Posted by: Caitlin | February 10, 2008

Mobile banking and the end of the cash era

The Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP) and DFID recently published an interesting study on the role of branchless banking in granting the poor access to financial services. Here is the report’s somewhat pedantic explanation of how branchless banking works:

“In the nonbank-based model, customers have no direct contractual relationship with a fully prudentially licensed and supervised financial institution. Instead, they exchange cash at a retail agent in return for an electronic record of value. This virtual account is stored on the server of a nonbank, such as a mobile network operator or an issuer of stored-value cards. Once customers have a relationship with the nonbank provider, they can order payment of funds to anyone else participating in the system and can receive payments from them. If the system relies on a POS network and plastic cards, customers must visit a participating retail agent every time they want to conduct a transaction. If the system is mobile phone based, customers need to visit a retail agent only to add value or to convert stored value back into cash.”

In Kenya, the M-Pesa system created by telecom giant Safaricom allows Kenyans to purchase items by accessing money through their mobile phone. Within ten months of its creation, over 1 million Kenyans have registered for M-Pesa, which also allows person-to-person transfers. Safaricom also provides the “sambaza” service, which allows users to transfer airtime between mobile phones (I learned this the hard way by lending my phone to a sly friend).

Paying by mobile phone is useful in a country where less than 19% of the adult population has a bank account, much less a credit card, but almost everyone has a mobile phone. This study predicts that as long as branchless banking is not too heavily regulated, the nonbank model will soon offer financial services other than payment, such as earning interest and granting loans. Mobile banking is effectively allowing developing countries to leapfrog and join the cashless transaction structure that is now the norm in many countries.

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Posted by: Caitlin | January 28, 2008

Oh. my. Mungu.

Last night I took the night bus from Mombasa on the coast back to Nairobi. When I learned that our 600 shilling (< $10) bus trip would include a DVD player on the bus, I thought it might not be a bad thing. WRONG. We watched videos like this one throughout the WHOLE NINE HOURS on the bus:

Msifadhaike Mioyoni Mwenu by Mary Johnson

The entire Best of Reverend Mary Johnson DVD was played three times, and all the “best of”  videos were painfully like this! I thought Mary Johnson might be blind, which would be the only acceptable excuse for those absurd sunglasses. But no, they show her reading the Bible a lot.

Possible redeeming factor: there are some good shots of the Nairobi skyline in the background.

Posted by: Caitlin | January 25, 2008

Why Obama lost New Hampshire

I found this on the Kenyan blog Kumekucha.

Ohhhh, now I get it.

OBAMA WILL NEVER BECOME THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT WHY?

1. HE IS ASSOCIATED WITH A KILLER RAILA ODINGA AND HIS PROXIES.

2. RAILA CAME OUT AND SAID OBAMA IS HIS COUSIN
(Kenya’s defeated presidential challenger Raila Odinga has claimed to be a cousin of Barack Obama and said that they had discussed his country’s post-election violence.)

3. GOP (REPUBLICANS) WILL UTILIZE THIS PROPAGANDA AND THE AMERICANS WILL NOT VOTE FOR HIM

4. THEY WILL SHOW ALL THE PICTURES IN KENYA ESPECIALLY KISUMU (where obamas father from) EVICTING,BURNING AND KILLING THE KIKUYUS

5. THEY WILL ASK OBAMA WHY HE CANT TELL RAILA TO STOP THE VIOLENCE SINCE THEY ARE RELATED AND HE CALLS HIM NOW AND THEN.

6. FRIENDS OF OBAMA AND THE GOP DONATED 220 MILLION KSH FOR THE KENYAN GENOCIDE THAT IS HAPPENING NOW (READ ODM STRATEGY PAPER)

7. THAT’S WHY OBAMA LOST IN NEWHAMSHIRE PRIMARIES.

8. THEY WILL QUESTION THE MOU RAILA HAD WITH THE MUSLIMS AND ALSO OBAMA IS CALLED “HUSSEIN”.DENIES MUSLIM LINK

9. ALL THE GOONS WHO ARE CAUSING THE CHAOS ARE COMING OUT SAYING “ NO RAILA NO PEACE”

10. HILLARY CLINTON WILL USE THIS AS A POINTER THAT OBAMA CANNOT EVEN QUELL HIS FAMILY MEMBERS FROM STOPING THE VIOLENCE IN KENYA. HOW WILL HE LEAD AMERICA???

11. RAILA AND ODM ARE LINKED TO TERRORIST NETWORK AND HE IS USING OIL MONEY TO FUND TERROR IN KENYA.

Posted by: Caitlin | January 24, 2008

A curse on both your houses

As you may have heard, there has been a lot of looting during protests around Kenya. People have been taking clothes, bikes, food, refrigerators– everything. But, according to my Kenyan friends, hundreds of people in the coastal town of Mombassa, Kenya’s second city, are mysteriously returning the goods they looted.

What’s behind the returns? Mombassa is known in Kenya for being a vortex of black magic. According to my friends, the stolen goods have been cursed. From Nairobi, they have managed to get impressively detailed accounts of exactly what happened to the looters. Many of the curses are so malicious that the looters return the objects right away. Some of the misfortunes include:

  • If you steal a bed, you will wake up to find a MAN sleeping next to you in the middle of the night each night (I think this is supposed to be particularly terrifying for men).
  • If you steal beer, water, soda– any beverage really, you will find yourself having to pee, but you won’t be able to– EVER!
  • If you steal a TV or radio, you won’t be able to watch or listen to anything because the stolen appliance will only repeat, “Return me to INSERT SHOP NAME HERE” again and again.
  • And my favorite– if you happen to steal chapati (roti-like flat bread very popular in Kenya) don’t eat it because some one will have SAT on that particular piece of chapati– on both sides of it! (I’m not quite sure how the timing of that one works out… )

Black magic seems to be working well for shop owners in Mombasa. The owner of a lumber shop gave thieves 10 days to return the timber they had stolen before he would cast the spell, or halbadiri in Swahili, that would afflict looters with various painful ailments. He got most of his goods back. Indeed, curses seem to be much more effective than the police or courts. Luckily for shop owners, nearly everyone I talk to really believes in this stuff.

Posted by: Caitlin | January 17, 2008

This guy is my hero

After a long vacation (thanks UN), I am back in Kenya and hopefully back to posting here.

Today, Okoiti Omtatah chained himself to the Kenya national police headquarters at Vigilance House in Nairobi to protest police firing live bullets on protesters.

chained-man.jpg

Today alone, six people were gunned down by police who were dispersing crowds. Police also used teargas (including on some journalists) and rubber bullets- its not like they don’t have this stuff. Mr. Omtatah showed immense courage by facing the cops. He called for investigations into protester deaths and said that police must be individually held responsible for their crimes. After making an impassioned speech he was forcefully removed and taken to jail. According to Kenyan TV he will be charged at a later date. Who knows for what exactly.

The use of live bullets and the general disregard for the sanctity of human life on behalf of police in Kenya is really despicable (link not for the faint of heart). It is also refreshing to see a truly peaceful protest that has a clear point. So props to you Okoiti. And f*ck the police.

Posted by: Caitlin | December 19, 2007

Hip hop-sous-bois

On my recent trip to Paris, I enjoyed many things, most of them gastronomy-related. But one of the coolest activities I did was attend a hip hop concert in Aulnay-sous-Bois, an infamous banlieue north of Paris. Home to many North and West African immigrants, the northern suburbs have high unemployment, housing problems, and a disillusioned youth population. Aulnay-sous-Bois, gained notoriety during the October- November 2005 suburb riots.

I was always curious about visiting the Paris-nord banlieues but had previously only gotten glimpses from the RER B train during rides to the airport. I have to say that Aulnay-sous-Bois, did not look so bad. Unlike other banlieues, like Clichy-sous-Bois where the riots started in 2005, Aulnay is on the RER train line, so residents can easily access Paris centre ville (although it costs 4 euros one way). The public transport (buses and light-rail) functions really well. The HLMs looked crowded, but clean. The streets were generally and and businesses were open. Obviously, after Nairobi this poverty looked mild. Even the poor neighborhoods in DC look much more neglected.

Along with riots, the northern banlieues have produced a new dance style that combines African-American hip hop and pop moves, break dancing, and rave styles with traditional African dance. They call this dance hip hop or pop (in a cute French accent), but it is much different than any hip hop I have seen. My friend Jiaqi, himself a hip hopper, took me to the “spectacle” called H2O Hip hop 2007, and it was a pretty stunning window into urban culture. Jiaqi said there are rival gang dance competitions and dance offs in the streets, like in West Side Story. I am not sure if he was being serious, but that would be awesome.

hip-hop-1.jpg

This show was a mélange of diverse styles of movement and music. Not only were the dancers both acrobatic and delicate in their movements, the choreography was unlike any dance I have ever seen. The dancers combined West African and Arabic dance styles with break dance head-spinning, c-walking, and other American hip hop moves.

My favorite piece was Miroirosources performed by Mehdi Slimani and Nuria Rovira Salat. The fusion of traditional hip hop with Moroccan/ Arabic styles was really well done. The dancer’s moves inspired pure awe, but I also became interested in the emotional charge of the story. Plus, the overture managed to combine tracks from Bilal, Method Man, Moroccan Lhbal, French rap, and Aznavour’s “Valse a Mille Temps.” Wow. You can see a short edited clip here, but it doesn’t quite do it justice.

Posted by: Caitlin | December 5, 2007

uh…

Found in the bathroom in a Kenyan government Ministry:scan.jpg

Posted by: Caitlin | November 20, 2007

Kenyan Summer and Other seasons

I have been trying to figure out the seasons here in Nairobi since I’ve been here. We are south of the equator, which means that there is little seasonal variation. If there were seasons, now would be spring, I think. Currently we are in what the Kenyans call the season of the short rains. This pretty much means it rains sometimes, mostly at night.

Here is what I’ve gathered of the Kenyan calendar so far:

November: Short rains

December: Summer/ Christmas

January/ February/ March: Season of perfect weather

April/ May: Long rains

June: Never heard much about June

July: Cold season

August: Hot season

September: Hot/ rains of indeterminate length

October: Nice weather, beginning of short rains

Although I miss the leaves changing colors and brisk winds, the weather here is not bad; it is always between 17 and 25 degrees Celsius. The climatic calendar may be confusing, but I really can’t complain.

Posted by: Caitlin | November 18, 2007

Memoria de mi vocabulario

I am reading Memoria de mis Putas Tristes (Memories of My Melancholy Whores) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez as an assignment for my Spanish class. As any diligent language student should, I have been looking up the words I don’t know as I read. Here’s what I have for pages 20 to 24 alone:

pitabamos (pitan) – to blow

apaciguarme (apaciguar) – to please

bajamos (bajar) – to go or come down

alzar – to raise, lift up

soltar – to release, to ooze

tragar – to swallow

What is this SMUT? At least I am not paying for this class! (Actually, since I attend during working hours I guess I am getting paid to be there).

Incidentally, Memorias de Mis Putas Tristas was recently banned in Iran (and rightly so!). The Farsi title of the book was played down to Memories of My Melancholy Sweethearts, but the religious authorities caught on soon enough. The book, which was already selling out in book stores across Iran, has reportedly become even more popular after the ban.

Actually, as any Spanish speaker will notice, these vocab words are not idiomatically vulgar. When in context in the book, they are not offensive. Memoria de mis Putas Tristes is delicately subtle and often funny (from what I understand). And who knows, maybe knowing these words will pay off at some point.

Posted by: Caitlin | November 2, 2007

Don’t try this at home– Nairobi Marathon

Last Sunday, I got up early to attempt my first ever marathon here in Nairobi, Kenya. The absurd happenings of the race shed light on my experience of Kenyan-foreigner dynamics.

First, on marathon day, the taxi I had called to take me to the start was late. This was stressful. I was worried that I would miss the start of the race, so I asked the security guards at our apartment complex to call a taxi for me. Although one would have sufficed, both of them called a buddy. Once the original taxi showed up, I had three cab drivers fighting over who would take me, with each of the guards advocating for their respective friends. I went with the lowest bidder.

marathon-secure-your-property.jpg

Secure your property

I made it through the registration and warm-up and to the start in plenty of time. But my punctuality turned out to be irrelevant, because 15 minutes after the scheduled start time we were still pacing and stretching restlessly behind the start line. Finally, about 35 minutes after we were meant to begin, a horn blew and the runners crowded together in assembly before the start gun. As the crowd pressed up to the start, I felt something moving against my back. I turned around to find some anonymous runner trying to get into the oh-so-stylish fanny pack thing I had brought to carry some snacks, ibuprofen, music, etc.

It took me a minute to realize that I was actually being pick-pocketed DURING a marathon. Luckily, the anonymous runner-thief did not manage to steal the snickers bar (shockingly they don’t sell Gu in Africa) or feminine hygiene products I had in the outer fanny pack pocket.

We were off. The first half of the race went smoothly- I was just trying to hold myself back and go slowly so I could finish (my training had only consisted of two long runs). I had written my nickname on my number tag, as I’d seen experienced runners do, so that people could cheer for me. But no one cheered. There were crowds of people watching, but they just stared at the runners in mystified silence. The only paroles I heard during my four and a half hours of running were the guttural yells of this Chinese guy who was leading a blind running partner, and who I kept pace with for a while, and a comment from a little boy who looked about 7 or 8. “Give me money!” he shouted as I ran by. Maaannnnn, that is so NOT motivating!

After being lapped by the spectacularly fast Kenyans, I somehow made it past kilometer 30, and I began looking for the 35 km marker so I could push myself to the finish (42 km) where I could stop running. But the 35Fast kenyans km marker never came. I began to notice that the course was being taken down. Sure, I was slow and all, but there were still lots of people behind me. But once the leaders had finished, everyone’s interest in the race waned. Even the water stations were being disassembled. I got kind of lost, because the signs directing runners to the finish were now unhelpfully stacked on the ground.

Eventually I found my way and crossed the finish. As I was cooling down and trying not to faint, a Kenyan approached Derek and I and asked if we could take a picture with his daughter, Then he told me (after I’d given him the half of my banana he asked for) that he wanted a souvenir, and that he really liked my watch. Just another day in Nairobi.

marathon-finish.jpg

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