  Alex has one wife, in Kenya it is not out of the ordinary to have multiple wives.  He said she is his one wife, until death do they part.  He has three children, two girls and a boy and the one reason he agreed to "up" the family above the agreed upon two was simply that he wanted a boy.  His youngest is his boy.  He adamantly stated his family is complete and in his eyes "perfect".  He spoke several times to his wife along the trip and every time was like listening to a school boy profess his "crush" for the girl who had captured his heart.  It was at the same time beautiful to my ears and crushingly sad as I thought about my life alone here in Kenya.   

Alex also asked me many questions about America.  He had heard from his uncle the proverbial streets paved with gold scenario.  I did not burst his bubble, America is still the most amazing country in the world, however, I felt he should know that all is not perfect regardless the country.  We talked about the economy and the poor in America, which still in my mind have it made compared to poverty any where else in the world. And then he asked about Martin Luther King.  I was shocked at first that this Kenyan who had never been outside his country knew about Martin Luther King.  I told him as much as I knew.  I have studied King's life extensively.  His peaceful protests that changed America are historical.  I often wonder what America would have been like had his life not been cut short.  I told Alex the good and the really ugly history of America.  I spoke about the Civil Rights Movement, the KKK, the lynchings, the segregation of everything from water fountains to restaurants to hotels to education.  Martin Luther King transcends decades and continents and continues to influence even a young man in Kenya.  It was shocking even as I spoke to think about what the whites did to the blacks even in a "civilized" country like America.  

And then we moved on to African history, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, South Africa...Alex simply said, "Madam knows so much about Africa."  Madam, he called me Madam all day and every time I evoked an image of a brothel outside Las Vegas.  I did not have the heart to tell him that his term of respect made me conjure up such inappropriate images. 

I spent five days traveling around western Kenya meeting with interested groups, coordinating a delivery of 700 bicycles to World Vision, and lugging a Nyati with me everywhere to demonstrate why this country, these people need THIS bike.  For five days I was in my element.

And then I returned to Nairobi.  I had to start wearing my mouth guard again because I'm grinding my teeth so severely every night I am destroying my $1,300 crown I just had put in for the previous round of grinding.  It is interesting as you age, how you begin to really know yourself and know the triggers that go against your grain.  

Luckily I dove headfirst into my work here.  I really love working for WBR.  I believe strongly in what they do, who they are and what they stand for in Africa.  I am so blessed to have this experience and know that I was put here for a reason.  Perhaps, to toughen up a bit or maybe even to soften up a bit.  We shall see in the coming months.

And yes, I have ridden my bike a bit.  Not enough that's why I'm just a bit "off" but the riding I have done through the forests along the edge of the Rift Valley has been spectacular.  The guys I have ridden with are fun and I think just a bit impressed that the old American girl can keep up.  Of course, I am the only girl.  I just need to enjoy the moments when I do get to ride to brace myself for the in your face onslaught of chaos that is Nairobi.  

Dorothy, you're not in Kansas anymore 

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Monday, September 13, 2010

Sleep Deprived Thoughts on My First Three Days in Kenya

Nairobi, Kenya reminds me of Johannesburg, extremely confusing to navigate, crowded, traffic congestion that makes I-15 look empty at 5:00pm on a Friday, but also with all the amenities that you can find on any American Walmart run.  Yet, you still know you are in Africa where only minutes outside this sprawling city people are hauling goods on carts with mules and the reason I am here...bikes.

Initial thoughts....people are friendly, every business seems to be run by Indians, there is a much larger Muslim population than I would have even expected.  They are not trying to burn the Quaran here so apparently they have one upped the whack a doo American pastor from a little town called, Intolerance.

I don't know where I am going to ride which is freaking me out and one of the major reasons for my continued jet lag.  I don't ride, I don't sleep.  It's not so much an activity thing, it's more a mental thing.  Riding soothes my overactive, stress producing brain and I haven't been on my bike in almost a week.  

The company I am working for is big thinking company backed by a strong support system.  I have such an amazing opportunity to sell thousands of bikes with the tools to help me do that.  

World Bicycle Relief was founded in 2005 by FK and Leah Day, in response to the Tsunami.  They were moved to help people get back on their feet and to provide a source of income to the survivors, a bike.  They moved their efforts to Zambia and recently entered Zimbabwe and Kenya.  To date they have distributed over 70,000 bicycles.  I am the new Country Director for WBR in Kenya and my goal is to sell 12,000 next year.  My personal goal is to sell 15,000....15,000 more Kenyans on good bicycles makes me very happy.

Saturday I attended my first event after arriving Friday night and hitting the sack for a solid 1 1/2 hours of sleep.  The jet lag induced manic phase throughout the night helped me unpack my three large bags (yes, they all arrived intact including my bike) and settle in.  Mike, the current Country Director, George and Joyce all went to an agriculture show in Naivasha to demo and sell bikes.  Naivasha is about an hour and a half drive from Nairobi into the Rift Valley.  Like most places in Africa the drive into the valley was breathtaking.  After a busy morning and early afternoon the rains came and essentially ended the show a bit prematurely but all in all it was a success.

Last night I slept on and off with a myriad of dreams, some very uncomfortable, but I slept.  Today, more work with Mike bringing me up to speed, a shopping trip to the Walmart of Kenya, Nakumatt (bares no resemblance in inventory to the Kigali Nakumatt, there's actually stuff you want to buy here) and then a really good Sushi dinner with Mike and more business.  

I head home thinking, I'm going to sleep like a baby.  Turns out like a baby with colic!  So, why not be productive since I'm going to be worthless tomorrow.

Thoughts....I live in an apartment, very nice one, in Nairobi.  I'm still a country girl at heart.  This will definitely take some getting used to.  

Mosquitoes...back to swatting, hearing the buzzing, skin welts and fear of malaria.  People ask me if I liked living in Las Vegas.  Lack of mosquitoes and bugs alone would do it for me.

My world is bizarre even to me at times.  I still can't believe I'm here, doing this, living out my childhood dream.  Saturday I'm going to a bike race to award some WBR bikes for prizes.  After we drop them off Mike and I are going to run over to the Rhino park for a little impromptu safari before we head back to present the prizes at the end of the race.  

My cousin Anne just "friended" me on Facebook.  We haven't talked in years, maybe even a decade.  I was one of her bridesmaids 22 years ago.  Still lives in Michigan with her high school sweetheart and three kids.  Sometimes things like that make me wonder why I just can't seem to settle down, settle in and be fulfilled like she is.  My physical wanderings are simply a manifestion of my emotional/mental wanderings.  Being settled for me seems unsettling for everyone else.

Thoughts...I don't do "alone" well.  I prefer a home filled with friends and family.  This is my test.  I will need to learn to embrace being on my own...until I make a bunch new friends.

Leaving never gets easier, moving never gets easier and the first two weeks in a new place always tend to suck a little bit.  My military moving sister tends to agree so that's my touchstone.  

"There were always in me, two women at least, one woman desperate and bewildered, who felt she was drowning and another who would leap into a scene, as upon a stage, conceal her true emotions because they were weaknesses, helplessness, despair, and present to the world only a smile, an eagerness, curiosity, enthusiasm, interest."  -- Anais Nin

That is can I get an Ambien?  I think I need to sleep....

Friday, September 10, 2010

Africa: Part Two

I'm sitting in the airport in London waiting on my flight to Nairobi, Kenya.  I know things have been a bit quiet on the blog front, decompression the past two months was my MO.  Yes, Kenya...No, Rwanda.  Long story....

About a month ago when I was decompressing in northern California, simply enjoying my new bike, riding the coast and spending time with friends, I was introduced to Dave Neiswander, Africa Director for World Bicycle Relief.  I had become friends with Mike Kollins back in October 2009 when he came to see the gorillas in Rwanda.  It was a completely random meeting and I found it ironic at the time that he was doing in Kenya with World Bicycle Relief was essentially the same thing I was doing in Rwanda with Project Rwanda.  We stayed in touch via Facebook and when things were beginning to wrap up with PR I sent him an email simply asking him to keep an ear to the ground for opportunities in Africa.  I knew I was not finished with Africa or distributing bicycles in Africa.  My passion for the power of bikes in Africa continues to grow.  Mike set up a meeting for me with Dave in July.

Everyone always asks what it is like to be back in America.  For me, it was nice, but I knew from the first week I needed to find my way back to Africa.  Yes, the modern conveniences, the amazing riding I was doing on my brand new Time road bike, the great food, seeing friends and family all wonderful.  But in the end, I knew I was not ready for a move back to America on a more permanent basis. 

I am truly blessed.  I was given another incredible opportunity to be in the bike business in Africa and to do it with a company like World Bicycle Relief is a dream job.  Funny how a few years ago I was trying to figure out how to live abroad and do something with bikes and be able to support myself.  Today, that is exactly what I do, thanks to an incredible support system of friends, family and even an ex-husband back in the states and a network and support system abroad.  Life is remarkable.

I am back....the blogging is back...the adventure continues.  Stay tuned.

(The new picture on my blog was taken by Leah Day, World Bicycle Relief Founder.  It is true, a pictures says a thousand words.)