I loved my job. Right out of school I snagged the job of my dreams, as a marketing consultant for companies who produce consumer goods and are looking for global markets. I traveled to great places conducting market research and developing projections for companies on the prospects of moving into those markets.
Then the bombshell hit. My boss called me in with my next assignment – Kenya. Kenya? And it got worse. One of our clients, a clothing manufacturer, wanted a research paper (including history background) on the feasibility of moving into that country’s tribal culture, to market Western clothing at reasonable pricing. My job was to travel to Kenya, immerse myself in its tribal environment, and determine the market potential of Western clothing. This research would be based on personal experience, so perhaps it might not be so bad.
The Reluctant Traveler
This was a trip I dreaded. I was giving up my comfortable condo, my career casual clothing, my air conditioning, my “creature comforts” and my girlfriend for a month in what I knew would be a much more primitive place.
When I arrived in Nairobi, my first thought was it was great. If this was to be my “home base,” I could tolerate it – my hotel was modern and air conditioned, the restaurants were great, and people were walking around in the modern Western dress. Our client might be well-fixed after all.
Once I connected with my Kenyan guide, and his 4-wheeler, the name of which I did not recognize (he told me it was made by Toyota) which was at least 15 years old and un-air conditioned, I began to see reality. We headed out after my first night in relative luxury and quickly the scenery changed. My guide explained that Kenya had undergone a drought a few years before and was not fully recovered. The dust and grit in my teeth were the testimony to that.
The guide looked at my computer and smiled a bit. He then pulled into a small store at the outskirts of Nairobi and told me to go in any buy paper and pens. This was my first clue about what I was about to experience.
The Research of Reality
Villages. We went to so many villages. They were smaller than I originally imagined, but my guide told me that many had been leaving for the cities and jobs.
Primitive is the only description I could give – dirt floors, small huts housing entire families, barefoot children, and schools where they walked miles to get to and sat on floors without supplies. Would our children do this? Never.
Mothers were amazing. They physically labored all day – getting water from village wells built by American religious groups, washing clothes by hand, cooking without appliances, and trying to sweep out the hut and hang bedding out to air. Would our mothers do the same? Hardly.
Fathers and their children worked in the fields. And many of the girls went into prostitution to help support their families if they could get to an urban area. Would we stand for this? Not in my world back home.
The average wage for a Kenyan is $1.68 a day. With this kind of poverty, there is a lot of reliance on the relief and charitable organizations that are present – Doctors Without Borders, church mission groups that dig wells and buy cows, so that there are dairy products.
And yet, with all of the poverty, the hardness of living, what I most observed and absorbed was the love, the sense of unity, the unselfishness, the resilience, the positive attitude, and the amazing sense of hope for their children’s future – believing that the school would change the lives of at least their boys.
In one village, I came to know a group of Americans my age. They weren’t going to work in career casual dress; they weren’t meeting their friends after work for a beer or going to a concert. They were getting kids and moms to doctors for care; they were showing people how to milk cows; they were teaching, and they were pulling cash out of their own pockets to get to a medical outpost to buy medicine.
I returned to America and finalized my research report. Yes, there would be a market for Western clothing, because the migration to the cities was constant and big. And the Western dress was coveted and popular. If pricing were right, the urbanites could afford what my client was offering – they shopped in the malls and ate Kentucky Fried Chicken.
But in the villages? No. Not only could they not afford any of these things, they did not want them. Their lives were much simpler and, in many ways, more peaceful, stress-free, and, despite the physical labor, pleasant.
The Kenya I experienced changed me to the core. I came home, looked around my condo and was disgusted at my decadence. The closet full of clothes, the bed with clean sheets, the freezer stocked with food, the stock of wine and beer, and the comfy furniture, cable TV and Wi-Fi, not to mention water running out of faucets and trash pick-up every Wednesday.
What was my life worth? What was I contributing to anyone other than to clients who didn’t need any more money?
I tried to answer these questions for a few months after my return. I kept thinking of those peers who were making a difference; I thought about the mother whose child was saved from horrible dysentery and dehydration by a doctor who lived in primitive conditions in order to serve. Clearly, I had to make some changes.
The Now Me
Two years ago, I took the vacation of a lifetime. My girlfriend and I traveled throughout Europe, hitting every major city, cruising the Mediterranean and breakfasting on the Riviera.
Last year, I returned to a Kenyan village in time to see the school desks I had bought be delivered, to sing and dance with peers and small children, and to escort 3 girls to the school whose tuitions I was able to pay.
This year, I’ll be back there.