A year ago I only dreamed of going to Africa — and now I was making my second trip to Africa with the IBM Health Corps team! I had planned to do a talk at Nairobi University the day after I arrived, but as my trip grew closer I learned that they had closed the university due to potential violence related to the contested elections occurring in Kenya the week before my trip (that drama is still unfolding — the results were overturned and elections will be held again). While disappointed (and slightly concerned), I expected to be able to meet with UX colleagues informally.
Arrival in Nairobi, Kenya and Safari
When I landed in Kenya the officials noticed that I did not have my paperwork in order. I had procured an East African visa which included Kenya, but I needed to go through Uganda to get it. I had anticipated issues and attempted to confirm my visa status before I arrived. Now that I was facing immigration officials I was concerned I might be stuck or worse be put back on 24 hours of flights home. Fortunately, they allowed same-day visas and so I purchased the Kenyan visa. Annoying and expensive, but luckily not a big deal.
Using WhatsApp to communicate I had arranged to meet Abraham, the same driver I had used previously in Nairobi. As we planned the next days I mentioned the university cancellation and he encouraged a morning safari at the National Park near the city. I resisted at first thinking I’d be able to still make some arrangements to meet local UX people, but it quickly became apparent that Nairobi was still in lockdown and that people that I had been in contact with were not even in the city.
Early the next morning Abraham picked me up and we toured the national park viewing zebras, water buffalo, giraffes, ostriches, lions and more from his minivan with Nairobi visible in the background. It was a great way to recover from 24+ hours of travel.
Later that day I had the pleasure of meeting Bettirose for coffee. We had met through Twitter due to our shared interest in encouraging women in technology. She is a local volunteer for AkiraChix, a not for profit organization that aims to inspire and develop a successful force of women in technology. Learn more about them in this NPR article.
Unbelievable Traffic in Nairobi
I had not yet been to downtown Nairobi, but felt that I had seen some of the crazy traffic that people complain about and that the city is famous for. Little did I truly understand what they meant.
Downtown Nairobi during Friday afternoon rush hour is really an incredible sight. There were thousands of people getting on stages (buses) to take them home. Most people in Nairobi travel by bus because distances are great and traffic is so bad. Even with primarily busses in the downtown area it was unbelievably crowded. Buses squeezed by each other barely by centimeters and we only moved a few inches at a time while people swarmed around coming and going. Imagine the largest event you’ve ever been to that most people drive to and what the parking lot is like when everyone is leaving (after a big sports event or concert). Now imagine that that parking lot and that level of chaos is a street, and the cars are so close together you cannot open a door. That’s Nairobi traffic.
Arrival in Kampala, Uganda
My immigration woes continued at Entebbe where they had run out of visa stickers. A group of us from the same flight were left waiting for 45 minutes in line with no explanations and no access to bathrooms or water. Finally, we got through the line and after some time I located my driver.
Immediately upon starting out on our drive to the hotel it was apparent how much had changed in the four months since my last visit. It takes at least one hour to drive to Kampala from the Entebbe airport on poorly maintained, extremely busy roads. The road had been crowded with small stores on both sides of the road and now one side was in ruins as they made way for the new highway being built.
It made me sad see this change, as I imagine many people’s livelihoods were likely lost, but the new road will hopefully be safer for everyone. The entrepreneurial spirit in this section of the world is inspiring. The unemployment rate is extremely high so many people sell goods or services from the front of their homes or on the roads and take on additional jobs like being a boda boda (motorcycle taxi) drivers. The lack of air conditioning and small interior spaces makes the best place to do work outside. I loved observing people work as they planed wood for bed frames, repaired motorcycles, removed sugar from large cane sticks, and more.
We finally arrived at the lush resort where the oncology meetings would take place and I spent the afternoon exploring the property which included a horse barn and a marina. Being a Saturday I saw many wedding parties doing photo shoots and there were also families of highly entertaining monkeys on the property.
Rolex Festival and food
In Uganda, you do not wear a Rolex you eat one! Rolex’s (rolls with eggs) are a new and very popular food item in Uganda. They consist of chapati (yes, the bread from India) that is rolled up with egg, seasoning, vegetables and optionally a protein inside. We attended a local festival in the city with music and food vendors including the Rolex King among others. It was a lot of fun to meet more local folks and enjoy a relaxing afternoon.
In addition to enjoying Rolex’s during my trip there I also enjoyed a wonderful fish Masala every evening at the resort. The local Ugandan foods included lots of squash soups, sweet potatoes and bananas cooked in a variety of ways and often with Indian spices.
African Cancer Coalition Workshop to harmonize cancer treatment guidelines
Oncologists, palliative care specialists, and other care providers worked together during these sessions to define cancer treatment guidelines along with attendees from IBM Health Corps, American Cancer Society and the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN). This work is an important step towards maturing the overall treatment of cancer in Africa using consistent, evidence based treatments and this group will be presenting their initial recommendations later this year.
Sometimes things just don’t work out the way you expect and when technology can fail it often does. I try to always be prepared as I’ve done talks in some very weird circumstances over the years. When I arrived at Makerere University I put together clues via comments being made around me that the electricity was out, and that no one was sure when it might return. I could tell they didn’t want me to know initially so I kept quiet. My host took me to her office and I worked on analyzing the studies I had run the day before and considered briefly what I would do if the power remained out. Obviously sharing my slides would only work with a very small group and she was expecting 10–20 students. I decided I would not bother trying to share the screen and would cut out anything in the talk that relied on visuals to explain. Luckily, I had fully powered up my battery the night before.
When we arrived at the room the power was still out — we delayed slightly and decided that we should just go on with the lecture. It went very well and we had a great discussion. The staff provided a snack for everyone which included a banana (they are very sweet and tasty in this region — and not like American bananas), a hard boiled egg and a little wheat cake. It was lovely and the perfect lunch.
Loud Rain Down in Africa
While at Design Without Borders in Kampala, Uganda I experienced the rain in Africa in a very auspicious way. Just as I sat down with my new friends at Design Without Borders it began to rain. Lightly at first and then what I can only imagine from the outside was a torrential downpour. I’ve experienced rain on a tin roof before, but this was an earsplitting experience. We ended up getting very close around the corner of a table and politely yelling at each other for 30 minutes or so while the rain poured down. Despite what could have been an unpleasant interaction I enjoyed it greatly and got a lot of value from our loud chat.