Archive for April, 2008

The Big Show

April 24, 2008

On Saturday’s across East Africa, bars and makeshift video halls fill up with men watching English premiership football. It’s as regular and ritualistic as church and as a public gathering probably as important. In small towns, like the one I’m in now, a hotel lobby with a TV will fill to bursting right before kickoff. During night games, it’s the only sign of life in the area. Neither Kenya nor Uganda’s national team qualified for the Africa Cup this year, so it’s the teams from their former colonialist on whom people hang their hopes.

That last statement is a bit misleading. More than any other sport, English football is a global obsession and its top players seem to come from everywhere except England.. Manchester United and Arsenal, are the favorites across Africa and Asia and just about everywhere except Newcastle. Man U. is the biggest show on Earth, their minor games draw a global audience several times larger than the Super Bowl. Last night was a big game, a European semi-final against Barcelona. I watched the first half in a bar stuffed with several hundred men, many paying 30 cents admission since they couldn’t afford to drink. I’ve failed to become interested in U.K. football, even though it would help endear me to sources. I left at halftime but hear that when the game is over the roads out of town are packed with long lines of men walking back to the villages and displaced person camps.

Almost no one here claims a team other than Man. U. or Arsenal. Matatu drivers decorate their rides with the teams’ corporate logos: AIG for Man. U, Fly Emirates for Arsenal. One Englishwoman, who supports Liverpool told me the loyalty here is more to good football and whomever’s on top of the standings. When Liverpool was falling behind one man suggested that she switch teams. She told him it would be like him changing tribe.

P.S. Another story. This one’s in Fast Company.


Quitting time

April 13, 2008

Mo Ibrahim, the businessman who started CelTel, one of the largest telecom companies in Africa, recently founded an eponymous prize. Calling itself the largest prize in the world, it’s worth $5 million over ten years and then $200,000 a year for life. It goes to an elected African head of state who serves commendably and, here’s the important part, willingly gives up office. Whereas leaders in most parts of the world land cushy, lucrative jobs after their terms expire, there are few jobs in Africa more cushy or lucrative than head of state. In America, say, no one runs for president to get rich. (They’re usually already rich.) In many African countries, the power and wealth that come with the presidency are indistinguishable. What’s more, leaders often fear that once they step down they will lose their source of wealth and/or face criminal prosecution. The common thing, then, is to cling to office as if their life depended on it, which it often does. The Mo Ibrahim prize, therefore, essentially functions as a legitimized bribe: step down and you’ll be taken care of. In 2007, Joaquim Chissano, the former president of Mozambique, won the first Mo Ibrahim prize.

A few events from the past week demonstrate Ibrahim’s grasp of realpolitik.

1) In Kenya, opposition candidate, and probable election winner, Raila Odinga, backed away from talks (and riots ensued) after he felt he was getting the raw deal in constructing the new government. In case you forgot, months of unrest followed after Mwai Kibaki was declared winner of a flawed vote. After the election Kibaki said Odinga’s recourse was to the courts, which Kibaki effectively controlled.

2) In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe has refused to release the results of the presidential election from two weeks ago (though his party lost control of parliament). It’s a fair bet that Mugabe will never win the Mo Ibrahim prize. Why would he want it? It wouldn’t cover the upkeep of his house, said to be the largest private residence in Africa.

3) After repeated promises, Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army which has waged a 20 year insurgency in northern Uganda, declined to sign a peace treaty. There were some questions over the legal wording and then Kony fired his chief negotiator. He appears concerned that his two decade career as a war criminal could result in jail time.

Displaced people in Uganda

April 10, 2008

It looks like a peace treaty ending more than 2 decades of war in northern Uganda could be signed today. If you’re so inclined take a look at my story in the San Francisco Chronicle on the situation of people displaced by the war

Meanwhile, back in Kenya…

April 9, 2008

This blog has sagged. There’s no denying it. Here’s a somewhat more formal story that you might enjoy.

“We are alive and kicking,” Daniel Ogola smiled. “Kibaki couldn’t kill us.” In his office he had stored several pieces of luggage below a misty mural of a waterfall. “I’m an internally displaced person.”

Ogola, 31, a short handsome man with close hair and a perpetual grin that can be joyful or bitter, was sort of exaggerating. Days after the December 27 election, he and his family escaped their small but sturdy home on the edge of Kibera, a Nairobi slum where political protests ignited weeks of ethnic clashes. Like most of Kibera and opposition candidate Raila Odinga, Ogola is from the Luo tribe. President Mwai Kibaki, who has agreed to share power with Odinga, is a Kikuyu, Kenya’s largest and wealthiest. Unlike thousands of Kenyans who have been displaced to refugee camps, Ogola, his wife and two sons, one born days before the election, stayed at a guesthouse and in the apartments of expatriate friends. They might have been the luckiest refugees in Kenya.

About ten years ago, a student on a study abroad program in Nairobi with the Vermont-based School for International Training asked Ogola for directions. After the chance meeting, Ogola maintained a relationship with the school, sometimes giving students tours of Kibera. In 2003 he met another SIT student, Laura Wagner, who normally studied at Yale. Her mother, a Bay Area doctor with Kaiser Permanente remembered Laura telling her that Ogola “needs to be running an NGO.” “He has this ability to inspire people,” said Dr. Gail Wagner, who is now president of The Matibabu Foundation, which she founded after a trip to East Africa. “I have a full time job. I have a life and I’m spending half of it worrying about Kenya.”

Ogola was born in Ugenya, a remote area of western Kenya’s Nyanza Province, the fifth of seven children to his father’s first wife. Luos traditionally practice polygamy and his father, a surveyor, married a second woman and had children by her as well, struggling to feed the large family, Ogola said.

After finishing high school, in 1995 he moved to Kibera, a labyrinth of shacks with brown mud walls and brown metal roofs. In Kibera, sewage and trash flow through the steep twisty alleys and humidify the air. Home, at the very least, to 500,000, it’s sometimes called the biggest slum in Africa. Staying with a brother, Ogola worked informally, at one point selling used shoes in Toi Market, an ant farm of thousands of stalls pieced together from wood and rippled metal, which was destroyed after the election. After about two years he found a job inspecting medicines for a pharmaceutical company, commuting on foot, almost three hours each way, he said. (If only it snowed in Nairobi, he’d have unbeatable stories for his grandchildren.) After a few months, an aerosol can injured him when it exploded on his face and chest. Pitying him, a friend found him work polishing cars.

Over the next few years, Ogola worked a series of jobs picking up mentors as well as office and accounting skills. By 2001, he had moved to the more stable Fort Jesus neighborhood and started Community Support Group, a Kibera organization where he said “young people could explore their talents since no one was employing them.” Hustling for money and volunteers, Ogola has expanded the group into activities including a school and a safari company to help pay for it. The students’ mothers string beadwork to sell in a program he calls “Out of Kibera.”

One day in February, more people were rebuilding Toi Market than selling anything. Central Kibera, which blankets a valley on either side of a thin filthy stream, is mostly intact, if that’s the right word. But around the perimeter, shopping centers were hollowed out, the skeletons of burned minibuses idling in front of them. Rioters had somehow torn down the roof on one church and tiles covered the floor like a scene from the Blitz. Now that Kibaki and Odinga have agreed to a power sharing agreement, tensions in Kibera could subside.

Dr. Wagner founded Matibabu in 2004 (“treatment” in Swahili) and the group now runs two clinics in Ugenya manned by a Kenyan doctor and a staff of about 8. Ogola draws a salary as country director. Matibabu also sends American doctors on medical holidays to treat patients and train local staff. (Avoiding the conflict, this year they have routed doctors to a different organization in Rwanda.)

According to Matibabu, 40% of people in Ugenya have HIV/AIDS, abetted by polygamy and the Luo custom of levirate marriage – when a woman’s husband dies she marries his brother. In December, the foundation received a $1.5 million grant from President Bush’s President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which he touted on the recent Africa trip. The grant is strictly for prevention, which to the White House often means faith-based abstinence education. Even Dr. Wagner seemed surprised that a secular group from northern California could win one.

When it was preparing the application last year, Matibabu brought Dan to San Francisco to assist with the work and see the city. He called it a “great place” and especially liked Alcatraz. Now that Matibabu is paying Ogola what Dr. Wagner called “a princely sum for Kenya,” he’s found a place for his family outside the slum and will have to focus on Matibabu. “I love Kibera but this situation is making it impossible.”