Curious Jo Goes to Kenya
I'm a Small Enterprise Development volunteer working for the Peace Corps in Kenya for the next two years, 9/06 - 12/08. What does being a small enterprise development volunteer entail, you ask? Good question. I'll let you know when I figure it out.
Friday, June 06, 2008
You’re going WHERE? You’re doing WHAT?
In the interest of overly complicating things in life, I am switching to a new blog URL, so this will be my last post to the
For those of you who don’t know, the “transition” of which I speak is my impending move to
What I’m going to be doing there is about the most confusing thing I’ve ever had to explain in casual conversation. Recently when most strangers ask me, “so what will you be doing in
I’ve taken a job with the Institute for Financial Management and Research (IFMR), a business school located in Chennai (southeast corner of the country). I’ll be working for the Center for Development Finance (CDF), one of several action-research centers at the school focused on improving living standards in India, alleviating poverty, creating a middle class, etc. – all those things that give you that “feel good” feeling.
As for what I, specifically, will be doing. This is where it gets a little complicated. So, the school is affiliated with the second largest bank in
Sooo, in response to a need for strategic services by the foundation, CDF has just started a new program called the – are you ready for this? – Strategy & Implementation Evaluation Research Unit (SIERU). It will basically be a consulting group tasked with evaluating the philosophical/academic strategies and the implementation plans of its clients. The ICICI Foundation will be its first client, and it is hoping to attract more in the future as there seems to be high demand for this type of service.
This is where I, finally, come in. The SIERU unit will be co-run by two managers: one on the academic strategy evaluation side (a guy who already has an MBA and just graduated from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard), and one on the business strategy/implementation evaluation side (yours truly). Am I qualified for this, you ask? Not in the least. Am I totally intimidated? Yes indeed.
So that’s it in a very, very large nutshell. I am extremely excited about this career opportunity, and the chance to move to
6/12: departing the SF bay area for LA
6/12-6/15: LA for my brother’s college graduation (yes, he is actually graduating! Just kidding Paul:)
6/15: fly LA-Kenya (
6/17-6/20: run around
6/20: fly Nairobi-Chennai
6/21-6/22: spend two days in a mad rush trying to get things settled in Chennai (like, starting the apartment search)
6/23: start Work. !!
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
Also, for anyone who is annoyed by constant format changes... sorry. I am going through some updating (hopefully am going to de-passwordify my blog so I can access the fun custom template design options offered to bloggers who don't publish on external FTPs) that may take a little while. Hopefully the output of this will be a much better looking, much more interesting blog with a new URL. But who knows, really.
Monday, May 12, 2008
Venezuela - a synopsis
So, I went to Venezuela for 10 days in April. Things you might ask include: 1) Why did you go to Venezuela? 2) How could you afford a trip to Venezuela - aren't you poor and unemployed? 3) Aren't Americans kind of unpopular in Venezuela?
Essentially the story is: my friend Kristian came through the bay area a few months ago, and while we were catching up mentioned he was planning a trip to Venezuela to meet up with his friend who was doing a medical internship there. He was looking for a travel buddy and my initial reaction was two-fold: any opportunity to go to a developing country, especially in Latin America, especially one that could be thought to be unsafe, is usually a shoe-in for me. However I am, as previously mentioned, poor and unemployed. I also thought I *might* have a job by the time he was going. Oh, how wrong I was.
Two months and an amazingly good deal on frequent flier tickets later, Kristian and I were off to Chavezland.
After spending 5 hours getting to know the Caracas airport while we waited for Kristian's friend Gary to fly in from a trip to Bogota, we promptly headed to the coast. (Oh, after exchanging money, which is entertaining: the black market rate for Venezuelan currency gets you about double the official rate, so it is common practice to wander around the airport mumbling "cambio, cambio" to people loitering around the taxi stand until someone offers to sell you currency at the rate you want.)
This was also around the time that Kristian and I decided we would be doing a disservice to our Latin American vacation if we did not promise to have a drink at least every 18 hours... hence multiple pictures of us drinking rancid Venezuelan beer in every location possible.
We spent two days on the postcard-perfect beaches of Parque Nacional Moroccoy, one on our very own deserted island and one on a very overpopulated destination island for Venezuelan tourists. Both were, um, awesome.
Next we headed to Merida, the capital of the Andean region of Venezuela and Gary's home. We spent a couple days there and squeezed in a couple things (you know, paragliding, hiking to a natural hot springs up in the mountains, whatever) and then took off for a 4-day safari in Los Llanos (the plains region - lots of cattle and savannah).
The Los Llanos safari was one of those multi-adventure shenanigans. Activities included the following: - ziplining in the forest
- whitewater rafting (more accurately described as "pulling the raft over rocks" as we were the first rafting trip of the season)
- dining next to a watering hole full of crocodiles and capybarras
- horseback riding through the savannah
- catching anacondas
- catching baby caimans (a kind of crocodile)
- piranha fishing
The highlight of these was undoubtedly the anaconda adventure. The "anaconda experts" leading us on this excursion consisted of our stoned pseudo-rastafarian driver, a teenager named Maiko and a 6-year-old boy. Their tried and true, surely safe method of catching anacondas was to wade into the swamp, shove a stick around until they saw the leaves move, and then pull the 5m snake out of the water by its tail. Somehow, this worked without killing any of us, and we all gleefully took hold of these deadly constrictor snakes and posed with them for pictures. You can see from my expression that it was all slightly incredulous.
From Los Llanos we returned to Merida in time to get in a night of meringue dancing and a trip up the highest and longest cable car in the world before heading home. The combination of these, of course, meant that we were hurting a bit as we ascended to the 15,000ft peak of the cable car. Kristian noticed a sign at the top of the mountain with a list of suggested preparations for taking the cable car (don't drink alcohol the night before, get at least 6 hours of sleep, etc) and discovered that we had broken just about every rule on the sign. That said, the view from the peak was amazing and it was a great experience.
Overall, Venezuela pretty much rocks. If you can ignore the dangers of Chavez and corrupt policeman, I'd recommend it to anyone who wants an adventure and some fabulous scenery.
Up next - updates on my life, which may actually have a plan in it!
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
Update: Kenya, Peace Corps and me
It's been an embarrassingly long time since I updated this blog, and I doubt anyone still reads it. Especially since the URL is now a bit misleading. It ought to read "joanne-in-who-the-hell-knows-where.com," but I've paid for the vanity URL until September, so it's staying.
Update on Kenya:
- Several weeks ago, after loooooonnng drawnout negotiations overseen by Kofi Annan, the feuding politicians signed a peace agreement to form a coalition government. Kibaki (the incumbent) to remain as president, Raila Odinga (the opposition leader) to become Kenya's first ever prime minister. Everything seemed good. The people rejoiced.
- First blip in the road appeared when it came time to form the cabinet - it seems that Kibaki didn't want to give up as many seats as he had initially agreed. There were a couple protests, riots, and the country held its breath to see if violence would break out again.
- Last week Kibaki finally relented, the cabinet was formed, Raila was sworn in as PM and the protests subsided. Both sides seem to have been behaving themselves since then, and it looks like there might actually be a light at the end of the tunnel of this never-ending saga. Don't hold your breath though - things have gone abruptly downhill before.
- The report from my village is that things have largely returned to normal. Apparently even some Kikuyus (Kibaki's tribe) have started to return to Nyanza province (land of the Luos - Raila's tribe) for work. Everyone keeps telling me things are back to normal and asking when I am coming back. On that note...
Update on Peace Corps:
- In early April Peace Corps lifted their "administrative hold" on the Kenya program. Plans are in place to bring volunteers back to the country in phases, starting in late May to early June.
- The catch is that volunteers will be sent back only to the Central, Eastern and Coast provinces on the east side of the country. The provinces where the violence was the worst, including Rift Valley, Western, and Nyanza (my area) will not receive volunteers in the foreseeable future. This is sad because those areas are the most in need of aid, but understandable because they're the most likely to erupt if the government splits again.
- Meanwhile, my host brother called me today to tell me that he read an article in a Kenyan newspaper and was convinced that Peace Corps was wrong to pull out of Kenya, that they should have stayed to help with relief efforts like the Red Cross and other organizations. This is a tough issue, and I am not typically one to toe the Peace Corps line, but in this case I actually do think Peace Corps was right to pull out its volunteers. At least in the west. Peace Corps is a development organization, not a relief organization, and its volunteers are not trained to work in disaster relief, refugee camps, or potentially violent situations. I'm not ashamed to admit that we're all wusses, or that we probably would have done more harm than good trying to alleviate problems as the situation worsened. I may disagree with the process with which we were pulled out, and I certainly don't believe that we had any more right to be evacuated than the other 20 million-odd people living in western Kenya, but I can't say I think we should have stayed.
Update on me:
- I will not be returning to Kenya with the Peace Corps. I made this decision for a number of reasons, including but not limited to: disinterest in moving to a new site in a new part of the country, general malaise with Peace Corps as an organization, and feeling the need to move on.
- I am waiting for an exciting job opportunity to come through in its final state (I have been talking with the organization since mid-February and have worked out all the specifics, and am just waiting for the formal offer letter). I will post details when everything is finalized.
- In the meantime, I am spending my Peace Corps readjustment allowance galavanting around to a surprisingly random variety of destinations. I visited my brother in LA in early March, spent a week reliving my Boston glory days in mid-March, and visited a Peace Corps friend in Denver the first weekend of April (which included a ski trip to Breckenridge and a rousing evening at a KU bar during the NCAA Final Four games). I just got back from ten amazing days in Venezuela, about which I will write in more detail in a later post. So despite my unemployed, living-at-home-with-the-parents lifestyle, I'm still finding a way to keep myself busy. More to come.
Monday, February 11, 2008
Peace Corps leaves Kenya
On Tuesday Peace Corps announced it was temporarily pulling its remaining 58 volunteers out of Kenya. These volunteers were in the mostly calm Central, Eastern and Coast provinces, but the potential for violence was considered too great as the situation in the country has failed to improve. A sad day for all of us, and the last nail in the coffin for my Peace Corps experience - they say they will potentially start reinstating volunteers in May at the earliest.
Official announcement: http://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=resources.media.press.view&news_id=1301
Things continue to be unstable in my town, although my NGO reopened two weeks ago and has been continuing with business as usual. They say they just check on the situation before they go to the field each day. Exceptionally brave.
As for me, my job search continues, uneventfully. My parents continue to be unconditionally supportive and generous.
In the meantime, I was interviewed by NPR:
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Before the storm...
A couple pictures from downtown Kisumu two days before the elections:
Massive Raila poster in the middle of the street. "Pamoja tusonge mbele" means "Together we move forward." The irony.
Raila campaigners driving, peacefully, through the streets. Most of the shops here have now been either burned or looted.
More of the same
Not much new to report... I've been back in the States for a little over a week now. The situation in Kenya is not improving. Kofi Annan has been mediating between the political leaders, but so far all he's gotten them to do is shake hands for the camera between fits of mudslinging. Meanwhile the violence continues, and revenge killings against the opposition Luos have started. An opposition MP was killed a couple days ago. Everything has gone tribal, people are continuing to flee, neighbors are continuing to attack each other. Roadblocks are still up, and transportation is a mess. The economic impact of this mess is starting to show too: tourism is plummeting, food staples are scarce (I heard it's 100 shillings, about $1.50, for a small carton of milk). Foreign aid freezes are just around the corner. Who knows what else is in store.
Surreally removed from it all, I'm trying to figure out a way to move forward. I'm desperate to get back to East Africa. But I'm also looking around at other opportunities, ranging from work in other countries, to grad school programs, to starting my own organization. A door closes and a window opens, or something...
For those interested in following the events in Kenya: BBC Africa, the New York Times and the Telegraph are providing decent coverage as Western media goes. You can get the Kenyan media perspective, albeit biased in its own way, from the Daily Nation (www.nationmedia.com/dailynation/). Al Jazeera is another good source.
For those in the Bay Area or anyone who wants to get in touch, I am available at home 408-867-9375.
Apologies for the depressing tone of this post. I wish I could make it sound more hopeful than I feel.
Saturday, January 19, 2008
Home again home again...
Here's a brief rundown of the past 36 hours of my life:
I returned from Egypt on Friday morning and was whisked to the Nairobi hotel where 29 other volunteers have been staying for the past week or so. Before checking in, I stopped by the conference room Peace Corps had booked to say hello to some friends, and came out two hours later with a stackful of paperwork and a heavy heart. The other volunteers had been in a "transition conference" the past three days, having the options available to us run over in great detail, discussing plans amongst themselves, and gradually filling out paperwork and medical exams to leave the country. All flights home were scheduled for Saturday evening.
The punishment for my Egyptian refuge from this mess was that I had to make a decision and complete all the relevant exit procedures within one shell-shocked, jetlagged day. The relevant choices for me were to go home and await a possible (but not guaranteed) replacement position with Peace Corps, either as a formal Peace Corps volunteer or a relief worker; or to take cash in lieu of my ticket home and stick around. Unfortunately, the situation near my site is still very volatile and there are barriers along all the major roads, so going back to site to say goodbye, collect belongings and make arrangements for my dog was not a feasible option, even if I resigned from Peace Corps.
Being broke and exhausted from traveling with no particular job option here, I decided it made the most sense to come home for now. I fly to San Francisco tonight. It's so sudden and surreal to be going back to the States under these circumstances that the reality of it hasn't set in yet, leaving me in a state of emotional numbness that is sure to wear off as I get on the plane.
It's unclear how long I will be in the States or what the future holds. The certainties go about as far as being picked up at the airport on Sunday. I'm not ready to end my time in Africa yet - I feel a huge lack of closure and a desire to continue working in this part of the world. This feeling is of course multiplied by the sense of need considering the current situation, for both short-term and long-term solutions to the crisis that has erupted.
So, I'm applying for some jobs and volunteer work in the region, and keeping an open mind about potential Peace Corps placements. In the meantime I'll be in California, possibly with a trip out to Boston, for the next several weeks. If anyone is in the SF area please let me know - it would be great to catch up.
More importantly, the political situation here continues to, well, suck. Neither the president nor the opposition seems willing to compromise despite diplomatic interventions and aid freezes, continuing road blockages and general mayhem. Kofi Annan is coming to speak with them today, and Kenyans are hoping something will come of that, but I'm not too optimistic. Even if they were able to establish peace for the time being, it's becoming increasingly clear that the problems that led to this conflict (poor constitution and government set-up, continuing ethnic clashes and stereotyping, lack of education that means youth are used as political pawns, etc etc) are deep and long-running. I'm worried that a long-term solution is going to be elusive.
My town is returning to peace in the most simplistic sense of the word. It is still very difficult and dangerous to travel to and from it. The bank and almost all shops are closed. The post office has been looted. I can't even imagine the state of the police station. Food is hard to come by - my sister says they are living mostly on porridge. One tomato is going for 20 shillings (4x the regular price). It makes my stomach sick.
In the capital, on the other hand, it's hard to tell that anything has changed. I even went out for beers with some other volunteers last night. The only sign things had changed was a slight heightening of senses whenever a police siren went by, and an increase in the price of beer. That this is the same country as the one where my family is on house arrest and subsisting on porridge is equally surreal.