Leaders, Lake Victoria and Learning

April 20, 2012

It’s Monday morning and I’m back in Nairobi airport, this time in domestic departures. I’m heading for Kisumu for the next four days to work on a project with the fishing communities around Lake Victoria. The plane will be making an unscheduled stop in Eldoret but will only add 15 minutes to this short journey high above the Rift Valley. It’s 9.30am when we arrive and as we walk across the tarmac to the small terminal building a guy asks me if I’ve lost a black iPhone. I assure him I haven’t but check my hand luggage where I packed it in Nairobi airport and sure enough it’s not there. The camera and small phone are but no iPhone. I dash back to the plane but alas it’s nowhere to be seen and of course the guy is gone too. I guess it was a decoy and he must have seen me pack it in the airport. Strangely my iPhone is rarely out of my sight as I’m addicted to all that it offers, so no idea why on this occasion I decided to pack it in the hand luggage and store it in the overhead bin. Oh well, it’s only a phone I tell myself.

Declan and Renewable World East Africa Programme Manager arriving in Kisumu

Kisumu reminds me of small towns in the US circa 1960’s as pick-up truck line both sides of the main street which hums with commercial activity. We’re staying at the Kisumu hotel just across the road from Maseno University, City Campus, where we will spend the next two days in project planning meetings. The hotel is actually owned and operated by the university as an alternative source of revenue and it has a very colonial feel to it.

I excuse myself from the early part of the meeting and set about sorting out the phone situation. Suffice to say Vodafone do not make this an easy task, particularly when calling from abroad. When I eventually make contact with Vodafone insurance they are adamant that they are not going to make this easy and offer absolutely no flexibility. Someone said large companies don’t really care about the customer. Welcome to the case study.
The meeting is being chaired by Prof Eric Odada whose impressive CV includes advising Kofi Annan and Mary Robinson. He also hails from the area and as such is very excited about the prospect of delivering real long term change for the fishing communities. Renewable World East Africa Programme Manager Paolo has drawn up the agenda and after initial introductions all round the meeting continues with more detailed presentations from each of the stakeholders.

Stakeholder meeting with all partners involved in the Lake Victoria Fishing Villages Project

The Renewable World policy is to work with local partners as this is the route to successful capacity building. As there are more academics in the room than an episode of University Challenge Reunited the exchanges are rather verbose to say the least. Nonetheless progress is made and the sense of excitement about the project is palpable. This is my first business meeting in East Africa so it is interesting to note the level of formality as everyone addresses each other using Professor or Dr. Paolo and I feel inadequate with mere Christian names.
The real issues of the delivery of development aid are quickly becoming apparent to me as I hear of the many failed attempts to assist these communities. This will certainly not be a quick fix solution and although finance is essential, it is not all that is needed to make it work. This group represents only some of the stakeholders and on Wednesday and Thursday we are scheduled to meet with members of the Beach Management Units in nine different villages around Lake Victoria.

Pastor Gilbert gives a rather understated presentation yet I have a sense that he has a deep understanding of these communities. He has in fact spent Sunday visiting all of them to advise of our impending information gathering tour. His words of warning to us are that we will be offering something to these people that has already been tried before and failed – the entry point is therefore critical. We must know and articulate exactly what we are planning to do for them, he says. There is a PR strategy and as the role of the church is very important around the Lake, it is important to involve them. Although the Pastor is a Seventh Day Adventist, he has seen the success of projects where all different churches combine in the interest of the wider community. The church has a history of effective information dissemination and is already interacting with the people on energy and development issues.

Fishing villages on Lake Victoria

Lake Victoria is an area steeped in politics and the local politicians will be looking for their own personal gain and will want to be associated with a successful project. It’s good to inform and involve them from the start. Leaving out the village chief, the politician or the local councillor can lead to the destruction of the project. Professor Odada comments: ‘Of course, these are leaders, its human. Also let them debate between themselves and don’t get involved. Give the credit to them and it will make it work. A simple thank you for being received in their community makes a huge difference’.

Osienala will be the technical partner on the project and Prof Othieno offers his views from many years of experience working in this area. The government is very strong he says and NGO’s are very confusing in terms of their communication because of the inconsistency of their delivery. They come and go. Some raise expectations then fail to perform. They call to the chief or school and hand out leaflets or give meals then disappear.

Othieno says communities have many problems and they may not prioritise them on paper but they do know and it is up to you to find out. Your entry point will be your success – Know What They Know. There are lots of sub groups in the community leading up to the chief. It is important to know people of influence and also to be aware of the NGS’s active in the area and what they are doing. Make sure not to be confused.

This has been such an informative day. The complexity of the issue and the need for a measured approach is critical. I must suspend my Western ways to listen and learn.