Truth be told, I had no idea what to expect when I stepped off the plane in Nairobi. I had never visited the African continent before, or any developing country for that matter, let alone live in one. The next two months in Kenya proved to be an absolutely eye-opening and horizon-expanding experience that I am truly grateful for.
My job this summer was to support the research efforts of gui2de staff on projects in the Digital Financial Inclusion (DFI for short) portfolio. These projects, implemented with the help of private sector partners, all sought to extend financial access to the poorest Kenyans through entirely digital platforms. Working on the DFI portfolio was truly special because there were multiple ongoing projects in varying stages of development, which gave me the opportunity to see and participate in the different stages of implementing a development intervention.
The internship was particularly engaging and demanding because priorities and deadlines shifted across the multiple projects handled by the office. I engaged in brainstorming project designs, performing data analysis, drafting training materials, coding surveys, writing reports, meeting with partner organizations, and conducting field work. With so much work going on, I was trusted to work independently and present individual work to the team. Exploring new research techniques, coding styles, and survey programming independently created plentiful learning opportunities and self-teaching moments. This work style allowed me to pick up a large amount of skills in a relatively short time.
In my mind, the most valuable experience of this internship was fieldwork for the Bima Pima project, an index-based microinsurance project for smallholder famers. This project was entering the final preparatory stages before field launch when the internship began, and after a month in Nairobi, we set out by mutatu 8 hours west to Siaya County to assist in deploying the project. You can read as many articles and studies of development policy interventions as you like (and my first year at McCourt certainly felt that way!) and think that you understand the complexity of deploying a project, the issues that arise during data collection, and fixing these issues in real time, but nothing truly prepares you for encountering these challenges in the field. In the two weeks working on the project, I helped train the data collectors, coded checks in Stata to monitor data in real time, and worked closely with the project managers to identify issues as they arose and brainstormed solutions to keep data collection running smoothly. Working on this project opened my eyes to the reality of development work and has prepared me for a career in international development as no other experience has.
Of course, not all of our time was spent working in the office. Kenya is a beautiful country with so much to offer. The pristine waters of the Swahili coast, the vast waters of Lake Victoria, and the sprawling lushness of the Great Rift Valley offered unrivaled beauty and wonder the likes of which I’d never seen before. But it was not just the natural beauty of the country that captured my imagination. Everywhere we went, the people we met were incredibly kind and welcoming, and reveled in our clunky attempts at conversing in Swahili gained from weekly lessons with our amazing mwalimu, Oloo. I was encouraged by everyone I met to experience all things Kenyan; try local foods, such as chapati (which I dearly miss) and ugali (not so much), get around town in a mutatu, haggle at the open-air markets, and see Nairobi’s famous nightlife and raucous sporting events.
To cap it off, the other interns and I took a weekend getaway outside the country to relax on the beaches of Zanzibar. I will never forget sitting on the boat just off the coast, feet dangling in the warm, crystal clear waters of the Indian Ocean, with hundreds of brightly colored fish zipping around my feet as we enjoyed fresh mango and papaya. Looking back on it all, I realize how lucky I am to have been a part of this internship. It truly was a once in a lifetime experience.