Tuesday, September 9, 2014

the tv guy, and what he taught us about Kenyan leadership, Kenyan hospitality, and unexpected conversations

At Jimmy's, singing the Kenyan national anthem. TV guy at the far left.

He was there to fix the TV, and he slipped in while most of us weren't even paying attention. Our team was at Jimmy's apartment for dinner, our last one before we left Kenya for home. Jimmy was another gracious, welcoming Kenyan partner and friend. His 2-bedroom apartment was in a huge complex of 8,000 units near the airport in Nairobi, with gates and guards and fruit stands and kids running around the maze of streets and cul-de-sacs. When we arrived at his apartment, we smelled food and chided Jimmy's wife, Faith, for cooking for us when we'd insisted she not go to the trouble. They had already been so generous with their time and help. But of course we were not-so-secretly pleased to eat a last home-cooked Kenyan meal.

I was feeling sad and a little withdrawn, like I usually am in the last hours of a trip I don't want to end. Maybe that's why I didn't give much attention to the friend who came shortly after we arrived to fix the TV. In some ways, he was hard to miss - at least six foot tall, and built like an American football player. He took up space, especially in the already crowded living room. But he stayed quiet, focusing his attention on Jimmy's new TV that sometimes played in black and white instead of color. The rest of us waited for the food to be ready: Shannon on the computer to check us in to our flights, her husband helping her, the rest of us enjoying the alcohol Jimmy served us and recalling our favorite parts of our trip.

Soon Faith announced that dinner was ready, and the TV repair man stopped his work to join our eager line to pile the rice, beef curry, cabbage, greens and chicken onto plates. It was then, when he sat down to eat with us, that I realized that the TV guy was not just a repairman, but a friend and neighbor -- a distinction that doesn't exist in Kenyan culture (or at least not as often as it does in the West).

With empty plates and full stomachs, we all sat together -- the Alabaster team, Jimmy and Faith and Faith's friend, some of our GCN hosts, and the TV guy. Sam played his violin, and soon we were singing national anthems from all the places any of us had once, in some way, called home. That led to questions about Kenya's president, which led several of our Kenyan friends to start debating the most recent elections and whose candidate should have won. Which quickly turned into a passionate discussion of how Kenya can help its poor and isolated people get the resources and justice they deserve.

A few minutes into this conversation, I pulled out my small black moleskine and pen, and Shannon looked over at me and laughed. We had already joked that the most valuable conversations on this trip hadn't happened when I'd prepared for them. From our very first day when we drove to rural Maasailand, the things I really wanted and needed to learn about came up at unexpected times, when I had to rely on my memory to absorb the most important points or pull out my notebook and start scribbling furiously. (I had purchased a microphone for my iphone and a savvy recording app prior to the trip, but these things take a few minutes to get ready -- minutes that would have been wasted in distraction. It was also more conspicuous, a fact I was still learning to navigate.)

The discussion turned into a powerful lesson in African and Kenyan leadership. No matter which presidential candidate or party they supported, each Kenyan there was convinced that what Kenya needed was talented and committed local leaders who advocated more for what their people needed. The TV guy was perhaps the most articulate, passionate and thoughtful in his ideas. He explained that Kenya is in the midst of de-centralizing its government, which is good and needed. But leaders who are appointed to posts should be familiar with their communities and a good manager of resources -- not the "for show" politicians that, according to these men, Kenyans are all too familiar with. "They show up at cultural dances and then go home, and people are still hungry," the TV guy said. They spoke of a laptop program in schools, initiated by the Ministry of Education. But because solar panels and electricity are still lacking in some areas, politicians have used this an excuse to funnel the money elsewhere, showing a lack of integrity and genuine concern for the education of Kenya's children. This anecdote was a stark contrast to the head teachers and principals our team had met in Maasailand and in the slums throughout our trip -- men who had made great sacrifices, financially and socially and otherwise, to educate children in their community.

We had to cut the conversation short because it was 8pm, time for our team to leave for the airport. I had written down (or at least had tried to) a few things that the TV guy said, and realized I still didn't know his name. As we said our goodbyes, I shook his hand and thanked him for sharing so openly and passionately. He was helping us to learn, I told him. He smiled shyly and I asked him his name.

"Felix," he said.

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