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Just say yes – from strangers to new friends!

Upon my arrival to Nairobi, I knew only one person, another Princeton in Africa fellow. While her plans had already been set for the weekend, I needed to find something to do. For those of you that have never been to Nairobi, it is a sprawling city that has the feel of Houston and New York City combined – very large and busy like New York, but pretty spread out like Houston. Fortunately, there is quite a bit to do within 30 minutes of where I am staying, so on this particular Saturday, I went to the Nairobi Arboretum.

The arboretum is on the edge of the city, about a 35-minute walk from the hotel. It was a wonderful day, so I decided to walk rather than Uber and I can’t tell you how thankful I am that I did. When I arrived, I was expecting to be able to pay the 50-cent entrance fee with either cash or credit card, as Nairobi is very technologically progressive. However, I soon found out that the only way to pay is through M-Pesa.

Here is the story on M-Pesa. The technology came online in several countries in 2007 as a mobile banking technology that allows users to send money to businesses or friends, conduct other financial operations, and gain access to microfinancing. Users are able to deposit money into their mobile account and send financial transactions via SMS. The best part about the technology is that it is does not rely on large financial institutions such as banks; rather, local shops and street vendors serve as the network of agents where one can deposit money into their account.

This technology does two very important things for the citizens of countries it operates in: (1) Gives people access to formal financial systems, which gives them access to things like loans, microfinance institutions, etc., and (2) Shifts these countries away from cash-based societies largely reducing crime, theft, and financial corruption.

So, given it was only my second day, I had not yet activated an M-Pesa account; therefore, I needed someone to pay for me. This particular person ended up being someone I would spend the next four hours with along with a group of inspiring young people.

Yvonne, the woman who paid for my entrance fee, is a volunteer of sorts with this company called the Global Business Roundtable, founded in South Africa, but has a large presence in Kenya as of 2016 (I will explain more about it later). She told me she was attending a monthly team-building exercise and invited me to join.

Honestly, my inclination was to say no, but a voice in my head told me to say “Yes!” – this voice being one of the program directors for Princeton in Africa who encouraged us to always say yes to situations like these. And yes, I am extremely grateful that I did!

The group was about 15 strangers. I still really had no idea what this team-building activity involved, who the people were, and why it was that I could just openly join. I didn’t really get any answers to these questions until much later on. What I did notice, though, was that many of the strangers that were to become my friends were wearing t-shirts that read “Youth on the Move”.

We joined the group a tad late, so once Yvonne and I gave our introductions, the team-building exercises began! These turned out to be games and activities that one could find youth playing at summer camp. Fun fact: many of the same activities done at camp in the US are also done in Kenya, albeit a few exceptions that are more traditional to Kenya. It was an incredible time filled with laughter and conversation on a beautiful Saturday afternoon.

Once the activities were all finished, I finally found out what this day was about! We all sat in a circle while a few from the group prepared snacks. Beckham, one of the people wearing the “Youth on the Move” t-shirts, asked me what I knew about epilepsy. So, I told him what I knew about the condition, experiences I had had with it (a former classmate from my childhood days), and how the condition was viewed in the US. For the latter, all I could come up with is that it is viewed as a medical condition. What came next left me speechless….

Beckham told me the following (and I am summarizing): An estimated 1,000,000 Kenyans or 2% of the population has epilepsy. However, a large percentage of Kenyans don’t view epilepsy as a medical condition; rather, they see it as witchcraft or caused by the demons or the gods. Especially in many rural parts of Kenya, children who have epilepsy are barred from participating in society and usually locked away in cages away from society for the fear of what society may think of their family and to ensure that this “contagious” disease does not spread to others in the community.

And yes, many Kenyans believe epilepsy is a contagious disease.

He went on to tell me about the different types of epilepsy, what this organization does, and where they are struggling (Stay tuned for more information on Youth on the Move in a follow-on post that will specifically discuss the organization!). However, I could not get over what I was just told. It was something that hit me because in the US, we take for granite the fabulous medical services we receive and the public awareness around conditions such as epilepsy that I forgot that what we are accustomed to is not commonplace around the world.

After the background Beckham provided, I found out why Yvonne and her colleagues were there. The Global Business Roundtable is an organization that seeks to connect people and businesses through networking events, forums, and discussions. There are several different departments within GBR. This specific group of people were with the “Future Leaders” department

The purpose of GBR Future Leaders is to provide networking opportunities for young Kenyan entrepreneurs, businesses, etc., with experts in a respective field or area of interest. The hope is that this platform can serve as a means for connecting Kenyans to things like mentorship on how to write proposals, how to advance skill and leadership development, how to gain access to funding opportunities, among many other things.

GBR likes to host local events like this one as a way to not only spread the world about the services it is offering, but also to get to know more of these promising companies and young Kenyans to see how their services could potentially benefit these organizations or entrepreneurs. But, it becomes the responsibility of the organization or individual to follow-up, which separates those who really want the support and network from those who are only kind of bought in.

It was truly an incredible experience to be part of especially because of the people I had the pleasure of meeting. For a day that could have been me walking around the arboretum alone, it turned into a pretty neat experience with new friendships and new connections in a foreign city! Not only by saying yes did I learn about some local organizations trying to create positive change in their communities, I made several new friends, so next time a situation like this happens to you, say yes!

AND, as soon as we were all about to depart, a pack of Sykes monkeys came out of nowhere and started climbing in the trees all around us, hopping from one tree to the next, and stealing bananas we hadn’t had the chance to pick up yet. They came so close you could basically shake hands with them! Here are the little things close up:

Sykes monkey momma and her baby

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