Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Global Voices Summit: A Glimpse at an African Journey

The incredible Global Voices team in Nairobi, Kenya

“What makes a great nation is its people”, John, our taxi driver, said of Kenya as he was driving us back to the national airport. And he made no mistake: after having spent a week during the Global Voices Summit in Nairobi, I can attest that Kenya’s most precious asset is the people, thanks to their kindness and friendly treatment. Setting foot for the first time in a Sub-Saharan African country has been a rewarding experience.

The New York-London-Nairobi journey offered more than just a marvelous physical trip from one continent to another; it was inadvertently an encounter with childhood memories. In addition to my 9-hour-long trip from London, I had to wait about two hours to get a USD$50-dollar visa—such a process reminded me of the tortuous bureaucracy in my native country, Colombia. Likewise, the chaotic traffic jams in Downtown Nairobi and the smell of fumes was redolent of the Bogotá streets, with passengers in the middle of the street getting off and on the matatus, a small bus that resembles Bogota’s colectivos. Every morning I indulged myself with 100-percent natural passion fruit and tree tomato juice, and surely these flavors took me back to my hometown. Finally, bargaining was crucial during my visit to the market, which led me to make good use of my paisa heritage (a “paisa” is an inhabitant of the Antioquia department, whose early Basque and Arab settlers were important merchants). 

Amid a string of coffee intakes and other Indian-cuisine snacks, we’ve spent hours exchanging ideas on how to improve citizen media. Among the series of panels, I had the honor to participate at the #occupyeverywhere panel alongside colleagues from Spain, Russia, and Nigeria. Each one of us described several forms of protest and the different motivations behind each manifestation, but all of them had one underlying purpose: the demand for equal opportunity and the need for government accountability. The panel also highlighted the importance of an objective, fact-checked media coverage. 

There was a wealth of panels I was interested in, but certainly the one that captivated me most was the preservation of endangered languages with the help of social media platforms and the blogosphere, such as the case of the Aymara language in Bolivia. Other interesting panels included the coverage of health issues online and a network of support in light of the Arab Spring. 

Even in the midst of intense workload, we also had the opportunity to explore the city a little bit more. While some of my colleagues opted out to visit the Kibera slums and the market, a good handful of us explored Nairobi’s wildlife, and so we came across lions, antelopes, rhino, and buffalo--and one lost warthog. Despite that our Safari trip lacked the action of a National Geographic video; we witnessed a lion’s unrequited love and the roar of rejection of a lioness. 

Visiting the Kenyan savannah led me to draw a comparison between such a harsh environment with Africa’s everyday life, and it can be a very hostile place—as seen during our stay when we’ve heard of a massacre in northern Kenya by Somalia-based terrorist group Al-Shabbab. Although Foreign Policy ranked Kenya as one of the world’s most unstable nation (sixteenth on a list of failed states), the slow and peaceful pace of giraffes also reminded me that regardless of such chaos there is also an air of tranquility and progress: a booming middle class and rising skyscrapers and state-of-the-art malls are rising from the ground up in downtown Nairobi. Not everything’s bad news as western media seems to portray. 

The outcome of this trip is a positive one. Meeting people from over 60 countries and whose intellect and endless experience is a tremendous asset for Global Voices while enriching my very own worldview. With this in mind, I want to give a million asante sana to both Kenya and Global Voices and I hope we’ll have the chance to meet in two years once again.

Kenya’s fun facts:

  • Given that Kenya was a British colony, the locals inherited the English way of driving on the left. This caused a lack of orientation on my part and I almost got run over by cars.
  • Shilling is the local currency. And the face of Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, is almost ubiquitous on every note. The 500 shilling bill is called a “punch”.
  • Security is paramount in many public spaces, including malls and the hotels we were staying at. Guests and visitors were subject for search with metal detectors before entering the premises. Before leaving Nairobi, our carry-on luggage underwent a rigorous search: it went through two scanning devices plus a third search by hand.
  • Women wear a garment called a kanga, which can be used in several forms: as a bandana, a robe or skirt. Regularly, kangas come with printed riddles or sayings, and the kanga with the finest fabric is called a kikoy.
  • Missionary work in Africa is very noticeable, and U.S. Christian figures like Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes are very well regarded in Kenya. Not to mention the numerous biblical remarks in matatus, buses, and other means of transportation.
  • Traffic bottlenecks in Nairobi are due in part by the numerous traffic rotaries and the lack of traffic lights in key intersections, forcing drivers to develop an uncanny skill of cutting each other out without crashing their vehicles. The reality is that most of the jams are caused by traffic officers who are supposed to improve the automobile flow.
  • Athletics and track and field sprinters bring home the Olympic gold, but Kenya’s king sport is football (soccer). Manchester United jerseys and images of Latin American soccer players are almost everywhere. The last Eurocup, particularly the final game between Spain and Italy, lured a substantial number of Kenyan viewers and fans.
  • I’m debunking the myth that “Hakuna Matata” and “Simba” are made-up words from The Lion King. The first means “there is no problem” while the latter reads “lion” in Kiswahili.
  • “The Big Five” refers to the five most difficult hunts in the African savannah: lion, elephant, cape buffalo, rhinoceros, and leopard. These animals are widely represented in local craft and carved out in ebony.
  • Nairobi is one of the very few places in Kenya that do not require a vaccine shot to prevent malaria, thanks to its altitude (1,000 meters or higher). However, a vaccine shot is recommended if one pays a visit to other areas of the country, such as the Masai Mara or Mombasa.
  • Exchanging U.S. dollars proves to be extremely daunting, especially if legal tender was printed out before 2006. Rumor has it that a huge fraud occur across Africa with notes printed prior to that year, thus currency exchange houses prefer notes from 2006 till today. They may accept notes prior to 2006, but the money exchange value will decrease substantially compared to recent issued bills.
  • English-dubbed Latin American soap operas, primarily those of Mexico and Colombia, are part of Kenya’s programming line-up. It’s almost funny to watch Betty la Fea or Thalia, Mexico’s telenovela queen, speak fluent English.  


LuLLy, reflexiones al desnudo said...

I enjoyed reading your writing and remember what was experienced in Kenya.

A warm hug from Colombia dear Robert.

Kamwenji said...

Nice post on our beloved Kenya! Great to have hosted Global Voices citizen journos in Nairobi.

bibershally said...

The Africa is now becomes one of the unique traveling destinations across the globe, It comes into notice due to the advanced developed countries efforts such as China and USA, that boost people lifestyle as now the BRIC countries people enjoy this place as their favorite tourist destination due to the availability of the famous places like Mount Kilimanjaro that offers the climbing and trekking along with wildlife safari.
Ref - Africajoytours - Climbing Mount Meru