Time with the Champions

Beautiful Nairobi. Lots of greenery, lovely weather, friendly people, great beer…what’s not to like!

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As in many developing countries, income inequality, high unemployment, rural-urban migration and other issues combine to create a large population living in poverty, dwelling in informal settlements ( read: slums) like Mathare. (view from my office)

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Unemployment is pretty common, with a correspondingly high crime rate. The HIV prevalence exceeds the national average. Tuberculosis, malnutrition, hypertension and diabetes are also rampant.

Run by German Doctors Nairobi, BARAKA HEALTH CENTER provides quality, accessible and sustainable health services to the vulnerable population in this community of around half a million people.Picture Baraka health center

Rose has worked in Baraka since 2007, and leads the ‘community team’.  I believe it’s more apt to call them the ‘Community Champions’With the community team

The community team delivers one of the core services of this centre. Their job is to go into the dangerous streets, narrow alleys, unmarked houses and unventilated shacks with ‘flying toilets’. They follow up on patients, identify people too sick to come to the clinic, pick out malnourished children and adults, monitor drug adherence, and refer these people to the feeding centre,the health clinic, the HIV/TB care centre or to other appropriate services.

I spent one day with them on the field to help me understand the center’s work, I couldn’t take pictures to avoid undue attention. Only Rose was bold enough to make phone calls on the street, and she told me: “they see me as their mother, and no matter how ‘bad’ these boys become, they’ll still find it hard to attack their mother; but you make sure you keep your phone well”. (I kept my phone very very well!)

In my time here as an ESMT Responsible Leaders’ Fellow, I hope to contribute to keeping the centre open and running sustainably. If I ever run out of motivation….I’ll just spend another day with Rose and her courageous team-  field trip for me, daily work for her.

With Rose

My First 3 days in Berlin

So Anne did mean it when she told us few weeks ago that “It will get better”. Yes, we were somehow complaining about the workload, of how we barely survived all those Decision Theory homework and statistics problem sets (mostly), getting the study group together to accomplish certain tasks, and last but not least: seeing the beautiful Berlin. When I signed up to be one of the bloggers here, I told Claudia that I could write two or three times a week. Look at me now: writing my second post after 7 weeks of my first one. But this also means that life is getting better now. I am not sure whether the schedule is getting more relaxed or we simply got used to the schedule. Maybe the latter.

So now that I have a bit of time before Monday kicks in (I thought I only dread Mondays when I was working, but it haunts me now still!) I would like to narrate a little story of my first month in Berlin.

If you read my previous post, you would see how excited I was. I arrived in Berlin two days before the program started, which was 7th of September. It was 9am when I landed at Tegel, and I took a cab to a shared apartment that Bar (our awesome Israeli MIM) has found for me. I was to share with an Israeli lady of about 50, living alone in her two-room apartment. We agreed that I will stay for one month and see how it goes before deciding whether to continue my stay. So she welcomed me warmly to the reasonably cozy room with shared bathroom and kitchen of course. There was no living room so she made me tea and offered me cookies in her own room. She was kind and warm, in general. I did not really mind too when she told me I couldn’t have access to internet now because there was something wrong (in which she couldn’t explain) and that she will “borrow” the internet connection from the neighbor for me. I was still ok when she told me I am not supposed to use the washing machine without her there, because she was afraid it will break down. Even when she told me to make sure I don’t use warm water too much when washing my dishes because it will mean more electricity, or when she told me I was not supposed to cook a lot “because Berlin’s food is really cheap!”, I was still ok. After all, I already got the vibes that I should find a new place next month and for now just be nice and do whatever she says. She was pretty considerate though; she even offered to show me the nearest bahn station and the neighborhood. She said she felt like she was having a little daughter at home again.

So the next day after I slept off my jetlag, I went and give her the rental and deposit of 1000 euro. I changed all my money in Phnom Penh, my hometown, in a local currency exchange center that is supposed to be the most trustworthy among all in town. I did not have a bank account yet, so I gave her the money in cash. Then I was off to ESMT to meet Anne and was supposed to meet Bar later for the first time. While talking excitedly to Anne, I got a call from my landlady “Where are you? You need to come right now, your money is fake and the police is here. I don’t care where you are or what you are doing, just get here right now.” I was stunned. She gave me the address and hung up. I couldn’t even remember the address, being on my first day in Berlin and not speaking a word of German. I called her again and she started repeating the same dialogue before I managed to spell out the name of the street from her. I immediately hopped on a cab, not wasting even 1 minute. While on the cab, she called me two more times. It took only 15 minutes to get there, and the last call was when I was right in front of Deutsche Bank – where she was with two policemen nearby. I went to her, before she could say anything I said “I am really really sorry”. She replied “You better be, you better be. This is your last day in my apartment. I sensed the anger, so I turned instead to the policemen and ask what I could do. They informed me that one 100 euro note (not all) was fake. They needed my passport and information for record purposes and that was it.

However, my landlady kept repeating how embarrassing it is for her, and that it was her first time getting into such situation after 50 years of life, and that “she deal with bad people and bad money”. She kept repeating how well she welcomed me, how she thought I was a good person. No matter how many times I apologized, she just did not care. As a background information, she has German citizenship but does not speak German. So one banking staff was there to interpret what the policemen said to her. So now, the fake money issue is done but the policemen and the bank staff were busy explaining to her that this kind of case are pretty normal and they face it almost everyday. It’s not her fault, and it’s not my fault either because fake money is everywhere. They were arguing, somehow. I was there, watching the bank staff and policemen arguing with my landlady on my behalf. I felt really overwhelmed by her attitude and I already had watery eyes, almost crying out loud. Fortunately, Bar turned up on time and explained to her in their language. After a while, she calmed down a little and said I could stay with her as long as I need to get a new place. I politely said it’s ok, I do not want to bother her. She kept insisting until I said “You felt bad right? I also feel bad, so NO thank you!”.

After the event, since Bar was there, we all went for a cup of tea nearby the bank. She kept repeating how nice she was to me, and now that she calmed down, she was saying nicer things. I offered to pay for the 2 nights that I have stayed, but she refused, and gave me back 900 Euro that were not fake. I moved out later that evening to Bar’s couch in her living room which felt so comfortable after such a dramatic day. For that, I can’t thank Bar enough for her rescue. Bar later explained to me that the reason why it was such a hassle was because the landlady did not carry an identification with her, while claiming to be legal German citizen but does not speak German. The policemen also told Bar to help to try to calm her down because she was too emotional about it.

Ending: I stayed at Bar’s couch for a week, then found a pretty room (but expensive) to stay for 3 weeks, then moved to another place for one month, and now I’m blogging from my “permanent” room. I still remember the email she sent to Bar wishing her to “have a nice life” after we parted.

So that was my crazy start in Berlin. What’s your story?