Saturday, June 29, 2019

My Top Nairobi Service Recommendations

EDIT: I realized after posting that I had left off my favorite hair stylist and travel agent recommendations! I have now added them to the list.

As our departure date looms closer and closer, I want to make sure I share some of my favorite services so that others can enjoy! One of the fun parts about living in Kenya is that there's a "guy" or a "lady" for pretty much everything. For example: when my keyless fob for our car broke, I took it to the "car key guy" instead of the dealership on the other side of town. Here are a few of my top service recommendations:

  • Custom furniture: I love our furniture guy! Peter is so professional, comes to your house with photos and swatches so you can tell him exactly what you want, and charges a reasonable price. Our full outdoor furniture set of a couch, two armchairs, a coffee table, and cushions (pictures above) was 45,000 KES (~$450) total and looks much nicer than other furniture guys' work that we've seen. His number is 0716 178 335.
  • Baked goods: I actually have three recommendations in the "baked goods" category. (Can you tell I have a sweet tooth?) First, there's Sonia who makes deliciously soft and chewy cookies. My favorite are the classic chocolate chip, but she also has red velvet with white chocolate and double chocolate cookies. Her number is 0739 605 652. Then, there's Felina, who makes great value cakes and cupcakes - perfect if you're having a party. She delivers, too! Her number is 0721 952 111. Finally, there's Gladys, a baker whose products are a little pricier and a bit out of the way in Lavington. She's known for her elaborately decorated and moist cakes - great for a themed event or work function. Her number is 0721 173 021.
  • Massage at the spa: A lot of expats here seem to prefer massages at home, but I like getting a full-body massage once a week (amazingly, the Foreign Service Benefit Plan health insurance covers this) at a spa, where I can immerse myself in the spa vibe and enjoy fruits and tea on the patio afterwards. Most of the time, I prefer Mwanzi at Serenity Spa Kitisuru because she tackles my knots in a way that isn't painful. Caveat: I usually prefer a gentler massage and find most of the come-to-your-house massage therapists too intense. Nevertheless, if I'm extra sore and need some tough love on my tense muscles, I'll book Beatrice at Serenity Spa Gigiri. Her massage is painful, but I always wake up the next day feeling better. Serenity's website is here.
  • Nails at your house: I did not even know professional manicures and pedicures could be done at home until I moved to Kenya. Since it's so much cheaper in Nairobi than the United States, I got my nails done all the time. I tried a variety of popular spas and salons, but nothing I found beats Philomena. She used to work at one of Nairobi's top spas as a nail technician but decided to go solo. For 900 KES (~$9), you can get a manicure or pedicure that is simply divine and includes a luxurious massage of your arms or legs. She comes with the nail tools - all you need is a basin to put your hands or feet in, a towel, and soap. She's punctual and also just a delightful person who can chat while she does your nails or let you read a book/study/take a nap. She just did my nails, shown in the photo at the end of this post. Her number is 0722 330 776.
  • Shawarma: Shawarma is a regular feature at expat parties here, and there are a number of "shawarma guys" around. We have a team of shawarma guys, though, who provide what we consider by far the most juicy and delicious shawarma of them all. Just make sure you let them know they need to come and set up early, before your event. (The set up takes a while.) Their number is 0722 527 778.
  • Catering: I know it's odd to have two Middle Eastern food recommendations in a post about best services in Nairobi, but Cedars Restaurant catering is worth it! They are super responsive to email, offer services for a great price, and can host events at their restaurant or provide food for another venue. They also have a large variety of options to accommodate dietary restrictions. Most importantly, their food is absolutely scrumptious. Check out their website here. You can call Cedars at 020 2710 399 or 0722 512 916. If you want something a little more customizable, you can also reach out to Joyce at Foodie Fix at 0722 444 916.
  • Hair: I have very limited hair requirements, but I tried a number of salons that market themselves for white people hair in Nairobi, and Kavita's is by far my favorite. She has a salon out of a home not far from the Spring Valley/Westlands area, provides a women's haircut for about $27 that includes a luxurious scalp massage during the shampoo, and gives my locks the voluminous blowout they need every time. She does color, highlights, and more elaborate treatments, too - I just can't speak to those because I don't get them. Her number is 0714 601 665, and you can see examples of her work on her Instagram here.
  • Travel agent: Of course, if you work at the U.S. Embassy you have access to a particular travel agency that can be hit or miss. So I'm delighted to share my recommendation for the best local travel agent you can find! Eunice is Kenyan, so she knows her way around and can get fantastic deals that won't rip you off, but she has also spent a lot of time in the United States or working with Americans and expats, so she can manage a diverse clientele with ease and cultural sensitivity. Although she is based in Nairobi, she has contacts across the tourism sector of Kenya and is happy to present you with multiple options tailored to your timing, budget, and any other preferences you might have. Eunice's number is 0729 426 691, and her email is [email protected]. You can also check our her company's Facebook page here.

I hope these service recommendations are helpful for anyone who is lucky enough to live in Nairobi. It's fun to enjoy some of these services we wouldn't necessarily have or afford back home, while supporting an entrepreneur doing great work. I wish I could take all of these wonderful people back to the United States with me! Let me know in the comments below if you have any favorite Nairobi-based service providers to share.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

"Acting": Not Entertainment, But Plenty of Improv

One of the reasons I haven't blogged in a few weeks is because I was Acting Public Affairs Officer (A/PAO) for several weeks. In the Foreign Service context, "Acting" means you're formally serving in a higher role in someone's place. This is why, between Secretaries of State Tillerson and Pompeo, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan became "Acting Secretary of State". Unlike simply covering for your boss in his or her absence in other fields, serving in an acting role is a bit more formalized in our work. You make the decisions that fall to someone in that position and assume their responsibilities. (And for our acronyms, you can add "A/" to the beginning to designate "Acting".)

I had served as Acting Information Officer (A/IO) and Acting Cultural Affairs Officer (A/CAO) before, but this time I was asked to be the Acting PAO (my boss's boss) for almost three weeks during the absence of the PAO, IO, and at the very end even briefly the CAO. I'm not going to lie - this was a real challenge! I had to figure out a lot of things on my own, but thankfully I had great mentors to encourage and support me. For example, I had to lead a murder board session to prepare the Ambassador for tough questions for an upcoming live interview, but I had never even sat in on or contributed to a murder board before. All I have to say on that is that the following is true: you have to fake it 'til you make it.

To get an idea of how many levels up I was working, you can see the Foreign Service salary table (which includes class, also known as grade, in the left column) here. Counterintuitively, the lower the grade number, the higher your rank. Like other Foreign Service Officers who have not yet been tenured, I am currently a grade 4. When I have served as A/IO or A/CAO, I've been filling grade 2 jobs - this is called a "double-stretch" because I "stretched" from grade 4 up two levels to grade 2. The A/PAO role I filled for a few weeks is actually one level above this chart in the Senior Foreign Service, which made it a quadruple-stretch for me!

I was delighted to receive my boss's text that she had returned to Kenya, which means she can now be A/PAO and I can focus on covering the many other portfolios of those who are out of the office. At the same time, I was grateful to be afforded this opportunity to take on a lot more responsibility than I have previously. As the PAO put it before he left: "We're giving you the keys to the car, so don't crash it!" I learned a lot by attending senior meetings, fielding and following up on inquiries from Washington, and trying to keep the car from crashing. Despite the extra stress and pressure, I'm glad I had the challenge and the chance to grow. (Plus, now I'm looking forward even more to the break of home leave just around the corner!)

Saturday, June 8, 2019

How to Donate Money

I've gotten a lot of questions from well-meaning loved ones back home asking how they can help and even where they can donate money when I share with them some of the poverty challenges we've seen among our friends in Kenya. To be honest, this is one of the hardest things to answer. A lot of the root causes of poverty are systemic, and one-time cash infusions aren't going to bring about systemic changes. I've also seen a number of families get a temporary influx from donations, only to return right back to where they started a few months later.

That being said, there are plenty of opportunities to make a massive impact in others' lives through charity in general. There are a few schools of thought when it comes to giving, too, that I've found helpful in considering when I'm trying to decide where to put my charity dollars each year. The first and most obvious one is to donate to causes that resonate with you personally. This was our logic when we donated to the Lung Cancer Alliance in lieu of favors for our wedding - we had both lost family members to lung disease. Most people have some issue they are passionate about, and it's almost guaranteed there's an organization working in that field that would be happy to receive your support.

Another line of thinking focuses on the idea of "lifting where you stand" and benefitting your geographic community as much as possible. Proponents of this argument say we need to fix our own neighborhoods before seeking out opportunities to improve lives halfway around the world. No matter how privileged your area is, there are certainly people in the region who could use your help. In the very well-off northern Virginia county where M and I were, for example, there are a number of people struggling with poverty, homelessness, and unemployment. Nonprofits like Britepaths help individuals and families around our hometown get back on their feet with short-term support and an eye towards long-term stability. It's definitely worth looking to see what opportunities there are to donate where you come from or where you live.

Last but not least, there's a practical philosophy called effective altruism. The idea behind effective altruism is that the most ethical way to spend our limited resources (including charity money) is to maximize the benefit to humanity. This seems to be typically measured in the literal number of lives saved. If this appeals to you, I highly recommend checking out GiveWell's list of recommended charities, all of which have passed through a very stringent analysis process. Every one of their top charities would benefit substantially from additional donations and are demonstrably saving lives. It was through GiveWell that we found and donated to GiveDirectly, an organization supporting cash transfers to a subset of those living in extreme poverty in Kenya and Uganda. It's one of the most thoroughly researched charity programs I've ever seen, which gave us confidence that our money would make a difference.

Regardless of where you decide to donate, I do recommend taking a rigorous look at the recipient organizations you're considering. Do they monitor and evaluate their programs? Do they report honest results to the public? Do they terminate programs or cut off recipients when they find fraud or abuse? Do they keep administrative overhead minimal? Do most of your dollars go to the intended recipients or to advertising and other indirect costs? Do the leaders get huge paychecks? These are the types of questions I've found the most crucial. (In the United States, Charity Navigator can provide answers to many of these, especially for prominent charities. And Charity Navigator will take donations, too, to continue their work helping people give. How meta is that?)

There are so many hardworking charities changing lives around the world every day that could really benefit from the donations of those of us who are privileged enough to consider it. I hope this post has been helpful in illuminating some of the ways to start thinking about what might be the best way for you to give. If you have any other thoughts or tips for things that have helped you decide how to donate your money, please feel free to share them in the comments below!

(P.S. I can't discuss this topic without sharing one of my favorite hymns. I still remember what a huge impact it had on me the first time I heard it, and it so perfectly symbolizes the deep love, care, and concern we should have for all of our fellow human beings. You can check it out here.)