The End of an Era: Leaving Nairobi

On Sunday, I leave Nairobi for Thailand, where I will spend a month visiting various beaches and diving various reefs.  Of the many transitions I have documented on this blog, this one is most significant, as it is the most final.  After Southeast Asia, I return to the United States for the foreseeable future, embarking on the next phase of my career as an MBA student at MIT.  Right now, from the Flamingo Cafeteria in the Julius Nyerere International Airport in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, waiting for the second leg of my flight to Nairobi from Zanzibar, where I spent the last four days SCUBA diving and lounging on the beach with a new group of multicultural friends, I will begin the long process of trying to make sense of my three years working abroad in international development.

By way of background for those who do not know the history of Develop Economies, I left my job as a strategy consultant in Boston three years ago to work with Kiva, a microfinance funder, in the Philippines.  After the better part of a year, I moved to Ghana to work with Technoserve, a non-profit focused on market-driven economic development.   Six month later and one year ago to the date, I moved to Nairobi and found employment as a business analyst with Bridge International Academies, a chain of low-cost private primary schools serving slums in Nairobi.  When I arrived, we had 15 schools in Nairobi.  Today, we have 73 throughout Kenya.  Next year, Bridge will have hundreds more around the world.

In addition to working, I have found time to travel here and there, squeezing in six months of independent travel in six countries Asia and another seven in East and West Africa.  I have met thousands of interesting people from all over the world.  To illustrate the point, I spent the last three days with a group of Dutch medical students, a Moroccan working in Paris, an Austrian on working at the embassy in Nairobi, two Germans living with nuns in rural Uganda and Tanzania, and an Australian physiotherapist on loan from the International Olympic Committee to the government of Zambia, tasked with preparing their athletes for the 2012 games.  More substantively, I have forged strong relationships with friends and colleagues during my time living in the Philippines, Ghana, and Kenya.  To write a series of posts summarizing the lessons of the last three years without discussing the people would be incomplete.

Before I arrived, I understood very little about the theory of international development and even less than the practice.  Fortunately, I have found valuable mentors to provide advice and guidance in navigating this complex world.  The validity of the business adage that it is not what you know but who you know that matters can be debated, but, in my case, knowing people has helped tremendously in not only finding jobs, but adjusting to new environments, making friends, and learning about new things.

Today, I understand much more about development, in part from my work, research, and writing, but also because of the conversations I have in my living room, or on a bus in Rwanda, or a train to Mombasa on the coast of Kenya, or in an email I received from someone I met a few times about what they are studying and reading.   The entire experience has made me smarter and more knowledgeable.  And trying to parse the source of it all is challenging.

While I may not be able to completely break down my experience and pinpoint the source of this professional and, more importantly, personal growth, I can begin to catalog the lessons from the experience.  And with that in mind, I will be writing a series of posts to wrap things up.  In the next two posts, I will talk about how I got into this work and give some advice for anyone thinking of doing it themselves.

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