Monday, November 29, 2010

Professional Colleagues: Meet Nerisa Kamar

I'm happy to refer readers of this post to a professional description of my friend Nerisa Jepkorir Kamar in Nairobi.

I've often written about her and shared photographs of Nerisa at this post, as she is one of "The Great Four" and, as with my pals Geoffrey Onyango Opile and Charles Ombongi Masese, Nerisa has played an important role in my personal success in Kenya.

Nerisa is also an outstanding example of the KM/knowledge services leaders now emerging in Africa, and a brief profile of Nerisa is available at the SMR Int'l - Knowledge Services Notes, our company's corporate blog.

Please take a look if you would like to read about someone who is doing exceptional work in the KM/knowledge services field.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving Day - Mr. Guy's Thanksgiving Project

Last Sunday, a brief post on this blog introduced Mr. Guy's Thanksgiving Project, asking people to share any particular parts of their lives that bring special meaning, things they are thankful for.

Surprisingly, since Thanksgiving Day is an American holiday and Americans are generally thought of as religious people (at least in terms of public or "civic" religion, regardless of what they feel in their hearts or how they act), responses were muted in terms of any religious connection. Little religious perspective carried over into the comments people made about what they are grateful for (which in itself might be something to be grateful for, considering what comes from some of our more "religious" citizens!). The few people who mentioned "faith" simply mentioned it that way, as something to be thankful for. They did not elaborate.

Even without the religious connection, and with the full recognition that Thanksgiving started as a religious observance among early Christian believers in New England and Virginia, lovely themes are being played out on this most American of holidays. Generally, these themes fall into three categories: family, friends, and health. The last we don't need to speak much about. In a time when healthcare and the American government's role in supporting healthcare for citizens is much talked about, those people fortunate enough to be in good health, or under the care of a good healthcare team if they have health needs, are indeed very blessed, and it was good to hear that they are thankful for their good fortune.

Family is another matter. There are many platitudes about dealing with family "issues" during the holiday season which for many people begins with Thanksgiving, and colleagues (and even the media) are full of stories about the dissension that seems to come to a head in one's family at this time of year. In the long run, though (from my observance and from what people told me), all the stories and gossip seem to be just that. Most people, given the opportunity to have a family observance of Thanksgiving and the year-end season are grateful for that opportunity. Even for those of us separated from our families by great distances seem to make particular effort think of other family members at this time of year, even - when possible - calling or sending an e-mail to have some brief interaction. It's a sweet activity and one that happily puts the lie to all those so-called "horror stories" about family gatherings. They make for amusing (and sometimes not-so-amusing) sitcoms on television and in the movies, but they are not how most people spend Thanksgiving dealing with their families. Most folks are grateful for the love they share with their families and relatives.

Which brings us to friends, a topic that could be the subject of a post all by itself. Here we have a clear statement of what being thankful is all about, and this is an easy matter to discuss. Apparently most of us are very aware of the role of friends in our lives, and even people who don't spend a lot of time thinking about gratitude and thankfulness as part of their daily lives move specifically in this direction when asked to describe what they are grateful for. Certainly for most people, we long ago learned that we cannot function alone, and even the most private of people seem to have some need for connecting with others, whether in the workplace or in their personal lives (look at the popularity and on-going utilization of mobile phones for an example - if you live in a metropolitan area as I do, you are very aware that most of those conversations are visits, and people are having a good time with those visits, even if they are not face-to-face).

For me, it's the connection with friends that provides the true link to Thanksgiving, and this year, particularly, it's a great joy for me to think about what's gone on in my life over the past year and reflect on my friends and how important they are to me. It hardly needs saying that living in a distant land for a year strengthens the role of friendship in one's life, and I'm very, very grateful to my American and international colleagues for being so "close" while I have been so far away. Personal friends, professional colleagues, even some people I never realized were particularly interested in my life or what I do have all kept up their connection with me (thank goodness for Skype, the posts of fellow bloggers, and especially e-mail). I have been truly blessed while I've been in Kenya.

And while it is probably not fair to single out individuals, the other three of what has become known as "The Great Four" of my African friends and colleagues and the other people I've met in Africa really need to be mentioned. It is not possible for me to identify and list all the many people I met in Nairobi and other parts of Kenya (after all, my work there required me to meet and interview what must have been a couple of hundred people!). Nevertheless, I am grateful and so blessed to have established a relationship with these three wonderful people. I wrote about Nerisa and Charles and Geoffrey in a post early in the month, so I won't embarrass them by going into a lot of detail here, but it is a special pleasure to submit this word of gratitude to them. And to the other colleagues and friends I've met in Africa, both professional friends in my work at UN-Habitat (especially Hellen Nyabera, Joseph Gichuki, Isaack Waruru, and Daniel Mukangura) and in my volunteer work at the Information Africa Organization, I send my gratitude.

So for my many personal friends, acquaintances, and colleagues with whom I've had the pleasure to interact during the past year (indeed, throughout my life), I am very, very thankful. If Mr. Guy's personal Thanksgiving Project had been a competition, it's obvious to me that although family, health, and even faith are important as we count our blessings, it's our connection with our friends that wins hands down. I'm very grateful to each and every one of them for including me in their lives, and my life is richer because of them.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Slums Do Not Have to Be Bleak

I'm impressed with what's going on in Rio de Janeiro, as reported by my friend Tom Rink on his blog.

Having worked recently in developing knowledge strategy for an organization dealing with sustainable urbanization (UN's Human Settlements Programme - UN-Habitat - in Nairobi, Kenya) and having visited Rio last March, Tom's post has special resonance for me. Perhaps for you, too.

Worth a look: Rio slum transformed into canvas bursting with color (be sure to scroll down and view the CNN report)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Thanksgiving Project

People in other countries are often impressed with the American holiday of Thanksgiving, to be observed this year on Thursday, November 25.

This annual tribute, in gratitude for the bounty of the land, is one of America's great traditions. This sort of grateful acknowledgement of  the "good things in life," so to speak, began for Americans with the first colonists, in Massachusetts back in the 17th century (although some credit its source to the Virginia colonists in the same period).

Thanksgiving is not limited to the United States (Canada's observance comes to mind), but in the States the day is given special recognition by many citizens. Observance of the holiday usually focuses on a special meal with family and friends, with some participants often travelling far to be part of the group. For many people in the States, the holiday has a special meaning because it introduces our end-of-the-year holiday season, and we all find (or try to find) ourselves in a mood that lifts us a little above the mundane and the ordinary for a few weeks.

This year I'm taking a cue from WQXR, New York's classical music radio station, which is running for the second year something called "The Gratitude Project," inviting listeners to identify the music they're most grateful for, which is then playing on air. For readers of this blog, I'm suggesting "The Thanksgiving Project," only let's do it with a little different twist. Let's share what we are grateful for as 2010 begins to come to an end.

It doesn't matter what it is, but we would be very interested in hearing from you. Share something for which you're grateful. Just submit a comment below and tell us what you are thankful for. Perhaps it's someone in your life who is special to you, or an event that got you to thinking differently, an unexpected windfall of some sort (or better yet, some tragedy or sadness avoided), or something simple that you're just happy is part of your life, such as the good music you hear, your friendships, or your success in your profession or work.

Send a few words to The Thanksgiving Project. We'll share them on Thursday.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Kenya: The People, The Places, The Culture (3)

Party Time

There's probably no better way to convey one's impressions of a different place than to describe how people have fun together. As it turned out, my pals and I were up for a good party back at the beginning of the month when my friend Joseph Gichuki decided to have a party for Mr. Guy.

We later learned that the party was to be an all-day affair, somehow built around the goat we were going to be eating. That idea didn't come through to me, and we arrived after the goat had been slaughtered and was being grilled. But even if we missed the beginning of the festivities we still - to no one's surprise - had ourselves a swell time.

We gathered at a place Joseph knew, and the event included a lot of just sitting around and visiting, which was very nice. No formal agenda or activities, just enjoying each other's company. New people joined us - friends of Joseph and his wife Esther - so the conversations covered just about every subject that has come up since I've been in Kenya. We spoke about politics and the new constitution, of course, and there was also lots of talk about the cultural differences between the Americans and the rest of the world - a very popular topic of conversation for international visitors these days, especially this time, just a few days after the mid-term election in the United States. My Kenyan friends - both old friends and new people I met for the first time - were intrigued with what's going on in the U.S. and conveyed to me, it seemed, some nervousness about the results of the election.

Such talk did not inhibit our good time - not with this crowd. The Tuskers were eagerly enjoyed (Tusker being the popular brand of bottled beer in Kenya), and we had many good comments (and O.K. - a few laughs) about how Mr. Guy looks in his African shirt. Made from the fabric used for the Maasai shuka, the colorful wraps worn by not only the Maasai but just about everybody else in Kenya, the shirt was a present as we started off on our excursion to the party and I was delighted. Finally I'm going to be dressed like some of the fellows I see as I roam about Kenya.

A Maasai vendor lady visited us, and while none of us was particularly interested in making any purchases, Joseph did decide that I needed a beaded Maasai wristband to go with my shirt, so instead of the guest giving the host a gift, the gesture was turned around, and I'm very grateful.

Indeed, very grateful all the way 'round to Joseph and Esther for provided such a lovely day and this happy party. It was truly a good time, and we really enjoyed ourselves. The Tuskers were delicious on a warm early-summer day, and all that good goat meat just kept coming and coming. While none of us really overate, I suppose, we did consume a lot of goat (must have been a big goat!).

And as part of the goat-eating, I experienced again something that's been happening to me recently in Kenya: the elegant respect for me because I'm older. I've long known that the Kenyans (and possibly all Africans, for all I know) have a particular code of behavior with respect to the elders of their society, but somehow it had eluded me that I'm one of that group. No one has - during my time in Kenya - made any particular comments or deference to me because of my age (well, except for with my best buddies, who do make lots of humorous comments about the wide gap between their ages and mine!), but in the last couple of weeks or so, I've noticed a little trend in this direction.

And it was made very clear at this party. I asked about it, and when Joseph and some of the other fellows explained to me why I was being treated in a special way, I was very honored. It was almost as if my age had moved me from being simply a tourist and/or a temporary employee in their country to someone (almost) matching the position of their own elders. At the party, the idea was made manifest in a couple of very sweet gestures. For example, when food was served (as it was many times during the day) it was put in front of me first, and I realized that everyone was looking at me. When I asked what was going on, it was explained to me that it was my job - as the oldest person present - to pick up my piece of goat meat and begin eating first, after which everyone else would eat.

The same thing happened as we got toward the end of the meal (not the exact end, because we had to leave early for the drive back to Nairoibi, and we didn't participate in eating the goat's head or the ritual soup that ends the meal, to come late the day). I was handed a large piece of meat, still attached to a bone and it was my job - as the oldest person - to break a hole in the bone (which I finally was able to muster, when my friends showed me how to use a beer bottle as a sort of hammer to crack to bone). The purpose of the hole? Fascinating "cycle-of-life" sequence: the bone will be thrown into the field, the grass will grow up through the hole, and the other goats will eat it through the hole, thus creating a connection between the goats that provide sustenance and the people who will be eating the goat.

The photos tell the story, so interested readers can go to Gichuki Party 06 Nov 2010 to get the full description of this particular day in Mr. Guy's life in Kenya.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Kenya: The People, The Places, The Culture (2)

My plans for preparing a series of posts with my "closing" (you might say) comments as I prepare to leave Kenya were interrupted. Professional priorities took over, and we all know what that means in the scheme of things.

"The best-laid plans," etc....

So apologies to regular readers of these posts. Will hope to stay on track over the next few weeks.

In keeping with my little theme, I was duly impressed with not only the Winner of the Women's Open Division of the New York Marathon (Edna Kiplagat of Kenya) but with David Brooks's essay in today's New York Times.

In The Crossroads Nation, Brooks makes his usual strong and well-thought out case for his topic, which this time is how America attracts creative and innovative people, how in the United States people who have the talent to move forward with their ideas can do so. Despite the difficult times we're living in, Brooks notes, there is still an opportunity for creative people to find a place where they can fulfill their creative destiny. It doesn't seem to matter where you come from (he refers to someone living in "some small town in Ukraine or Kenya or some other place, foreign or domestic"). You want to go, he says, to "where people are gathering to think about the things you are thinking about, creating the things you want to create." And he's right. America - especially the United States - is the place you want to go. American truly is - and always has been - the "crossroads nation."

But is it?

I'm not an expert in these things, but of course I couldn't resist, and I responded to David's column (I read him so often I feel like we should be on a first-name basis!).

From my experience - from what I've observed and from what I've heard Africans speak about - I fear there is one important barrier inhibiting the United States as a crossroads nation, at least for people from outside our borders. Here's what I said:

"Thank you, David, for this cogent and stimulating essay: I totally agree with what you've said, and being a crossroads nation has many important implications for us both as a nation and as a society. However, there is one 'layer' (we might call it) that is preventing our moving forward in this direction: the dangerous, petty, and offensive resistance at embassies with respect to granting visas. I'm currently wrapping up a year-long business assignment in Kenya, and I'm shocked to hear the stories people tell about attempts to come to the United States from several of the African countries. In fact, the joke here is that 'it's easier to get into Heaven than to get into America.' In the past, I had not thought about this very much, and it is very sad to hear about this. It's a situation that, I fear, could be a serious impediment to our being a crossroads nation. Thanks again for your good essays. Good work. All the best."

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Kenya: The People, The Places, The Culture (1)

As the professional assignment winds down and this homesick wanderer prepares to end his stay in Kenya, it seems appropriate to give some thought to what has impressed me about this beautiful land.

That "homesick" is a little hard to explain, though, for despite the fact that I've been in Nairobi since last November 12, there have been two nice visits home, and to Brussels and Geneva and San Francisco and Rio de Janeiro as well, all dutifully described (well, I hope not "dutifully" - certainly "enthusiastic" is more accurate!) in posts to this blog. And even occasionally at the corporate blog where my colleagues and I try to share our knowledge and interests with professional colleagues and clients. So it's not like I've been on the other side of the world for a year. Or stationed in some remote, out-of-the-way place where I would be totally out of contact with home.

But there's no question about it: it is a long way from Nairobi to New York (one return journey was 34 hours door-to-door!). So despite the pleasures of Kenya, the intrepid Manhattan-ite has had his moments of longing, wishing he could hear Jeff on WQXR or head off to the opera house to hear one of the favorites or even, simply (and in typical New York style), just head over to his club and spend a couple of hours reading magazines that aren't available at home.

And when in Kenya?

It's those "pleasures of Kenya" that have made it all worthwhile. To my way of thinking, those pleasures fall into three categories: the people, the places, and the culture. And while I can't predict whether I'll be able to give due attention to all three, I can begin with the people. Even thinking about what I want to say about the people of Kenya fills me with such pre-nostalgia that I'm expecting to find myself a little homesick in the other direction very soon.

For me, any thought of the people of Kenya is going to begin with happy memories of The Great Four, this funny gang of people who discovered each other shortly after my arrival in Nairobi a year ago. We've come to care very much for each other, and now seems a good time to pay a special tribute to them (and to provide just a hint of how much I'll miss them after I leave). As readers of these posts know, Charles (second from right in the photo above) is my driver and boon companion and now, almost family, since he and his wife have named their new daughter Claire, honoring my last name more graciously that I ever expected to experience. As for Geoffrey and Nerisa, we got to know each other professionally early on, as they are both KM/knowledge services specialists. For Nerisa, dealing with strategic knowledge is her professional focus in the workplace, and she takes much pleasure in directing her clients to the right "knowledge-sharing" opportunity. Geoffrey is fascinated by how KM/knowledge services is being embraced in Kenya, and he is bound and determined to provide the country's KM market with the highest standards of KM service delivery (to the extent of initiating an informal branch of SMR International - SMR Africa - to bring the SMR brand of KM/knowledge services to this wonderful place).

But it is unfair to limit my characterization of Geoffrey and Nerisa as "professional," for our friendships now far exceed the professional and with Charles, we modestly describe ourselves as The Great Four. And why not? When people come to Africa to go on safari to pursue The Big Five, why shouldn't they also run across The Great Four? We could probably lead them on some very interesting adventures.

Silliness? Of course. But adding greatly to the enormous stockpile of memories that will stay with us forever.