I am back to my base in Nairobi after more than two weeks on the road. Slowly settling into African big city life. Hustle and bustle, constant chaos with traffic and people everywhere, but I am completely in love with the energy and vibrancy. You never know what to expect when you get off your doorstep!
In Nairobi I am working with VegPro Group, a company that produces vegetables and flowers for the UK market. Their farms in Naivasha Valley feel like jumping straight into a scenic photography.
Green and lush farmland embraced by rolling hills in the shadow of blue mountains towering in the background.
Women in colourful clothes picking the beans and baby corn by hand, laughing and gossiping as they methodologically work their ways through the impeccably straight lines of crop.
Back in the packing facilities in Nairobi there is a tremendous discipline and efficiency to get all vegetables washed, chopped and packaged for export. Investing in leadership training for the people slicing the carrots for your dinner has had a powerful impact on their personal and professional lives.
Improved teamwork and work ethics as well as boosted confidence and communication skills are some of the benefits I hear when walking around talking to the employees.
I meet a man called Charles, and we start talking about what the leadership training has done for him on a personal level. Very passionate about his community in Kiseran, he has started an education centre with 50 children, who for different reasons have not had the chance to enter primary school.
Charles has recruited volunteering teachers from the community to help the children catch up on English, Swahili and other core subjects.
The result? After six months 15 of these children have now been admitted to school next year.
A tremendous success and all because of one man’s leadership!
On our way home we stop in Dandora, one of the poorest slums of Nairobi. I need to buy some vegetables for dinner and am thinking to myself; what can be cheaper than the local market? I pay less than a pound for two kilos of potatoes, a tenth of the price in Nakumatt (Sainsbury’s of Kenya).
All the locals keep gazing at the only white person in the market place, shouting “Mzungu, mzungu!” and laughing. Not to worry – their manner is very friendly and just curious. Upon leaving my friend tells me: “The girl who sold you potatoes will have so much business in the next six months. Just because a white person bought her products, she will be treated like a royalty. In a few minutes more than a thousand people here will know that a mzungu went shopping in this market place”.
As I slowly come to realise the potential of what he is actually telling me, I ask him if he has any other friends working in the market, keen to boost their sales too. How extraordinary that, rightly or wrongly, all you have to do is to show up in the slums and you can change someone’s life in less than five minutes.
My friend Charles and I start talking about Kenyan ethnicities and ways of life. In a country where 42 tribes co-exist, the cultural abundance can we somewhat overwhelming. Charles, for example, married into a Masai family. “The Masai have a very strong culture and really harness their traditions” he explains. For example, the process of marrying someone is slightly more complicated than what we know from the West.
Not only is the competition for her hand extremely fierce, you also have to prove worthy through a long process. “It took me a year” he says. To begin, Charles had to win the trust of the elderly village chiefs by bringing them lucrative gifts and presents from Nairobi. The second step feels a little old-fashioned – wrestling! The potential future husband and the village chiefs each find a strong wrestler from their own tribe, who both train full-time for six months to then meet in a fight in the local village. “I was very nervous” Charles admits. “If my wrestler would have lost the flight, I would forever have lost the chance to marry my beloved Grace.”
The last step of the engagement is to settle a price for the woman.
The value is agreed amongst the village chiefs and based on three criteria; family wealth, level of education and motherly potential. Virgins are twice as expensive and highly sought after. The price for Grace was 50 cows – equivalent to €4,500. This is a lot for a man who makes €150/month. Two days of negotiation and the final price was down to 22 cows. “The Masai are extremely skilled negotiators,” Charles says. “You would not want to meet a Masai in the board room”.
So after a year of preparation, everything is ready for the big wedding. All significant Masai festivities begin with the killing of a cow with bow and arrow. With the cow still alive, her neck is sliced to be tapped on fresh blood. The Masai Moet & Chandon is blood mixed with cow’s pee and milk! Supplemented by delicious canapés in the shape of thinly sliced raw meat. As much as I would love to attend the wedding ceremony, this is a little bit too much for me to stomach…
It amazes me that Kenya, a country that in so many ways is at the forefront of innovation and entrepreneurship, enjoying an attractive GDP growth and is embraced by a vast number of private equity and venture capitalists, still has preserved so many of its traditional roots.
But not to be fooled, in the pocket of the colourful red shukas and beads of the Masai hides a mobile phone. After all – even the Kenyans are as fascinated as us by the sophistication of technology. It is useful for the Masai to call their friends to see where the cows are at or if the market price on cassava has dropped.
One day of teaching at Dandora Uprising – one of the youth groups in a Nairobi slum