Struggles in Nairobi and Business Progress

Spotting a baby warthog roaming in the city :)

Yes I am alive (barely, maybe, but I am) and apologies for being so quiet. I hate to pull the ‘I’ve been busy’ excuse. Except that it’s really true. After wearing a dress to the slum on Tuesday, I was forced to wear not-so-clean clothes yesterday (no worries, I had clean underwear!) because I am fresh out of clean laundry. That situation is being rectified today, as I am working from home for the first time in weeks, but I thought I would quickly share a few updates of what’s been going on.

I started off the year, just one hour into 2013, by being pick-pocketed in an overcrowded club in Nairobi and then fainting 2 minutes later. Apparently, I have a flair for drama. But really, the truth is I was feeling sick before I ever realized that my wallet had been stolen. One of my friends continued to ask me if my purse was okay, and I kept brushing him off. I was wearing my purse across my body and had it in front of me the whole time and my jacket was even draped over it so I thought it was nearly impossible to get into. Thankfully, I went that evening prepared and had removed all of my cards and IDs from the wallet and had money hidden elsewhere in my purse. The wallet was worth more than the money inside it (about $20) but I was more upset that it happened. I’ve never been pick-pocketed before. Having had only two glasses of wine over the course of 3 hours, I was extremely sober, but still had been feeling sick. I’m blaming the fact that it was boxed wine that they serve at the clubs in town, but realistically I think I may have been dehydrated. As soon as I realized my wallet was gone, one of my friends asked me about my phone. I pulled it out of my purse, intending to give it to him to keep on him instead. The next thing I know I am being yanked from all directions off of the floor, people are yelling, my vision is blurred, and I don’t know what’s going on. I have also never fainted before (2013 is apparently a year of firsts for me), so it was a bit traumatic. I came to and my friends were trying to comfort me when I realize my phone is gone. I panicked and another friend saw a waitress with it and snatched it from her. That was it- I had to get out of there asap. I was overwhelemed and at that point I wasn’t sure if someone had tried to put something in my drink or what was going on.

The place was seriously so crowded that you could barely move and if we were in the U.S., I would say it would have been at least double the allowed occupancy. My friend grabbed a huge bouncer who escorted me out quickly so we could get through the crowds. I got outside and lost it and started crying. And of course to make things worse, a local man is grabbing my arm trying to ask me what’s wrong. A friend tell hims to get lost, and I, along with two of the people I was with, get into a taxi. By the time I got home, my mouth was like cotton and I was throwing up. I think it was just a coincidence that I was dehydrated and got pick-pocketed on the same night. I guess you never know, but dehydration is my best guess (although I don’t think I will ever take boxed wine again either!).

My bit of bad luck has not stopped there and I have been in multiple fender-benders in the past few weeks (traffic is insane here and drivers are crazy!), had another attempted pick-pocketing this week, and just last night an Australian guy was trying to either con or rob me and my local friend. The guy was an extremely dirty backpacker (and I say that literally because his hands and clothes were dirty), he had no luggage with him just a little backpack of books and a hammock, and was accompanied by a very beautiful local (quite likely a prostitute). I’m not sure what scam they were running but they sat down at our table and proceeded to tell the most ridiculous lies I have ever heard. Apparently he’s friends with the President of Kenya (yeah right!), has been asked to run political campaigns here, is running multiple NGOs, and has been living here for several years- yet he had never heard of the most well-known neighborhood in Nairobi. Yeahhhh. While I really wanted to just tell him that he was full of sh*t, it was dark out, and I didn’t want to be followed when we left. He kept reaching under the table and insisting to shake my hand alot. I was clutching my bag and finally told my friend that I had to go. I was ticked because we were in the middle of a business meeting, trying to finalize a partnership for operating in Kenya and this guy interrupted us. It was an unnerving situation that happened only hours after a crazy Masai (he insisted he was ‘not sick’…but when you have to clarify to someone that you are not crazy, you probably are) in the slum was yelling about me at the bus stop while bystanders watched. I stick out quite enough as it is; the last thing I need is a crazed local yelling and making a scene in a busy slum at a rush hour.

Some days in Kenya are stressful, but they are also very rewarding.

A sneak peek at the jewelry samples we’ve been working on.

In terms of work and setting up my social enterprise here, we have finally made some progress! We rented a space to use as a workshop for the women who do all of our beadwork. They had been working in dark, cramped conditions in their own homes in the slum. This made it difficult to try to work together and also is a reflection on quality I think. The bright, quiet space we have is small but has been really wonderful. The first time we took the women to see the space, one of the women said “Thank you Jesus, thank you Jesus. We finally have a stall for the first time!” They are thrilled and are allowed to use the space to make their own items when we are not working. They can also sell personally made items from the space, and we hope that it will benefit them in their local customer base as well. We have faced a lot of hurdles with the beadwork in the beginning and had to quickly reorganize and come up with a new plan. Some of the women we interviewed last year had left the bead group because of finding work or for other reasons. Naturally, the women replaced them since I was offering them work, but the new women did not have near the skills of the seasoned veterans. So we will be doing some trainings before proceeding with them.

I have also learned the hard lesson of taking my Western ideas and trying to apply them to Kenya- and failed miserably. As a visual person, I drew designs (in Autocad no less!) to exact dimensions and even colored the patterns to my specifications. And, to make it even easier I attached a photo of a similar product so they could get a 3D idea of what I wanted. It was horrible. Not only did they not follow the pattern, but if, for example, I gave them purple and gold beads for a bangle, if my colored pencils were slightly off in color, they would pull their own bead colors of what they thought the colored pencil drawing was. So now I have been spending my time trying to make samples and learning how to make more complicated beadwork so that I can hand them a physically sample of exactly what I want. They are great at following a sample if they have it in their hands. I think I took for granted the fact that growing up, our schooling is very good at teaching us how to follow diagrams and maps and how to read visuals.  It is completely understandable, as the women have never had to make something they saw on paper; they have always bought or taken a physical sample and taught themselves how to make it after studying the real thing. The beadwork is going very slow but we are determined to keep at it… after all, our target for social programs is these very women- single mothers, most living with HIV.

The bone and brass work, in comparison, has been much easier than I expected, and we are so excited for the young men that we having been working with on these samples. The bone group we are looking to work with even employs some women now, which is rare in the industry. And we are so fortunate with the brass workers we are collaborating with. After visiting several, and following up on leads of others, these two guys are a great fit for us. Unfortunately for them, they were laid off from a UK jewelry company, that operates in Kenya, last year as part of a big layoff due decreased sales. They have the proper training and they are really creative. And, they are extremely motivated and eager. They call my Kenyan colleague almost every day to get updates and find out what I need them to do next. While I would say that they are desperate for work, they also have a good work ethic and stick to deadlines. We are looking forward to a long-term collaboration with these two, as they would like to start their own workshop soon (right now they pay to use someone else’s equipment in the slum to make our pieces).

John in his new birthday jeans right before he headed back to school.

And,  in case you missed it on my Facebook page, John is going to a new school now. The infrastructure at his last school was amazing, but they were hiring student teachers and the staff turnover was high. His new school has teachers with Masters degrees and PhDs. It took a couple of days, between interviews and buying new school supplies and uniforms, but we got him all settled in for the new school year. They are strict (which I like!) and the kids must study and work hard. I have heard through the grapevine that John is loving it so far, but will know more when I get to go visit him at the end of the month.

So, there you have it! Some brief updates from Kenya! I feel very out of the loop with friends and family and news outside of Kenya, but am hoping to catch up with each of you very soon since I plan on keeping more regular work hours in the near future. I also hope to hear from blogging friends about your plans for the new year. Thank you to all for the assistance thus far and your continued support as I leap into the unknown and work on getting my business off the ground.

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10 thoughts on “Struggles in Nairobi and Business Progress

  • I’m so glad you’re okay. I have never encountered pick-pocketing or getting sick overseas other than a bad cold, and I’m sure I would have been very overwhelmed!

    Gav and I just booked our flights for the honeymoon, and over the next few weeks we have tons of appointments to move wedding planning decisions forward. At work, a new semester is underway, and it’s the busiest I’ve been at work since returning to an office post-Australia. I’ll be able to take a few deep breaths soon!

  • I’m sorry you’ve had such a rough start to the year! Those earrings are gorgeous though, even if getting them made from your diagram was a headache, so I’m sure that the project will be successful as soon as you’re able to start selling. That will probably make the rest of 2013 a bit better than the first few minutes!

  • I’m so sorry to hear of your pick-pocketing situation :( That’s the worst feeling… utter helplessness. How are the couchsurfing and hostel opportunities there in Nairobi? I’m pondering heading south into Africa after my trek in and around Egypt… Can you send any recommendations my direction?

    • Hostels are easy- though a few are far from town, there are 2 that are close to the city center. Plus there are plenty of sketchy cheap hotels around if you’re down for that ;) I haven’t couchsurfed in Nairobi but I think the community is fairly active so you shouldn’t have any problems. Good luck and let me know if you head this way!

  • What a crazy start to the new year. I’m sorry to hear. On the positive note, things can only get better yea? Keep your head high as I’m sure you will achieve all your goals.

  • Ha ha! I think I have met that Australian con artist. He does that a lot to foreigners in Kenya. He probably makes a killing out of unsuspecting naive victims.

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