Aug 8, 2007 KE Kenya

So I’m in the home stretch of my time as a Kiva Fellow. I’ll be returning to New York next week. I have mixed emotions about this – it will be wonderful to see my family and friends again, to enjoy American efficiency and hot water and not eat barbecued red meat with every meal, but the past several weeks have been an undeniably instructive, formative and remarkable experience for me.
Last Thursday night was my last in Nakuru, the town where Ebony’s head office is. I went to dinner that night with the whole staff. We spent several hours at the restaurant, dancing to the spirited Kenyan music played by the live band. At one point everyone went around saying goodbye to me – it was truly touching. I did my best to express my thanks and gratitude, for how hospitable and welcoming they have all been, but also for the work that they are doing. I find it humbling to have worked with so many talented people dedicated to helping their fellow man, a sentiment that I often find lacking in my life back home. I assured them that I would be back, and I meant it – I have every intention of returning to Kenya within the next few years.

On Friday James (Eb-F’s director) and I went to Nairobi where we briefly met up with the Nairobi Unit. They were attending the graduation of their latest batch of clients. As part of the loan process, Ebony provides its clients with a three-week business skills crash course. Clients learn everything from accounting to marketing, skills that will help them better utilize their loan and improve their enterprises. Ebony has partnered with the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business to help teach these courses. A professor and her MBA students come to Kenya to teach side-by-side with Ebony’s staff.

In the evening we boarded a short flight to Mombasa, one of Kenya’s biggest cities. It’s on the coast, overlooking the Indian Ocean. It’s a major shipping port for not only Kenya, but East Africa in general. Upon landing I immediately noted that the stereotypical African weather I had been expecting was here – it was hot, humid and sticky. The other day, it was easily 75 or 80 degrees by only 10 am! What’s remarkable is that right now it’s winter in Kenya, meaning that come December, the weather here is much much hotter.

Ebony just recently opened a new Unit here. It’s been in operation for a little over three weeks now and is staffed by just two people, Jane and Mike. They have begun extending credit in what Eb-F terms is Benki Yetu program. This loan scheme is centered around small amounts and is given to groups of five only. Repayment is daily, usually about 100 shillings, and lasts for a maximum 45 days. Groups that successfully repay their first loan graduate to two higher levels within Benki Yetu. If they continue repaying on time, they can then access the higher credit schemes that Ebony offers.

Mombasa is a beautiful city, right on the ocean. At most times during the day and especially at night there’s a refreshing sea breeze floating through the city. The city proper is actually an island, directly off the mainland, connected by a bridge and a ferry system. Right away I got the sense that it was much more of a city than Nakuru. It’s not as big as Nairobi, but sufficiently large and with bigger avenues, more traffic, more high-rises, etc. There’s a strong Muslim and Arab influence in the city, something that is noticeable not only by the Muslim-inspired architecture of many buildings but also simply by the sheer number of women in traditional burqa coverings. The city is also very old and was one of Kenya’s first contact points with Europeans. The Portuguese established a port here as early as 1593 when they built Fort Jesus, a structure that is still standing today. It’s now a historical site and museum, and I was lucky enough to visit. Over the next several centuries Mombasa was held by Arabs from Oman, British, etc.

The city is also naturally a huge tourist attraction, owing to its beautiful beaches. I’ve seen a lot more foreigners on the streets than I ever would in Nakuru. An interesting (yet sad and disturbing) phenomenon is the prevalence of prostitution in Mombasa. Nearly every club/restaurant/bar (they are all the same) I have been to is filled with women of various ages who are hookers. Their industry is fueled by the wealthy white men (mainly Europeans) who come here on vacation looking for a good time. In talking with Jane and Mike I learned that a lot of the women working as prostitutes stay in school only long enough to learn conversational English, Italian and German, then drop out and become prostitutes. It’s an unbelievably sad state of affairs.

A corollary to this is the pretty large number of Europeans (men AND women) who come here “looking for love.” These are people who are clearly of means and who are all a minimum of 40 years old, some much older. I see them all over town and on the beach, strolling hand in hand with young Kenyan men and women, locals who look barely out of their teens.

I leave this afternoon for Nairobi, where I’ll be working with that Unit. I’ll be visiting Kiva clients who are mainly based in the Kibera slums. I’m there until I head home next week.

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