The past two weeks have been full of movement. A weekend in Zanzibar, meeting my lovely friend Liz; a week at the Pre-Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi; an hour moving from the cottage on Kimweri to an apartment down the road; another week adjusting to these changes and digesting it all.

Although these places are relatively proximate, they felt worlds apart. The differences between Nairobi and Dar were particularly stark. As we drove from the Nairobi airport to our hotel, I could only gawk at the cleanly paved highway and its brightly lit billboards. Most signs welcomed President Obama; all were spaced at perfect intervals. Our hotel also seemed shiny: it had dust-free hardwood floors; it had an Olympic-sized swimming pool; it had Wi-Fi that could download 30 songs in 10 minutes! It felt more like the US. But it felt strangely unfamiliar, and that felt unsettling.

The next morning — after a lovely workout in the rust-free, air-conditioned gym — Doreen and I ubered to the Kenya International Convention Center (KICC). DVDs, a speaker, and extension cords filled my backpack. I also wedged a rolled-up poster into my water bottle pouch, so when I wore the backpack, the poster stuck three feet into the air. It was a flag of sorts, notifying all attendees that a crazy Chinese-American was on her way to the exhibition. If that wasn’t enough, I was also lugging around a 20-pound television monitor. I greatly entertained the security team as I hobbled in and out of the exhibition — TV in hand, flag waving high.

The Pre-GESB Exhibition at the KICC (if you couldn’t tell from the picture :))
The booths and the crowd
Ubongo’s Booth. That huge TV monitor went to great use!

Our booth for Ubongo Kids was among thousands of East African organizations, ranging from coding academies to soap shops to the Ministry of Education. I stood behind the Ubongo booth and pitched our company for 8 hours that day. “We are a social enterprise that produces an edutainment cartoon. Education in East Africa is boring and based on rote memorization, so our mission is to inspire a love of learning.” I shouted this pitch to many passers-by, projecting above the exhibition’s buzz and strangely taking on a Kenyan-English accent. Whenever Doreen left the booth to go to the bathroom or grab us food, I pitched our “made in Africa, for Africa” startup on my own. Some attendees looked at me skeptically, as if to say, “really? How would you know that our education system is boring and based on rote memorization?” Another person quizzically asked, “So… is the cartoon produced in China? Do you translate it from Chinese to Swahili?”

As I walked around the fair by myself, I was received more enthusiastically. A Chinese-looking woman with an American accent? Many businesspeople presumed that I had money to invest, or knew people who did. They’d call me off of the red carpet (there was literally a red carpet running down the aisle, which President Kenyatta had walked down hours before). They’d eagerly show me their candles or software or product, telling me that they needed investors. On one occasion, a woman in the bathroom gave me toilet paper and her business card as I entered the stall. She told me that I should email her later for more details on her company’s round of investment.

We closed the day with a swanky cocktail mixer. It felt like any other networking event in Silicon Valley, though the entertainers were Masai warriors. I returned to the comfortable hotel afterwards, relieved that the driver delivered me safely, excited that I could sleep without mosquito nets or bug spray.

With the same dancers who performed for Obama! The photographer insisted that we pose with them.

The next day was the same exhibition, though this time I left without Doreen. As I waited at the curb for our driver, two “government officials” pulled up next to me, trying to coax me into their car. “Where are you staying? That looks heavy! Is that a TV? Let us give you a ride!” They stepped closer and closer, and I thanked the good lord that it was light outside with plenty of alert people around. “Be careful — the people in this city… they take your wallet, take your computer, then they take you!” the warning from our booth neighbor rang loud in my head. As my driver pulled up, I nearly dove into his minivan.

I flew home early the next day, longing for the mobility, familiarity, and safety of Dar es Salaam. Nairobi’s business district had been shiny, and home-like with its overpriced malls and wonderful restaurants. But after a month in Dar, I’d become too adjusted too fond of roadside fruit stands and ever-present bajajs to enjoy the luxury of Nairobi’s business district. As our plane landed, I felt relieved and content. I felt like I was coming home. But as our car journeyed home, I also felt a bit confused — perhaps more culture shocked than when I first landed.

A recent Stanford grad commences her exploration of the world; shares her musings, mistakes, and “insights” here. First stop: summer in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

A recent Stanford grad commences her exploration of the world; shares her musings, mistakes, and “insights” here. First stop: summer in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania