Saturday, 18 August 2012

My latest art acquisition: sea horse sculpture

Today, I met Manfred Zbrzezny, an "artistic blacksmith," from Germany who has been living and working in Liberia since 2004. Manfred offers his services as a black smith, welder and also has a "arms into art" project. 

Manfred was over at our office today to show us his "arms into art" collection. There were bottle openers, book ends, and candle holders. All of these were fashioned out of guns like AK 47's. 

I loved all the art but ended up buying a sea horse sculpture. Here's a picture:

I also visited the Fyrkuna website. Fyrkuna is apparently a Norse word that relates to the art of forging metals. The website is worth visiting. 

While Manfred was here, Haresh and I talked to him about Kitengela in Nairobi and showed him pictures of that eccentric artist's studio. He was quite inspired and said he's also looking to make his base out of Monrovia more attractive for visitors. 

Liberia needs more artists, foreign or local, to bring a bit of soul to this place. 

Friday, 17 August 2012

Photo Shoot at NATC

NATC commissioned a photo shoot of its good looking and hardworking team against the backdrop of our modern and stylish office. The photos were taken on Wednesday, 15 August by Cachelle Ink.

Getting a professional to come in and capture one's office, staff, and the whole vibe is so worth it. We will be using these photos for many many purposes: our website (as we really need to update ours), our blog, our Facebook page, our company flyer and profile and all our proposals and bids.

The head shots really look fantastic. 

They are all on our Facebook page and you can see them here. Here are some of my favourite ones:

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

What's the secret to long-lasting relationships?

I chanced upon two very different articles on the theme of modern day relationships. Both are incidentally in the Guardian

This one talks about an upcoming book by Catherine Hakim, The New Rules of Marriage. Apparently, British society is too strait-laced when it comes to infidelity and if it accepted affairs more often, marriages would last longer. Interesting argument. 

I never knew that British society was so strait-laced in comparison to the Mediterranean ones where apparently affairs are treated with laissez-faire and flexible attitudes! I usually lump Western society together. I know off hand that American society is probably more conservative than so-called old-world Europe but where divorce rates are quite high. I seem to read different articles that Europe has in fact replaced marriage and that people are rejecting this institution for its legal and moral self-righteousness. At the same time, one also reads articles about a return to religious values, marriages and so-called family values. Which is true?

I suppose there are multiple trends happening at the same time. One could say something as cliche as modern and traditional forces are always in tension. 

I wonder whether the question to ask here is whether or not we should be more flexible with marriages but how relevant the institution of marriage still is. Why get married? How important is it to have the big wedding? What does a marriage mean, in the end? A piece of paper? And, how can we differentiate these questions for women and men?

The second article is a commentary on the political-economy of modern relationships and social status with regards to capitalism: "

Ewan Morrison: what I'm thinking about ... why capitalism wants us to stay single."

It is completely opposite to the analysis in the first article. 

I think the introduction of this article says it all: "We like to think we're free in the free market; that we're beyond the forces of advertising and social manipulation by market forces. But there is a new social trend - the rise of 'the single person' as model consumer - that presents us with a paradox. What we once thought of as radical - staying single - may now be reactionary."

I found this statistic very interesting: "Singles consume 38% more produce, 42% more packaging, 55% more electricity and 61% more gas per capita than four-person households, according to a study by Jianguo Liu of Michigan State University. "

According to the article, capitalism has been cashing in on social changes. Apparently, "Being single, has since the 60s been seen as a radical choice, a form of rebellion against bourgeois capitalist conformism."  Capitalism has caught up and is now focusing on the single consumer. 

I'm not sure whether I entirely agree with that. There's a huge wedding industry in Europe and the US. People still spend a lot of money on getting hitched and showing it off to the whole world. There is still a lot of pressure on people to copulate and make it legal. There is also a huge divorce industry that cashes in on people separating and their assets. 

What do you think? How much farther do you think we will stretch our notions of relationships, marriages or even friendships? Is it a matter of learning, un-learning and teaching ourselves what suits us best? Are our notions outdated and do we need to constantly evolve? And how much of a role do market forces play in social status? 

A more diplomatic version

I recently wrote a blog entry on frustrations of running an IT company in Liberia. It was entitled "From Euphoria to Despair to Positive Realism: Almost Three Years Into Running an IT Company in Liberia". 

Since it was more about my specific staff blues and lest I present a too negative a picture of what the actual situation is at the company, I wrote a more diplomatic version for the company blog. It is entitled "How Important is Spelling to Your Business" and you can find it here

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

My 33rd birthday party!

Ever since I have turned 30, I have found a new-found desire to celebrate my birthdays. Who says you can't have your cake and eat it, too? Who says only kids get to have birthday parties, I asked Haresh, who thinks it's childish to celebrate birthdays after the age of 10? We all need an excuse to socialise and invite friends, acquaintances and 'who's that' over once in a while and no time is better than a birthday! As we get older and wiser, we might as well make a big deal out of it. 

So, I turned 33 yesterday and decided to celebrate by hosting a party on our rooftop terrace garden. Here's some of the pictures:

The place was lit with candles and against the backdrop of the Monrovia sky line - a very generous word to describe the few odd light bulbs - it was quite cozy and romantic. 

We remembered to bring up the cake only until the last few people were there but it was still nice to blow out the candles and cut it. And, now there's more cake for us. Yay!

I also got some nice gifts and it was nice to see all the loot I received. 

It was a nice group, with some old friends and some new ones. 

I hope the friends who are not on Facebook appreciate me making the effort to put up these pictures on the blog.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

From Euphoria to Despair to Positive Realism: Almost three years into running an IT company in Liberia

From Euphoria to Despair to Positive Realism: Almost three years into running an IT company in Liberia

Pure, unadulterated euphoria characterised the first phase of my career as an entrepreneur. I had decided to take over the business of my late boyfriend and was full of hope and commitment. The model I had inherited was structured around Liberian IT Technicians, trained by the founder of the company, and Liberian Administrative staff. After working for more than 5 years in a dysfunctional and skewed UN industry, it was liberating to work with Liberians on a more equal basis. They were not "beneficiaries" of badly-run aid projects nor "national staff" who earned 10 times a lower salary than me. In the IT company, they were persons whom I depended on to make the business work and I had finally entered a more real relationship with Liberians. We were going to make money together!

Almost three years into it, I feel some of my euphoria is melting away into dire frustration. I suppose a euphoria cannot be sustained anyway and the ideal emotional state to be in should be one of positive realism.

But meanwhile, a lot of my dissatisfaction has to do with the fact that I am now coming face to face with the limitations of my staff.

I inherited reasonably well trained staff in both IT and Admin and grown to really believe that training and a good nurturing environment will produce a stellar and loyal team. I was wrong.

A year into it, I lost 4 decent IT technicians since their egos had become bigger than mine. I think it was the first crack in my euphoric bubble but it did not really burst it. I found an experienced technician to head the team and since then, we have been handling the the clients to date.

So, where are we now?

Currently, we have 1 experienced and skilled technician heading our Tech Department supported by a junior technician who happens to be a young woman. We also have a trainee who is learning IT from scratch. Therefore, I have a 3-member team to manage my service contracts and ad hoc requests for support and repairs.

So, what is it that I am so frustrated with? Not only do I have a very small team and attempts to hire additional team members have been quite useless but I am up to my neck with technical and professional gaps of my staff.

Let me explain some of my pet peeves:

* Very weak communication skills
1) Extremely poor written and spoken language skills so much so my staff can't even spell! 
Here are some classics by our head of IT at NATC:
   "Printer and UPS will be chick by the end of week"
   " I when online to do some research on how to solve this problem"
   " So I ask Jerry to send a test print, the printer, printed well without any error massage. I was ask by    
     Jarry and Jacobu to chick the printer, because when I leave then the problem can start."

2) The tech team cannot explain in technical terms solutions they apply to problems. Call Logs (forms used to record what was done on site or in our workshop) sound like quack prescriptions for a diseased person and not a faulty piece of hardware. 

     "HP Colour Laserjet 5550dn still give 13.09.00 paper jam error. This was because of the cover that  
      are covering four cartridge roller, they are all weak."

I cringe to think we are getting away with these call logs.

3) When on site or away on an errand, they refuse to answer their phones because it was waaaay in their purse or it was not charged or they left it at their office. 

4) You never get the full story or feedback - there's always something left out or forgotten which needs to be dug out skillfully like an archaeologist. If I am trying to figure out why I received a complaint from a disgruntled client, I will get a flimsy explanation about a particular situation, and it's only after conducting a 1-hour extraction discussion, that I would get to the bottom of it. 

5) I have done the Saturday spelling classes. I have even had an experienced English teacher come in and conduct English classes. See the entry on the NATC blog. I have had lengthy 'workshop - meetings' to go over techniques on how to write concise logs and reports. What has it achieved? Not much I am afraid except for supreme frustration. I think I have just reached the limitations of my staff.

* Inability to accept criticism, improve, make progress and move on
The staff cannot handle criticism. What will happen if you point out a mistake? It will be met with anything ranging from the most fantastical excuse to wounded looks. I swear to God, it sometimes feels like one is a school teacher scolding a toddler. It is exasperating! 

What seems to work right now is a bit of hot and cold, a bit of good cop/bad cop routine to keep everyone in line. No, I'm not talking about running a military camp but running an IT company in Liberia. 

I know I am only meant to be talking about my staff here, but I notice that the Liberian counterparts at our international clients also suffer from some grand illusion about themselves. At least my staff try to come up with a good excuse for having goofed up or trying to negotiate their way through a mess but our clients pull out the race card! Recently, we were labelled racists for pointing out that the contract between our organisations was being disregarded. And I know all of those air-headed, self-righteous buggers are corrupt to their noses and enjoying juicy commissions left and right. 

* Lack of attention to details, severe lack of logic, stories of terminating cables with teeth instead of tools, and serious errors in judgement

I am at this juncture where I am always second guessing the service that is rendered on site by our IT team. It is not a nice position to be in. Is it the right solution? Did we do it efficiently and effectively? Was the client satisfied? Were we able to communicate what we did? Why are our clients complaining all the time? Why did we have to go back 3-4 times to rectify a job after it was completed and handed over? 

Since I am not a trained IT engineer, you can imagine how frustrated, on-the-edge I am usually am. Three years down the line, I imagined I'd be in a much stronger and confident position. 

It seems my staff do not follow a plan but try to do everything at the same time. I have to yell over and over again: write things down, make a list of ongoing jobs, and do follow ups. 

I sometimes analyse the Call Logs my staff have written and, know that the problem was only half solved and they forgot an important, glaring step in the analysis.

What have I learned?

Well, the experience with the defection of 4 IT Technicians - all of them personally trained by Wesley, including open source which is rare to find in Liberia or anywhere for that matter - taught me a pricey and painful lesson. The head of the team's head had grown bigger than Ducor Hotel. I had lavished him with a surprise birthday party in his honour, even inviting a few of our clients and openly praising him in front of them. I increased his and his colleagues' salaries at least three times over. I would bring them gifts if I returned from a trip. Haresh gave him a $ 400.00 phone as a gift - that is even before Haresh joined NATC. It all went into his head and bloated his ego to a point where he disobeyed instructions and then walked out of the company, dragging everyone with him and sabotaged our business. 

I have since learned to have a very professional relationship with my staff including even the administration folks. I keep my distance and stop myself from going out of the way. 

I have decided to increase salaries only once a year. Even recently, I made a dire mistake of increasing the salary of the head of the IT team to a very handsome level but only to see him making one goof up after another, and in the process almost messing up one of our most important contracts. 

It is good to make rules very clear and enforce them! Haresh my business partner and who heads all the operations loves to give everyone fourth, fifth and sixth chances but that only creates a sub standard operating environment. 

Always be on one's toes and keep an eye on what kind of work is being produced on site and at the office. I usually get a good idea of it by checking the files and attendance records, the daily cash book, the call logs, and e-mails from clients. If you don't like what you see, do something about it!

Being nice does not get you anywhere. I am here to develop and nurture a world-class IT company in the most challenging of places. For me to achieve that, I need to really think long term and build a great team. I don't have time for people who are here to waste my time. I don't have the patience for incompetent fools. And, I am kind of tired of teaching my staff how to spell. 

Our supplies side of the business is doing well thanks to Haresh.  He is even back stopping the IT staff. He has even picked up a lot of IT himself. There is more than enough business to go around and it is good we are sourcing and supplying quality goods. It makes us good money.  But I have learned that I am still very bent on creating an excellent company that provides IT services.

Positive Realism

During my spare time, I day dream about creating a West African IT Empire. I see myself as a tycoon lady in the next ten years. In the next couple of years, I would like to establish an NATC branch in the next upcoming city in Liberia, maybe Buchanan. In the next five years, I'd like to have an office next door in Sierra Leone. 

How will I achieve these dreams? 

Great companies create a niche for themselves. Great companies manufacture and brand. Similarly, a great services company needs to invent a service that is unique and tailored to the environment it operates in. That is what I need to focus on. How do I create a unique, rapid-response and tailored IT service for my clients in West Africa? What kind of a business model do I need to work on? 

A good business model needs to rely on local resources, especially human ones. Sure, I can't give up on my Liberian staff. In fact, I need to hire a bigger team. But, with the kind of dire educational and professional vacuum we have in this country, I need to get outside help to help me build that team and to streamline procedures and introduce new technologies. 

I'm on the look out for good local and international staff. It has been a very challenging process and I am still nowhere with it. But I keep trying and let's hope I crack this challenging part of running an IT company in Liberia. 

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

A holiday in Nairobi

Haresh and I came to Nairobi for one of those as-they-say "much deserved" holiday. We thoroughly earned this holiday, we thoroughly deserved it and therefore, and sent ourselves on one.

Here are the highlights!

With KQ and back

Kenya Airways flies directly from Monrovia to Nairobi with a 45-minute stop over in Accra during which passengers are not asked to exit the plane which makes it more or less a seamless flight. At least there's no hassles of getting on and off the flight, struggling with hand bags and feeling compelled to shop at the airport boutiques.

The flight is around 8 hours long. It's not a jumbo jet and the passengers do not get individual TV screens with personal entertainment. The seats are also kind of old. They have those drop down TV screens which plays a programmed set of movies. Quite boring to say the least. The food is passable - like all airline food is.

The flight to Nairobi was not that boring since we were traveling with Haresh's cousin's wife, their daughter, and a friend of theirs who has two daughters. We tried to help them with the children as much as we could. We also met someone who is associated with Liberia. He kept regaling us with gossip throughout the night (after the kids went to sleep). He kept pretending that he had already told us too much but between his gin and tonics, he would pinky swear us to secrecy. I would say, "Oh gosh, really??! What happened next?" Our friend would stop and dramatically exlaim, "No, I have told you too much and you're going to tell everyone." Haresh would tell me to wait and he would spill the beans himself. This kept going on for several hours. It was quite entertaining but the passengers in the seat in front of us kept "Shshshshshs"-ing us. We felt like the unruly kids at the back of the classroom. In fact, another person in our row told the lady that she was not a kindergarten teacher and had no right to "Shshshshsh" us.

Enjoying my friend's beautiful home

My friend is a former UNDP-Liberia colleague of mine. I know her since at least 2005 if memory serves me right. We have shared some great moments together and she's always been there for me, as a friend, as a mentor and a confidante. Jenny always gave me a glowing reference whenever I needed it - for a job application and also for when I was applying for masters programmes in 2008. I used to be so surprised to see such excellent observations about me, especially since my immediate supervisor hardly seemed to care about my career. She was always there when I threw a dinner party with a nice bottle of wine or snacks. And, she was there for me when Wesley passed away. In fact, she was one of the first people to send me a message and offered me a place to stay when I heard the news in London. I remember one evening during that traumatic time when I stayed over at hers after I got back to Monrovia and was in the midst of organising the funeral: Jenny made me a delicious meal with a decadent desert and didn't allow me to get up while she mothered me. We watched a touching movie from New Zealand: "Whale Rider."

I'll always cherish her and the unconditional support she has lent me over the years. I feel like tearing up thinking about it now but how lucky are we who have loving and understanding friends. 

And of course, I love Jenny's company, and admire her sense of style and independence. There's so many common experiences of UNDP and Liberia that can keep us going for hours. 

Her house in Nairobi is in Kitisuru, a quiet and leafy neighbourhood, gated and secured. 

I have said it already but I love her sense of style: her home is elegant but also very cozy. It's mainly whites and creams. Who can pull that off except in home decorating magazines? Jenny has picked up the most stylish pieces of art and souvenirs to decorate her home. In fact, I started copying her and tried to look for the same kind of things when I was out shopping. After all, mimicry is the best form of flattery!

The house is situated in a forest and one can see birds of all colours and plumage all day long and enjoy their sing song.  There also other bird calls that one can hear from afar, echoing throughout the forest. I enjoyed just sitting on the balcony, dozing off and on on the plush pillows and cushions, and soaking up the bird concert.

The house also overlooks a magnificent terraced garden and there's flowers everywhere, the kinds of flowers one doesn't see in tropical Liberia. 

Jenny's home was full of fresh flowers and when I first got there, I kept wondering what the intoxicating and comforting smell emanating throughout the home was until I realised it was flowers! 

The air was fresh and cool and, I loved the fresh crispy cool weather, a welcome change from Liberia, where although we are in the rainy season, it never gets crisp and dry.

I also loved the windows - large ones like these overlooking a garden just give a different feel to a home.

Meeting baby elephants at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

Jenny loves animals and through her we were introduced to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. In fact, this is one of the top 10 things to do according to Time. Jenny was going to take us to the evening feeding time where only foster parents and those willing to make contributions to the work that the Trust was doing would be allowed. Jenny told us that it was really a special experience, to see the keepers bring in the baby elephants after a day in the bush, see them get fed and then fall asleep.

We got there just before 5 PM after having spent the afternoon at Kitengela. The Orphanage is located right inside the National Park in Nairobi.

We waited for the keepers to let us through the gate. While we were waiting, we kept hoping not many other visitors would come but alas, more and more cars pulled into car park and a crowd of tourists, including children, piled up waiting to go in with us.

Well, we did not let it spoil our mood or, rather, enchantment. The baby elephants were very cute, especially the littlest ones, who were less than a year old. The little blankets they had on made them look just like little babies, which they are actually. We just couldn't stop making our "Awwww's" and "How cuteeeeee" exclamations. There is something about cute babies - human or animal - which makes us melt.

We watched them being led back into their cages and rooms, each drinking bottles of formulated milk, and eat leaves. The idea was to meet all the elephants, meet the keepers and then, choose an elephant one could foster.

There was also a blind rhino who cannot be released into the wild because of its disability. He kept circling the cage.

Haresh and I decided to adopt an elephant named Kilabasi. I was close to her cage and tried to touch her trunk but she got quite annoyed. I knew it had to be Kilabasi, then!

Jenny told us that if you blow up the elly's trunk, it will remember you forever. Haresh tried to do it, but the elephant would have none of it.

Jenny was much more adept with the ellies or shall we say the ellies found her to be more of a kindred spirit!

You can read up on each individual elephant on the Trust's website. For instance, Kilabasi's history is  here.

What touched us the most was the keepers' dedication and commitment. The elephants are not left alone, in fact, the keepers sleep with them. Lest the babies get too attached to any one keeper, the keepers are rotated.g.

Jenny tells us she is so fascinated with elephants or 'ellies' as she likes to call them and reads the updates on the website with great interest. In fact, we did not need the guide at all since she could tell us something about every 'elly' herself. One harrowing story was about an 'elly' which had stepped onto a poisoned spike and in the process broke one of her hips. She was only now almost fully recovered.

We have all heard of poaching for ivory and how many elephants are mercilessly killed every year to feed human desire for these animal teeth, which in modern times should have given way to a more human treatment of animals. To hear, read and even watch on TV the horrors of poaching is compelling. But seeing victims of poaching - such as injured elephants or orphaned babies - drives the point even more home.

I wonder how much of a dent conservation and advocacy makes in what is probably a very organised crime network. But at least there are organisations staffed with passionate and committed people willing to care and nurture the victims. It is a humbling thought and should inspire everyone to still try to do something against the odds.

I really appreciate this note of admonishment against the ivory trade on the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust website:

Every piece of ivory is a haunting memory of a once proud and majestic animal that should have lived three score years and ten; who has loved and been loved, and was once a member of a close knit and loving family akin to our own, but who has suffered and died to yield a tusk for a trinket.
Every elephant that dies leaves family and loved ones that have grieved deeply, the dependent young doomed to die an agonising death in terror and lonely isolation.

It is also interesting to note what the Trust has to say about zoos and circuses: "The Trust continues an aggressive Public Relations campaign internationally to outlaw both the trade in Ivory forever also ban the cruel trade in live elephants shipped from Africa to foreign lands for exhibition purposes in Zoos and Circuses." 

I have never been crazy about zoos either since most of the 'exotic' animals displayed there are have either been shipped in or have been bred in captivity simply for the pleasure of human beings. There are arguments for zoos - that at least endangered or nearly extinct animals are given a chance to continue existing. However, it could also be said that we should instead focusing on protecting animals in their natural habitat and do whatever we can to protect them and their environments so we are more at harmony with our planet. 

I suppose I have more to read and learn about but at least it is a start. I take such an interest in politics but I also seem to get equally fired up environmental issues. I guess there's a tree hugger in me after all! 

We ended that day with a memorable dinner at Talisman Restaurant in Karen. Jenny was raving about the feta cheese and coriander samosas and said her girlfriend who had visited her a couple of months back used to want to go back only for those samosas. They were as good as promised! The atmosphere was cozy and we had a table right next to the fireplace. There seemed to be a some important match going on - possibly rugby - and we could hear excited shouts coming from the bar. Funnily enough, one of the manic sports fan turned out to be the chef himself! He later came to advise a table of Americans (they could be Canadians but they kept asking the chef whether he'd ever been to New York so we assumed they were Americans) on his personal recommendations. What ensued was the typical restauranteur - chef flirtation which went on and on for the next 30 minutes. Jenny, Haresh and I kept rolling our eyes!

The restaurant also had an exhibition of paintings by Sudanese artist Yassir Ali.  

Morning walks in the Karura Forest

I went on two morning walks in the Karura Forest: once with Jenny and again, with Haresh. Haresh had actually gone to Mumbai for a day and, Jenny and I went on a walk in the Forest the same morning he was due to be back.

The trail we took was around the waterfall and the Mau Mau caves. Pictures we took around the waterfall made for some beautiful shots. The water cascading down the rocks looks like silk!

Haresh, of course, wanted to make daring poses and here's one of him. Notice my caption.

Haresh about to be sacrificed to King Kong's sister
The caves were fascinating since pre-historic man probably lived in them. Imagine! When Jenny showed them to me, I was in awe, tip toeing around the cave and trying to picture our ancestors huddling around fires and, speaking in a language long, long forgotten. We even talked about how ancient cave paintings seem so similar  - those brushstrokes, the natural paints and vibrant colours, stick figures, bison and animals - no matter which continent.

When I took Haresh on the same walk and showed him the caves, he started imagining the chiefs and  their multiple wives in typical male fashion. He even wanted me to take a picture of him right inside the cave. He stood at the very back of the cave and as I was about to take a photo, he startled some bats and yelled, "Bats!" We both ran out!

The walk takes an hour. I was really surprised how I couldn't keep up with Jenny when I was walking with her. I walk at least three times a week in central Monrovia - these walks are at least an hour long, if not more. But, I guess I am not as fit as I think am. Haresh was also much faster than me.

Here are some more pictures of the walks:

After the walk with Jenny the first time, she took me to a delightful cafΓ© in the Muthaiga Shopping Centre where we had a chocolate doughnut and excellent cappuccinos which hit the spot. We also got some quiche and onion and cheese breads for lunch at home. I saved their flyer since it is so cute!

Haresh had already arrived home and had taken a nap by the time we got home at 11 in the morning. We had a lovely lunch on Jenny's balcony and headed off to Kitengela.

Inside an artist's studio

One face looks out from all his canvases
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:
We found her hidden just behind those screens 
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress 
A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens 
A saint, an angel -- every canvas means 
The same one meaning, neither more nor less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him 
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.
             -- Christina Rossetti

Kitengela was a magical delight. Jenny had told us about this artist's place and glass factory which she had started frequenting since she had moved to Kenya. Not only had she purchased some beautiful unique pieces but also made a few under one of the artist's tutelage, including an ostrich egg clock. Apparently, this place welcomes anyone who wants to come and learn art. They have guest houses. In fact, one of Jenny's friends visiting from New Zealand stayed out there for about a month.

Kitengela is located close to the National Park and the drive to it from Jenny's place took us about an hour and a half on a Saturday afternoon. The road was dusty and bumpy but as we came close to the place, we were met with fantastical giant sculptures of cows and camels and other creatures. You can seem some of these pictures on the Kitengela website. I was too spell bound to take photos.

The place was so eccentric and charming. There were beautiful footpaths, brightly coloured huts and outhouses, a gorgeous turquoise swimming pool decorated with a three-headed dragon and a giant blue arm overlooking a gorge, and glass ornaments dotted everywhere.

We met the artists and their studios - just how they should be! There were two galleries where you could actually buy pieces of glass and paintings, one mounted as a tree house and one right below it with a mossy pond with bright goldfish. Most of the paintings were not even on sale, though. They were part of a personal collection.

I loved the atmosphere. I felt like abandoning my business pursuits and trying my hand at art itself. Haha!

We also saw the glass factory. Their products were beautiful and I especially love their drinking and wine glasses.

We also met Nani Croze, a lady from Germany, who first started working in Kitengela and the place has since flowered into the place that is today. From what I understand, her son is the one who creates the glass pieces under the Kitengela - Anselm name. Shops with this name were dotted all across the main shopping malls we visited. We met Nani's husband, Eric, who is also an artist. In fact, the gallery downstairs had two amazing caricutures of the couple.

Nani was surrounded by dogs of all sizes, a magnificent crane and a 32-year old vulture! The grey-haired, distinguished vulture was pottering around just like old folks do, you know how Grandpa does, with his arms folded on his back and thinking deeply to himself.

Shopping, eating, movie-buffing

I shopped to my heart's content during this trip. I bought new clothes, trinkets galore, and just random items. I love the local handiwork: wooden sculptures, bead work, leather products and trinkets fashioned out of items like bottle caps. Even the furniture and rattan pieces I saw displayed by the road sides were of exceptional quality.

We spent a lot of time at Westgate Mall since it was so close to Jenny's home. We also went once to Junction Mall as well as Village Market.

My favourite buys during this trip were a painting and a pair of red boots.

The painting was part of an exhibition by Tanzanian artist, Salum Kambi, at the Banana Hill Art Gallery on Limuru Road. The Gallery is owned and run by Kenyan artist Shine.  The exhibition is also advertised on Kenyabuzz website here.

The exhibition had some great pieces in oil: very strong brush strokes, subjects ranging from wildlife to ordinary people. I finally decided on a painting which features a guy checking his mobile phone. The colours are quite relaxed and there's some very natural about this person's pose. I think the artist has captured a very casual moment and it's quite universal.

Here's a picture of the painting:

The painting did cost me a pretty buck, even after I negotiated, which to my surprise I was able to do! In fact, I was connected to the artist Shine himself on phone so I could strike a bargain. I thought about thinking it over, going through the other scores of paintings in the back again, or even come back but decided to just go for it. I do not know whether it is going to become a masterpiece in the future but it is certainly interesting. I liked it because it has amazing strong lines and it has a quiet universal appeal to it.

The reason I am singling out my red boots is they are striking and extremely comfortable. They also make a cool 'tak tak' sound and I love that.

Generally, shopping was fun in Nairobi because they have quite a few malls where one can spend the day at. There's such a variety of shops with local brand names. I loved soaking up the atmosphere, especially at Westgate Mall. It's not huge but big enough to have a nice day at. I couldn't get enough of the iced coffees from Art CaffΓ©.

I was only able to catch 2 movies at the cinema even though I had planned to watch every single movie that was playing in the cinemas. I watched the Bollywood flick "Cocktail" twice, once with Haresh and once alone. It was surprisingly very entertaining. The other one was "Snow White and the Huntsman." It was not as brilliant as I thought it would be judging by the trailer - and I'm usually very astute at judging trailers.

"Cocktail" was high energy, had some great moments and some great music including a Pakistan Coke Studio song by Arif Lohar! I think the main attraction was Deepika Padukon. Not only is she breathtaking beautiful in a unselfconscious manner but she was extremely edgy. The part where she breaks down in the night club was extremely unnerving and touching. I don't know why great cinema is made when a character disintegrates on the screen but it does. I also loved the hilarious chemistry between Saif Ali Khan's amma and mamoon: Dimple and Bomani Irani.

If I didn't know from personal experience, I wouldn't believe that a desi fresh off the boat would fit into London. But, I have seen my little pimple-faced sister fit so quickly into London life as if she were living there all her life. I remember my awkward, incredibly gawky and shy undergraduate years more than 10 years ago and I was only able to comfortably agree with London during my graduate year at SOAS much later.

Snow White played by Kristen Stewart was quite a forgettable role. Sure, she was beautiful, white as snow and all that but I was not really impressed. I was surprised by the Joan of Arc interpretation of this role and frankly it was boring. To see Snow White dressed up in armour leading an army of heroes against the evil queen seemed like a B-class rip off of medieval period films. What exactly was going on?

Snow White wakes up after being kissed by the huntsman played by Chris Hemsworth, her true love. She goes on to shriek and scream - I guess it was meant to be a rallying call for a good cause - at everyone around her and inspire them to go and fight for their freedom. What follows is a scene similar to the opening of "Saving Private Ryan", you know the soldiers crashing on shore. Well, I don't know why it reminded me of that. The scene shows Snow White leading her heroes all on horses across the beach towards the castle where they are going to fight the evil Queen. The last bit of the movie really became a Joan of Arc meets the Crusades meets Saving Private Ryan "beach scene" meets everyone is looking so dirty and gritty and depressed.

I think the best performance was Charlize Theron and her scarred brother. Charlize's evil performance was brilliant and fearful. Although, I wish she did not drag out her dialogues so much as if she were talking in slow motion.

 The cork and the wine bottle trick

Jenny had invited her neighbour, a wonderful Indian lady working with a UN Agency, for dinner the very first night we reached Nairobi. It was quite nice to meet and mingle with her and share our stories from Pakistan and India.

Well, Haresh can never resist showing people his famous cork and wine bottle trick. I was helping Jenny with cleaning up and heard him in the dining room huffing and puffing. Apparently, the trick didn't go as smoothly as it usually does. He eventually pulled out the cork but for most of the holiday, his neck was stiff, and he kept blaming me for it since I told him not to try it.

He also did another funny thing during this trip. He came back from Mumbai with a floral set of pajamas and tried to convince me it was unisex. It went into the wash after we came back to Monrovia. Catherine, our housekeeper, put the pajamas in my section of the wardrobe after washing and ironing them. Haresh was astounded!