Nov 29

‘The social & cultural life of Nairobi makes my heart beat’

David Sengeh, a research scientist at IBM, returned to Africa after 11 years abroad. 

Like any immigrant, I was faced with a heightened sense of concern about moving to a new, metropolitan city, particularly one in Africa. Unlike many, I was returning to the continent having left my home in Sierra Leone 11 years earlier. Since that time, a few things had changed: I was moving to a new country with a young family centered around a toddler, and in possession of a PhD from MIT.   (Although this still did not ease tense conversations with elders about my decision to keep long dreadlocks.) These realities, coupled with perceptions of security, personal growth, and other challenges one would face on the continent, left me with mixed emotions spanning from excitement to nervousness to, frankly, fear.

So, last year, my family and I checked in our luggage and my fears and relocated to Nairobi, Kenya from Boston, USA.

Firstly, I was afraid of losing the intellectual richness and connections that I had built at Harvard and MIT over the last decade. How was I going to continuously access those ideas, at the edge of advanced research, in Africa? I had even been warned by a few that I would stop learning. Then I was afraid that my supportive social circle, curated over a long period in Europe and America during my transformative years there would be broken and reduced to superficial Facebook likes. Some added that it would be impossible to build new ones, given that I was moving to a new country with a young family. Finally, I was afraid that I would be too overwhelmed with work to settle back into the things I love about Africa, particularly its culture. I was afraid that I wouldn’t fit in.

While at the core, my work at the intersection of technology and healthcare is still fundamentally the same between my research years at Harvard/MIT and now at IBM Research, everything else is different about this current experience.

Recently, I was returning from Karura, an urban forest reserve that hosts wildlife and nature at the northern end of Nairobi. I missed my exit and found myself on a road that would loop through parts of the central business district (CBD). Characteristic of most African CBDs on a Saturday afternoon, I found myself weaving through a blur of traffic, seeking a way out of the chaos. Within ten minutes of navigating the traffic, I heard a loud rattling sound on the back of my car. In the rear-view mirror, I saw a man slowly put something under his shirt and calmly walk away with an object he’d forcefully removed from my car. I had been warned several times of this possibility. I locked the car, checked that my 1-year old baby was not too unsettled by the incident and continued our journey home.

Later that evening, we hosted some friends for dinner and drinks at our home and recounted the incident in the CBD while listening to afrobeat music produced by Blinky Bill, a friend and local musician. Among the series of questions asked and ideas discussed, was the standard; “how’s it been for you in Kenya?” To get to the bottom of this question, I reflected on what I had expected life in Kenya to be and most importantly how my fears were evolving. It turns out that my fears are indeed similar to those held by many young Africans trained abroad with highly technical skills who want to return to the continent. This is also true for those who have worked abroad for an extended period of time.

Firstly, technical research on the continent is intellectual in a unique way. Many of my colleagues are Africans with advanced degrees in STEM who understand the transformative potential impacts of technology in its simplest and most complex forms. We are aware of the statistics of how many children die from malaria. Yet, we know people who choose to not sleep under bed nets. It is within these contextual realities that we discuss how machine learning and genomics could be applied towards malaria interventions. I belong to a strong cohort of curious, intellectual and energetic African youth with similar mindsets, a diverse set of skills and most importantly, a hugely overlapping appreciation of the local context in which these solutions would be deployed. Instead of my fear of a muted intellectual environment, I have found myself empowered to be around so many talented peers.

Secondly, my family and I love hosting people. We love good food (and wine). So, we convene a regular brunch at our home where friends bring (new) friends. What this has become is a loose social network of people rooted on the continent who are eager to learn from each other. While we ourselves are expats in Kenya, we strive to socialize increasingly with locals. Through this we discover local arts festivals, film screenings, pick-up football games and parties we would never have known about without opening our doors. The relationships created here run deep and do not differ from those we enjoyed in the States.

Finally, these local relationships have led to much broader cultural experiences harder to imagine in other locations. Over the last couple of months, I have seen more African artists perform live in Nairobi than I had in my entire life combined: Awilo Longomba, Jojo Abot, Wiyaala, Blinky Bill, Ugandan Ghetto kids, and a host of local Kenyan musicians including Sauti Sol. While Nairobi itself is home to a couple urban wildlife sanctuaries, it is close enough to other remarkable locations in Kenya. We were in Lamu, a UNESCO Heritage Site, during their annual cultural festival; hiked the gorges at Hell’s Gate in Naivasha; and have made it a regular activity to visit local flea markets, immersing ourselves into as many things local as possible.

There are obvious challenges to deal with in Nairobi as with any major city around the world: security, traffic, pollution, etc. However, the fears that often make it challenging as young Africans to move back do not generally match the reality that is becoming apparent on the continent. While we are still exploring, getting used to “taking tea” every time it’s offered by a friend’s mom, and learning how to safely traverse in the CBD; the convergence of the intellectual, the social and the cultural life of Nairobi makes my heart beat.