It’s 8:15am on Thursday, August 12 and I am caught in my first Nairobi traffic jam.
The morning after arriving in Kenya my roommate and I are picked up from our apartment to start our first day of orientation – over the following days we will become orientated with the city, the phone system, the banking, the Canadian Embassy, the Immigration Office, the scope of the Aga Khan Development Network, the operations of the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) East Africa, the different work environments for each fellow, the wildlife who live in Nairobi National Park, and the people involved in AKF projects in rural communities in Mombasa.
But before any of that happens, I am getting orientated with Nairobi traffic.
Our driver navigates the vehicle through the city streets, bustling with matatus (private vans that provide local transport), cars, city buses, bikes, and people on foot weaving their way through the congestion. Sans traffic, it’s just over ten minutes to town from my area, depending on your route. This morning, we make it in roughly half an hour. Not so bad.
Over the following two days I am briefed on the places of work where my colleagues and I will be spending the next several months – the Aga Khan University’s Graduate School of Media and Communication (where I’m working), the Nation Media Group, and the Aga Khan Foundation East Africa (like AKF Canada in the Aga Khan Development Network chain).
The Nation Media building is a fixture within the city landscape, and is a predominant land marker that enables me to orientate myself. Founded by His Highness the Aga Khan in 1959, the Nation is the largest independent media house in East and Central Africa and aims “to be the media of Africa for Africa.” The media house has five print publications, a television channel, and two radio stations. It has operations in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. The Nairobi newsroom is buzzing at 10am on Friday morning as we tour though. People hunched over computers typing, milling between desks, phones ringing, voices chatting, a constant murmur of activity channelling energy and chasing the topics of the day.
That afternoon we meet with AKF East Africa staff to learn about the foundation’s projects. We learn about a project in Madagascar that has enabled farmers to more than double their rice yield. We talk about youth and leadership. About maternal health. About charcoal and the environment. About local governance. The passion and conviction with which employees speak is infectious and I cannot wait for our orientation in Mombasa to see some of the projects in action. AKF is different from some other NGOs because rather than giving a community what it needs, it enables community members to get what they need themselves – acting as a facilitator rather than a straight donor. In this way, the development that takes places is sustainable because it is rooted in the needs of the community, as the community chooses what those needs are.
The late afternoon finds our group at the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) office in Nairobi. The AKDN, with headquarters in Geneva, is the parent organization that has birthed the previous organizations I’ve mentioned. The breadth of AKDN is far reaching in geography and subject area, operating in over 25 countries with agencies in micro-finance, education, economic development, health, planning and building, and culture – from airlines to early childhood education, a hotel chain to hospitals.
The skyline is changing colour as we leave the city centre to head back to my neighbourhood, having spent the day getting better acquainted with AKDN. But I continue my orientation as I sit in a taxi by asking the driver his opinion of the restaurants and bars we pass, the names of streets, what I can say in Kiswahili that will give me street cred. (Poa is the word for cool.) There’s no rush to this segment of my orientation. Due to Nairobi traffic, it takes almost an hour to get home.