Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Oui, ça Buj

I'm writing this from my computer* in my hotel in Bujumbura.

This is my second time in the Burundian capital. Last summer, my friend Chrissy and I made a one-night trip from Rwanda to Burundi on the grounds that neither of us was going to get another chance. "Who even goes to Burundi?"

But, never say never. I'm back.

The contrast between my two trips is, well, pretty big. Last time, I traveled in with Yahoo!** Trans, sat next to locals eating goat-meat kebabs, wore shorts and flip-flops, hung out with my friends and partied with members of East African rap ensemble Klear Kut. This time, I jetted in on the early-morning flight, sitting next to development workers, and have been sweating in a suit most of the day. My hotel this time has a pool (compare with the particularly low showerhead which was the distinctive feature of last summer's accommodations). All of the above seems like a positive trajectory in my life.

The purpose of my trip was to meet with some civil servants - specifically, the ones who are leading Burundi's efforts to integrate with the EAC common market.

It's tough going for Burundi: they are the poorest in the EAC, recently suffered major ethnic violence (more Hutu-Tutsi stuff, in 2000) and have extremely poor infrastructure. Over half of its exports come from coffee and it has very little manufacturing base. When it comes to building the common market, they're again the odd man out. Burundi speaks French and relies on civil law, whereas the other countries speak English and rely on common law or a blend of both systems. When Burundian officials get EAC policy memos, they have to translate them into French before doing anything else, because there so few English speakers here. Many senior Burundian officials recognize that their laws and Constitution are out of date and ineffective but they don't have the manpower to change it. It's a difficult and frustrating situation for those that want to push for genuine reform.

But undercutting any self-driven reform is the poverty that the country contends with. Burundi has an annual GDP of one billion USD. To put that in perspective, the smallest of the Fortune 1000 companies has an annual revenue far greater than that. Those numbers are not really comparable (for some technical reasons) but they give you a sense of how low-income a place Burundi is.

Of course, a partial explanation for such a low GDP figure is that such a large percent of economic activity goes unreported. This is true for all African countries, but it even more true in Burundi given what I would describe as the national sketch factor.

On my last visit here, I was astonished by the disposible income of, and lavish spending by, a small subset of the population. When rich Bujumburans go out, they go out hard. Such free spending is hard to reconcile with one of the lowest GDP per capita figures in the world. Of course, there's an explanation for this that doesn't show up in official growth figures.

Burundians benefit from two non-standard sources of income: remittances and informal/dirty business. Remittances from relatives abroad are a major source of income for most developing countries. The young (who are typically men) leave to go to Europe and carve out a living there. When they have surplus funds, they send them home to their families in the villages. For many countries, including wealthier ones like Armenia, remittances are a large chunk of national income (or GNI). And for some families, especially in impoverished places like Burundi, remittances are a lifeline***.

But remittances aren't the only means of earning off-the-books cash. Burundi's location next to Goma in the Congo means that it is the natural transit point for goods being shipped to and from the Eastern DRC. In fact, because central DRC is so dangerous and impassable, Burundi is one of the few countries that has a natural supply line to the lucrative mines and security forces of the Congo. Since the mines make money, and security forces makes money, there is ample opportunity for some Burundians to make profits on the side, even if illegal.

My discussion of Burundi so far has focused on the economic and legal aspects of the country, which aren't great. But there are positives. Whether suit-clad or flip-flop-wearing, I have been consistently impressed with how friendly Burundians are. Take today, for instance: my scooter driver got lost and ended up on a completely different side of town from where I wanted to be. I was late for my meeting so I waved down a couple of local guys and asked them if they knew the directions, hoping one of them could save me a few minutes. Before I knew it, one of them had jumped in next to me and helped the driver navigate. He didn't leave until I was already inside the front gate of the place where my meeting was held. And last time, as Chrissy and I were leaving Saga Beach, we met some very friendly locals on the matatu ride back into town. People here are a lot of fun and very open to meeting foreigners.

I suppose an improbable third trip to Buj wouldn't be too bad after all.

* On an unrelated note, my computer is dying and my camera is somehow badly damaged and unable to take pictures. Something about me and electronics don't work. This means that you will get no pictures of Burundi, I'm afraid.

** A Kigali-based minibus company that adopted the internet company's name, exclamation point and logo for its branding. But given the age of the bus, I think Altavista Trans would have been more fitting.

*** Despite the horrific cut that wire transfer services like Western Union take on each payment (up to 15% for small transfers). I checked this very morning in the Interbank Office.

Sunday, 22 August 2010


This weekend, I took a trip with friends to the Great Rift Valley. The Rift Valley has been on my list for some time. It’s famous for national parks, game drives, spectacular views and some of the world’s most famous archeological sites with early Cro-Magnon fossils (including the famous Olduvai Gorge). The Kenyan Rift Valley is also a politically charged area: it was a hotbed of violence during the last Presidential election and was the only area firmly opposed to the new Constitution in this month's referendum.

But this weekend was all about the animals. Our trip included two mini-safaris: a walking safari on Crescent Island and a game drive in Nakuru National Park.

I had never done a walking safari before, but it was a cool experience. Crescent Island has no predators, so it’s safe to walk around and track down animals on foot. There are giraffes, hippos, zebras, a number of gazelle-like things, wildebeest and water buffalo.

The main advantage of a walking safari is that you can approach the animals on foot and generally interact with (read: harass) the various creatures. The highlight of the harassment was chasing a giraffe, some wildebeest and a small group of zebra. I learned that every animal there can run twice as fast as a sprinting human. I’m glad we’re not early Cro-Magnon hunters anymore. Or gatherers, for that matter. Here, tracking the animals:

On Saturday night we stayed at Maili Saba Tented Camp, a luxurious facility whose accommodation only loosely qualifies as “camping.” Instead of sleeping in normal tents on lumpy ground, Maili Saba is equipped with permanent luxury tents on platforms that contain large, comfortable beds covered with fresh white linens. Each tent has its own porch, hot shower and clean toilet, plus electric lighting installed into converted kerosene lanterns. The Camp is perched on the edge of a bluff overlooking the valley, so the views are spectacular.

As people who read my Ghana posts will know, I am currently migrating from the hostels-and-backpack phase of my life into the budget-hotels-and-rolling-luggage phase of my life. I guess I’m simply willing to pay a little more for the nicer touches.

After breakfast, we left with our guide to Nakuru National Park. Nakuru is one of two “premium parks” run by Kenya Wildlife Services, meaning that the animals are more interesting and the prices are higher. Nakuru is particularly famous for its abundant bird life and the presence of both black rhinos and the rarer white rhinos. I am not an ornithophile, but the birds at Nakuru were terrific: foul vulture-like Marabou Storks, giant flocks of flamingos and other exotic avian life whose names I’ve already forgotten (the Red-Crested Groundbill, maybe?)

Morning is the best time to visit the park since the predators feed then. We didn’t see any kills, but we did watch a pack of hyenas trying to isolate a baby water buffalo from the pack. They were unsuccessful; several adult buffalo managed to chase them away. While all this was going on, the larger animals, such as the adult rhinos, seemed completely unfazed. As long as you’re not the weakest, I guess you’re ok. An unfazed rhino:

While we were watching the hyenas we came across a rare white rhino. There are fewer than sixty in the whole park, so it was a great find. At one point, we saw a white rhino and black rhino – both adult males – facing each other across a distance of about 75 yards and slowly closing the gap. Although adult males from different species occasionally attack each other, these two decided to be gentlemanly; the white rhino turned around and lay down by the road:

The most hair-raising experience of the weekend was not, however, a close encounter with wildlife; it was a run-in with a disgruntled tanker driver. Halfway back to Nairobi, a large white tanker swerved in front of our van and braked sharply, trying to force us off the road. When the tanker pulled onto the shoulder, our driver dodged around it and kept driving. All of us muttered something about crazy Kenyan drivers, including our driver. It’s true: Kenyan drivers are dangerous, with recklessness roughly proportional to vehicle size. So the tanker’s erratic swerving didn’t really shock us.

Ten minutes later and many miles down the road, as we were rounding a highway on-ramp, the same white tanker tried to force us off the road again. This time was worse than the first: he nearly clipped us, forcing our van to swerve right onto the shoulder. With the oncoming traffic, the on-ramp was so tight that we were trapped behind the tanker and had to pull over and stop. Our guide, Boniface, was very mad at this point and decided to sort things out. He marched up to the cabin of the tanker and started yelling at the guy.

This went on for a few minutes. The shouting match attracted the attention of a police officer who pulled over. He probably saw a chance to investigate possible wrongdoing and discover bribe-taking opportunities (known locally as “eating”).

The tanker driver was yelling in Swahili that our driver had hit his tanker and caused a dent in the side. Our driver pointed out that our van had no dents and that the tanker must have been mistaken, which was definitely true. I think that the tanker driver was probably looking to pin the blame for his dent on someone and force them to pay the cost of repairs. Before long, the two drivers were soon screaming at each other, with the policeman yelling and gesturing his baton menacingly at both of them.

I decided to step in at this point. I walked up to the officer and told him in my best Swahili that the other man had tried to run us off the road twice but that I was absolutely certain that we hadn’t hit the tanker.

The tanker driver looked like he would have hit me if the policeman wasn’t there, but things seemed to turn around in our favor. The policeman got very loud at this point and told the tanker driver that he was trying to hit our van “like it was full of luggage” and that “he was trying to kill people like animals.” The officer told us we could leave, just before grabbing the other driver by the arm and taking him behind the tanker. I’m not sure what happened at this point, but I think that the tanker driver probably regretted his decision to try and knock us off the road.

As we pulled away, I noticed English writing on the back of the tanker: “WARNING: Caustic Soda. DANGEROUS.” I guess it was a closer call than I realized.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Arushanal Exhuberance

I write this post from the lounge-bar of the beautiful Kibo Hotel in Arusha. I came down this morning to Arusha to meet with officials at the EAC Secretariat, which is headquartered here. This post would be perfect with a few photographs, but alas - Tanzanian internet speed makes it difficult to access gmail, let alone upload images. Sluggish connections sure bring back the memories of Dar.

This may sound strange, but I love visiting the EAC Secretariat building. It's located in a facility known as the AICC, a once-futuristic, now-amusing superstructure from the post-Independence period. There is a certain epoch in post-War, functionalist construction that I love, a time when buildings and structures were designed to look futuristic and space-age. The Washington Metro system was built in this period; it looks like how people thought the future would look in 1950. So too with the AICC. On the outside, slender, arched walkways connect three blocky-looking towers. Inside, custom-made elevators with absurdly small, diagonally offset buttons carry passengers up to the brightly carpeted reception area, which is lined with large fake plants. The walls are lined with the heads of state of the East African countries and the Secretary General of the EAC, as well as earlier batches of politicians from the seventies and eighties. The carpeting, nameplates and reception area remind me (for some weird reason) of how Brazil would have looked 25 years ago.

My favorite part of going, however, are the job titles posted on people's doors: Principal Legal Officer; Principal Planning and Strategy Officer; Health Care Specialist, Disease Control; Assistant Deputy Comptroller; Chief Agronomist; Assistant Meterologist.

Assistant Meteorologist!? They have a skeleton staff of 150 people and two meteorologists? Can't they just get the Weather Channel instead?

Another perk to visiting Arusha is the fine living. Arusha is blessed with plentiful international-grade infrastructure thanks to its close proximity to Kili, Mount Meru, Olduvai Gorge and Ngorongoro National Park. The hordes of tourists that descend here year-round drive up prices but also stimulate supply. I am currently staying at the Kibo Hotel, a fine specimen of such supply.

For the most part, anyway. I checked in this morning somewhat in a rush, distracted by a phone call I was on. I took the room card from the receptionist and walked up to my room on the second floor. Only after I hung up the phone did it occur to me that I had literally walked right in; there was no door to the room! I called a porter who came up and inspected the open door frame with concern: "would you like us to bring a door or get you a new room?" You've got to give them points for service at least.

My new room, by the way, comes with door, bed, shower, toilet and television. I checked.

A fancy hotel like this has a fancy tourist shop, of course. This one sells gold, silver and precious stones. One of the stones they sell is tanzanite, a precious gem found exclusively in Northern Tanzania. It is one of the most precious stones in existence. For points of comparison from the shop here at Kibo, cut and polished amethysts go for $15 per carat, rubies for $60, emeralds for $200 and tanzanite for $400. It's a ghostly blue-purple color and is very beautiful, but I would rather than a giant amethyst than a tiny tanzanite any day.

The only downside to staying in a tourist hotel is that it means that I am stuck working (ok: blogging) while happy bands of foreigners down bottles of Kilimanjaro and talk about climbing Kilimanjaro. But I really shouldn't begrudge my fleece-bedecked counterparts. I'm planning on climbing Mount Kenya in a couple of weeks which should be a great experience in itself.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Community Building

As I mentioned in my first Kenyan post, a big part of my job is working with the East African Community (or EAC for short). If 2010 is a big year for Kenya, it is huge year for East Africa.

The EAC has a long history that dates back to the African pre-Independence period. Then, the EAC consisted of only Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania. It was a short-lived regional fling; for ten years the members bickered about differences in political and economic policy. As I mentioned before, Tanzania was socialist and Kenya more capitalist. The final blow to the EAC came when Idi Amin rose to power in Uganda and did the whole crazy dictator thing. The leaders of Kenya and Tanzania refused to work with him and the old Community soon collapsed.

In more recent times, the leaders of East Africa's Great Lakes countries (Burundi, Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania) have rebuilt the EAC. And these recent efforts have been much more promising. For many years now, the new (5 member) EAC has been making progress towards customs, legal, monetary and even political integration.

So what is regional integration exactly? It means that neighboring countries join up in some way, perform certain government functions jointly, or lower the barriers between their countries. Some familiar examples of regional blocs for Western readers include the EU, NAFTA, NATO, OPEC and ASEAN -- although those organizations are all very different from each other.

Integration usually happens in steps; it takes time, and deeper integration efforts need to build on the simpler, earlier steps. There isn't agreement among experts on how integration needs to happen. One professor of African regionalism I spoke with, Dr. Richard Oppong from Lancaster University, sees integration as taking place over six discrete steps. But I would argue that there are five:

1. Technical cooperation (helping each other out on crime, infrastructure, tech. investment, education. example: cooperation among police forces)
2. Legal harmonization (agreeing to make each other's laws similar to trade, business, investment or further cooperation. examples: the OHADA countries in West Africa agreed to a uniform commercial law; OAS has a supranational human rights courts)
3. Common market (putting in place some form of free movement of goods, people and money. example: NAFTA; the EU)
4. Monetary union (having one currency. examples: EU, Eastern Caribbean Currency Zone, French West Africa)
5. Political federation (becoming one nation-state. examples: USA, UAE, Germany and Italy)

Things get more serious (or integrated) as you move down the list. Almost all countries take part in step (1), and very few have reached step (5). There are a variety of possibilities: early in American history, the US had achieved steps (3)-(5) but purposefully avoided any significant technical cooperation or legal harmonization at the state level. It's one country, but each state can do many things their own way. The EU is the opposite: member countries share a common market, a European Parliament, minimum human-rights standards and the Euro, yet each country retains its statehood and national identity.

So is integration a good thing? That's a tough question, but I tend to think that regional arrangements have a lot to offer.

A basic justification for regional arrangements is the benefit of comparative advantage. In the EAC, for instance, wealthy Kenyans have capital to invest, Uganda has surplus labor it can provide, and Tanzania has large stretches of arable land and a stable political climate. By combining those three factors of production, the three countries are jointly better off than if they operated independently. Rwanda -- self-promoted as the "Switzerland of Africa" -- has tremendous security*, good infrastructure and limited corruption and red tape; the other countries hope it could become a hub of agribusiness, banking, investment and insurance. By removing the barriers to cross-border trade and movement of workers, a common market can help the region grow.

There are also substantial benefits for countries that could come the stabilization offered by having a single currency: no exchange rate risk between local currencies, no issues swapping francs for shillings at border crossings, smaller fluctuations in currency prices, and greater facilitation of cross-border investment. Enough people have written about this that I won't go into it here, but it's probably a plus if the common currency happens and the member states have reached the necessary macroeconomic convergence,.

A third reason (not often voiced) is that the final stage of political federation will break the control of powerful ethnic groups over the national governments. In the past, Baganda control of Uganda, Gikuyu power in Kenya, or Hutu/Tutsi domination in Burundi and Rwanda have led to major bouts of conflict, patronage politics, anger and even genocide. In the EAC, no single ethnic group can possibly achieve a majority or even a strong enough position to dominate the region's politics.

Of course, there is a gap between the potential of regional blocs and the reality; they don't always work out so well. Many regional groups stagnate as toothless and uninteresting entities with nice websites and no real power (think the African Maghreb Union or the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation). Even when they do work, their disintegration can get ugly (think Yugoslavia, the Central American Common Market, or even the Soviet Union).

The East African Community is a region with strong fundamental characteristics in terms of regional potential. Perhaps more importantly, there is considerable political will among the current five heads of state to try and make the agreement work. The EAC leaders committed to an extremely ambitious timeframe for its integration process: customs union by 2005, common market (free movement of people, goods, money) by 2010, a common currency by 2012, and full political federation by 2015. The customs union is in place, as is the common market, although there are a number of implementation problems (which is where my work comes in). Most analysts believe that 2012 is too early for the region to successfully launch a common currency, and many people believe that the political federation (e.g., forming a single United States of East Africa) will never happen at all. Despite the problems the Community faces, however, progress so far has been quite good.

My work itself focuses on building the EAC's common market. One of the main challenges facing the region's common market is the differences in the business laws in each of the countries. When the laws for businesses are very different across countries, investors and workers find it harder to do cross-border business.

Here are a few examples of why this matters. Imagine an dairy-industry entrepreneur from Mombasa who wants to set up a factory in Rwanda. She has a registered, licensed company in Kenya and her Kenyan products conform to national standards. Suppose that Rwanda has completely different rules for the quality of milk, the way the businesswoman runs her factory, and the licenses she needs to obtain... setting up shop in Rwanda is going to be a nightmare. The entrepreneur might not even go at all. If the business rules different enough across countries, many investors (who mostly come from Kenya) will be afraid to invest elsewhere in the region.

Other problems relate to something known as "private international law," which means the laws that apply to deals between people from different countries. Imagine what happens if a Uganda businessman comes to Tanzania and wants to set up a contract with a Tanzanian producer. Suppose that the Tanzanian party is worried about being cheated by the Ugandan businessman in a contract. The Tanzanian could take the Uganda to Tanzanian court and probably win, but winning (getting a "judgment") is no good unless the Ugandan courts agree to enforce it. If they don't, the Tanzanian won't do business with the Uganda in the first place because he knows that he has no way to protect himself.

So you get the idea. There are dozens of areas of law that need to be harmonized for the common market to work, and it needs to happen soon. To make matters trickier, the English-speaking members have a common law legal system, whereas the French-speaking countries have a continental-type civil code (like most of Europe).

My day-to-day work involves working with law reform experts in each of the 5 member countries and planning what laws need to be reformed, and when that harmonization will takes place. Fortunately, I won't have to actually sit down and comb through all the various laws to be harmonized. That work is best done by politicians and lawyers; my work is about picking what laws need to be harmonized. In the upcoming weeks, I'll probably head to many of the national capitals to talk with the relevant officials in person.

The work is exciting for a couple of reasons. The project is a chance to work with senior politicians, integration experts and lawyers from all five of the EAC countries. Those I've met so far have been talented and eager for outside support. It's a fascinating glimpse inside the struggles of career technocrats who are trying to build something important while navigating tricky political waters and stretched Ministry budgets.

But the main reason it’s exciting is that EAC integration is probably a one-time shot. Regional blocs very rarely organize and try for a complete economic and political union. Most of the time, they flounder at early stages of technical cooperation or dissolve after inter-member conflict (such as after Central America's "soccer war"). The EAC already failed once. Most politicians here recognize that if it fails again, the vision of a united East Africa will probably be gone for good.

On the other hand, The EAC is the most advanced of Africa's official Regional Economic Communities. If integration works out, it could raise a rally flag for regionalism in Africa and prove to other countries that a successful union is possible.

The next few years will be decisive. I feel lucky to be working on this project at such an interesting time.


Folks, it's been over a week since my last blog post. This is partly a function of how busy things have been at work and partly a function of my busier evening and weekend social life in Nairobi.

But it's primarily a function of my laziness. There are so many things I want to write about that I haven't gotten around to putting pen to paper (or fingers to keys, as it were). This week, that's going to change: I am committing -- right here -- to keeping the posts flowing for the next seven days. So keep checking in!

Friday, 6 August 2010

The Infidelity Hour

You probably know that I hate Nairobi traffic. There is, however, a silver lining to the dark thundercloud of Kenyan gridlock: morning talk radio.

The taxi company that I take to work caters mostly to international community workers, and the drivers are required to pick the same English-heavy channel every morning. The DJ and callers speak mostly in English with a sprinkling of Swahili, so it’s easy to understand.

Between 8:00 and 9:30 am, the discussion is devoted to two topics: public corruption and infidelity. Corruption discussion = boring. But discussions on cheating = hilarious, depressing and revealing, all at the same time.

The show uses the same format every time: the discussion typically kicks off around 8:15 with a story about a man or a woman who was caught cheating, who cheated without getting caught, who caught his or her partner cheating, who knows someone who is a mistress, who suspects they are being cheated on, or who has an interesting anecdote about cheating. After the DJ has explained the story, he asks listeners what they would do if they found themselves in that person’s shoes.

(Actual) examples have included:
1) Story: a married Kenyan woman gave birth to her third child. The child was visibly half Caucasian. Her husband was very upset and at a loss of what to do. Question: what would you do as a man in this situation? Do you leave your wife?
2) Story: a recently married man finds that his girlfriend spends a lot of time out with her girlfriends and doesn’t get home until quite late one or two nights a week. She doesn’t tend to call or text while she’s out. Question to men: do you think it is important to tame your wife once you get married? To women: do you think you need to be tamed?
3) Today’s story: the king of Swaziland (honest!) had his police raid a hotel and found that one of his ministers was sleeping with one of his wives. (Aside: who is dumb enough to sleep with the wife of an absolute monarch?) Question to men: have you ever caught your partner in bed with a close friend? And what did you do? To women: have you ever been caught red-handed?
4) Story: a man tells his mistress that his wife suspects he is being unfaithful. The mistress is worried about her identity being discovered and facing the wrath of the wronged wife. Question to mistresses: have you ever faced the wrath of his wife? To wives: have you ever had to deal with a mistress? Do you do it directly or indirectly through the husband?

The stories are rarely as interesting as the sound bites from the people that call in. There are angry callers and calm ones, mistresses and wives, men and women, people with firsthand accounts and people who answer in hypothetical. The callers are an interesting glimpse into how fidelity is seen in Kenya: publicly condemned, definitely widespread and even accepted as a fact of everyday life.

One of the most surprising things about listening to the Hour of Cheating is how reasonable and un-macho many of the male callers are. In response to today’s story, a number of Kenyan men called in to discuss how they would handle their wife giving birth to a child that was obviously not theirs. One pointed out that it was the husband’s responsibility to keep the family together, no matter what happened, and to be a good father to the child even if it wasn’t biologically his. Another explained that infidelity is painful, but it’s a wound that can be repaired if the woman is willing to amend her ways and not do it again. A third said (correctly, I’d say) that men become extremely angry when they first find out about infidelity but that they calm down in the end. Maybe the callers on this show aren’t representative of the general population, but their responses seemed more understanding and forgiving than I would have expected.

There are some less surprising aspects of unfaithfulness. Infidelity in Kenya, I have gathered, is often a partly financial relationship. Certainly engaging a prostitute is a very common pattern for some men – and is purely transactional. But a typical pattern of long-term infidelity involves a married man having an affair with a younger woman (who may or may not be married herself). We can call this type of relationship the “sugar daddy affair.” This arrangement should be familiar to most readers: the man generally provides the woman with money, entertainment and things; the mistress enters into a kind of medium-term goods-for-services exchange. In many cases, there is an emotional component, but the financial aspect is never too far below the surface. Last week, when a female caller (who claimed to be a mistress) explained that she never received any material things from her lover, the DJ and callers expressed shock at the situation.

According to many of the wives who call in, they often suspect that their husband is being unfaithful without any concrete evidence. But since extramarital affairs have a material component, the struggle between the wife and the mistress is not only a fight over dignity and love, but also over financial resources. As the DJ frequently points out: if you can’t tell exactly how much money your husband is bringing in, how can you be sure that he’s not buying his mistress a car or giving her money for school? For wives and mistresses, it’s a zero-sum game; what the mistress gets, the wife and kids don’t.

Although the discussion about infidelity on the radio is often gossipy and matter-of-fact, the issue of infidelity (especially sugar-daddy affairs) has two major implications from a development standpoint.

First, infidelity, and having multiple partners in general, is a major health risk. In Kenya, infrequent condom usage combined with high STD rates and widespread infidelity is (quite literally) a deadly combination. The problem is the same in other East African countries. Public health workers across East Africa see sexual transmission of major diseases such as HIV as one of their top priorities. Sugar daddy-type affairs often involve older men and younger women, which lead to the intergenerational spread of HIV. As my health-worker friends point out, the intergenerational transmission of HIV/AIDS is one of the main ways that HIV levels remain so high, since younger generations get infected earlier than they would if sexual activity was confined to peers.

Overcoming dangerous sexual practices is hard work. Last summer, Uganda and Rwanda launched “anti-sugar daddy” campaigns: one sign in Kampala showed a young girl in a college uniform making a ‘no’ sign with her hand to an older man in a luxury car. (Oddly enough, the government was gender neutral enough to print “anti-sugar momma” posters: a young man refusing a beer from an older woman in a suit – a somewhat less likely situation). On the shores of Lake Victoria in Tanzania, signs in Swahili said ‘If you truly love her, you’ll protect her,’ with regard to condom usage and affairs. In downtown Dar-es-Salaam, humorous murals reminded passerby that sleeping with teachers and government officials was a dangerous and unhealthy practice for young women.

The second problem relates to savings and investment. One of the phenomena familiar to African development workers is the so-called “girl effect” – the notion that females are much more likely to invest money they receive in health, education of children, basic needs and savings. Men, in general, spend a much larger share of funds on luxury and unnecessary items such as alcohol, women, imported goods and entertainment. This isn’t to say that men are always less wise with their cash, but there is considerable evidence that this tendency holds true overall. Many microfinance institutions and development organizations will only work with women for this reason. When there’s only so much money to go around, they reason, why spend where it won’t have an impact?

How does this relate to infidelity? When infidelity involves a sugar-daddy type relationship (and what mistress wouldn’t at least want to be taken out to dinner?) it siphons funds from the household to another woman, often in the form of luxury goods, clothing or entertainment. Rather than being spent wisely at home on education, healthcare, etc., the money is wasted on items that produce little return on investment. Each trip with the mistress means that one of the children might not be able to attend school that month. Critics of this view might point out that accepting funds from a cheating husband is the only means that some young women can start their own businesses, attend college or university, or support themselves, but such situations are probably uncommon.

It can be a little depressing to hear about all the cheating that’s going on. There’s not much to do except for me to keep listening.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Call to Relax

I just returned from an amazing weekend in Lamu Town. Lamu is part of the Lamu Archipelago, a small chain of islands off Kenya's coastline, quite near Somalia.

It was short trip: Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon. But even that short stay in and around Lamu was enough to fall in love with the place. I have to give Lamu the title for East Africa's most charming and romantic spot. The rich and famous have been fans of Lamu for a while; Bill Gates visits the area from time to time and Princess Caroline of Monaco has no fewer than four houses here, not to mention the scores of wealthy finance types with cash to burn. Fortunately, the islands remain accessible even to humbler elements like me.

Getting to Lamu from Nairobi involves traveling to minuscule airports and jumping on even smaller planes. The views of the flight as we got close to the coast were terrific:

Pretty much every aspect of the weekend was a huge hit. I traveled there with a great group of people -- four volunteer consultants working at TechnoServe (my employer last summer in Tanzania). For most of them, it was their first time in Lamu as well, so we had the chance to explore the island together.

Our accommodations were outrageously nice. Rather than staying at one of Lamu's fancy hotels, we rented a mansion for the weekend. The mansion was called Mnarani House, which means "the house at the minaret." And indeed there was a beautiful mosque right next door - nice for views, not so nice for sleep when the call to prayer blasts at 5 am, twenty feet from your head. Muezzins aside, the house itself had a charming Swahili open-plan layout. In general, I've always found Islamic architecture to produce some of the nicest homes - simple exteriors and elegant interiors centered around courtyards, sitting areas and gardens. This house followed that tradition: there were four floors, and each floor was divided up with low walls which created sitting areas, a coffee nook, the dining balcony, a reading area, etc. Instead of windows, the house had several balconies and open views of the town so that place was always kept cool by the sea breeze. The bedrooms were really beautiful, with en-suite bathrooms and unusually shaped windows that prevents those outside from seeing in allows a nice breeze to blow through at night.

We spent most of the time in the house eating in the open-air dining room or hanging out on the cushion-filled rooftop, which had great views of the mosque, the beach and the mansions nearby. This is the view of Mnarani House and mosque:

One of Lamu's biggest attractions is the seafood. The apartment that we rented came free with a chef and steward; we only had to pay for the ingredients. The seafood there was amazing: fried calamari on the first night; oysters, crabs and lobster on the second; a gigantic, grilled white snapper for our final lunch. Everything had been caught hours before we ate it. Even the side dishes were great: avocado-onion salads, coconut-cooked rice, dressings like ginger, lime, garlic and chili.

We hired a local guy to give us a tour of Lamu town on Saturday. The tour itself was somewhat half-hearted, more of a loop through tourist boutiques owned by our guide's friends than a history-focused trek through the island's points of interest. Nonetheless, we spent a few hours in Lamu's quiet streets filled with crumbling buildings, narrow alleyways and vegetable stalls. The photo opportunities were incredible, and I tried to do my best with my entry-level Canon. The quality of the footage was good enough that I told myself I would learn more about photography before the summer is over. Here are some of my favorites...

Lamu's transportation industry is donkey-based. The narrowness of the roads, the lack of bridges to the mainland and the small size of the town make cars totally impractical on the island. In other places where I've seen similar constraints (Utila, Honduras), people have used golf carts as a fill-in for cars, but not here. Human and cargo transport is done primarily with donkeys, who are everywhere. I saw donkeys working, donkeys standing around, a donkey being forcibly bathed in the ocean and donkeys recuperating in Lamu's donkey hospital/sanctuary. Here is a young donkey downtown.

The beach outside of Shella (where we stayed) was a 10-mile stretch of pristine, powdery sand with very few visitors. Definitely one of the nicest beaches I've seen in a long time. The near absence of tourists and total lack of hotels was refreshing (if surprising). I wonder how long the island has until the big hotels arrive. I spent quite a few hours swimming and lying on the beach.

The highlight was probably the sunset dhow cruise we took on Saturday. As in many parts of the Swahili coast, Lamu's fishermen use dhows (traditional wooden vessels with a single, spinnaker-like sail) for getting around. Two local guys took us out for a two-hour sail around the island just as the sun was going down. Here is me on the boat with Simon as we set out:

And Lamu town at sunset:

I was sad when it was finally time to leave for the airport. And by airport, I mean this:

PS. As I am posting this, I'm sitting in a hotel in Arusha. It's noon and the hotel lounge is blasting house music. Why, Tanzania, why?