Archive for November, 2007

Vote for me!

November 30, 2007

It’s election time in Kenya. Through the smog of the city on my long commute home I can make out smiling faces of politicians on large bilboards. “Raila – One Determined Man” reads one. The newspapers are full of opinion polls and political intrigue (the latest story is about a supposed secret deal between the main opposition candidate and the Muslim community).

And on December 27th, the country will vote. They will decide whether the President who has overseen the recent upturn in economic growth has done enough to rule for 5 years more. One thing is clear, it is going to be close. And everyone’s votes suddenly matter, including the million or more living in slums in Nairobi.

mathare-visit-022-1.jpgOn Wednesday last week I went to visit a slum in Mathare, on the East of Nairobi. On the side of the road I saw women queuing up to collect water from a standpipe. “It won’t be here in two months time”, one of the locals announced. “I beg your pardon.” “It won’t be here in two months time. The government put it in place a month ago. Once the people have voted them back into office, they’ll just take it away again.”

By all accounts, corruption in Kenya is much less than ever before. And this tale is in fact very Western – the only difference is that in the West, the government buy votes with tax cuts, rather than running water.

I intend to return to Mathare in two months time and see if the water is still running. I hope I have to write the government an apology.

The Hard Questions

November 29, 2007

I literally jump back. “Good God,” I think, “those are BODIES!!” It’s 11pm and I’ve just arrived home from work. I sleepily stumble into my building complex, entering the parking garage on my way to the stairs. I see what I presume to be bags, maybe trash even – I’m honestly not paying much attention. Movement!! I realize two people are sleeping on the garage floor of my building, covered with sheets. Is this the guard I see every morning, smiling with his young son often nestled between his knees, who sheepishly waves hello and goodbye to me as I pass? The bodies are stirring, and I don’t want to wake them. So I rush up the stairs, tip-toeing all the way up.

I have a sick knot in my stomach; this is not right. People should not be sleeping on the garage floor. So what should be done? Some people would say that this man is making money; at least he has a job. And if you merely just found a place for him and his son to sleep, what is that really solving long-term? There are thousands of others like them. Working in luxury buildings. Sleeping on nearby floors.

And that’s when it hits me. Parallel worlds of rich and poor clearly exist in all cities. But they’re much more hidden and separate in Western ones. New York, obviously, has its share of homeless and low-income residents. But most people don’t literally step over them once they’re home – maybe they pass them on the nearby street corner or give quarters to them on the subway. But home is home. A solace and refuge. Not a place where you have to confront the hypocrisies of your own life on a daily basis. Somewhere out there, you know there are people starving and people sleeping on concrete floors. But they’re hidden from immediate view.

In my first couple of weeks in Hyderabad, the hard questions keep coming. How “nice” of a place should I be living in? Should I live near work or should I live someplace farther that’s quieter and more comfortable? I think about Jon’s blog and absolutely agree – there’s something perverse about living in such a way as to claim “I’ve lived with the poor” – as if we could ever really understand what their lives are like.

Then there are the beggars on my way to and from work, reaching their hands into my auto-rickshaw. What do I do? Like in NY, I give them my food if I have any. But I don’t give them money. Generally. Because that’s not sustainable and is just encouraging begging. But what if it’s a child? My heart says one thing, but my brain says another: giving money is just reinforcing the fact that they’re begging in the first place – and not in school. But he’s just a child! What if it’s a woman, and that woman is carrying a baby in her arms? Then what? I’m here to work at a maternity hospital, and my work with LifeSpring is incredibly meaningful. But what about outside of work? How much should I be giving? – of my money, of my time, of my energy? How much is enough?

And so I’m learning that the hard questions begin now. These are the same questions I thought I had already worked through in my head. But now I’m away from the ivory towers of academia and the nestled safe-haven that the Fellows created with Jacqueline, Deepti, and Jesse in the Berkshires.

This is India, where everything is in your face and nothing is hidden from sight.

A theory, revisited in reality…

November 29, 2007

When I first heard about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – in an outstanding lecture on civil wars by Monica Toft ( – I thought it was brilliant. Maslow, a psychologist, lays out a pyramid with five levels of human needs and argues that the highest need, of self-actualization, cannot happen until more basic needs are met.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs


I revisited Maslow’s hierarchy today. And while there is something to it, my current environment offers a different perspective. Take Kibera, where people are at the bottom-most layer of the hierarchy: at times even physiological needs of food and water are not met, and safety and security is certainly not a reality for most.



And yet the top of Maslow’s hierarchy – of morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem-solving – can be as powerful here as anywhere else in the world. In the perceived chaos of Kibera, entrepreneurs like Millicent persevere with her CFW clinic, powerful family and community structures exist, and people come up with creative solutions to the deepest of problems. Without more basic needs met, people in Kibera will never reach their fullest human potential, but it seems to me that they often succeed in flipping this hierarchy upside down.

Pakistan: My first impressions

November 29, 2007

I bet everyone has been waiting with bated breath; whatever happened to the Kenyan who was sent to Lahore?

I arrived in Islamabad safely and yes the stares started;even the airport cargo attendants were keen to know how long I was going to stay after having my suitcases thoroughly checked since I looked quite suspicious; black person with 3 big bags on her way to Lahore? The flight to Lahore was a local one and full of men and I was wondering what am I doing here?

The airport security check has a queue for women and children travelling unaccompanied since women do not travel or go anywhere alone.Its a largely muslim dominated country and so very conservative even in their mode of dressing;very different coming from New York to the cover your whole body style.

So I have a driver who picks me up from the house to the office and back;I can’t go anywhere alone which sort of limits my freedom;for now I guess al have to live just like the people here.

My first day at work went pretty well and in the evening I attended a wedding ceremony and this was a real eye opener into the culture;I got to see the festive dress,food and dance and hear stories about Lahore from the very warm people. I guess I have to go shopping soon for clothes to blend in.

And so the diary of a black woman in Lahore begins…

Peri-urban real estate and the NFL

November 29, 2007

Driving on NH 7 out of Hyderabad to the Mahabubnagar district of Andhra Pradesh, I noticed a large road being constructed. My collegue informed me that it is going to be an express fly-over for the new international airport currently being constructed outside of the city.  It should all be completed by 2009.  As a result, all the big companies are planning office space out here and the value of the land has increased in value 100-fold. Locals who once couldn’t even afford bicycles are now buying SUVs. What good fortune?  It strikes me that anyone who comes into money as rapidly as an NFL football player could benefit from some solid wealth management advice.

My Secret

November 28, 2007

I have a confession…I’ve become a rickshaw peeper. I can’t help it. Were it not for the “dust” (which is basically just a euphemism for all the who-knows-what that’s in the air!), riding an auto-rickshaw would be a videographer’s dream – seeing and capturing all sorts of wonders as you zip and zag through the city, with no glass screen between you and urban life.

So what’s a rickshaw peeper, you ask? Well, just what it sounds like. I love looking at people inside their auto-rickshaws! At times, this does seem quite peeper-esque, as I sometimes find myself staring longer than what’s considered polite. It’s just a glimpse. And just for a second. One of you is always on the go. And the fun is, you just never know what you’ll see! All sorts of unexpected gems of life.

Still not convinced? Let me take you along on this morning’s ride. I am driving through the Muslim quarter of Charminar when I see an auto-rickshaw. One of hundreds (thousands) like it in the city. But inside, an endearing surprise: six children (toddlers, really – the oldest couldn’t be more than 5 years old), sitting side-by-side in the back, laughing hysterically. No adult in sight, save for the rickshaw driver himself. Are they going to “Famous Ice Cream” nearby?, I wonder. The giddy crowdedness of that rickshaw is contrasted by the next one I see, directly behind it. Seated within is a young woman dressed in a black burka – everything covered except her eyes, which are gazing with intent seriousness at something faraway, out in the distance. Next behind that rickshaw is an extremely old couple – they must be about 70 or 80 years old. What remarkable changes they must’ve witnessed in this city, where a few decades ago, the poshest part of town was literally still a jungle! Following them are two Indian women with elaborately designed and brightly-colored saris – one sari is bright red and orange, quite resembling a sunset; while the other is purple with sequins. Later on comes a sight that’s incredible to witness: a rickshaw full of at least eight people, feet dangling outside! – just like a circus clown car. You can see how this can be addicting, right?

And so it goes. Seeing the world with new eyes and finding the connection that bridges us all — which is largely what this year is about. I’m realizing how much can be learned by just opening my eyes to what’s out in front of me.

Fly on the wall

November 28, 2007

body language 

Keeping my mouth shut is difficult for me.  Which is why spending the day observing a sales training session in another language (Telugu) was a great learning experience.  People who lose the ability to perceive with one of their senses develop heightened capabilities in other senses to accommodate (Or so I, er, hear).  This happened to me, in a way, yesterday.  Because I couldn’t understand the language, my (limited) cognition engine could focus on other attributes of human interaction: Gestures, eye contact, tone, touch, smiles, laughter.

I have no idea what anyone said yesterday, but I know who spoke the most, who sat closest to the trainer, who commanded the attention of the room, what parts of the training were interesting to the audience and so on.  If you have the chance to experience something routine minus one of your ordinary senses, take it.  You might have an extraordinary experience.

Brand: The antidote to the accidental

November 28, 2007

Brands cost more because they are well-considered; thoughtful.  People have spent painstaking hours thinking through how you should perceive and consume their brand.  A brand manager’s job is to be certain that no part of your experience happens by accident, outside of specification.  This is what makes a brand consistent and safe.

Hyderabad, on the other hand, is not a city of curated experiences: Power lines dangle at eye level; the flow of traffic is largely unregulated; half-baked marketing messages innundate you.  In a place like this, a brand experience like Café Coffee Day stands out as being a safe haven.  After a day where it seems like a lot happens by accident, it’s a soothing escape to consume not just hot coffee, but someone else’s thoughfulness.

* Irony alert: Their website just told me, “Visitor number 254923 we value your feedback”.

You Can’t Hear Me Right Now

November 28, 2007

My cell phone stopped working this weekend.  I was pretty proud of it—a sleek looking Vodafone model that fit easily in my pocket.  But when I tried to use it on Sunday, the screen was frozen.  I was attending a wedding in a village in southern India, where many helpful people fiddled with the phone but could not get it to work.

So I started looking around for a Vodafone store, though I thought my chances were slim.  After all, I was in a small village outside a somewhat larger town about two hours from the closest major city.  As we drove through the village, I started looking at the stores we were passing and was surprised by how many were advertising Airtel, the cellular service I have on my phone.  There were many red Airtel banners flying outside all kinds of small shops where cell phone owners can purchase minutes for their phones.  A few also had Vodafone signs, signaling that they carry cell phones.  As it was a Sunday afternoon, all of the stores selling phones were closed.  Still, I was impressed with the reach of cell phone services here.  When I’ve traveled in Africa, I’ve seen Coca Cola signs everywhere, even in the most remote villages.  Here, at least in rural Kerala, it was signs for cell phones and mobile services that suddenly jumped out at me. 

How to distribute goods and services to rural areas in developing countries is a big concern.  Cell phone companies seem to be finding a way here, at least from what I’ve seen in my limited travels.  It would be interesting to hear how they’ve succeeded in setting up franchises and what lessons they’ve learned in reaching out to the base of the pyramid.

Mmmm… Good

November 27, 2007

Yesterday I played with my food.  At least that’s what it felt like I was doing as I dipped my fingers into the pile of rice and started mixing in a variety of sauces, making sure all the rice was well-coated.  This was fun!  Then I tried to scoop up some of the rice and sauce with my fingers and stick it into my mouth without spilling it all over myself.  This was more challenging. 

I was in Cochin in the southern Indian state of Kerala for work meetings, and my colleagues had taken me out for a traditional Keralan lunch.  We each had a green banana leaf laid flat in front of us, and waiters came by to deposit a huge mound of rice on each leaf.  They then ladled out spoonfuls of different sauces—actually, more like stews—from the pots they were carrying.  Each sauce/stew was a different color and was composed of vegetables and a variety of spices.  We all rolled up our sleeves and got to work.  I can’t provide any more detail about the food (I’m still trying to get the hang of food names here), but everything was delicious, even eaten off of my fingers.  And, thankfully, it was not too spicy.  I ate until I could eat no more.  I find food one of the best ways to experience a new culture, and to date in India I’ve been diving right in.