Thursday, December 16, 2010

Treat others as they treat you.

Note: this is delayed might call delayed reaction ;) 

Per normal when blogging, I am sitting on a plane. But this flight is different. I did not buy a ticket or have any plans of being on it. Even better, I am not sure exactly where it is going or when it will get there. For the first time ever, I have been deported. 

Earlier this evening, I arrived in Cameroon set to spend the next few days with some of the largest ISPs (Internet Service Providers), tech hubs and mobile operators. But, it looks like after all, I won't be. Why, you ask? Due to the principle of treat others as they treat you

I arrived in Cameroon without a visa but with multiple letters supporting my visit and lots of official documentation. The embassy website says if there is no consulate in your country of residence, you can get a visa on arrival. Cameroon has no presence in Ghana. 

To be honest, I am still wondering what happened. I got off the plane, rapidly completed my entry card and headed for to immigration desk, was told to stand aside and then met with a heckle of aggressive female immigration officers. They denied my documents, my kindness, attempts at persuasion, multiple calls to high officials, sly offers of payment and them and finally a few tears. Nothing could change their minds because as they put it, in my country, without a visa, they could not even look out of the window of the plane. This was reciprocity - they were treating me as the US treated them. 

Honestly, I am not sure how I feel about it. I strongly agree with the biblical principle to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But this requires and 'you and me' in the situation rather than an 'us and them.' To these women, I was a them. Despite my attempts at becoming human rather than a object of punishment, I could not. I could not appeal to any commonality or humanity. 

Perhaps she was once deported or has a son in the US who can not come home to visit as he is there illegally.  I could not deny her claims, if she was missing even the slightest document or stamp, she would be denied access to my country.  

We have lots of information and people to process everyday. We naturally stereotype and categorize them to make life easier, and to give ourselves an auto-treat- response to others. I was categorized and treated according as I was not able to break out of the 'us and them' for her.

But there is a bright side. Once back on the same plane I arrived in, the flight attendance felt compassion for a 'me' and were incredibly kind. The end result,  flight went to Point Noir. Not sure where that is. I was not either. I rang the call bell to was the Congo. you can bet I had no visa there either.  

Luckily, the plane was sleeping in Togo and the crew let me stay on.  Once on ground around 11 PM, the Senegalese cabin crew, helped me get a visa, drove me to a small hotel, had the airlines pay for it and my breakfast and then arranged to have a driver bring me back today for a flight to Ghana. They did not have to. I could have slept in the airport but luckily for me, they saw a single tired person, not a them worth attacking while weak. They treated me as they hope to be treated. 

Sum of story, I was deported to the Congo.  30 hours = Ghana - Togo - Benin - Cameroon - Congo - Togo - Ghana

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Little lives, Small world.

'" I'll see you again." Its a phrase I use almost daily. I almost never say good bye, not because I am fearful of saying it but more because chances are, I really will see them again, no matter if I am in Uganda, Zurich, Lagos or Prague. The world is a huge place but people make it feel small. We are always moving, bumping into each other and making connections. The more people you meet, the more connections you create, the tighter, and thus smaller feeling your web gets. 

I have had so many small world moments. From a business meeting at a bank in Accra that led to discovering this guy was my Facebook friend, introduced by a mutual friend who knew I was moving to Ghana.  To the new friend from Botswana occupying the office is next door who was in the same a Harvard class as my former roommate in San Fran (yeah Nicole!). Not only that, they were super good friends. We called Nicole together and she about had a heart attack. In Nigeria, the minister at the church a few months prior went on the same tour as my parents in Israel and knew them well. And in Israel, I spent two days touring with Kurt Hoyer, who once lived in Kenya. He climbed Kilimanjaro with a friend of mine in Dubai and at his home, he served me Kenya tea given to him by my favorite people in Nairobi.  My favorite is when my driver in Senegal was transfered to private security in Ghana. After months of not being in contact, I was about to miss my flight to Liberia and literally bumped into him in the Accra airport. He was able to hold the plane, walked me to my gate, and gave me a hug - 'See you soon.'

All these experiences (and many many more), have made me believe that we see the world not by topography or geography but through people, through interactions, through relationships. We, or at least I, get meaning out of my environment from those who are in it, those who I share it with.  

Many people have asked me if my current lifestyle is lonely. Understandable question. I am on 1-2 flights a week. But my answer is always 'no.' And I mean it. Yes, I miss my family, road trips with my best friends, long chats with my siblings and of course a traditional Thanksgiving! But in all my travels, I have created connections and built small lives all over the globe. I have a local number for every country, core friends who get texts when I land, a favorite local beer, a familiar run and Googlers who are always happy to see me.  

Last night I hosted Thanksgiving dinner for around 30 people, only 3 of them Americans. There were people from over 8 countries many of whom I met for the first time as they walked into my house, others met through random encounters. But needless to say, we were all connected, at least for the a love for food. It was an amazing night due of  the relationships created, making the web a little tighter.  Its these relationships formed that make Ghana and my $60 turkey feel not far from home.

Mom, I'll see you soon! 

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The journey with company.

Talk about behind, I am 9 countries and a million small adventures away from my last post  - from 4x4'ing around the bush of Mozambique on trails they call roads, taking in the serenity of Cape Town, taking the plunge of the world's highest bungee, relaxing on a beach watching whales, and exploring the vibrancy of the mega-city Lagos, Nigeria and hitting the streets of Prague. Much of the above all, experiencing it much of it with lifetime friends. 

Over the past few weeks, I have learned more intimately what I have sacrificed and gained by leaving the US for a nomadic life. Having people around who have known you for longer than a few months or a few days is kinda nice. 

The memories I made with the "american crew" (as the ZA'rs named us) them will be shared in decades to come over a nice glass South African wine, reminding us of our travels. Insted, my norm is a random Nigerian immigration officer who takes my phone number off my entry card and call saying 'I miss you." Miss me how? (True story!) Its not really all that bad. There is a warmth in the hospitality and kindness of Africa and to Googlers. I have met some incredible people consider my colleagues more like family than workmates but you still miss the mean and constructive comments only a best friend can deliver with love. 

South Africa and Mozambique was a reminder of the value of relationships and the growth that only comes with iron sharpening iron. Even better, it was all the the back drop of the beauty of Africa's coast line - bonfire perfection!

After leaving the rainbow nation, I headed for the first time to Nigeria or as they say 'Naija.'  Arriving in Lagos by night fall, gives you an eery feeling.  The city of 22 million (same as entire population of Ghana), is sitting in near darkness with only the flicker with small lights until arriving the high-class district of Victoria Island. With no electric grid, generators hum.

Despite the lack of infrastructure, people are busy about their lives with no excuses.  They are hardworking and persistent people who rise around 4 AM and hit the streets working to make a buck and survive in this dog-eat-dog economy.  They are optimistic about the future and believe strongly in the power of education to change their lives. They are savvy businessmen, quick to pick things up and are proudly Nigerians. Unlike much of the rest of Africa, in Nigeria, you don't feel the influence of the past colonialists rule. Rather, Nigerians are unapologetically their own. From music to fashion, mastery of hacking, to the drop dead spicy food - they do it their way. 

While in Nigeria, I met with some interesting start ups, met with a bunch of techies and then headed off the island for the weekend to spend the weekend with a family from church - the famous Akinbo's. There are no words adequate to describe their  unmatched warmth and dedication.  Their chatty and bouncing children entertained. Dare and I explored new technologies and ideas for his business and his wife, sisters and I share great convo and attempted to reeducate me on cooking.  I have happily been back to Nigeria and their place since. The Akinbo's will always be another home for me in Africa, friends for a life time.

From Nigeria, I returned to Ghana after almost 4 months of being absent. It was more than nice to come land in this familiar place. Still missing my American Crew, my Nigerian family, but excited to return to what will always be my first home in Africa - Ghana.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Burst your bubble and go for it.

The last two weeks I spent putting on two sizable Google tech events in Uganda and Kenya. I met and reconnected with hundreds of techies from computer science students to millionaire entrepreneurs. The present and future success of tech in East Africa filled each room. Every day ended with a panel of both young and seasoned start ups serving as the vision, experience and advisors to an audience aspiring to follow their footsteps. 

These panel discussions got me thinking. What is the difference between those who actually take the leap verse those who only aspire or perhaps don't even dare to aspire. Although not a comprehensive list, I have a few ideas.
Panel for developers and entrepreneurs

First, we can't choose the family we are born into. At birth, there is no difference between those on the stage and those in the seats. 

Family also largely determines the second - capacity for  risk. Not everyone has even has the chance to consider risk. In Africa for example, making it to university requires typically requires enormous sacrifice from families. Not just the cost of the tuition of uni but also the previous years as secondary school costs parents out of pocket as well. If you are luckily enough to make it through college, your family expects you to start repaying and supporting them and your other siblings. Get a job at a bank or with the government  and never turn back. Put your head down, work hard and ignore any inclination of stepping out of the norm. Don't think about the other possibilities. You literally can't afford it. 

Risks is innately tied with fear. Fear of failure, fear of letting others down, and fear there is nothing to catch you if you fall. There is a very limited safety net, if one at all for the typical African. Families are strong, committed to one another but have very limited resources. You, as an educated student are their safety net, their insurance. 

This brings me back to those panelists and my own story. Most of the panelists came from at least middle income families. They had a bit of a cushion and an appetite for risk they chose to feed. Likely contrary to the advice of their families and friends, they went for it. They were well educated, well spoken and perhaps most importantly, well traveled. 

Making goodies with friends in Kenya
Why do I say traveled? Well, a friend of mine and I observed that whether you live in Africa, the US, Asia or the UK, we all grow up in a bubble. That bubble is meant to be secure and reassuring that if you follow the foot steps of those around you, you will have at least as good a life as them. Its not innately a bad thing. But the downside of this bubble is that is also limits the scope of your horizons. What you believe is possible for yourself is significantly determined the radius of that sphere and what is encompasses. In Africa, that results in lots of farmers, bankers, security workers, and government employees - this is actually the same in the US.

For myself, growing up in a small towns in a high school where my career counselor got her degree online, most of my male friends went to drink themselves ill in the military, and about 5 percent of my graduating class went to university, the stats would say, I would end up the same. What changed for me? First, I was blessed, born into the right family. Unlike many in my town and in Africa, my parents and sister pushed me think bigger, to see and change the world. How did they know about the possibilities out there? Travel. How did I learn? Travel. Interacting with people who had done it, seeing a path outside my bubble. 

Young, naive traveler. I am still her :)

When I was 19, I met the first person I ever knew to go to Harvard, Doug.  I was amazed to know and be friends with a real life Harvard grad. For him, it seemed the option to do anything was right at his finger tips. He told me of his adventures in Russia, Asia, Latin America. I wanted to know how he got the there. He just did it. For the last five years, he has pushed me and had no doubt I can do the same despite my own disbelief. Likewise, my sister pushed herself and in turn me, to fear but do it anyways. I now think that almost anything is possible. Not just for me but for anyone. I have now come to realize, that this mind set is a bit of a self fulfilling prophesy. For those who think, nothing is possible, it isn't. Its a mental block and perhaps a form of myopathy. Sadly, in Africa, this mental block is heavy and bubble narrow. 

So, why do some people end up on the high road to Harvard, or in investment banking or doctors? For most, unlike here, that option lived inside their bubble. Why do many people spend their life in a job they hate? That option was also readily available, a default in their surroundings.  Why do entrepreneurs rise from what appears to be poverty? Why I live in Africa? We were challenged and inspired to venture outside, and take a risk. My fist move to out of country to Nicaragua, I was scared and cried almost the whole way on the plane. Its not a lack of fear, its just getting on the plane anyways. 

My first home in Nicaragua. Good reason to cry. 
I am the first to admit that the option to take that first step, its not all or even mostly self determination. I have a great family, strong faith, and have had ample blessings along the way. But when given the option to jump, I fortunately was pushed to swallowed my fear and take a running start. Today, I am now blessed to be living a life beyond my wildest expectations. 

If you choose to take the leap, its not assured you won't fail, but is assured that if you make it out of your bubble, the potential on the other side will open a whole world of possibilities. Go for it! 

Friday, September 10, 2010

Its rough but memorable road.

While admittedly, my life is charmed - I get paid to fly around and make things happen - but in Africa, the travel itself is far from glamorous. Once I reach my destination, I love it. But until then, it is a test of will, attitude and patience. First of all Africa is enormous. Secondly, flights happen infrequently when they do take off and I am often forced onto less than reputable establishments like Arik, Eagle AIr Nigeria, and Air Uganda. 

Liberian Flag. Familiar? 
Two weeks ago, I traveled from Cape Town to Liberia via Nairobi, about 3000 miles out of the way. In the middle of this four leg journey, one plane was missing. My connection was not there to Accra, Ghana. Luckily, in a few hours it made an appearance and in a stroke of luck, my final flight from Accra to Monrovia was delayed by five hours, thus I would make the last connection.  
The mayor of Monrovia (lady right) and our team! 

My thoughts, perfect! I can run home in Accra, a place I have not been in 2 months, shower from 24 hours of traveling, re-pack clean clothes and be back on a plane. This plan was going amazingly until I got back to the Accra airport to check in. When I got there,  no Ethiopian Airlines flight to Liberia could be found.  I ran around, called my travel agent, called Ethiopian, and asked the 'not-so-helfpul desk. Finally, I was told the flight was still there, but even if the flight time is delayed, they still only open the check in counter when the flight WOULD have check in. Meaning, I was missing the flight even though it was still there on the tarmac un-boarded.  

Streets of Monrovia, Liberia 
One good thing about Africa is that even if everyone says it's not possible, it is. While rushing around the airport, I randomly ran into a friend I met in Senegal, named Cheick,  who now runs United Airlines security at the airport. He gave me some guys number to call and called some friends himself. Eventually, I was on the phone with a guy on the tarmac demanding to be let on the flight. After some sharp words and a hefty phone bill later, I was issued a fake ticket by another airline to get through immigration. When I reached the boarding gate, the passengers for my flight were still waiting and ten flight attendances who were sitting around asked  'Where were you, we have been looking for you."  Obvisouly they weren't looking hard. But regardless, you can bet that tarmac guy's number is stored in my phone.

Chris and our Google security
Finally,  Liberia. What a fascinating place. Poorest I have seen in Africa, war torn and oddly American, but I loved it.  I was in Liberia to organize and speak at tech training in a country with no electric power supply aside from generators, only satellite internet and not one university computer science department. This was a project and needless to say, I was a bit of a skeptic.  

While all the lack of infrastructure can't be ignored and undoubtably a huge barrier to such an impoverished country, if it is the people who determine the potential of a country, Liberia will be alright. Liberians are still quite guarded and don't smile first but they have an unmatched hunger to learn and an entrepreneurial spirit. I met a about 10 guys who were completely self taught programmers, one of who  at age 22, is starting an educational TV show to teach computer literacy. This same kid also works late at night when the internet connection is not so crowded to download university course lectures from Stanford and MIT, burns them on DVD and hands them out.  It is people like him who remind me of the potential of one person to have an impact, to make change. Lucky for Liberia, they have more than one. 

A few other things of note, met the mayer of Monrovia who reminded me of a fired up talk show host, listened to some great live reggae and enjoyed a series of Liberian down pours. My one day out of work, was  spent with a colleague Chris roaming around the streets and markets of Monrovia in the pouring rain. The colors and atmosphere were amazing. We watched as people came to gather their water from the central well, sold used and likely donated clothes, cars and bikes tried to navigate the flooded hazardous roads, young kids showered naked in the rain, and generally Liberians going about their business in a partially destroyed city. 

dancing for the butter. 

At one point, I was pulled from the crowd to danced in the with a musical group promoting Vita Butter.  Pretty hilarious (Chris, keep you videos to yourself :). Then Chris signed us up to eat some incredibly suspicious food that made haste in our systems.  All together, we did our best to absorb a place that to the Western eye, seems chaotic and run down, but for someone who lives there, it is mundane daily life.  For me, nothing about Liberia was mundane. I quite liked it.     More pics 

Sunday, August 29, 2010

A bit of self definition.

In the past few weeks, I have had a bit of a a two pronged identity crisis. First, I feel I am no longer my own but have become the embodiment of my work. When people quote me, they say " Google says." For those of you who know me well, this probably not the best idea. I am quite outspoken and have an underdeveloped verbal filter....if one at all. What I say has become the word of Google. I now find myself using all sorts of qualifiers including 'this is Bridgette talking,' 'off the record,'  and 'in my personal opinion."  There is a Proverb " he who holds his tongue is wise (10:19)."  Wise I must become :)

The second portion of my identity question mark comes primarily from my clear status as a foreigner. Sometimes I ask myself 'Why can't I be African?'  When you read this question, your first thought is likely, "You are white," or "you were born in the US." But skin color does not prevent you from being a citizen where I come from. I now realize the standout foreigner status has actually been the case in Thailand, Nicaragua, Peru and in the Middle East. The more I travel, the more I understand, where come from is not the rule but the exception.

Proves nothing has changed. Looking for my keys. 
Attempting a radome athletic competition.

Before moving to Africa, I lived in San Francisco. If I was asked to describe someone from San Francisco, I would have an incredibly hard time doing it - perhaps hipster in tight jeans who hates plastic bags, mass media and oil companies. But this is not physically descriptive.  (Patriotic moment coming). Where I come from, you are free to be of any ethnic or social origin and be American. Your skin color or hue does not give away much about you. I would say your dress is more determinative than any innate feature. In Sub Saharan Africa and in most of the world, I am by default an outlier.  In Africa, the next steps in the thought series is that I was sent by an NGO, Embassy or am a missionary, likely making bank and working to impose my solutions and take your problems from you. The assumption would not be there I am here to do businesses as I am. 

The combination of tags above combine to label me as a foreigner Googler working to improve Africa. While this appears semi-correct on the surface, it is not. 

In my hierarchy of self determination, I am first a Christian, second a Sexton, third a friend, fourth a global citizen, and fifth a slightly fearless explorer. It is the combination of these factors that have enabled me to be Bridgette, who works at Google in Africa, not the other way around.  This I am certain of.  For this I am grateful. 

Thanks Mom and Dad :) 

Friday, August 27, 2010

An Africa Facing South.

I am going to write this as a two perspective blog. One is on the plane as I fly to South Africa and one will be post visit. 

Part 1: 
I am curious about this place. It is the most mixed reviewed country I have encountered in candid discussion. People often stay 'it is gorgeous, a different world, not the Africa you know."  This is coupled with 'what you see, unless you try, is not the full reality. You must really try to see the other side. " I feel a bit like a trader going there oddly as my 'home' is the rest of Africa. Mostly, I feel I am hitting shaky ground, unsure of the underline meaning of my actions in a place that is not straight forward and has such a divisive history. 

Part 2:
This what you call a delayed reaction. It has been almost two weeks since I left the Rainbow Nation. I spent the first four days on Jo'burg at tech conferences. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting with and exploring the tech community but to my surprise, these Africa themed events were not the Africa I have been involved with. It was...well...almost all white. I knew almost all 'Africans' and sadly I was more acquainted with Africa as whole than the vast majority of South Africans, many of who had never explored their continent outside their country. 

South Africa is undoubtably more advanced in many ways visible ways that the rest of Africa. But that said, much of the rest of Africa has advancing as well. It seemed SA is on the edge of  exclusive and quite myopic, not considering the rest of Africa. They don't know that Its not just shanty towns or charity case. Kenya, Senegal and Uganda have better internet connections and more advanced mobile markets than South Africa. Nigeria has 572 %  more internet users despite relying almost entirely on generators for electricity.  South Africa is ideally positioned to take advantage of the maturing lions to the north. It will be to their loss if they don't look north. 

Look a bit like Bishops Peak? 

All ranting aside, I throughly enjoyed the people I met and had an incredible time drinking cappuccinos, sipping wine, being cold,  getting a bit of exposure to Cape Town night life (thanks Devin) and running along the coast. There were a few definite surprises including Monte Casino in Jo'berg and the entire city of Cape Town. It looks strikingly similar to my college town, San Luis Obispo. Don't worry my California peeps, I still like you better...although there was some pretty amazing sushi and dancing to be had. 

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Bridge to Liberia

I am in liberia writing this blog live in front of an audience of here for a tech training from Google.  Blogging is easy. Have a voice, do say something because you can. This is a way to tell the world something from you, to a be a news source and to provide a perspective only you can have.

Bloggers of Liberia, see you soon!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Out of Office...Into the Wild.

I have been working..let's just say, a lot. Luckily, I love my job but it most often captures the day and leaves the night for digital catch up, a nap and typically packing. Not your or my idea of an exciting narration of life in Africa. So the past few weekends I have abandoned the web for the wild. Here are a few escapades.

Riding to Egypt: 

Heading out of Uganda's capital city Kampala, the populated hills quickly become lush tea plantations, subsistence farms and then jungle. My coworker and I took this stunning drive to spend a day hiking and getting some peace in the lush Rain Forest Lodge. We watched monkeys searching for fruit in the tall trees and listen to birds competing for airwaves. 

The next morning, we traveled further East to Jinga. On the edge of town, the massive waters of Lake Victoria escape from the northern tip to start a 6,650 kilometer journey to the Mediterranean Sea. The incredible flow creates a series of class 5 to 6 rapids serving as hub for adventure junkies. They are among the top three ranked commercially rafted rapid in the worlds. Needless to say, breathtaking - both from the scenery and from being ejected from the boat on engulfed with monsoon of  thrashing water.  By far the best and most ridiculous ride in a large dingy. 

4 by 4 by 4 in Kenya:

Last weekends journey began in Nairobi. I rented a 4x4 and three of my friends from church and I headed out of the city to their parents and grandparents village located in the Great Rift Valley near Nakuru. After a three hour drive, we were welcomed into their grandmothers old, well occupied in home - by her, a number of animals and lots of guests. The farm was stunning. In their tribe (Kikuyo), sons inherit the fathers land, each building a home on it. For this reason, I was able to meet a large extended family, see their herd of goats, extensive garden, primitive kitchen, and get attacked by safari ants.

Then we traveled to their parents home, cooked dinner, shared stories and headed off to bed to get up at 5:30 AM in time to beat the rise of the animals and the sun in Nakuru National Park. This is where the 4x4 really came in handy. I took the wheel to practice staying left and also charging through ENORMOUS puddles to find the massive beasts. 

We saw a myriad of animals including water buffalo, giraffe, baboons, rhinos, hippos, hyenas, antelope, flamingos, monkeys and a million birds. Most memorably, we got chased and nearly attacked by a baboon... twice, nearly drove into a river, sat to observe young hyena cubs in their den, challenged a water buffalo with a Rav 4 and nearly got stuck at least a dozen times. This is my second safari and I must say, behind the wheel, is where the real adventure happens. ...just ask my passengers :)

Since then, I have been working mostly except randomly last weekend, I ended up at a  free jazz concert and unknowingly met a bunch of Kenyan celebs. Rappers are exactly what you think they are...except shorter :)

Now I am in South Africa but more to come on that later. Here are lots more picks.

Just in case you are curious, here are a few of the infamous Kenyan musicians.  Eric WainainaCollo, and Makemende, who was the first viral YouTube video star in Kenya. 

Monday, August 2, 2010

A "Real" Africa Perspective.

There are a few things that bother me about how people reference Africa. The way the media, especially, BBC World goes out of its way to hunt down the five tribesmen in a modern city in Mombasa, Kenya to do a report on technology.  I often hear people say when they see a nice house, a mall or a great city skyline “this isn’t REAL Africa.” Yes, it may not fit your image of Africa and it is in no way the majority, but is it Africa and in many places, there is progress that should be acknowledged.  

Nairobi Skyline from Google Office.

The image of poverty sells and people, NGOs and governments who profit from it, perpetuate pictures.  Yes, absolutely there is poverty, disease, poor infrastructure, corruption. Liberia has absolutely no electric grid, the city hums with generators. Nigeria has a province declared a war zone due to oil disputes. The DRC has the highest rate of rape victim in the world.  But these are the stories you already hear. There is another perspective. Africa is full of entrepreneurs, and able-bodied people, with good minds, working hard and being incredibly scrappy with the resources they have.  

1 of 7 huge computer labs at university in Kampala
One of my Nigerian co-workers has a theory – across the globe, the percentage of geniuses fairly consistent across populations. Given the high rate of natural selection in Nigeria and the population of 150 million, there must be a significantly higher rate of Einsteins roaming the streets of Lagos.  This just might be the case (Welcome to Lagos).  

Working in tech, I admittedly have a skewed perspective. I meet the some of the brightest geeks in Africa including the likes of Jojo, Fritz, Ushihidi, Encipher. They are making strides and overcoming barriers western techies would never encounter. They are working hard to develop modern technologies often in what a westerner might consider primitive conditions. But, they see potential in an emerging market with rising consumer demand. You see only the dusty dirt roads, mud huts and Maasai warriors, not a place worth building technologies for. 

These guys, along with many African's, have changed my picture of Africa. No doubt, life here is more difficult and opportunities harder to come by. But this group of self-starters, visionaries and dare I say, geniuses are making it in a very "real" Africa.  

Friday, July 30, 2010

Sometimes I just smile and say "TIA"

Things don’t always operate in Africa as my western mind would expected. I am constantly surprised by amazing and ridiculous things. Sometimes they are great surprises, like finding that a University of Nairobi's choir practices on the bleachers next to the dirt track where I often run. Sometimes its just mind blowing, like seeing guys carrying 80+ water cans on a single motorbike. Sometimes it is just unbelievable. Often I find myself muttering the commonly used phrase “TIA," which stands for, “This is Africa.”

Wikipedia defines “TIA”  as meaning go with the flow/don't expect anything to run on schedule/enjoy life. I define TIA everyday. Here are a few recent definitions. 

Yep, my flight stopped in three countries not listed on the itinerary. Pretty sure I spent at least 2 hours in Mali. 

I left my office in Nairobi for a meeting, an hour later, I could still see it as I sat in the parking lot called a road.

From my car window in Accra, I can buy anything from baby shoes to a mounted six foot poster of Jesus.

We spent nearly an entire day looking for a staple gun in well stocked stores in Nairobi. Five stores later we found one, but they did not have staples that fit it. Back to the previous four.

Public transit does not stop, you just get out.

No, we don’t take our local currency to pay for your visa into Kenya, you need to go exchange it for US dollars and come back to stand in ocean deep line.

“Why yes, this was the chicken that was just running around.”

The potholes are so enormous and frequent in Uganda, the locals have a saying that, “You can tell a drunk driver here, because they drive straight.”

Taxi driver to me: “I have always wanted to go to the US. Are you married? “ Total number of proposals: 68. Most recent: This morning.

Me: ‘How much for these sandals??” Shop owner: “For you, I give a very nice price. My best price. (pause as he takes stalk ) $50......actual price $2.

You want to rent the City Hall Monrovia, Libera, no problem, $1500 a day. The cost includes the room. If you want power, that is an additional + $475 for 50 gallons of diesel to power the generator.

The plane ticket is only $159. It’s the +250 for taxes that makes it expensive.
Daily discussion with the security guard “You want to marry a Kenyan man or an American?”

Anything can be carried on your head or  transported by bike, who says you need trucks.

The ATM just gave me 500 Ghana Cedis in bills of 100.  No one has change.
The ATM just gave me 500 Ghana Cedis in 5 Cedi bills.  All I have is change.

Sorry Madame, we stop taking credit cards at 5 PM. Cash only now. 

I bought a crappy expensive hair dryer from in Ghana. The power plug was for South Africa which fits in exactly zero outlets in Ghana and zero international converters.

When I order take-out, the motorcycle taxi asks where to drop it. Since there are very few or no addresses, its always a fun game of reference. “I live near the city Water Works, by Palm Wine Junction…”

Quote from colleagues, “The pastors in Kenya are some of the richest people.”

 Kenya “we found out today three years after being in office, that the politician rigged the elections. They kicked her out to have a reelection. She is running again.”

A Ugandan woman on my last flight to Kampala tried to open the rear emergency exit in search for a restroom. Luckily, a flight attended returned to get some more tea, and caught her. She then spent the next 10 minutes screaming at the woman. 

Article headline in Uganda’s national paper, New Vision states, “Computer-linked illness paralyzes woman.”   The illness they are referring to is Multiple Sclerosis. Not sure this is scientific.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Change of Latitudes, Change of Scenery

I continue to fail at blogging. Since I wrote last, I have been on seven flights, making a path from Accra to London to Tel Aviv to Nairobi, Kampala, and back to Nairobi. Fun ride. I had a bit of a 'workacation' in London - meaning I worked 8 hour days and played the other 16, taking full advantage of the late summer nights of the northern hemisphere. 

In London, I did not see the Big Ben, Tower or Westminster. This trip was more about absorbing good friends, good food, and double-dip recession shopping - oh, Google food again! Big Dave, Aaron, Hannah, Mike, Dave and Joseph were just what the witch doctor ordered to cure a coming case of burn out, and a great way to celebrate the 4th of July (or Rebellion Day as the Brits call it). 

After five memorable days, I rushed off to Heathrow to hop a flight to Tel Aviv.  It was not that fast. When I arrived at El AL, the Israeli national airline, I was greeted with hostility, interrogated, forced to demonstrate that all my electronics functioned, stripped of all my belongings except my phone and passport, escorted by security guards to my gate airport and then amusingly noted that my bra took a trip a security conveyer belt on its own. To top it off, one of my Israeli armed escorts, asked me out on a date - he said he never saw someone so amused during an 1.5 hour security briefing :). Moral of the story, don't by a one way ticket on an Israeli airline,  and try to explain you are living a nomadic African life working for a tech company. In general, they find it very unplausible. 

Israel is amazing. This was my second time to visit the historic epicenter, it just keeps getting better. I stayed in Tel Aviv right on the coast of the Mediterranean. Tel Aviv is the secular center,  the king of night life, the Miami of the Mediterranean, not to mention, full of incredibly gorgeous people. If only I was Jewish. 

My work brought me between Haifa and Tel Aviv. The first afternoon, I spent working at a colleagues house in a small coastal village and then the entire night wrestling and playing on the beach with her three kids. During the week, I reveled in some World Cup action, went on a date with the Israeli security guard from Heathrow, enjoyed great music, hot summer nights and fell back in love with hummus. 

I took a three day weekend as Friday is a not a working day in Israel. I walked the Old City of Jaffa,(the longest inhabited city in the world), strolled some markets, and met up with Kurt Hoyer, a friend who is stationed with the State Department. Sadly, his family was out of town but he was an absolutely fantastic host. We explored the old ruins of Caesarea. As Kurt says, Herod the Great had an eye for real estate. 

Sunday, we drove through the West Bank to Jerusalem. The Old City was as fastinating as I remember but much hotter. We walked the tops of the city walls, roamed the ancient streets, spend time on the temple mount and to cool down, walked through the Hezekiah's Tunnel  (Chronicles II, 32:30) in the City of David. 

The tunnel a is narrow man-made water channel that built by King Hezekiah i to divert the potable liquid into the city wall and protect it from invadors. Kurt and couldn't have had better timing. WIth 45 feet of dirt above us, we submerged ourselves in pitch black tunnel up to our knees in water to walk the half mile length of the tunnel with about 20, thirteen year old girls on a school trip who screamed, yelped and shrilled their way through the reverberant tunnel. 

Now I am back in Africa, working tons but with a bit of time for running, Karaoke and up coming, rafting the Nile. This weekend, I am sorting out a temporary apartment in Nairobi as it looks like need to be in East Africa for the next 7 weeks minus two small trips to South Africa and Liberia. I departed Ghana for London June 29th with one carry-on which is now going to last me until September 10th. Need to do laundry.....again. 

More Pics can be found here and here.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Tour de Africa with Guest Appearances by.....

Let’s just say it has been a while but my mom’s persistent public banter on Facebook has convinced me to write an update. I will just hit some highlights rather than make this a 3.5 hour marathon to test your endurance. I last wrote from Dakar before hitting the southern delta of Senegal near Gambia with two other Googlers, Tidjane and Ayite. We took a boat ride, shared a meal with family friend’s of Tidjane’s who also let me and Ayite take his horse and cart out so we could make a movie.

After Senegal, I headed back to Accra to worked on my stamina for labor – working +90 hour weeks to pull together a Google tech event  with +450 people called G-Ghana  (pics). In the midst of the madness, YouTube partnered with the world’s top street soccer team, headed by the famous goggles wearing, Edgar Davids. We hosted the team in Ghana, took them dancing til dawn, by bus to the north to play local footballers in the street, and out shopping because the thieving Kenya Airways, “lost” their luggage. In fact, the first day, they had a match – many of them wearing my socks including Pinto, who succeeded in begging me to give him the socks off my own feet. (pics)

The last night they were here, Edgar wanted to go meet a bunch of famous footballers in Ghana (Adabayor, etc) despite needing to be at the airport. I drove them around to elaborate MTV Cribs style houses with butlers, a circular drive showcasing their five pimped out rides and living rooms that look like fancy showcase rooms. When we finally left, we had about 20 minutes to make it to the airport. I was pulled over 3 times in 10 minutes, blew of one police check point and bribed a copy with a Google t-shirt as I did want to give him cash but was in a hurry.

Besides footballers, G-Ghana and the 21 Googlers in town consumed all wake hours. The event went off with only a few minor glitches – the second day, the combination of a tropical pour down flooding the streets and the President closing roads for an impromptu motorcade, caused attendees to come about an hour late.

After a crazy event, I hit the beach and local markets with the Google crowd and then set off with my manager for less two days in Senegal. Next to Nairobi to where I surprised a few churchies when I randomly showed up. In Nairobi I met with a bunch of tech hubs, put on tourism conference pulled off with 3 days planning, and watched as much World Cup as possible.

Last weekend, I was asked to help out a project called Field of Dreams which was a joint project with Google and the BBC to teach young girls in the Kenyan beach village of Kilifi, computer skills. At night, we projected the games on a giant outdoor inflatable screen (so cool, check out OpenAirCinema). Rain or shine, a huge crowd gathered to cheer on the African teams.

One of my three days in Kilifi, myself and a colleague rented creaky walmart-quality super workout mountain bikes to explored the villages meeting people, taking pictures, sitting with a local soap stone carver, and generally reveling in the beauty and peace of this place.

Monday through Wednesday of this week, I was waking up in my favorite city in Africa thus far, Kampala, Uganda. They city is built on seven lush hills on the edge of Lake Victoria. It is vibrant , proud, friendly, talkative and young. I hosted a lunch with young programmers who were hilarious – commentating and arguing about every aspect the educational system, the government,, the roads, the potential for technology, ending on the fact that what they really need is consistent electricity and better elementary education.  That said, Africa is growing, developing and hungry for business. The consumer market is booming. The Africa of National Geographic is not the reality for 98% of inhabitance. Progress is happening and business is driving it.

For those wondering what exactly I am doing, here are a few things. I am involved with WhereCamp Nairobi, BarCamp Cameroon, G-Ghana, G-Africa, Apps for Africa, iHub, etc.

For now, I am on a(nother) plane back to Accra to watch the Ghana vs. USA game among other tasks like laundry, paying rent, working, resting and packing for another 3 weeks on the road – London, Israel, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and back to Accra before Nigeria.

BTW, Africa is HUGE. ENORMOUS even. I am on a 8 hours flight over land in a Boeing 737 to get from East to West Africa. In total, it will take me 27 hours to get back to Accra. Flying in Africa sucks. I will explain later. 

*More pics coming soon