The Adventure Begins

The time had come. It was time to travel to Nairobi Kenya for our internship as part of our PhD doctoral training partnership called the Professional Internship for PhD students (PIPS) scheme.

We ventured towards the airport equipped with cases, documents, a healthy dose of excitement, a dash of nerves…and of course, a generous sprinkling of sunscreen.

Our flight was a two-legged journey. We first flew from London to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. From one plane, it was straight on to the next one which took us to Nairobi. The flights were quite pleasant, and we were able to see the contrast between the more mountainous dry regions of Ethiopia with the surprisingly lush-green city of Nairobi.

Upon arrival we were warmly greeted by many of the Kenyan citizens who were working at the airport. This kindness continued throughout our trip in Nairobi, it has been a real highlight for us. From the airport we were transferred to our apartment, getting to see many incredible sights along the way. From the tall skyscrapers of the central business district (CBD), to the small cottages and more humble abodes, to the wide-open landscape filled with nature – we were starting to see just how varied this city really is.

We settled in to our accommodation which had many of the comforts we were used to, it was quite a nice place to spend the 3 months. It was next to where we would be working and had good access to nearby amenities and transport. One major issue though…no wi-fi! As someone who is a self-confessed internet addict, I can safely say this was a big shock. We did have an internet router which was ready to go, however we needed a Kenyan sim-card in order to activate and pay for it. So this became one of our first missions (more on that later).

First though, after getting a much-needed good night of sleep, we were ready to meet those at the International Livestock Research Institute and Biosciences in Eastern and Central Africa (BecA-ILRI), go through the relevant induction processes, discuss more about the project details we will be working on, and to tour the campus where we will be for the next few months.

We were kindly greeted by many of the staff, given a tour of the site and we started to feel settled in our new home, it seemed like it would be an excellent place to work. To add to this, the weather was equally as pleasing. We had just travelled from London where it was snowing as we we’re departing, now we were treated with nice warm weather. Quite the contrast but we’re certainly not complaining!

So back to the Kenyan sim card saga. We fortunately had fast internet access at the airport and at ILRI and so were able to make contact with those back home to let them know we had arrived safely…but no internet in our own accommodation. It was off to a local sim card office. While this sounds like an easy feat, it did require a bit of logistical manoeuvring. We needed to get a matatu, which is essentially a local bus service…albeit with excessively loud reggae dancehall music and very limited space (although admittedly that very much adds to the charm).

Unlike in the UK, bus stops are not marked. You just have guess where the matatu buses will stop. This sounds like it would be a real pain but its surprisingly obvious in most places. There are usually groups of commuters waiting on the side of roads and many are more than happy to help out if you are not sure on anything.

So, to get on a matatu, we waved down the van and over it came. We gave the driver the fare (which is very reasonable, certainly puts large European cities to shame), we crammed in to the back of a very tightly packed vehicle and off we went. Slaloming through the chaotic streets was like a theme park ride in itself, but it seemed as though the drivers were very much used to these conditions. They were real experts when it came to navigating through, what can only be described as, vehicular carnage. Once we had reached our desired location, a quick tap on the conductor’s shoulder (who subsequently tapped the shoulder of the driver) was all it took to hop off the bus and away we went.

Getting the Kenyan sim card was a surprisingly straight forward process. We went in to shop, we were seen to straight away by friendly staff, and everything was set-up ready to go then and there in less than 20 minutes.

Now we were ready to get online! Most of Kenyan payments are carried out through mobile payment (known as M-Pesa) via a Kenyan sim card. Pretty much everyone has access to a phone with data of some kind. For us, this meant that all of our bills (including internet and electricity), many shop purchases and a few restaurants would only accept payment via mobile payments. It worked quite well but it was certainly a big shock to the system coming from the UK where card or cash are the preferred payment options.

As evening fell, we felt accomplished with our successful sim-card trip. Now it was time for a welcome meal – Ethiopian food! This was the first time we had ever tried this. It consists of a variety of small communal dishes and a crepe-like sourdough bread to accompany them. One interesting quirk though, you eat it all with your hands! This was followed with some authentic Ethiopian coffee which was absolutely delicious and a perfect way to end the meal (and to keep us up quite late that night too, turns out its quite strong). We really enjoyed the cuisine of neighbouring Ethiopia and we would certainly like to eat it again soon. In fact, we were told that there is an entire street dotted with plenty of authentic Ethiopian options in London (Caledonian Road) so perhaps we will try that one day.

The weekend is now upon us, our first major task – bills! Surprisingly, this was incredibly straight forward, and could all be done via the M-Pesa app. We topped up our electricity account and reconnected our internet. Within an hour or two, we were done. Thankfully this meant we didn’t have to sit in the dark or be isolated from the outside world online over the next few weeks.

We then spent the rest of our first weekend relaxing in our flat and exploring the local area, a nice way to begin to feel at home.

So, our first week has come to a close. We have started to feel settled in our new home, we have met many friendly people and we have begun the start of our PIPS project journeys. We are excited to see how the next 12 weeks will pan out!                                                                                                                                                    

Danny Ward

[“This work was supported by the Norwich Research Park Doctoral Training Partnership (NRPDTP), by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council of the United Kingdom (BBSRC) through the BBSRC-STARS grant with reference BB/R020272/1 awarded for the ABCF Bioinformatics Community of Practice, and by the BecA-ILRI Hub through the Africa Biosciences Challenge Fund (ABCF) program. The ABCF program is funded by the Australian Department for Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) through the BecA-CSIRO partnership; the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture (SFSA); the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF); the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and; the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (sida)”

Key personnel/contributors linked to this project:

BecA-ILRI hub (Nairobi) – Dr. Jean-Baka Domelevo Entfellner ¦ Dr. Peter Emmrich ¦ Wellington Ekaya, PhD

John Innes Centre/UEA – JIC Graduate School Office ¦ UEA Internships and Placements team ¦ Hans Pfalzgraf ¦ Danny Ward 

We would like to extend our gratitude to all those listed, along with all others, who contributed and supported towards this project in various capacities – this wouldn’t have been possible without your help]


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