Resilience at Nairobi Airport:  Kudos to Kenya!

By Shlomo Maital

Nairobi airport                          Nairobi airport

Then: Destroyed by Fire                                    Nairobi Airport now:  A Tent!

Kenya is yet another example of how the West underestimates the resilience of relatively poor countries, in Africa and in Asia.    Kenya was vilified when it was found that Nairobi has only one single lone modern fire engine.    

The Economist reports:

     “When a big part of Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta international airport was gutted by a fire in early August it was widely expected to wreak havoc on Kenya’s vital tourism industry. Instead, it has become a model of the country’s talent for makeshift solutions.     Instead of passing through the wheel and spokes building opened in 1958 by Britain’s last colonial governor, passengers are directed towards a complex of white tents with sash chairs. In the darkness, the atmosphere resembles that of a wedding party at the end the evening, with tired guests searching for the exit.   The airport is east Africa’s biggest hub, serving five million passengers a year. Yet while many feared it would be running a reduced service for weeks, it was back at close to full capacity in a matter of days. 

Repeatedly, we in the West underestimate the strong resilience of those in Africa, Asia and South America, who ‘make do’ under difficult circumstances.  They are good at it, because they do it nearly every day.  Except for The Economist, few newspapers or websites reported on the remarkable makeshift airport-tent in Nairobi.

      In India,  there is a Hindi word called “jugaad”, which means “work around” – like what the Kenyans did to get their airport back in action.  Here is what I wrote in a blog three years ago:

       “Jugaad … are locally made motor vehicles that are used mostly in small [Indian]  villages as a means of low cost transportation in India. Jugaad literally means an arrangement or a work around, which have to be used because of lack of resources. This is a Hindi term also widely used by people speaking other Indian languages, and people of Indian origin around the world. The same term is still used for a type of vehicle, found in rural India. This vehicle is made by carpenters, by fitting a diesel engine on a cart. …. They are known for having poor brakes and cannot go beyond 60 km/h. They operate on diesel fuel and are just ordinary water pump sets converted into engine. “

    Let’s salute the Kenyans (and travelers, who endure less than ideal conditions) for their ingenuity.  Let’s salute people in all poor countries, who use their creative savvy to work around insolvable problems, without a fat checkbook.