Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Taking care of business

A few short business items...

As you may have noticed, I've changed the URL to this blog to better reflect my online brand. I started the transition from starshine_diva to NailaJ a few months ago when I switched my Twitter account name. Now, all my public accounts can be found by searching for "nailaj". The sole exception in the URL game is Flickr, where my display name is now "NailaJ" but my URL remains unchanged at http://www.flickr.com/photos/starshine_diva.

So please, do update your feeds and take note. My blog is now located at http://nailaj.blogspot.com.

I've started the process of uploading my 2009 AKFC Awareness Trip pictures to Flickr for easy public viewing. Hopefully, you'll see why I enjoyed Africa so much. Next step, the videos...

... "real" blog posts to follow, I promise! Stay tuned...

Friday, September 4, 2009

Why blogging about Africa is tough

Many of you have been asking me to blog more about my trip to Africa. As you can see, that hasn't happened.

Sure, I've been busy catching up on work. I was out of town again this week too. It's not that I don't want to blog. It's not even that I don't have time to do it.

It would in theory be very simple for me to treat this as any other assignment, look through my notes from each day's visits, select a few explanatory pictures, and put together a short text on what we saw and learned.

But it's so much more than just that. It was an experience. It wasn't so much a cultural shock, at least, it wasn't different than I expected it to be. But the mounds of information we absorbed in the little amount of time we had to absorb it... I know I've said this before, but I haven't sorted it all out yet.

I want to make sure that my blogs are truly reflective of this experience. I want to share the best anecdotes with you, from the personal and the professional sides of this trip. I want to show you the most beautiful or tearful pictures so you can better understand what I mean. I want you to feel like you were right there in Kenya with me.

And until I figure out how to share all of this with all of you, I'd prefer not to post lame little textbook-style descriptions of the projects we visited in Nairobi and Mombasa. I'm not trying to be selfish. I just want to be true to myself, to my fellow tripgoers, to AKFC, and most importantly, to the efforts of all the thousands of people involved in each and every one of those projects, from start to finish.

I hope you can understand... Until then, stay tuned!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Ah, the things traveling will do to you! It's a different environment, a different way of life... sometimes a different language and in this case, a different continent and a different worldview!

Coming home from Africa was quite an eye-opener, and I don't mean all the time I spent in the plane or waiting in airports!

The trip as a whole didn't impact me too much while I was there. It was when I came back and compared the reality I was just in with my everyday reality that I realized how fortunate we really are. Then again, there is also poverty here in North America... it's just not as painstakingly obvious.

Here are some of the flashbacks that I noted during my first two days back from Kenya. These are things that happened exactly like in the movies... Someone said something or I saw something that brought me back to my Kenyan experience.

* First and foremost, how weird is it to wake up in your own room, in your own bed, and not knowing where you are? It's very confusing, trust me. It took a good while to remember that I was home... and this didn't happen to me in any of the hotels I stayed in, or ever before!

* When I first brushed my teeth, I felt like something was missing... Water. Or more specifically, a water bottle. In Kenya, as per the travel clinic's orders, I used a water bottle to wet my toothbrush as well as to rinse my mouth after cleaning my teeth.

* More water woes... I'm so used to taking a sip or two of water when I was my face or in the shower. It was very hard for me to remember NOT to do that while I was in Kenya. Again, the travel clinic instilled fears of getting sick from the tap water deep down into my core. Good job!

* What about water pressure? There are places here where your water pressure isn't that great... namely cheap hotels or apartments. Luckily, the hotel was pretty good about strong shower streams, though there were times when the water would randomly stop, and sometimes you had to turn the tap completely to get a decent flow. Some places, even that didn't solve the problem. It made me wonder how people feel clean, especially when you have to wash that red Nairobi soil off the soles of your feet.

* Hey, guess what! I can plug my laptop directly into the wall! Yes, after 2 weeks of using adapters "African-style", as someone put it, it came as a bit of a surprise to me to be able to just plug it in. The "African-style" comment came after the porter helped us with my so-called universal adapter. Unfortunately, all the plugs at the hotel were UK, and my adapter was stuck on Europe. Cheap plastic! After trying to find us a spare adapter somewhere in the hotel, he took one look at mine, grabbed a pen cap, and pressed down the trigger in the top hole before inserting my European adapter into the UK plug. Fantastic! Only in Africa...

* My mom and I were lounging in the backyard when she said something about one of her plant attracting bees. I flashed back to the bee-keeping project we visited in rural Mombasa... I promise to tell you all about it later.

* I went for a drive a couple of days after I got back, or possibly even the day after I got back. I was at a stop sign and trying to figure out what the car opposite to me was going to do: go straight or turn. You know Montreal drivers. They rarely signal, especially on suburban streets! I tried to make eye contact with the driver and it took a few seconds before I understood why I wasn't reading any signals... I was staring at the passenger! Note to self: Drivers sit on the right in North America, not on the left.

I'm sure there were other moments that reminded me of life in Africa, but these are the fun that I noted. Spending time away from your reality also makes you realize what's important to you and what's not. Sorry, Perez. You didn't make the cut!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

It's all coming back to me now

I had been meaning to blog more about Africa earlier, but working Rogers Cup tennis for 7 straight days basically took up all my time. It was eat, work, sleep, and lots of transit. But, I did manage to make some professional gains. It was my first gig as a bug operator for CBC, which means I was responsible for putting the scoreboard and stats in... and updating it too! This means I really needed to understand tennis, and after 4 days of actively watching it, I managed to figure it out :)

But back to the topic of the day: Africa.

I've already given you an overview of the trip, and I do plan on going into more details about some of our visits, but I think it's also important to understand how different the worldview is, or, as it turns out, how similar life in Kenya is to life in Canada.

Things that are the same... but not

* Slowpoke! *

Ya know how when you're driving, and the car in front of you is driving at a snail's pace and you just wish they'd change lanes and let you pass? You're gonna flash your high beams, aren't you? Well, in Kenya, they do that too! It's not a big realization, but it definitely showed me that some things we believe apply only to our culture are actually more universal than we think! And in East Africa, you don't get deer or moose crossings, but cow crossings. One time, our matatu nearly hit a cow to try to get it to cross faster. It wasn't impressed. It moo-ed at us and hit back!

* The stars *

Well, they're not the same because we're in different hemispheres, but they are just as beautiful. The difference is that in North America, you see stars lower on the horizon, while in Kenya, you really have to look straight up. I had a blast hanging out at the outdoor lounge at the Serena Mombasa, lying back and watch these natural gems sparkle. One night, three of us even saw a shooting star! My first confirmed sighting, and what a sight it was!

* Media *

During our visit of the Nation Media Group facilities, I came to a startling realization. The more I listened and looked around, the more I was certain that while the media values, facilities and equipment are the same in Kenya as in North America, the East African newsrooms are evolving at a quicker pace. I believe that's because they're learning from our mistakes and successes. Basically, they're skipping the middle step, the trials and errors we made trying to achieve better quality and smoother content. Kenya is going digital this year. They're not in HD yet, but that's the next step. While here in Canada, we're struggling with upgrading from analog to digital because of the cost of the equipment, East Africans are at a natural equipment-replacement point and are able to purchase high end HD equipment as part of the renewal process. We tried to do it all too fast... We're in HD, but not true HD: True HD means that shooting equipment is HD, Audio is 5.1, transmission is HD, cables/transmitters are HD-capable, receivers and watching equipment are HD... If even one element is in standard definition, it's not HD. In Africa, they love gadgets. It won't be a problem to get people to buy HD TV sets, especially given that most people would probably be getting them as their first sets.

*Gender balance*

Most of the Frigoken factory workers in Nairobi were female. However, this was done by choice, not because of gender bias. Sure, women are detail-oriented and good with veggies, but does that mean they should be the ones assigned to snap the tips off green beans? The reason Frigoken employs mostly women is because this job allows them to provide a secondary income to their families. In some cases, it is the only decent job a woman with relatively little education can get in the city. And they make it easy too... The plant offers a drop-off daycare service in one of the adjoining buildings, and if I understood correctly, it's free! How many North American plants can boast the same? Also, many of the farmers in the village were women, although their husbands may own the plots.

Things that really are different

*The buses*
You've already heard the stories... The matatus run on a completely different system than our North American transit. It's more of a taxi-like system, regulated by the government to some extent in that drivers have to register their vehicles and pay some sort of fee. It's also like taxis because the drivers are absolutely insane. That's where the similarities end, though. Matatus are little white Toyota minivans/SUVs, often covered in all kinds of slogans and celebrity names. The most popular ones? Tupac and Obama buses. The slogans sometimes don't make sense... Why would an East African matatu driver decorate his bus to the theme of the Minnesota Wolverines? (No, not Michigan) Or "The Game"? Matatus decide to patrol specific routes, but pick people up and drop them off anywhere along that road or in that neighbourhood... And at the rate that these buses pass, you can probably get anywhere on time! Sometimes, you could see multiple matatus pulled over alongside the highway, trying to get people on board for the 2 Kenyan Shillings fair, which more or less converts to 2 cents.

*What time is it?*

In Kenya, you really can set your clock to the sun. Every day, without fail, the sun rises between 6:30 and 6:45 and sets between 6:30 and 6:45. It's absolutely amazing! You figure that's how villagers go by their day... So very impressive.

Nairobi vs. Mombasa


Nairobi is like any other metropolis: busy, constantly moving, full of people crowding the streets. In fact, it reminded me a bit of NYC. The only difference, of course, is the predominant skin colour on the downtown streets. But they're all in suits and briefcases, going about their day.


Mombasa, on the other hand, is totally a beach resort... Until you get to the main part of the town. There, you can definitely see the different levels of poverty, which are much more obvious than in the Nairobi outskirts. It's not just the shantytowns... From the moment you leave the Mombasa airport and until you reach the touristy beach resort, you can see the true face of East African poverty.

Those are just some general observations about my trip to Kenya. Next post? Coming home, and realizing how different life truly is from one end to the world to another.

Stay tuned...

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


It truly is a strange situation to wake up wondering where you are. It's even more confusing when you wake up in your own bed with that feeling.

On my first sleep at home after spending about 10 days in Kenya, one could say I needed an adaptation period. The landscape of my room looked pretty unfamiliar too... Though that could be because it was 3:45 AM and I had been more or less awake for 28 hours, traveling from Nairobi to London, London to Toronto, and being interminably delayed in Toronto before finally arriving in Montreal.

Remember the travel delay at the beginning of my trip? The train to Ottawa? Well, I guess it was just fate that my trip should end the same way. Told you it was an omen!

Luckily, the bulk of my trip, from Day 1 to... what day are we today? went more than smoothly. We visited multiple projects a day, spent a lot of time in matatu-like buses, often snoozing because many of the days had scattered schedules that made for not so much eating time. There were times when lunch was at 5pm, and breakfast had been at 7am!

All in all though, it was worth it. More than worth it! I've got loads of pictures and videos to sort through, stories to tell with all the knowledge I accumulated, and I met people, both AKFC Awareness buddies and those aided by the projects, that I will never forget.

It was a lot to take in and I'm not sure I've figured any of it out yet, so I might take a few days to put my thoughts in order. Good thing I took some notes!! The pictures will also be a great memory aid. Hopefully, I'll be able to enlighten you with more details on what we saw and experienced throughout this once-in-a-lifetime journey.

I promise to update soon, so stay tuned...


On a side note, and a very emotional one, the first news story I saw after coming home from Kenya was a report on the death of two men in a helicopter crash in Quebec. One of them was my buddy Hugh Haugland, longtime cameraman for CTV, who was a kind and inspiring person, funny and dedicated, and a mentor to me. I remember him saying he longed to go to Afghanistan, as dangerous stories were his specialty - he covered 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, etc - but was going to respect his family's wishes and stay out of seemingly unavoidable harm's way.

My condolences go out to anyone who ever had the good fortune to hang out with this great guy. It is a sad day for us all.

Hugh, you will be missed.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Karibu: Welcome to Kenya


Talk about an exhausting journey!

After 2x 7.5 hour plane rides and a 4h layover in Heathrow, we finally made it to the Serena Hotel in Nairobi, Kenya at approximately 9:30pm East African time... That's 17h of traveling, folks!

Friday in Ottawa, we had a full day orientation session, which was full of intellectual stimulation. It really got me thinking not only about what my interest in international development and how it compares to those of some younger, more accomplished people taking part in this trip. It also reminded me how much general/historical knowledge I do have, and how much I love learning about this kind of critical thinking about world poverty, etc.

I also realized that I'm pretty blunt on this and other topics, mostly about the real motives behind aid. Maybe it's because I have a more overall approach and I don't believe "it's just altruism" B.S.. Human beings, ultimately, are selfish. It's part of our nature.

I took a lot of other notes on my perceptions of the day and the topic of the day, including some good quotes from the little extract of the Monk debates that we watched, but I think I still need to internalize it all before I'm ready to share. I should also wait until I'm more awake ;)

The plane ride from YOW to Heathrow was great! Megan and I switched up our assigned seating to sit together... and no one sat in the third seat in our block! We were therefore able to stretch our legs out during the long flight, which was definitely helpful. I didn't get much sleep, however, and wasn't even able to sleep during our London layover!

Once we got on our Kenya Airways flight to, you guess it, Kenya, I made myself sleep... and I did, after attempting to watch a movie. I then finished one of the books I had brought along with dinner, then slept some more, then had a snack, and dozed off a bit before landing. I got some great shots of the Alps and of the red Saharan desert from the sky... Gorgeous!

I still need to go through all my pictures though, because you can bet I'm taking a whole lot of them!

The only problem with my flight was sitting behind someone who had her seat back the WHOLE TIME, and next to a man who seemed to be sick and was constantly coughing/wheezing and picking his nose. SO not cool!

Upon arriving in Kenya, Megan (who has been my amazing roommate from Ottawa to Kenya, and is also blogging for her company, AbeBooks) and I checked in, showered, and basically went straight to bed.

Sunday morning, we were up early (1am EDT, which is about 8am EAT). We did the buffet breakfast with the rest of the group, then left for a mini-safari trip to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, where we saw some orphaned elephants, some warthogs (PUMBA!) and a couple of rhinos. They were absolutely adorable! I was able to get some good pictures and videos, including a few good macro-mode flower shots for my mom :)

We then proceeded to the Giraffe Centre where we obviously saw giraffes. We were also able to feed them, which provided some great pictures too! They were very friendly, with nice long eyelashes and a long tongue... which was actually kind of prickly! It felt as if there was hair on it or something.

Then, instead of going to lunch (which we all really needed!) and then to the Nairobi National Park, we decided to make our way to the Aga Khan University Hospital/School of Nursing because the Aga Khan himself, the Imam of the Ismaili Muslims, was in town for some meetings. We tried to get in through a contact, but weren't able to make it in time. Instead, most of the group lined up on the sidewalk with other Ismailis to await him crossing the street from the Campus to the Hospital, hoping to get a glimpse. A few of us retreated to the Hospital entrance, because we figured that it would provide a better sighting angle, and indeed, it did!

One of the guys in the security team allowed us to stand nearby, and the Aga Khan passed by a mere couple of feet away from us. He seemed happy and much more relaxed than during the millions of Golden Jubilee outings he has been taking part of recently. We were not allowed to take any pictures or videos because of media exclusivity rights, but it was nice to see him and his daughter, Princess Zarah, in such a casual setting.

Finally, after many hours of waiting and pacing and starving, we went back to the hotel for a quick change of clothes and made our way to Nairobi's famous game meat restaurant, Carnivore. It was amazing to see the city at night! During our day trips, we got used to the insane traffic, the crazy passing cars, and the colourful matatu buses. There is a good balance between buildings and green space, and giant billboards border the roads. It is very different from North America, but in many ways, it is the same. Since we already had the general feel of the landscape and were used to the bumps, the night trip was pretty enjoyable.

So was dinner! It started with a delicious soup that was probably a cream of some broccoli-like veggie and lentil. Then came serving after serving of beef sausages, chicken breast, chicken wings (which tasted awesome!), ostrich meatballs, lamb chops... in unlimited amounts! For desert, I chose the Black Magic cake, which was fantastic! It was definitely the best of the choices, at least from the ones I sampled from other people's plates ;) The mocha- flavoured Italian ice cream was a close second though...

Today was the start of another long day, the first official day of our trip. Our 6:45 am wake-up call was just early enough to make our 8am bus for a village outside of Nairobi, where we met with the CEO of Frigoken, whose name currently escapes me, and two guys name Peter, who were part of the regional and farming management team. We drove down tiny slanted dirt roads to make our way to the farm lands, and stood amongst the flowering green bean crops as we got a briefing on the company's structure, activities, and their relationship with the farmers. There was so much information shared with us at this point, so I will need some time to put deeper thoughts together, but what I remember the most is the CEO explaining that Frigoken takes all the risks, and if the crops don't turn out, the farmers don't lose anything. This, and other transparent operating policies, creates what he referred to as a relationship of trustworthiness with the farmers and the villagers.

Each farmer needs to meet a good list of requirements, including easy access to water and land ownership. The trading posts should be no more than a 30 minute walk from the crops/village, they need to respect the principle of fallow farming, and they are not allowed to cultivate more than one 250 meter square plot in order to ensure high quality. Frigoken provides the seeds, training, fertilizers (if needed), organic pesticides and their application, as well as many other resources. One plot/farmer will provide about 20 kilos of green beans, which are then hand-packed into approximately 800 cans, if I remember my numbers correctly.

It was actually quite interesting to hear about the whole process, from the business perspective to the farmer's perspective, and to get a little glimpse of what it's like to live in a small Kenyan village. One Peter actually used to be a farmer in this village... it was his home! He got promoted to centre supervisor, then technical supervisor, and now overseas the activities of 8 centres, or villages!!! Pretty impressive, isn't it?

It wasn't lunch time yet, though we were all getting pretty hungry! Instead, we made our way to the actual Frigoken factory and were guided through the whole plant, from receiving to labelling. Again, there was a lot to absorb in this portion of the trip... and I'm too tired to recall it all! One thing I do remember is that there were a lot of women working in the factory, both in the green bean and butternut squash portions of the plant. That is not a coincidence, but it's also probably not what you might think.

The factory planners, when they were deciding on how they wanted to run the plant at its inception, decided that women would make better labourers because they are hard working and knowledgeable. The idea is also that these women provide a secondary income to their families. They live nearby and walk to work. There are about 20% of permanent workers (mostly women and male factory floor management), and the rest are casual employees who get more work in busy seasons and less when it's calm like now. The farms also employ more women than men, though that's more because of the culture than earning a secondary income. About 85% of the primary farmers are women, though the whole family works on the crops. At the factory, there is a small daycare centre for women who need to bring their kids to work. We were able to visit the space and it's spotless and gorgeously decorated with Kenyan interpretations of typical North American childhood characters like the Teletubbies, Winnie the Pooh and, get this... Bart Simpson!

We finally went to lunch at a great Indian restaurant near a grocery store in the Ukay district - though I initially thought that was UK ;)

Unfortunately, the food was perhaps a bit TOO good and we were all pretty sleepy during our tour of the Aga Khan University Hospital/School of Nursing. It's a fairly small campus, but the hospital definitely had more to offer. Today, unlike when we found ourselves there yesterday, we did not see any medical emergencies. Which was a relief, because they were pretty painful to watch and felt like an intrusion on the patients family's privacy.

After a quick meeting with the head of the Aga Khan Development Network in East Africa, we headed back to the hotel and parted ways. We all needed a good shower after walking in the red dirt roads. They're gorgeous and make me look nice and tanned, but the tiny sand gets a little bit cakey after a while.

I really enjoyed today's drive because it allowed me to see more of the true Kenyan landscape: bidonville-style villages, quick road-side matatu pick ups, all kinds of people walking or running alongside the highway, rickshaw delivery/transport guys going at car-like speeds in the middle of traffic, small tin markets, railroad tracks, the insanely huge Del Monte fields, and some very pretty lakes!

I am pretty well aware that I'm in Africa now, though it took a long long time to sink in. It still doesn't always feel like a different continent, and I believe I'm become quite used to the sounds and sights, and after only 2 days!

I do miss my alone time and my guitar... Even though I don't necessarily play it every day or for that long, I miss being able to reach over and strum a bit. Perhaps what I am really missing is the music... African favourites seem to be old 80s music!

I will post pictures when I have the time to sort through them, which probably won't be for a while. But it'll be worth it just so you can see the Obama matatu buses! :)

Tomorrow, we visit the Nation Media Group and have a briefing with the CEO of Aga Khan Foundation East Africa before heading to the beautiful (or so I hear!) coast city of Mombasa. I can't wait to see the ocean!

Stay tuned...

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Ndoto: Countdown to Kenya

This blog post is very special. Not only does it mark the beginning of my first overseas trip, it's also my first ever blog-by-email (NOTE: Blog-by-email failed. VIA free-because-it's-slow-and-not-really-working-station-Wi-Fi worked). Let's hope the formatting doesn't get too messed up!

You might also notice that my grammar and spelling is poorer when I'm typing on my BlackBerry. I blame it on the fingers. I promise my brain is fully functional.

"Ndoto" is the Swahili word for "dream". I found it when I first leafed through my brand new Lonely Planet Swahili language guide, and it seemed oddly appealing. I have been using it for the past week or so in my Gtalk and Skype status messages but now, I am finally ready to make it public!

This trip truly is a dream. It definitely seems like a dream. Until last night, or even this morning, this whole experience didn't feel real. I guess the fact that I'm spending an extra day in Ottawa before the group arrives probably contributed to that, but it's mostly because I just don't know what to expect!

Luckily, we received a lot of guidance from Aga Khan Foundation Canada, who is organizing the trip. I am also fortunate to have a good friend who is from Nairobi and who could enlighten me on weather patterns and local customs. I'm very thankful to be staying with her mother for a few days after the AKFC portion of the trip is over.

The purpose of the trip, as I think I might have mentioned in an earlier post, is to provide promising volunteers with an opportunity to visit the project sites we work hard to raise funds for through the World Partnership Walk and meet the people whose lives we are attempting to change. There is no doubt in my mind that this will be a life changing event. For one, I will probably learn the benefits of packing light.

More importantly, I think I will be humbled by the simpler way of life, one which I have always admired but never seem to be able to adopt. I will be using my laptop to backup pictures but I probably won't be online much, if at all. Sure, there are some health concerns, but if I'm smart with my choices, there shouldn't be any problems. I am a little concerned about theft based on the research I did on various travel sites, but people like to complain a lot... So I'm taking their feedback with a grain of salt. Or two.

I am very excited about the opportunity to see for myself how poverty affects not just individuals but whole communities. I can't wait to be amazed at how happy children are to go to school or help out on the farm. I know that I will feel pain at some of the sights and wonder at parents' smiles even though they live in conditions that developed countries would term despicable.

On a personal note, I am SO excited to be going to Africa much earlier than I had planned. To be honest, I had penciled-in Europe and Australia beforehand, but my first real overseas trip - I don't think trips I took as a baby count - and first exploration of a different continent couldn't start at a better place: East Africa, where my mom's family grew up, a mere border away from where my mom was born!

I am also thrilled that I will be able to do a safari. The plan is to do a one-day trip locally, probably to see some giraffes and elephants, and then, once the AKFC portion of the trip is done, do a 2-day, 2-night stint in Masai Mara.

All in all, it's sure to be an unforgettable, once in a lifetime trip. *insert more clich├ęs here*

I will be keeping a journal throughout the trip and might post them directly to my blog, so keep checking this space over the next 10 days!

Bonus trip update: My VIA train to Ottawa was delayed by 45 minutes due to technical problems. Then they canceled it and put us on a train leaving one hour later. That's a 1h45mins delay. My dinner plans are definitely ruined, but I wonder... Is this a bad omen for the whole trip or just a coincidence? Also, could these "technical problems" be a pressure tactic? Inquiring minds want to know!

Stay tuned...