What you can get for $50 [repost]

So I was phoneless in Kenya…

After my iPhone took a dive onto the floor of my shower room (showers have their own rooms in Nairobi), it finally powered off for good.

The shower incident was this particular phone’s second aquatic misadventure, and despite a full recovery that lasted nearly a month, it stopped charging properly and I judged it good and dead this time.

So I was phoneless in Kenya, where people buy SIM cards and phones separately, and don’t buy longterm contracts like we do in the States. This meant that a new iPhone would cost out-of-pocket nearly $1000.

I had to get some kind of phone, though, because Uber or Taxify apps are really the only way to get around without a car, especially at night, unless you have a “guy,” a word which here means someone you trust to drive you around at all hours and who can usually take your calls.

People have a different “guy” (see also: “fundi”) for every need. There’s the chair fundi, the boda guy (boda = motorcycle), and even the guy guy, who can find you the right guy for whatever needs getting done.

At the Safaricom shop, I perused a wall of smartphones. I left ten minutes later with a fully functioning smartphone, just $50 lighter. I was euphoric — a smartphone for $50!? And I can download Medium, Facebook, a podcast app, Audible, even Spotify? Maybe I won’t get a new iPhone when I’m home for Christmas. What on earth are we shelling out a thousand dollars to Apple for?

Mmm…. quite a lot it turns out. While technically the phone does everything an iPhone would do, it does it all worse and at one tenth the speed.

Still, it’s incredible that Tecno has made something so functional — if not smooth — for $50. Really, I got exactly what I was looking for: a cheap phone that works for calls and texts, and close enough for Uber.

So what else can you get in Nairobi for $50?

5 months worth of plenty of data.

25 days worth of “Traditional Veg Mix + Chapati (x2)” delivered lunches.

5/6 of an amazing Festive Cheetah “explorer pillow” from artist Kanagrui. (Okay, seriously, how great are these cheetahs?)

2500 trips to work from the closest matatu stop (if I take the cheaper matatu).

5x$10 knock-off iPhone charging cords that are not broken and which you can buy to find out that your iPhone chargers were all broken (including the brand new one you bought 3 weeks ago, somehow), and that your iPhone is actually fine.

The Mzungu Who Thought She Knew About Public Transportation [repost]

I have been meaning to write a comprehensive update of what has happened since I suffered a 36-hour airport-hopping journey to move across the world, from my childhood home in Chapel Hill, NC, USA to Nairobi, Kenya. Of course, every day I put off writing a full update, I add another day to describe and make it even less likely I ever send anything. So. New tactic: sporadic updates with whatever scenes I’m motivated to share. Otherwise it’s just not gonna happen.


At lunchtime on Oct. 30, we found out that the Kenyan election board (IEBC) would soon be releasing results from the re-run election that took place on Thursday, Oct. 26.

For those who aren’t following the Kenyan election drama, incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta won the initial election in August. But second-place opposition leader Raila Odinga of NASA (not the U.S. space organization — Kenya’s main opposition party!) challenged the results in court, claiming that there were constitutional violations in the handling of voting data, etc.

Shockingly, the Supreme Court actually ruled in his favor (giving the NYTimes a bit of whiplash as they went from calling him a sore loser to praising this step for democracy) and set up re-run elections between the two leaders (Odinga and President Kenyatta) scheduled first for mid-October, then for October 26. Ahead of the run-off, however, NASA decided to boycott the new election, saying that the election board had failed to make meaningful changes. Reports at the time said turn-out was very low on Oct. 26 (in the end, it was about 39%, compared to over 80% in the original elections), and some areas, especially where Odinga has a lot of support, did not even vote (due to a combination of the boycotts and physical blockades set up by protesters to prevent people from reaching the polling stations).

My colleagues and I were instructed to stock up on food and water and stay at home in the days around the election, just to be safe. Some staff heard gun shots and I saw smoke from my balcony in the direction of Kawangware, where there were fires and gangs taking advantage of the chaos to perpetrate tribally motivated violence. We were all safe, though. 

Twitter was the best source for live up-dates during the election.

The next Monday, we went back to work, thinking we’d be working from home later in the week whenever they planned to announce the results of the run-off. We were surprised to hear they would be that afternoon and so were all sent home early so we would not have to travel right after results were released, in case of really bad traffic or violence.

At 2:30 pm, I walked to the bus stop just down the street from my office to take a matatu home. The announcement was scheduled for 3:30 p.m. and my ride home should take about 15 minutes, 30 if the traffic is bad.

Matatus, for those who have not yet had the pleasure, are what buses are called in much of Eastern Africa. The term can apply to the more official coach bus-style public transport that has been mapped (very cool!) or to the classic, old-timey, VW-style vans with about 15 seats (but which can be seen carrying up to 18 or 20 people). The bus to work, if I take a coach-style matatu, costs about 40 cents. A smaller matatu costs 20 cents.

So I’m waiting for a matatu, listening to the Spirits podcast (highly recommend), and one of the small matatus pulls up. Not as comfy, but I’m just ready to go home, so I ask if the matatu goes to Valley Arcade, a mall near my house. The small matatus are not marked very clearly (at least not in any system that I’ve figured out!) so I always have to ask. The man nods, I repeat myself, he nods again and ushers me aboard. I slide along the bench to sit by the window with my phone tightly in hand and backpack on my lap (requisite security measures for any rider unless you want your belongings nabbed by an opportunistic passenger or passerby).

We drive on and turn off the route I’m expecting. I know there’s an alternative route I’ve taken in Ubers occasionally, so I’m not too concerned… until we fly past that turn-off, too. I tap the driver’s assistant (fare collector and passenger recruiter) on the shoulder and ask again, Do you go to Valley Aracade? No, no.

Well. Great.

I am ushered off at the next stop and pointed toward another cluster of matatus and assured those will take me to Valley Arcade. A bit peeved that I’d been swindled by a matatu, I walked up to the new matatu and repeated my question three times: Do you go to Valley Arcade? Yes, yes, valley arcade. In I go. I think you have already guessed this matatu does not go to Valley Arcade either.

We’re going in the right direction, past Junction Mall, which is a 15-minute walk from home, but then we don’t turn and instead start heading off in the opposite direction. I ask the driver’s assistant, Do you go around to Valley Arcade? Maybe they loop around, I think, attempting to hold onto a shred of optimism… No. He gives me a curious look, wondering why I would think that.

It’s 3:10 and I’m starting to get a bit anxious about getting home by 3:30.

The man sitting next to me, dressed in formal business attire, very helpfully says I can get off at the next stop where he is also getting out and he can show me how to get to the 46, the bus I probably should have just waited for in the first place. Great. We hop out and he makes to walk into Kawangware: To cross over to where the 46 is, he says when I stop walking. Nope, nope, nope. Not right before election results are announced.

Instead, I catch yet another matatu heading back in the other direction, get off at Junction Mall, and walk home. I get in right at 3:30 pm, just in time for the announcement.

Except the election results weren’t announced until around 8 pm that night, and by that time I was rock climbing with a friend all the way across town. We were warned there might be celebrations or protests blocking our way back home, but there wasn’t even extra traffic when we finally headed back.

Twice swindled by matatus in one day. But, in the end, the little adventure only cost me my pride at being a mzungu who understands public transportation and an extra 40 cents.

Originally posted Nov. 4, 2017 on my Unofficial Economist Medium publication.