Monthly Archives: September 2013

A Tribute to My Friend, Ravi Ramrattan

Me, Sue, and Ravi

This weekend has been difficult. I found out yesterday that a friend was killed in the senseless, horrible attack in Nairobi. He was a great person and meant a lot to many people. He had a profound impact on so many people’s lives that I would not even begin to understand how to chronicle it all. So I will settle for talking about the time I knew him.

I met Ravi early on in my time in Nairobi. I was grabbing a drink at a bar called Sierra Brewery with another guy named Ravi (Ravi Bungoma, after the town he hailed from in Western Kenya) who was applying for a job at my company, and he brought along Ravi Ramrattan (also known as Ravi Mumias). He worked for an organization called Innovations for Poverty Action at the time, and was stationed at a sugar factory in a town called Mumias a few hours outside of Nairobi.  I remember thinking that this guy was exceptionally smart. Subsequently, I found out he had bachelors degree in mathematics from the University of Cambridge, a masters degree in financial economics from Oxford, and another masters in econometrics and mathematical economics from the London School of Economics. After teaching statistics to graduate students at the London Business School for a year – at the tender age of 26 – he decided to move to Kenya to commit himself to the cause of poverty alleviation.

After six years in London, Ravi moved to Mumias, a rural town of 33,000 people in Western Kenya, where he spent a year and a half implementing an academic study at the Mumias Sugar Factory. Ravi ran a study evaluating the impact of a conditional cash advance and a cell phone based extension system on sugar cane farmers. Using a randomized controlled trial – the methodology used by pharmaceutical companies to determine the efficacy of a drug – Ravi tried to determine whether this particular development intervention generated additional income for the recipients. After picking up three degrees from some of the most prestigious universities in the world, he moved from London to a rural town in Western Kenya to help people he’d never met.

A few months after I met him, he moved from Mumias to the big city to take a job as an economist with an organization called Financial Sector Deepening, which, despite having one of the worst names imaginable, had the noble goal of “supporting the development of financial markets in Kenya as a means to stimulate wealth creation and reduce poverty.”As part of his role at FSD, he worked to develop the capacity of financial institutions in the country in order to make them more inclusive. When I found out he worked with microfinance institutions, I took every opportunity I could to goad him into an argument about whether microfinance worked. This is something I did whenever I met people from Innovations for Poverty Action. But with Ravi, I always left with my ego bruised from the intellectual drubbing he would deal me.

Ravi with his many academic distinctions

Ravi with his many academic distinctions

As a wannabe economist myself, I took every opportunity I could to take advantage of his incredible wealth of knowledge. During one trip down to Diani Beach on the Kenyan Coast, four of us sat on the terrace of our rented house and waxed philosophical deep into the night about income inequality in America (as we did).  My friend Dylan and I argued one side, while Sean, Ravi’s roommate at the time, argued the other. Ravi sat quietly, and, whenever we would reach an impasse, which happened often, Ravi came in to break the tie. After all, he knew way more than we did and was probably amused at how badly we skewed the facts to our favor.

Another funny thing to me about Ravi was that, somehow, he was a phenomenal dancer. I could never figure out how it was possible that he was able to bust so many incredible moves on the dance floor. I remember one night a big crew of us went out to a club in Nairobi called Gallileo Lounge, which, other than having a star in the logo, had nothing to do with astronomy. I was standing on the dance floor, not dancing, because I’m a terrible and highly self-conscious dancer, watching Ravi dance with our friend Woubie, and thinking to myself “My God – this is amazing.” In a somewhat legendary story, he was supposed to have a dance-off with one of the cab drivers who had been told of his prowess. It never came to fruition, I’m told, but everyone knows who would have won.

Ravi and Woubie getting down with a few of our friends

Ravi and Woubie getting down with a few of our friends

When I heard the news, I was crushed. I was with my friend Sharon, who lived with Ravi for a few months in Nairobi. For two days, we felt helpless, having to watch from afar. Being together made it easier to deal with the news. We decided to get dinner at an Indian restaurant to honor his memory, and spent the dinner sharing stories. Like his plan to start a hot sauce company, or his nickname, “The Lion of Mumias”, after a halloween costume from years prior, or the fact that he blasted the same Bollywood song all of the time. Even among the crew we’d assembled in Nairobi, which contained some of the more unique people I’ve ever met, he was in a league of his own.

I find it deeply ironic that Ravi would end up having his life taken by the people he most wanted to help. He spent a good part of his life studying economics, training himself to not only understand, but quantify the impact of development interventions on poverty alleviation. If you implement a project – whether it is microfinance, clean water, or education – it might work, and it might not. But, more importantly, if you don’t understand the results, you are destined to potentially throw money and people at the wrong solution. Ravi’s work, in particular, uncovered the true impact of these interventions, providing the academic foundation to replicate them around the world.

On this blog, I have spent many posts pontificating about the links between poverty and terrorism. I thought a lot about why this work is important, and what broader impacts it would have beyond just improving lives.  For people living hand-to-mouth, life is a series of struggles often ending in tragedy.  Anger, resentment, and despair are a volatile combination in the minds of young men and women who see little hope for escaping their situation.  For Al-Shabab, these young minds can be manipulated to pick up arms.  By stoking latent frustrations at the injustice of poverty and promising a sense of a community, brotherhood, and commitment to a higher cause, a recruiter can more easily convince a young man to become a cold-blooded mass murderer.

Unlike incomes or educational attainment, likelihood of radicalization is not something you can quantify. But I do believe that its real. And, though I never talked to Ravi about it, I’m sure he’d agree. He committed himself to serving the poor, and made the choice to move to Kenya for years to help the less fortunate. He moved to a small town in Western Kenya to study the roots of poverty, and returned to Nairobi to work for an organization whose mandate was to promote financial inclusion across the country. I have no doubt that Ravi would have continued this journey, taking it to the highest levels and influencing global development policy in one way or another.

But his life was cut short by evil men. Whether they’d been manipulated or radicalized doesn’t matter much to me. They took from the world a great person who wanted to make the world a better, more inclusive and equitable place for the most downtrodden and marginalized people. He could have done anything, but he chose this life. He chose to help people he’d never met to attain something better for themselves and their families. A nobler cause, I do not know.

Over the last few days, the outpouring of support has been overwhelming.  While the good works he did will remain, the community that has rallied around him over the last few days perhaps reflect his greatest legacy.  As the people who knew him – from his youth in Trinidad and Tobago, his college and grad school in London, or his years in Nairobi, when I came to know him – have moved to different parts of the world, they have kept him in their memories.  And this week, the diaspora of people whose lives were touched by Ravi are getting together all over the world to remember him.  That, to me, is a source of comfort.

Impromptu gatherings to remember him have popped up in Boston, New York, and Washington DC. When I tried to organize one in San Francisco, I was worried Sharon and I would be the only ones around.  Within a few minutes, I was added to an email chain of 10 people who had already begun to plan one. Right now the count stands at 25.

So, if you are in San Francisco this Friday, we are going to celebrate his life over dinner, and then go dancing at Little Baobab – a fitting tribute for such a great guy.

My deepest condolences go out to his family and the friends who loved him.


ravi in the fields


ravi and woubie2







Rest in peace, my friend.

Rest in peace, my friend.


Thoughts on the Nairobi Terrorist Attack, Pt. 2

Another photo from Jonathan Kalan (Copyright AP/Jonathan Kalan)

In the last post, I gave a brief history of the events leading up to this horrible terrorist attack. Now, I want to talk about why this is happening now.

If you were to Google “Somalia” anytime in the last six months, you might be surprised to see mostly positive press about the country. The Kenyan-led invasion brought a period of stability to the country. For the first time in many years, the central government controlled most of Mogadishu. The Somali diaspora began to return to the country, looking to invest in rebuilding the institutions that had crumbled over the previous 20 years. In a move filled with symbolic significance, Turkish Airlines launched its first direct flight to Mogadishu on March 12th, 2012. For the first time in many years, optimism returned to Somalia.

In the background, Al Shabab appeared to be on the ropes. They had been beaten back to more remote areas of the country, and continued to lose what little popular support they still had. And the return of the Somali diaspora was perhaps the best indication that things were possibly taking a turn for the worst.

There are a lot of theories about why this happened now. Some people are saying that this attack was an inevitable backlash against the Kenyan invasion of Somalia. Others are saying that it is only the beginning of an Al Shabab resurgence, as it tries to push back and regain control of the country’s destiny. And some believe this is Al Shabab’s way of re-asserting its loyalty to Al Qaeda. Within Al-Shabab, there have always been power struggles between two factions – one which is focused on gaining control of Somalia, and another with jihadist ambitions of restoring the Islamic caliphate. By attacking a symbol Western influence, like an upscale mall in Nairobi, it is following through on its jihadist goals.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I suspect it is more complex than any of the reasons above. Ken Menkhaus, a scholar on Somalia at Davidson College, believes that this is an act of desperation by a fundamentalist Islamic terrorist organization that has been all but defeated in its own country. I urge anyone who wants to understand the underlying roots of this conflict to read Menkhaus’ post in ThinkProgress. In it, he explains the logic behind this brazen attack:

The Westgate attack is the latest sign of the group’s weakness. It was a desperate, high-risk gamble by Shabaab to reverse its prospects. If the deadly attack succeeds in prompting vigilante violence by Kenyan citizens or heavy-handed government reactions against Somali residents, Shabaab stands a chance of recasting itself as the vanguard militia protecting Somalis against external enemies. It desperately needs to reframe the conflict in Somalia as Somalis versus the foreigners, not as Somalis who seek peace and a return to normalcy versus a toxic jihadi movement.

I think he is largely right in the sense that this is the action of an organization whose back is against the wall and is flailing wildly. But I disagree that this is was a calculated strategic bid to gain support from a population that has turned against them. They already lost that support, and it is never coming back. A few weeks ago, Somalia’s future was bright. If Al Shabab were to have its way, the country would regress to chaos and destruction. And without a common enemy like Ethiopia – which is how Al Shabab rose to power in 2008 – there is no reason to support an organization that claims to fight for the people while callously leaving so many of them to starve to death.

Rather, I think this attack is the action of a few psychopathic, manipulative mass murderers who justify their actions under a banner of religion, and a dozen deeply misguided and sociopathic followers who have no real understanding of why they are doing what they are doing.

(In the original version of this post, I used information that wasn’t verified.  The names and nationalities of the attackers have not been released)

The Al Shabab Twitter account, which keeps getting shut down by Twitter and resurfacing again, released the names and countries of the attackers. Of the 17 names listed, six are from the United States, two from Sweden, two from Syria, and one each from Russia, Canada, and the UK. Only three are even from East Africa – two from Somalia and one from Kenya. When 15 of the 17 attackers are foreigners, it is hard for me to believe that the goal of this attack is to re-assert the power of a weakened regional Islamist organization.

Back in 2008 and 2009, Somali kids from Minneapolis began disappearing and resurfacing as fighters in Al Shabab. A detailed article in the New York Times magazine explains what happened:

For many of the men, the path to Somalia offered something personal as well — a sense of adventure, purpose and even renewal. In the first wave of Somalis who left were men whose uprooted lives resembled those of immigrants in Europe who have joined the jihad. They faced barriers of race and class, religion and language. Mr. Ahmed, the 26-year-old suicide bomber, struggled at community colleges before dropping out. His friend Zakaria Maruf, 30, fell in with a violent street gang and later stocked shelves at a Wal-Mart.

If failure had shadowed this first group of men, the young Minnesotans who followed them to Somalia were succeeding in America. Mr. Hassan, the engineering student, was a rising star in his college community. Another of the men was a pre-med student who had once set his sights on an internship at the Mayo Clinic. They did not leave the United States for a lack of opportunity, their friends said; if anything, they seemed driven by unfulfilled ambition.

“Now they feel important,” said one friend, who remains in contact with the men and, like others, would only speak anonymously because of the investigation.

These are not native Somalis committed to the restoration of a Sharia-controlled government in Somalia. They are radicalized, deeply insecure, and easily manipulable kids believe they are fighting for a cause that they have been convinced is noble.

I think this is the action of nihilistic psychopaths who pervert religion as an end to justify their evil means. They understand nothing about Kenya, other than what they have been told, and callously murdered nearly 100 people this weekend. They fight under the banner of an organization with the blood of 260,000 Somalis – including 120,000 children – on its hands. What they have done is inexcusable and they deserve to die, which they know too well is their inevitable fate at the end of this standoff.

While I don’t agree entirely with Ken Menkhaus’ analysis of the situation, I do agree with his conclusions about what to do next:

The Kenyan people and government now control the next move. If they respond to this terrible tragedy with restraint and respect for due process and rule of law, they will do more to undermine Shabaab than all of the counter-terrorism operations conducted inside Somalia.

Kenya and Kenyans are not the only players who have the next move. Somalis – in Kenya, in Somalia, and in the diaspora – also face an unavoidable and immediate choice. Either they can mobilize against Shabaab and take the movement out once and for all – by drying up its financial sources, exposing its operatives, and denying the movement any safe space from which to operate – or they can sit on their hands and make vague calls for a negotiated settlement, as they have done for years. Somalia desperately needs a “Sunni uprising” against the hard-core extremists who now make up what is left of Shabaab. If Somalis refuse to act decisively against Shabaab, then it will be up to foreign governments to crush the group. But this will entail crackdowns that will almost certainly impact innocent Somalis and legitimate Somali businesses in Kenya and around the world, and that is not in anyone’s interest except Shabaab’s.

This is ultimately a Somali problem, and requires a Somali solution that is swift and unequivocal. If that happens, the terrible attack of September 21 will go down as the day Shabaab dug its own grave.

I know it will be hard to forgo retribution against Somalis living in Kenya. But Kenya is a beacon of optimism in East Africa, and its people are rallying in support. They will be shaken, but unnerved. They are resilient, and will respond in a measured and thoughtful way. And, with any hope, the Al Shabab and all of its leaders will die a quick death.

Thoughts on the Nairobi Terrorist Attack, Pt. 1

A photo taken by my old roommate, the incomparable Jonathan Kalan (

This weekend a dozen gunmen stormed the Westgate Mall in the Westlands neighborhood of Nairobi. Armed with AK-47s and grenades, they killed 70 people and injured 150 more. As I write this, a former colleague at Bridge is in the hospital and my friend Ravi is still missing. Waiting to hear any news has been painstakingly difficult as we all pray for him. I am not a particularly spiritual man, but, for the last 36 hours, I’ve been praying for some good news.

There is so much I want to write about here that I don’t even know where to begin. This will be a long series of posts.  I’m going to start by giving the context for while all of this is happening.

A Brief History of Terrorism in Kenya

When I moved to Kenya in May of 2011, Somalia was characteristically a mess. The country barely had a functional central government, and the majority of the country was (and still is) lawless. The country is technically split into three semi-autonomous regions: Somaliland, Puntland, and Somalia. Somaliland is a functional region within Somalia that is far more stable than the others. Puntland is second in terms of stability, but it is best known for being the epicenter of piracy off the Horn of Africa. Somalia, which covers the southern half of the country, is a fragmented, war-torn region controlled by warlords from different clans. Despite being one of the most homogenous country in Africa – everyone speaks the same language (Somali) and follows the same religion (Sunni Islam) – the country has an extensive clan structure that dominates what little political landscape exists.

A bit dated, but an accurate depiction of the situation in 2011

In May 2011, Al Shabaab (literally translated as “The Youth”) controlled huge swaths of Somalia. They had been firmly in control for several years, and wreaked havoc on the population. During the worst famine in decades, Al Shabaab refused to allow foreign aid organizations into the country to deliver food to starving populations. As a result, the food crisis escalated into a famine, and tens of thousands of people starved to death. Later, they bombed a public square in Mogadishu where young students were applying for scholarships to study at university. It was despicable to watch then, and many times I wrote on this blog about the nihilistic and wanton brutality employed by the group towards its own people.

The turning point came in late 2011, when pirates on two occasions crossed the Kenyan border and abducted tourists from the pristine island of Lamu off the northwestern coast of Kenya. After a French tourist died during the ordeal, Kenya decided to invade Somalia and neutralize the threat to its border. Over the course of a few months, working in tandem with UN peacekeepers from Uganda and other nations, the Kenyan military drove the Shabab from its strongholds in Mogadishu and Kismayo, where it controlled the port and extracted a large amount of the revenue that kept it in operation.

In effect, two complementary forces led to Al Shabab’s weakening. Most directly, military intervention by Kenya and the Uganda-led peacekeepers killed much of the group’s leadership and rank-and-file. Military force, however, would not have been sufficient had Al Shabab not lost the support of the people. The group claimed to fight for the Somali people against foreign powers that sought to control the country, rising to prominence in the wake of a failed US-backed invasion by Ethiopia. But the Al Shabab’s cruel indifference to the suffering of the people during the famine, its brutal enforcement of Sharia law, and its callous efforts to violently prevent any semblance of Western influence to permeate the country, led Somalis to turn against them and support their neutralization. All of these events – the kidnapping, the bombing in Mogadishu – occurred in October 2011, which is when the tide turned.

After the invasion, Al Shabab vowed retribution against Kenya. My friends and I became warier of our surroundings. We would frequently hear from a friend of a friend at the U.S. embassy that the Al Shabab was planning an attack and that we should stay away from certain places. During the summer of 2011, my friends and I would often go to the Westgate mall and get brunch at ArtCaffe, the restaurant that became the epicenter of the attack yesterday. After Kenya declared war on Somalia, we stayed away for a while.

Over the next few months, there were random attacks here and there, though none appeared to be coordinated terrorist plots. I remember sitting in London Heathrow Airport in January 2012, waiting for my connection to Nairobi, and watching a report on the BBC warning people not to go to Kenya because of an imminent terrorist attack. But the alert came and went, and no attack was staged.  It remained like this for months, as broad warnings thankfully never came to fruition.

We were all surprised that there were no attacks from Al Shabab that year. Nairobi has so many soft targets that creating havoc would be easy. But, at the time, people surmised that the reason for the apparent peace was not because of the tactical difficult of staging an attack, but rather the extensive Somali diaspora in Nairobi whose business interests were so intertwined with the Kenyan economy. If the Al Shabab were to commit terrorism in Nairobi, there would inevitably be a backlash against the Somalis, which would compromise Somali business interests and further alienate the group from its population. So, as a result, they staged more attacks closer to home – in Mogadishu and in Kenyan border towns like Garissa.

I left Nairobi for good in May 2012 having avoided any violence. There continued to be a lull until this weekend, when the Shabab committed the worst terrorist attack the country has seen since 1980.

In my next post I will give my thoughts on why this happened.