“Perhaps I know best why it is man alone who laughs;
he alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter” – Nietzsche
Last Friday, September 9, I flew to Mombasa, Kenya to meet with X and reach an agreement about his contribution to Solid’Africa.
The trip was a gamble in several ways.
First of all, you should know that I already doubted that the chicken farm would be feasible within the remaining two-week time frame of my grant (I have to submit a final report by Sept 26).
The farm, while ideal in terms of sustainability, is something that would require much more time and maneuvering to realize. In addition, X’s business is based in Mombasa, so his ability to help me set up the farm in Kigali would be very limited. So (after speaking to my wonderful friend in government) I developed a back-up plan – I figured if X really wanted to help out, it would be much more realistic and practical for him to first construct the soup kitchen for Solid’Africa before working with me to develop the chicken farm. The construction of the soup kitchen – which Solid’Africa estimated would cost about $100,000 – would be ideal for both parties, because it is the more immediate need for Solid’Africa and it is entirely within the domain of X’s construction business. I planned to push the chicken farm but then suggest the (donated) construction of the soup kitchen as a more realistic alternative.
Second, this was my first time attempting to negotiate a business arrangement and I was very nervous. I have no experience in business and my inexperience was compounded by an extreme dread of failure. I was worried about spending five days in Mombasa and returning to Kigali empty-handed. And with the looming “final report” date for my grant over my head, I felt immense pressure to deliver results.
Third, as a young woman, I was worried about traveling alone to a city I had never been to and staying with a man I barely knew. I had met with X four or five times in Kigali and found him to be genuine and sincere – still, in my ultra-paranoia and distrust of strangers, I wanted to proceed with caution. I reached out to my two other contacts in Kenya (based in Nairobi) and also made sure all my closest friends and family in Rwanda and the States knew where I would be. I was encouraged by the fact that I would meet his wife and children, but still very much aware of my vulnerability in going on this trip.
“Laughter is the sun that drives winter from the human face” ~Victor Hugo
I will reflect more on my experience in Mombasa later, but for now, I want you to know the main circumstances and events of this trip.
As soon as I arrived in Mombasa (Tangent: I actually fell asleep on the one-hour ride and almost ended up in Dubai, but the Kenyan police managed to find me on board – I can’t imagine it was very difficult to find the one passenger who could possible be “Lydia Hsu”), one of X’s drivers took me directly to X’s construction company.
There, X showed me all the components of his construction business. I saw the compression of the raw material, the cutting of the metal beams, the assembly of walls, molding of sinks and toilets, carpentry of doors and furniture, and the final finishing touches in paint and design.
I was very impressed by how X had essentially ensured that he produced, manufactured, and delivered ALL of the components of his construction business.
We then went to this office to talk business.
When I spoke to X earlier in Kigali, I was under the impression that his chicken farm was already well underway. However, I quickly discovered that – while yes, he had secured all of the land and the hatching machines from China and the construction of the house – he was far from being IN business with the farm.
X still wanted to help me to develop a chicken farm in Kigali and insisted that it was a sure investment, but I began to develop my pitch and move toward the idea of first constructing the soup kitchen before working on the chicken farm.
Fortunately, X liked the idea.
We immediately called one of the leaders of Solid’Africa and exchanged emails to facilitate the arrangement. X agreed to donate all of the materials for the construction of the kitchen as well as the services of his construction team in Kigali to assemble the building. All he asked was for me/Solid’Africa to cover the cost of shipment, which he assured me would be no more than $5,500.
Now, all that remained was the paperwork.
Even though X was beaming and strutting around his office as if everything was signed and sealed, I was still bent on pushing the agreement further toward the shipment of the materials. X, however, told me repeatedly to “relax” and “trust” and that we would continue the process on Monday.
I did not want to compromise the positive rapport and jeopardize the arrangement, so I conceded and proceeded to “be relaxed” and “happy.”
This was, I realize now, a mistake.
ACT I: The Mombasa Malady
I will not go into detail (because I know sometimes my posts can be tmi), but over the next day and a half, my anxiety and discomfort escalated and began to take a serious toll on my health. As you may recall, I had just barely recovered from “organ dysfunction” due to extreme stress, and this trip was quickly plunging me into even greater levels of stress. Not to worry – I was not physically harmed in any way – but I did endure a very emotionally and mentally strenuous stay in Mombasa that ultimately culminated in illness. On Saturday night, I threw up at X’s restaurant and quickly returned to the house. I spent the next few hours on the phone with loved ones who insisted that I fly back to Kigali immediately.
I need to think on this more – but perhaps business is not the right calling for me.
In those moments of hysteria, I began to put my desire to help and do good over my personal well-being. I prioritized the security of the business arrangement and the need to deliver results, and in doing so, trapped myself in Mombasa where I was miserable, sick, and frightened.
Looking back, I hope that I will never again be in a situation where I value business over personal comfort and security.
I know now that it was not worth it.
The next morning, I tried to “manage” the situation and arrange an earlier flight home to Kigali. X was displeased and said, “But that is bad because you are leaving without finishing anything.”
However, I tried to be firm and insist that I needed to see my doctor. I also emphasized that if he was truly committed to building this kitchen, I should not have to remain in Mombasa to see through the rest of the arrangement. Right?
Truth is though – I was already checked out and, kitchen or no kitchen, I really just needed to go home.
ACT II: RwandAir “Refund”
You won’t believe what they told me.
“Sorry, miss, but our system shows that your ticket has been refunded.”
I tried unsuccessfully to explain that my round-trip ticket could not possibly have been refunded because “Yes, sir, I flew to Mombasa. I am here right now. Would you like to see my visa?” and “How could you possibly refund my round-trip ticket if I already took the first flight to Mombasa?” and “I don’t know who you could have refunded because I haven’t received a refund.”
You can imagine the escalating stress.
Fortunately, X arranged for me to fly to Nairobi with his business partner, who would give me a place to stay and also take care of my flight to Rwanda in the morning. The JetLink airlines representative told us over the phone that I could pick up and pay for my ticket when I arrived at Mombasa International Airport.
Or so I thought.
(By the way, I hope you’re getting the gist of this story).
X’s partner was having so much fun at the pool that she decided to postpone her flight, but promised that she would arrange for her driver to pick me up from the airport. I decide that, just in case, I would let my friend in Nairobi know that I was arriving at the airport at 9:30 PM. I figured at the rate things were going – who knew what else could happen?
At least I did that much right.
ACT III: JetLink “Cancellation”
“Hi, my name is Lydia and I’m here to pick up my ticket. Here’s the cash and the ticket number.”
“Ma’am, I am sorry but your ticket has been canceled and the flight is full.”
Yes, I had another “what did she just say?” moment. And this time, I definitely lost my cool. “Excuse me? What do you mean my ticket was canceled? I booked it two hours ago.”
“Yes but you did not pay for it on time.”
No matter how I tried to explain that the JetLink representative had told me to pay for the ticket at the counter and how many times I gestured angrily at the “Customer Service” poster behind her, the poor woman obviously could not change the fact that the 8:30 PM flight was full. Completely defeated, I consented to the 9:30 PM flight, but made sure that I was on stand-by for 8:30.
At least I got on stand-by at 8:30 PM.
I had this small rising hope that perhaps the wost was over.
(Yeah, you know where this is going).
I arrived in Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport at 9:30 PM and proceeded to wait for contact from X’s business partner. But I could not reach X and his partner’s number wasn’t working either so, after two hours, I called my friend and he swung by and picked me up from the airport.
I had the wonderful opportunity to celebrate the Ethiopian New Year (did you know that it’s only 2004 according to the Ethiopian calendar?) in Nairobi and quickly became a fan of the “Ethiopian twist.” (Bear in mind, this was also on September 11 – more on that later).
After a night of dancing and relaxing with old friends and new, I went back to Mimosa Villa and finally slept – really slept – safe and secure and happy and relaxed.
ACT IV: RwandAir “Refund” Revisited
The next morning, I attempted to get in touch again with X and his business partner. After several rather unpleasant phone calls (in which I was accused of deception and fraud … yeah, I’m not even going to bother explaining), I once again had to negotiate the original “refunded” ticket with RwandAir.
“Hello – yes, this is Lydia. Yes, I am calling again about my ticket. I am in Nairobi now – I would like you to transfer my original ticket and arrange for me a flight from Nairobi to Kigali this evening.”
“Ma’am, it is not possible, the flights from Mombasa to Kigali cannot be – ”
“No sir, I was never refunded for my flight, so RwandAir is responsible for arranging my ticket home. I came to Nairobi because I know there are more flights from here to Kigali. Please find a solution and call me back in ten minutes.”
After all of my efforts to be patient and sweet and relaxed for the past three days, my inner “good girl” had finally crumbled and I did not have the resolve to deal with anymore B.S. and unprofessionalism.
And voila – ten minutes later, I finally had a ticket back to Kigali for that same evening.
Gosh, you should have seen the smile on my face.
I spent my remaining hours in Nairobi driving around the city with my friend. I’ve missed Chi-town terribly, so you can imagine my giddy excitement at discovering one of the gigantic malls downtown! I ran around like a five-year-old taking the escalators up and down and sampling two gelato stands on different floors.
ACT V: Android Angst
Finally, it was time to leave and we started driving from downtown Nairobi to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.
We were at a traffic light ten minutes away from the airport when I received an email from my dad about the pipe explosion in Nairobi. I started to respond and texted “Hi Daddy I am in Nairobi but I am safe – ”
All I saw were two huge black hands in my face and, before I could even scream, my phone was wrestled out of my hands.
Then I screamed. Oh yes, I screamed hard out of that window into the darkness.
My friend, when he finally realized what had happened from my spastic sputtering incoherence, turned the car around.
But, of course, it was too late.
The next five minutes were silent.
My friend called my phone. “He hung up.”
My friend called my phone again. “Damn, he already turned it off.”
I was nauseous.
All I could manage to say was: “Can you please close my window?”
We arrived at the airport.
My friend, well-acquainted with my business and traveling woes in Kenya thus far, did not know what to say.
I did not know what to say either. So, as with all other unfortunate events in my life, I did the only thing I could.
“With the fearful strain that is on me night and day,
if I did not laugh I should die” ~Abraham Lincoln
“Can you imagine I was only ten minutes away from finally going home? Just ten minutes?”
I laughed. I cried. I gasped. I giggled.
“Dammit. Oh gosh, my phone. I was so close.”
My friend: “It’s really not very funny.”
Me: giggle, giggle. “Oh, dammit.”
ACT VI: (More) Airport (Mis)Adventures
I used my friend’s phone to email my father and my friends in Kigali to arrange for a ride home from the airport.
My ticket number and confirmation were in my email account, so I needed my friend to come in with me. I figured he could just tell the security guards the truth, but he chose to lie about also “picking up his ticket at the counter.” We both made it in.
At this point, each step of getting closer to Kigali felt like a blessing. I was so relieved when I finally had a plane ticket in my hand. I said good bye to my friend, but right before I went through security I called him back and scrawled his number and my friends’ numbers on my right wrist. Then, I went through Customs and finally got to my gate.
“Don’t ruminate,” I muttered to myself, “Work through, work through.”
I reached into my purse to make sure I had my ATM card for the next morning.
My wallet wasn’t there.
When my phone was stolen, I didn’t just scream – I also jumped in my seat, and in the process, my wallet must have fallen to the car floor.
I begged so many people in the waiting room to lend me their phones to make one emergency call, but they all refused. Finally, a kind Ethiopian man handed me his phone and I called my friend.
Then, I dashed back to Customs where the two sweet Kenyan ladies sympathetically let me pass (but held my passport hostage) and I went back to security.
I explained the situation to the two guards, but the stockier one gruffly said, “You are the one with the friend that lied to us.”
“I’m really very, very sorry. He shouldn’t have, but I explained to you why that happened,” I said. “He is coming back to the airport with my wallet and I need to go outside to wait for him.”
“He breached security. He needs to pay.”
It was all I could do to not roll my eyes. “Seriously? You want me to pay you?” I shook my head, “I have to go outside.”
I went outside. My friend came by with my wallet and said, “I don’t even know what to say.”
I went back inside. “Listen,” I said to the two guards, “I am probably never coming back to Kenya again so you might as well take what I have.” As I opened my purse, the smaller guard said, “No, no, you already lost your phone Keep your money.”
I handed 400 shillings (~$4) to the stocky guard, who took it and grinned.
Then, I went back through Customs, where the two ladies returned my passport and expressed condolences again for what happened. “Thank you so much for your understanding,” I said, “But you should know I also just paid off your security.”
I left both women with shocked and upset faces and saw one of them head for security as I made my way back to the gate.
I finally made it back to Kigali twelve hours ago, and I am planning to stay in my room indefinitely to write and reflect on all that has happened.
Here are a couple vignettes that I am still processing:
When I was about to board my flight to Kigali, I saw a man who had just arrived from Uganda. He was a quiet and gentle-looking man with a bowed back and a gray beard. As cameras flashed and reporters surrounded him with microphones, I saw him smile and nod silently. Turns out this was Al-Amin Kimathi, a Kenyan human rights activist, who was detained on September 21, 2010 in connection with the July bomb attacks in Kampala, which killed 76 people who were watching the 2010 World Cup final. He had traveled to Uganda to observe the court hearing of six terror suspects charged and was subsequently detained for a year in pre-trial detention without any evidence provided against him. During that time, Ugandan prison authorities refused to allow Amnesty International delegates to access Kimathi on four occasions. (Article: http://www.amnesty.org/en/news-and-updates/freedom-kenyan-activist-charged-over-uganda-bombing-2011-09-12)
My friend in Nairobi is a professional soccer player who has played with teams from countries all over the world (including DC United). Several months ago, he sustained a knee injury that has not only prevented him from playing but has also threatened his career. As I tried to process everything that happened to me this weekend, he told me: “The only thing that I truly love in life is football. I spent ten years of my life practicing and playing my sport and now I cannot do the thing I love most for ten months, maybe longer. But am I sitting in my room and complaining and being sad? No, because that’s life and I will not give up.” He also told me about his experience during the 1994 genocide. He was in the DRC at the time and only ten years old. “There were bodies everywhere. You know, sometimes people don’t even know what to do with them and they throw them on top of each other. Everywhere, dead bodies. That’s life – there are wars. All you can do is try to live and be safe and happy.”
This morning when I got up, I looked up the news about the pipe explosion in Nairobi. (Here is an article: http://allafrica.com/stories/201109121428.html)
You know what?
The explosion, which killed over one hundred people, happened only ten minutes (8 km) from the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport where I was driving to yesterday. (Flashback to last summer when I was in downtown Kigali just half an hour before the bombings).
I am lucky to be alive.
My roommate just told me “Trusting people is good. But there is a line between trust and plain stupidity. I think you were flirting with that line.”
“No,” I said to him, “I definitely crossed it.”
I am still not exactly sure to make of all of this. I know that I was an idiot. I know that I should have never made the trip to Kenya (even if I did secure the kitchen).
But in the midst of all the disaster and stress, at least one thing is very clear – I am so blessed. I am grateful, not just for the obvious – for security and financial resources (however limited they may be) and food and clothes and electricity, etc – but I am so especially grateful for my friends and my family.
This was a particularly big fish this time, God, but thank you for watching over my safety and helping me to learn in the process – I clearly still have a lot of growing to do.