A month in Nairobi

Background of the gig

Pablo and games

I met this guy named Pablo Suarez in a pub in Boston, when our mutual friend John Crowley insisted I leave my introvert-hole. When John insists, I tend to listen. And as always, it was totally worth it. Pablo plays games. As a climate scientist, he got tired of people falling asleep in meetings. He was aware of the direness of the situation, but no one else felt the same urgency. So he started expressing probability and costs and delays through dice, and beans, and objectives. He’s played these games with people who live in disaster-prone areas on through people at the UN who make policy about resource allocation. He’s created actual, connected change through an entire system. We’ve since embarked upon a few event adventures together, and I’m glad to call him friend and cohort.

My experience with KRCS

And so I met this guy named Dr James Kisia, when Pablo suggested I take a gig at the Kenyan Red Cross. In a continuing trend, when Pablo suggests things, I tend to listen. James has become well known as an innovator in the NGO/innovation space. As an example, reframing the understanding and practice of social entrepreneurship in resource-poor settings. Exploring sustainable resource mobilization for an organization whose relevance in disaster-prone Kenya is increasingly becoming apparent. The KRCS runs 3 hotels in Kenya, taking advantage of the fact that conferencing is a major business in Kenya, and in Nairobi particularly. It might seem paradoxical, having a five star facility on the campus of the a humanitarian organization, but the money the hotels make is ploughed back into the humanitarian work of the organization — including non-funded sudden onset disasters.

Based entirely on good faith, shoe strings, and a few well-placed calls, James and I embarked upon a trust fall with each other, based entirely on Pablo’s word. The Web of Trust in real life. I arrived to Nairobi for 4 weeks of work with little guidance beyond to lay groundwork for a Dadaab-focused intern or contractor, as specific to what would be applicable to climate change issues as well.

KRCS in Dadaab

Kenya Red Cross has been incredibly gracious, open, and stimulating. For example, they set me up with an incredibly kind gent named Francis who picks me up at 06:10 each morning, and again at 19:30, so we can avoid the traffic of Nairobi. He insisted I bring the lesson of “we belong to society” back to the states. When I asked for time or materials, such were readily granted. When pushed or indicated discomfort at ideas or practices, the willingness to engage and improve made me feel safe and encouraged. I have the honor to work with a number of wonderful groups, and KRCS and the Climate Centre are now absolutely within that grouping.

Beyond what I was there to focus on, KRCS does a LOT of stuff. But pertinent to the overlap, they got involved with the Dadaab refugee camp in 2011, after some MSF Spain representatives were kidnapped, and a bunch of the responding organizations subsequently pulled back their support. This was at the same time as a 150,000ish person influx into the Dadaab complex due to drought and conflict in Somalia. This knowledge meant my problem statement was emerging: if climate change means more Dadaabs, how do we make better Dadaabs?

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holy wow this is a lot of text. here is a dinosaur on a skateboard, from one of my evenings Not Working

This is complicated by the following: refugee camps are meant to be temporary, and in part are agreed to by the host community under this assumption. People are fleeing untenable situations, often malnourished and generally in poor health. As infrastructure and response is set up to respond to their current status as well as issues of close proximity (sanitation, gender-based violence issues), living conditions in a refugee camp, while still sub-standard, can still be better than the originating location. Such a difference decreases the likelihood of a departure from the camp back to origin. So improving the conditions towards increased dignity and health in camps is in tension with available resources and welcome of where the camp is located.

What I Did

Desk Study

There are a TON of reports around different aspects of the Dadaab complex, many of which are available via the UNHCR website. While KRCS and other partners understand the interconnected nature of their response, reports are still released along very specific categories. I spent most of my time on Health and Nutrition, in no small part due to the mind-blowing transition from 38% acute malnutrition in 2011 (at the beginning of their involvement) to 14.9% one year later (for the part of the camps where KRCS involved – not the whole camp). It’s now below Sphere standards for emergency, and they continue working to eradicate it completely.

That said, many of these reports are in pretty standard format. By which I mean, 200+ pages per year of “in figure XX.YY you’ll see that ACRONYM_SOUP VERB_ABOUT_DIRECTION by a STATISTICAL_TERM PERCENTAGE.” Not the most entertaining, which is tragic given the time, energy, depth of understanding, funding, and outright care that go into these. How are people supposed to learn… to iterate based on these?


I also got to engage in my favorite way to get to know a topic… talking to people. I sat down with people who work in Dadaab (some via skype, some in person). I couldn’t go toDadaab myself, as security there is still a major issues (IEDs, kidnappings, general violence), primarily assigned to al Shabab. As blatantly mzungu, I could be the target of such attacks, and KRCS is one (if not the only) of the groups that act without security. This is very upsetting to me, and we’ll figure it out when/if I come back. I feel unbased, uncertain, but also trusting in those I interacted with on a daily basis who dospend time in the camps. So interviews were all recounting of people who know Dadaab well – the partnerships around the camps, operations, community engagement, health and nutrition, and management. I typed, I drew, I thought. All of this folded into a codesign workshop to shape next steps for me, and suggestions to the rest of the team.

Workshop Design

I wanted to impart 3 things during a workshop, to the purpose of improving conditions in Dadaab. 1) making information tangible makes it easier to iterate on, 2) there are many ways to make information fun to make and fun to take in, and 3) there are TONs of tools out there that can do both of these, as well as opening up new paths to engagement with a wider community (either through code or through content creation). As anyone, the attendees are busy with meaningful projects, and so making the most of their time was vital. Having James’s support meant those I hadn’t had a chance to bond with still came, so we had a diverse set of individuals at the workshop. I set out with the following objectives:

Long-term objective for this working session: A better curated knowledge base for improving conditions in / responding to needs in refugee camps and informal settlements, especially as extendable to climate change issues. Audience: Refugee response groups, climate change organizations, active citizens.
Mid-term objective from this working session: A thriving platform for the sharing and improvement of information on Dadaab within KRCS. This platform might be technical, process-based, or both. Audience: KRCS Dadaab-focused staff and volunteers.
Short-term objective from this working session: A list of knowledge sets to curate and give to others for streamlined working conditions. Audience: Incoming Dadaab Refugee Operations personnel.

I walked through the workshop a half-dozen times, talked through it with my housemate Danna (with whom I’ve been recording songs), made sure all the backing documentation was done, that the examples of summaries were precise, that the people calling in about their tools were prepared, and that the outline of the workshop was populated with instructions, but not so detailed it wouldn’t allow the conversation to be organic. The language was cleaned up and made accessible by one Lindsay Oliver, who is currently looking for contract work and you should totally hire her. And then I clenched my hands while I slept, nervous as always, anxious to build and succeed. You can see how the workshop went over on the Civic blog (and yes ok maybe here, too) on Monday.

2 thoughts on “A month in Nairobi

  1. Wow Willow. What an exciting experience in Nairobi. Completely different experience for an netizen. What is next?

  2. Pingback: A workshop with Kenya Red Cross | Grabber

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