Sunday, June 28, 2009

Back in the world

I couldn't sleep this morning.

The streetlights woke me up. It was cold too. Neither of these things have been a problem in almost five months.

I'm in Nairobi (Kenya), having just left Sudan yesterday afternoon. I'm on my way back to the States, via London, tomorrow (Tuesday) morning. I'm at the organization's guest house, which is actually in an apartment complex, the first place I've been in months that feels like something you'd see in 'real world.' When I say 'real world,' I don't mean to imply that southern Sudan is somehow false- hardly- it's very, very real, and the fact that so few people are aware of the reality there is part of the problem. The simple fact is, however, that things are so underdeveloped, the infrastructure is so bad, and the challenges are so great, that it feels like being in another reality.

Until yesterday, the largest city I've seen in almost five months is Juba, which has warped my perspective. Juba is a place where a nice hotel is a converted cargo container with air-conditioning and a generator, the roads in the center of town (which happens to be the unofficial national capital) are so rutted and cratered that it takes a Land Cruiser to move around, and everywhere you turn you see piles of trash, sewage spilling out into greenish-black puddles, and wandering sheep and goats.

The sense of relief I felt when the plane took off from Juba yesterday for the short (1.5 hour) flight to Nairobi was something I've rarely experienced, a palpable sense of, ' you did it, it's finally over.' Southern Sudan is poor, hot, and undeveloped, but I expected all of that coming in, and feel like I was as prepared as possible. I'm not sure what it was exactly that made my time there start to feel so frustrating, and like such a slog, although I'd guess that at least part of it was the fact that I was offered another job elsewhere within five weeks of arriving, meaning the majority of the time with the organization, I felt like I was just waiting for something new and better to happen.

Given this, when I arrived in Nairobi yesterday afternoon, I spent the majority of the time walking around in something of an amazed stupor. Even as we taxied to the gate at Jomo Kenyatta Airport (the main international airport), it was the first time in months I'd seen proper taxiways, jet-bridges, and even an airport terminal. I walked into the airport and found that I couldn't stop laughing as I looked around and saw candy, souvenirs, cafes, electronic displays of flight information, and so much more.

This sense of shock only continued later in the afternoon as I walked around Nakumatt Junction, an enormous shopping mall just a five-minute walk away from the guesthouse. I walked into a bookstore that was every bit the equal of anything you'd see in the US or Europe, had smoked salmon and cream cheese on a whole-wheat bagel for lunch at a coffee shop with pleasant music and souvenir t-shirts for sale, and finished it off with vanilla and berry gelato. I walked into the enormous supermarket (Nakumatt is a huge store here, similar perhaps to Wal-Mart or Carrefour), and saw... everything. From flat-screen plasma TVs to hundreds of varieties of toothpaste, it was all there.

I remember hearing as a Peace Corps volunteer about how intense the initial shock can be coming back to the developed world, but yesterday was the first time I really felt it. I wandered through the candy aisle, not so much because I wanted candy, but simply because I couldn't stop staring at all the packages, the colors, the varieties.

I certainly understand that the place where I was is a wealthy part of Nairobi, and there were foreigners (mostly white ones) everywhere, but there were also plenty of Kenyans, not simply the people serving drinks or cleaning, but shopping, dining, chatting on phones with Bluetooth headsets, and more.

I don't want to get overly philosophical here, or be an apologist for the colonial past of this place. The British ruled Kenya with an authority based on exploitation, violence, the pitting of tribal identities against each other, and arrogance. For all of this, however, the systems that they left behind, particularly the education and infrastructure, are what seem to me to have made all the difference. So many educated Kenyan professionals have built their country, and the amount of capacity among people here is such that there seems to be little need for expats- people can run their own affairs, and seem to be doing a good job of it, for the most part. One of the reasons why this is possible is because there's an infrastructure here that works- people can drive to work on a decent road, go the ATM to withdraw their Shillings, shop at the supermarket, eat at a restaurant, and catch a flight somewhere if they need to. None of this exists (or at least exists easily) in southern Sudan, and the difference is enormous. It isn't only an issue of violence- Kenya has had its share of war too, most recently last year, when the election went haywire. And despite the obvious advantages over a place like southern Sudan, Kenya is still very much a 'developing country.' Still, the degree to which things work here, and work properly, feels stunning after being in Sudan.

It's time for me to head to the office, so I'm going to wrap this up- before I go though, I'll have my granola, check my email again, and take a hot shower. It'll be London tomorrow, Miami and Tampa on Wednesday- crazy to think about. In any case, it's nice to be out, and in a place that feels at least a little closer to home...

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