When Primates Attack (And Other Tales of Fellows’ Mayhem and Adventure)

As the next round of Kiva Fellows finished their training, Nabomita, Zack, and Julie (KF5) met for a weekend getaway in Mombasa, Kenya. During our reunion, we came up with some words to live by both for successfully completing your fellowship and for happily taking a respite from the rigors of life at an MFI. Read on, for our pearls of wisdom.

1) Don’t let the signs fool you; greasing an Immigration Official’s palm can buy you entry into a foreign country

After 8 hours on a bus from Dar es Salaam, Nabomita and Julie reached the Kenyan border only to face the reality of parting with $50 each to enter the country (the equivalent of 250 delicious breakfast chapatis.) Luckily rules in Kenya—even those pertaining to immigration status—are flexible. After a few minutes of talking to the official who was clearly looking for some sort of entertainment (evident through his use of different cartoon voices for each passing visitor) he indicated that he might be willing to help us get into the country if we could make his Ramadan feast a nicer one. Watching him sip on a Fanta Orange at 3:30pm, we were naturally skeptical that he, in fact, had an Iftar in his future, but we decided to let it slide. We were able to buy our visas for $30 each and he even gave us his email address should we confront problems trying to reenter Tanzania. It was difficult to fathom how we would be able to use this address to solicit his aid if stopped at the border, but he handed us the post-it note with such gusto that it almost made us believe it wasn’t worthless.

2) Don’t be afraid to use your muzungu status to sneak in to 5-star resorts

On our first morning at our dodgy “cottage” down the beach, we felt the call of the resorts farther north and tried to wash the dirt out from under our fingernails well enough so that we could pass as luxury vacationers. The resort staff welcomed us suspiciously to join their exclusively European, golden-anniversary-celebrating clients. The only issue arose as we tried to maintain our tight $5-per-day budget while sipping on a glass of their $8 juice. Eventually we resorted to the only food there we could afford: a fresh coconut, the milk of which quenched our thirst while the meat sustained us until we got back to our side of the beach. The lesson here is that while you might be able to get in because of your status as foreigner, it does not necessarily mean you can afford to be there.

3) Don’t let the bottle fool you—spray on sunscreen still needs to be rubbed in

Julie—the palest member of the trio—made the tactical error of spraying herself with SPF 15 sunscreen without rubbing it in in an attempt to spare her hands from yucky sunscreen residue. Believing it would air dry, Julie looked down five hours later to see that she resembled a leper (no offense to lepers). The pattern of the sunburn was so random that it made one wonder if someone had taken a paintbrush to create sunburn abstract art on her legs and stomach. The next two days resulted in Julie’s new-found modesty as she alternated between applying soothing aloe and trying to hide the offending legs in long pants at the beach.

Paintbrush strokes of sunburn across Julie's stomach topped off with a lovely geometric sternum burn (and long pants hiding the offending legs)
Paintbrush strokes of sunburn and a geometric sternum burn (and pants to hide the offending legs)

4) Thieves are not only found walking through bustling markets. They can enter your room, and they don’t even have to be evolved

After a breakfast of champions (Nutella and crackers), the trio wandered the 50 meters to the beach while leaving their cottage door ajar. Upon returning a few minutes later, we walked in on 5 monkeys boldly making away with a yet unopened package of crackers from inside the room. That the monkeys knew the crackers were to be found under Zack’s moldy clothing demonstrates that they had been spying on us through the windows all morning and awaiting our departure. In an attempt to win his crackers back, Zack set peanut butter and biscuit traps but the monkeys knew better and stayed away to enjoy their feast. This was a harbinger of things to come (raw unedited monkey battle video forthcoming)

Stealthy monkey and the stolen crackers (he even has a cracker hanging out of his mouth)

Stealthy monkey and the stolen crackers (he even has a cracker hanging out of his mouth)

5) When using your guidebooks keep in mind that they probably haven’t been updated in 5 to 10 years

Reading about the only Mexican restaurant in East Africa led the fellows to salivate over the thought of margaritas and guacamole for the five hours leading up to dinner. After taking three matatus, one ferry, and two tuktuks we finally arrived at the anticipated source of our greatest meal in Africa. Perplexed by the void where the restaurant should have been, we asked some loitering locals where we could find our enchiladas. After a few minutes of confusion as to what we were asking, the locals informed us that said restaurant was not only closed, but had closed in 2003, never to reopen. Having eaten nothing for the previous five hours in preparation for the grand feast, the ravenous fellows exclaimed in despair at the revelation. Unable to think clearly through the hunger we started wandering until we came upon an immaculate seaside restaurant—the kitchen of which was closed. Sure we would collapse before our blood sugar levels were restored, we made our way to the middle-school hangout of upperclass suburban Mombasa to satiate our hunger with bagfuls of movie popcorn and paneer pies. Never put your life or your stomach in the hands of Lonely Planet.

6) Just because you’re taking some time off does not mean you get to escape the hassles of Africa

After months of solo travel, the group discovered that even strength in numbers does not deter drunken suitors. Walking through Mombasa, Julie and Nabomita were berated by an incoherent local for being “thieves” and “robbers”. Despite being impressed that he knew both of those words in English, they sped up their pace. Undeterred, he followed them all of the way to the ferry, volume and rage-level increasing. “If he touches either of us, I’ll break his hand,” Julie affirmed to Nabomita. Her deadpan indicated that she might even be looking forward to having a violent outburst. Stepping up to play his role as Man of the Group, Zack tried to place himself between the offending man and the ready-to-pounce women. Unfortunately, Zack’s strategic positioning made him the victim of an ill-aimed blown kiss as the drunk man landed one right on Zack’s shoulder. Julie lunged, ready to fight, but Zack wisely told her that she need not jump—he liked it a little bit. At this point, we remembered that Africa’s hassles are typically as harmless as butterfly kisses.

7) You’re not alone; whatever bizaro experiences you’re having, one of the other fellows can probably empathize

From the moment Zack, Nabomita, and Julie met up, there was no lull in the conversation. Having experienced so much in our completed months in Africa, it was refreshing to tell our respective stories and find that even though we’d gone through them alone, many were shared experiences. From daily hassles to minor victories, work-related questions to poverty alleviation philosophizing, talking to people who could truly understand the work we’d been pouring ourselves into was incredibly therapeutic. If you connected with fellows at karaoke, the conference room, or the comfy sofas at Kiva headquarters, do what you can to stay in touch—and even better, take a long weekend to regroup. You’ll need it.

Much love,
Nabomita, Zack, and Julie

Nabomita, Zack, and Julie (KF5) in Mombasa, Kenya
Nabomita, Zack, and Julie (KF5) in Mombasa, Kenya

About the author

Julie Ross

Julie focuses on developing the primary technology that Kiva's field partners use to interface with Kiva, whether it be to manage their Kiva finances, post new borrower profiles, or maintain their relationship with Kiva.  She is thrilled to support the work of Kiva's partners by using her field experience and partner knowledge to create easy-to-use, streamlined, and beautiful tools.  Prior to working on the Product Management team, Julie was the Kiva Fellows Program Manager following time spent first as a Kiva Fellow, then as a Coordinator for the program.  She served as a Kiva Fellow in 2008-2009 with Kiva's field partners in Tanzania and Rwanda.  Prior to joining Kiva, Julie worked on Capitol Hill. She graduated from Tufts University in Medford, MA with a degree in English Literature.