#15. Project Management Eye-Opener In Kenya

I found my two work colleagues, Alfred Owusu and Stephen Nkrumah at the check-in hall of the Kotota International Airport, Accra, Ghana. In those days travellers could come into the baggage check-in area with as many relatives as they wanted. Family members of Alfred and Stephen excitedly waited in anticipation as we checked in our baggage on to an Ethiopian Airlines flight. We said our farewells, went through departure formalities and boarded the Ethiopian Boeing 757 aircraft en route to Nairobi. We were on our way to Kenya for project management training organized by The Christian Organizations’ Research Advisory Trust (CORAT).

We arrived in Nairobi by 6:00 AM East African Time which was 3:00 AM GMT. This was my first visit to East Africa and so many things surprised me. The first surprise was the weather. Unlike West Africa, Nairobi was very cold and everybody was dressed in a suit or a jacket. The second surprise was the skyline of Nairobi. There were these beautiful high-rise buildings crowned by the Jomo Kenyatta Conference Centre. We were taken to the Serena Hotel. Another surprise was the beauty of this hotel. I could not compare the hotels in Accra in those days such as the Ambassador Hotel, the Continental hotel, and Star hotel to Serena Hotel. (Continental Hotel is now Golden Tulip Hotel in Accra, Ambassador Hotel is now Movenpick hotel and Star hotel is simply nonexistent in this 21st-century)

 I asked myself several questions. Ghana is supposed to be the first Sub-Saharan African country to gain independence. I know the three West African cities of Abidjan, Accra and Lome. Of the three I thought Abidjan was the best and most developed in terms of infrastructure and high-rise buildings. Nairobi seemed to be better than all three. But one has to ask whether infrastructure and high-rise buildings are the best indicators of development. This has been a debate in development studies classes for decades. My six-week stay in Kenya showed that this was not necessarily the case.

We made our way into Nairobi city and got ourselves some warm clothes to guarantee our survival for our six-week stay in Kenya. The following day we were whisked out of Nairobi to Limuru where we were supposed to participate in the management training course. The travel to Limuru showed us a bit of the countryside of Kenya, another surprise for me. The farms were nicely demarcated and one could mistake the landscape and the farms for the landscape and farms in the United Kingdom. It was an uphill road all the way to the training centre.

This six-week course took us the key functions in project management including Planning, Organizing, Staffing, Directing and Controlling. We used biblical principles to understand each of these functions and used NGO development work as the practice ground for their applications. Since then I have made the interesting discovery that every management function can be taught from a Biblical perspective. For example, the book of Nehemiah is the best teacher of the planning process including Costing, Monitoring and Evaluation, Midterm Review, determination to complete the task ahead, the possibility of opposition while trying to complete the task and the need to divide the labour in such a way that the task succeeds despite every opposition. The visit of Jethro to the Israelites, who were in the desert on their way from Egypt to the Promised land, is the best text for teaching delegation. During this visit, he advised Moses not to do all the judgment of cases on his own but delegate people to handle less weighty cases (Exodus 18:14).

In group work, our various organizations’ projects were used to understand the functions. There were participants from Sudan, Uganda and Kenya. I lamented that this is the course I should have been exposed to when I started my career as a development worker in 1981. I was four years behind time. Financial management was the other course that was done intensively by professional accountants. The use of examples from our development work back in Ghana in the group activities was the most valuable part of the training. Every evening ended with assignments and with Alfred and Stephen we diligently worked on the assignments to enhance our learning and to be consistent in the presentation of the results to the facilitators. Day by day as we went through different components of the course I could identify the mistakes I had been making in starting the work of World Vision in Northern Ghana. It was too late but I definitely learnt many more skills to continue the rest of my career as a development worker. The big lesson here for me is that any organization that wants to get the best out of its employees must put training ahead of everything.

The food in the conference centre, particularly breakfast, was great. One of the surprising discoveries I made is the abundance of fresh milk in Kenya. This us really enjoy our breakfast and tea/ coffee breaks. There was also a large supply of meat. Maize meal and vegetable stew (with lots of meat) became our most dominant meal for the course.

It was during this course that I wrestled with and internalized the meaning of integrity. After a long debate among participants, we agreed that integrity was the opposite of hypocrisy. With a high level of integrity, a person’s words are consistent with his actions both in private and public. When what we say contradicts what we do integrity is low and we tend to be hypocrites. This definition has stayed with me all my life. It was also in the training that I took time to study and have an in-depth understanding of accounting, financial management reporting, bank reconciliation and the other intricacies of financial management for projects. The use of real-world project accounts from across Kenya made this study realistic and prepared me for subsequent areas of management in my development career.

Six weeks away from the hustle and bustle of development work in a quiet place like Limuru with two colleagues who were more experienced in life than myself was also a great opportunity to reflect and learn from others. That is one of the most precious times I have had in my life. One important product of the course in Kenya is the manuals and handouts that were carefully bound and given to course participants. These manuals have remained as part of my library collection and references anytime I want to go back and refresh my memory. 

At the time that we were pursuing this training program, Kofi Hagan, the gentleman who convinced me to join World Vision International, was based in Nairobi, and from there where he worked in Uganda which was at the time emerging from Civil War. A few weekends with Kofi‘s family in Nairobi enabled us to converse with him, enjoy the meals his wife provided for us, playing with his children and to relax as Ghanaians in a foreign land.

Limuru was cold. Very cold and there were no heaters in the rooms. This compelled us to wear several layers of clothing before going to bed as well as covering ourselves with two or three blankets. The mornings were foggy and one could hardly see the tips of his fingers on an outstretched hand. In the same training centre, a staff of Barclays Bank from Nairobi were also having a training session. Smartly dressed young bank workers in the same place over a period of time is fertile ground for photography and my Manga survival instincts kicked into gear as I got hold of my camera with two zoom lenses and jumped into photographic work.

Those were the days when photography was done by photographers. In this year 2020 anybody with a telephone that has a camera can pictures. All the intricate settings we did in the 1980s are now done automatically by phones. I started cautiously, taking photographs of participants of the CORAT course as well as participants in the Barclays Bank course. I then found my way back to Nairobi on the minibus and found a photographic lab and handed over my film for printing. The following day after the sessions at about 4 PM, I was on the minibus back to Nairobi to collect the print outs. In those days, colour photography was beginning to emerge in Accra but was the norm in Nairobi. My first photographs drew attention and kicked my photography business into high gear. Alfred and Stephen wondered how I managed to juggle the course with photography. I spent the break times and the end of sessions taking photographs of course participants. I adopted every position in order to get good shots with my zoom lenses – I knelt-down, laid on the grass, squatted, climbed on top of chairs and employed every trick that I learned from Sam Buadu’s studios back in Tamale. After fighting through leach infected rice fields in Manga this was definitely a better way of making money. This went on for six weeks. Six weeks of exciting management course and exciting photographic business was really great although this was tainted with the blitzkrieging cold of Limuru. My photographic business went uninterrupted for six weeks. On the very last day before going to the airport to fly out of Kenya I was still giving out photographs to clients. 

Nothing has remained so strongly in my memory than the visit to Mathara Valley. The course organizers took us to Nairobi one day on a field visit and took as to a slum area called Mathara Valley. We saw one of the poorest slums in Kenya and most likely in Africa. People used all types of materials to build shacks in which they lived with their families. I saw a one-day-old baby, wrapped in not the best of clothes, being laid on cardboard and tears came to my eyes. On television, I had watched photographers scrambling for space to take pictures of babies of celebrities. I asked myself what this baby did wrong to be born in a slum in Nairobi and what did the other babies do right to be born with a silver spoon in their mouth. I concluded that we do not have any choice in deciding where we should be born, but after we have been born we need to fight and struggle and accomplish something on this planet before one is called to our Maker. It wasn’t my fault that I was born in Manga.

There are several lessons I learned during this training program that have remained with me for life. One such lesson is “he who fails to plan is planning to fail”. This was a key principle used during the group discussions on strategic and operational planning. Another lesson is “in staff placement, place staff in such a way that you make their weaknesses irrelevant and exploit their strengths for the best of the organization.” 

The use of actual case studies from NGOs in Africa to facilitate group work had a special impact on me. In the first place, it demonstrated that our everyday working realities are indeed case studies. If every development worker looked at the realities as case studies they would approach it with an intellectual mind and not emotionally. If we all wrote our real experiences as case studies they would have been a lot of resource materials to train upcoming development workers.

The training in project management in Kenya was an eye-opener for me. The examples and case studies from different organizations and from different countries demonstrated that project management has a commonality of issues across Africa. It also demonstrated that it is important to give every staff of the development organizations some basic training before sending them off to confront the reality that is ahead of them. I remain so grateful to the facilitators and course participants who contributed significantly to open my eyes to development management. 

My management practices and capacity building of other managers has benefited significantly from this course.

The next post is subtitled “In The Middle Of the Policy/Reality Debate”. Do not miss this one!!


One thought on “#15. Project Management Eye-Opener In Kenya

  1. One of the finest written article I read with relish. The narrative style is so soothing that it is difficult to pause even being bitten by a black ant.
    I was once robbed at Mathara Valley in 2002 before President Mwai Kibaki modernized it and it is no longer a slum.


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