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Notes From a Development Expat – Misha Mintz-Roth

Notes From a Development Expat

Fiction by Misha Mintz-Roth

The first thing you should know about me is that I am very distinguished. I am a world spirit. My name is known in cities like Dakar and Tbilisi. In Aman, there is a preschool with my photo on the wall. I speak eight different languages, most of them fluently. I have two Master’s degrees, both from very prestigious institutions. Beyond this, I am well read. Those who follow me online know that I am finishing a six-volume study about corruption in Africa. I imbibe nothing but the finest scholarship. These are important pieces of information to remember when I introduce myself to colleagues and notables. They are all thoughts I must repeat to myself when being overcharged by my plumber, who I know, like so many people in this town, look at me like a total idiot. 

There’s no question I was brought to East Africa to do God’s work. Presently I serve as Executive Director of the Financial Leadership Action Group—or FLAG. It’s not exactly clear what we do, but we occupy a full-story Nairobi office park to get it done. I lead a team of eight. In my capacity, I give out money for solar batteries, charcoal ovens, and those devices that turn feces into electricity. (Not to be repeated, but I still don’t really get how they work.) Many of us are highly credentialed. Julietta, my Deputy, has a PhD. She is from Belgium. Franklin, my driver, who is from here, is certified by the country’s Mechanics Board. And so on and so forth. On top of that, we have a very large team of field organizers. These are local people we pay minimum rates to, but who help us find “clients.” These organizers translate jargon and form relationships. They can finesse difficult situations and do that thing where they lean over and shake hands ceremonially and stare off in the other direction. I have tried myself to master this technique. Sadly, I have not succeeded in this regard.

It’s not often that I interact with the field staff. Most of them live in areas of town that I generally don’t visit, unless accompanied by a good guide and solid pair of boots. But on the rare occasion when I do interact with them, I gladly receive them in my office. Oftentimes they bring me gifts, like a bracelet. They sit outside on the patio furniture—all of which is nice and new—and have tea with Franklin. 

This is what I expected to happen the day Makena came into our compound. Unfortunately, I was very wrong. She came up to my desk and sat opposite me and looked at me with her cedar eyes and appeared as if she had an important matter to settle. 

“I need a raise,” she said. 

“Well, well,” I said. “Don’t we all.” 

Of course, this was not my most sympathetic response. But I did not want to give in too easily. I am the director of a very important operation, after all. 

“This is my problem,” she said. “My rent is going up, and I can’t keep inviting my landlord over for tea and biscuits. Plus, I need to repair my phone.”

“Your phone?” I said, pretending to be concerned. In fact, I had read many recent pieces by famous anthropologists about wealth and savings in these parts. They told me not to be too gullible when people say they don’t have enough money. “Well, we do have a process,” I added. 

“Mr.—?’ 

“Ben,” I said. “Please call me Ben.” 

“Ben, you’re not getting me.”

“How is that?”

She drew a folder from her bag with the word “expenses,” and opened it up before the both of us. Slowly, she read out every payment we had made to her over the last several months. “Does this ring true to you?” 

“Yes,” I said. 

Then she thought for a moment. 

“See, you don’t understand. This place owes me.” 

She started to name every shilling and penny she paid: her bus fare, her lunches, her sister’s school fees. I can’t say I could relate or that I knew anything about what she meant. I mean, I’m given the full package out here. My mind is generally free of these concerns. But it was getting late, and I figured why not simply do another good deed. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time I could feel like Simon Peter for the day. I took out my wallet and gave her what she wanted. Then she looked at me coldly, no more gracious than before, put her phone inside her bag and said, “I appreciate your kindness.”

***

These are not moments I like to remember. As I’ve said, I generally have much bigger fish to fry. It’s been nearly six months since I’ve been in this town, and I know several dozen businessmen and local leaders. I am a regular fixture at the Club for Commerce, where heads turn and smile when I walk in—generally twenty-five minutes late—to my seat. Still, the most important person in my orbit is our Chairman. This is Dr. Arthur Krieger—or “AK” as his secretary refers to him in emails. He does not live here. Instead, he prefers to retain his title as Class of ’42 Professorship at a famous university in the U.S. But for those who don’t know him, he is a very big deal. His op-eds appear regularly in major papers; his research is cited in well-known academic journals; he has fourteen honorary degrees and, twice, has been Secretary to the Council of Developing Nations. As his man on the ground, I have direct access to him, and nothing pleases me more than our two-minute phone conversation we have at the end of every month. Sometimes I feel like he treats me like a long-lost son. “Keep up the good work,” he always says, and then tells me his wife is calling him for dinner. 

Do I feel privileged in my position? I mean, of course I do. Who wouldn’t? An old high school buddy of mine scoffs at me every time I fly business class. “What happened?” He says. “Did they take away your private jet?” Then he likens me to a modern colonial bureaucrat. “Maybe you need your own pre-checked TSA line.” But in all seriousness, this buddy of mine, he is back home in New Jersey, staring at a spreadsheet. At best, he will leave his office by ten and make it home to kiss his wife and tuck his kid into bed. Maybe he will plan a day off to clean the garage. Know where I am while he does all this? Visiting mud-brick schools in the Rift Valley or driving a Defender across pastoralist country. Organizing toothpaste drives or taking photos with red-clad nomads. This is not a judgement. It’s just what I choose. We all have priorities, and these are mine: discovering the new and unknown. Doing something good for the world, and celebrating it with, say, a hot air balloon ride across the Serengeti, preferably during the wildebeest migration. 

Speaking of grand plans, our big conference is coming up. It’s a three-day ordeal, and I will have to play host to a bunch of overdemanding types—board members mostly. I will need to put my best foot forward and coordinate schedules, which is, frankly, something I am very bad at. I will have to engage in small talk, which I am even more bad at. I will need to feign excitement for people like Christa Hamm, our Conference Honoree, who will be receiving our annual award for building an orphanage for Hyraxes. Dr. Krieger, will be there, as our keynote, of course. It is upon me to make sure that he gets all the care he needs, which, if I am in charge, will be no less than that of a royal heir. I am often chided by local activists for spending half of our annual budget on this conference. I am also known to go overboard when I feel nervous. But this is the thing: I have to make sure people come. If they don’t come, I look like an imbecile. One of my greatest fears is that I will be written off as unreliable. For this reason, I have rented all eight ballrooms at the Shangri Spa Resort. It’s cynical, but it helps me get to sleep at night. Now I know, at least, I’ll still have my job. 

***

It has been nearly a month since Makena came into my office, and I have to say she works pretty damn hard. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by her output. She coordinated our meetings with a pair of church pastors. Then she volunteered herself to visit dairy farmers in Nyanza. Her knowledge of butter purification was not unappreciated. The only real hiccup I had was on the day we went down to the Industrial Workers Collective. This was a pilot we designed last year. In fact, it was based on my Master’s thesis. (This is a point I must play up now and then.) All we needed was to get some signatures and hit the road. But as we got out of the jeep, Makena looked at me with a troubled expression. She glanced at the men in blue overalls working in the hot sun and then returned her attention to me. 

“None of these people should be signing anything,” she said. 

 “What do you mean?”

She waved the legal documents in front of me. 

“You’re trying to sneak a loan on them,” she said. “Don’t you know they don’t understand what they have to pay back? That’s not right.” 

Now, most bosses might have been alarmed by a comment like this. It was clear Makena did not fully support our organization’s mission. But I saw it as encouragement. Perhaps I should mention that at this time I had begun to develop a little crush on her. I thought we could at least explore this connection further. So, when she glared at me in disapproval, I suggested we talk about it over lunch. It was only noon and, if I am to be completely honest, I had nothing better to do that day. 

Franklin dropped us off at the Parkgate Mall. It was one of those enormous outdoor sprawls a quarter mile from our office, with a view of the city skyline and arboretum in the distance. We walked up the steps and found one of my favorite little cafes, a European bistro called Arthouse. On most days I would have expected to see a number of familiar faces. There would be Christian from the International Council, who always came in around 9:00 and started to refresh his emails and order Baileys Coffees. Or there would be Anthony, from the Children’s Fund. Some years later he would gain a reputation for hosting raucous parties for closeted diplomats. Last was Erica, from Save the Zebras. I didn’t have anything against her, but I always tried to keep my distance from her for fear that she might get to know me and have the opportunity to form a full and complete judgment of me—which, I must say, would not have been good. But on that day, it was just Makena and I, sitting alone, a breeze blowing from the window, looking out onto a green garden with swift kites making their descent from the trees. 

“So you were saying?” 

“It isn’t right,” she said. 

I stared at her vacantly.

“You are telling people you’re giving them money when, in fact, they have to pay back a bank.” 

“Well,” I said. “Our philosophy is accountability.” Another unsympathetic response from me. But have it be known that ‘accountability’ was the buzzword at that time. “We are not a charity,” I added. “We are a public-private partnership.” 

 “You know what will happen,” she said. “These people are going to lose their jobs and they won’t be able to get married. They will need to move towns, and after a while people will give up on them. Don’t be surprised when one of them shows up at your office. People around here like to handle things face to face.” 

“We are fully prepared. I have just hired an additional security guard,” I said. 

She wasn’t amused. 

“Okay, let’s change the subject.” Rather brazenly, I threw the wine menu toward her, which fell awkwardly on her lap. 

It was still the afternoon—albeit a cloudy one—which meant it was still happy hour. (I refrained from doing my dance.) “How about a Merlot?” I suggested. “Or Chardonnay?” Then, obnoxiously, I read each brand name aloud with my best pronunciation and made up some story about whatever region I believed they were from. All of this was fabrication. 

“Should we share a bottle?” 

Her face became puzzled. 

“Makena,” I said. “How do you like to spend your time after work? Do you like to unwind?” I switched the conversation smoothly, not wanting too lunge, less she read my intentions all too easily. “Do you like to play?” 

Play. I love that word. It can mean wild sex parties or simply taking out some watercolors. 

She studied me very bizarrely. 

As I continued to feed her more questions, she started to ignore me altogether. In the moment in which she caught my drift, she looked at me so accusingly that I pretended to mumble something to myself about a friend from out of town who wanted to meet a nice girl. Then at some point, after the waitress returned, Makena raised her forehead and looked at me straight in the eye.

“I have a favor,” she said. 

“You do?” My eyes perked up. I nearly lost the strand of Spaghetti pesto curled around my fork. 

“I want to meet Krieger.” 

“Krieger!” I exclaimed. 

My heart raced and I could feel my palms start to sweat. I’m not sure what she wanted out of a meeting with Krieger, but I couldn’t imagine that it would reflect well upon me. I began to backpedal. “Well, there is a conference coming up—”

“No,” she said. “You’re not getting me. I would like a private meeting with him, alone.”

“One-on-one?” 

She straightened her posture. 

“I have something to show him—something important.”

“Something important to show him,” I repeated quietly. 

I ran the scenario through my head, trying to think of all the ways to shoot this request down without being rude. I wanted to impress Makena. But I was reminded by my inability to think outside the box. Plus, I revere hierarchies. I reached across the table and grabbed her hand and started to caress it slowly. I was met with a sharp, unconvinced stare, and a swift rebuke of my hand. It reinforced a peculiar feeling in me that there was some murky business behind her request. I was only her pawn. 

***

For days, I stared at my computer pondering Makena’s words. Something to show him. Why did she want to meet Krieger? And why did she want to meet him alone? I decided to ask Julietta. Julietta, I should mention, had been in this office for years. Many times she had been offered my job only to turn it down for “personal reasons,” which evidently had something to do with Dr. Krieger himself. Speaking to her, I figured, might help me get to the bottom of things, whatever they might be. I found her one afternoon in the main conference room, trudging back and forth in her heavy Doc Martin’s. She had been drawing Venn Diagrams on the board and put question marks next to the words “contingencies” and “mistakes.” She regarded me with pleasant surprise and stomped toward me with a ready smile. But when I put the question to her about Makena she seemed taken aback. It was like I had brought up a bad memory she wanted to forget. 

“Makena?” she said, putting her pen down. “Can’t you tell that she’s exactly Krieger’s type?” 

This comment was lost on me. 

“You mean for our Entrepreneurs’ Program?”

Julietta roller her eyes.

She went over to make herself a cup of tea. I could tell from the number of tea bags she put in that pot she was not enjoying the work that day. 

“You really don’t know who you work for, do you?” She said. “You’ve never wondered why Krieger always takes the female staff to Lake Naivasha each year?”

“For the flamingos?” 

“Just never mind,” she said. 

Her response displeased me.

By evening, I still hadn’t figured much out. I mentioned so much to Franklin, while he drove me home through the evening traffic. Rather than nod politely and listen without comment, which he usually did, he pulled the car over and told me he had something to share. Much to my surprise, he actually knew quite a lot. It turned out that Franklin came from the same county as Makena, just a few hours north of the city. His uncle used to live near her homestead, and, evidently, knew Makena’s family quite well. They were farmers. Her father passed away soon after she was born, leaving her mother to grow tomatoes and corn and bring the produce down to the market in town. When Makena was sixteen, her mother became ill—cancer evidently—and Makena had to support herself and her sister. She didn’t want to be a “vegetable lady”—Franklin’s words—so Makena moved to the city and enrolled at the university. She worked during the day at a hardware store and later for a soap company, selling to kiosks to make a commission on each package of bars she sold.

She managed to pull off this schedule for a few months. But she was still not earning enough money. She started to go the bars in Westlands to try to meet an older man—an mdozi—someone to help pay her expenses. That’s where she met Krieger. It’s not really clear who approached whom, but it was on the evening after Krieger returned from one of our banking sites upcountry. They exchanged numbers, and he invited her to his hotel room. He told her he would give her money. All he needed was a couple of signatures and, voila, the money was hers. A few signatures and something else, of course. What he neglected to tell her was that he had registered her for a loan. It was shrouded in details, fine talk, and assurances from Krieger.

Franklin didn’t say much after that. He got back on the road and drove the rest of the way home and remained reticent as I stepped out before my compound gate. Then he pulled the car out and slowly glided toward the road. I tried not to imagine what I must have appeared like to a man like Franklin. Most likely, another superfluous fraud. A stranger, at best. I watched him as he drove off into the evening, and a felt an insipid emptiness as I walked up to my door.

***

With the conference coming up shortly, I did my best to simply keep my head down and work. Julietta stayed late into the evenings, editing programs and our video montage. Routinely, I made visits to the hotel to check on last-minute preparations. I counted the number of chairs and even inspected the microphones. On Wednesday, just before the conference, Franklin and I went down to the airport to pick up Dr. Krieger. It was a bright, clear day. Clouds hovered overhead. Trees glistened with a light green hue and the storks stood watchfully over the traffic lights. 

Down in the business district the roads were packed. Purple buses chugged along and white vans breathed out thick dark puffs of gray exhaust. Vendors roamed between vehicles holding newspapers and second-hand jeans. Others sat below tented shades on the side of the road. We got to the terminal at around three. Dr. Krieger was standing near the arrivals in a well-fitted suit—no belt, no tie. He looked comfortable, breezy, and fresh. His eyes jumped up when he saw us, and he trotted toward our car. “Ben, good to see you. Now, get the hell in the back.” This, of course, I did.

For those of you who don’t know him from the website, Dr. Krieger is a man in his late fifties. He has straight brown hair and a finely chiseled nose. His face bears some traces of his age, particularly around his eyes and ears, where he has a few light wrinkles. But I am not being overly friendly by saying that he could pass for someone in his forties. Energy-wise, he is like a college kid. As we made our way toward the highway, he opened the window and breathed in a big gulp of air. He got on his phone and started making calls to people, repeating a newfound phrase of his, that he was “back in town to re-live the dream.” Once we got to the hotel, he went up to his suite and threw his suitcase on the bed and strolled up to the window and looked out. He looked at the view as if he were surveying his personal kingdom. He put his fingers in his belt buckles and took a deep breath. His eyes had that unusual twinkle. His smile wouldn’t leave his face. 

He spent an hour at the gym, and then we met by the swimming pool that evening. We needed to talk over conference details—his schedule, roundtable, Q&A, those kinds of things. I had gone the extra steps to do exactly what his secretary asked: we procured the right brand of trail mix; his coffee was light roast; his water was cucumber-flavored; we were all stocked up on Splenda packets. Despite all this, Krieger seemed distracted and unamused. As we spoke, his attention kept veering off toward the pool, where there were two women lying down on sun chairs with towels folded over their breasts.

“You know what I love about this place?” Krieger held his glass in his hand and swirled the whiskey inside. “I get to live by own freewill. Know what I mean? Nobody cares about a goddamn thing.” 

Frankly, I didn’t quite know what he meant. I had heard of people coming out here to find themselves—people like the Austrian woman who started the opera school; or the Italian who created the nudist colony. But everyone had their own way of finding what it was they wanted.

“Jesus, for all my sins,” Krieger said. “We need someone like you to protect our image.” 

He cleared his throat in a very authoritative way. 

“But let me ask you something. Are you having a good time?” 

“Am I what?” 

I gathered he wanted to know if I was going out, meeting women, having fun. But I wasn’t sure what he wanted to hear. After all, he was my boss. This made me uneasy.

“Sorry, but I—” 

“Oh, c’mon,” he interrupted. “You know what I mean.”

“I do?”

His held his glass up. 

“I—”

“For Christ’s sake, Ben. Are you getting any—?”

Slam! The glass hit the table. He started to laugh. 

“Now I remember why I hired you. Holy shit, I remember.” He chuckled some more. “But listen, Ben, you can’t be a damn saint all the time. It’s not good for you.” 

He moved closer to me and I could see his puffy eyelids. 

“Tell me something,” he said. “Do you have plans tonight?” 

“Well, I—” 

“Good. When do the bars open up?”

At 10:00 Franklin came around with the car and collected the two of us. Krieger told me we were going to the Archimedes Lounge, “one of his favorites.” It was full of lava lamps and meandering lights. Behind the counter were blue shelves and bottles of wine and glasses arranged upside-down in neat rows. Waiters hurried around in white-button shirts. Security guards were dressed in fresh laundered suits. Dr. Krieger quickly made himself at home. He passed the white-color couches and found a table for us near the back. It was beside the checkered dance floor. A silver disco ball sparkled overhead. 

To one side was a service counter, on which bottles and glasses appeared every few moments. To the other side was a table full of young women, all made up in revealing, bright-colored skirts and their hair done in braids. Before long, Krieger called one of the women over to sit with him. Judging by the way he immediately engaged her, it was clear to me that I was supposed to do the same. I scanned the row of pleasant faces. As I tried to signal to one of them, she wagged her finger at me and laughed. Then she glanced at me again, this time more condescendingly. “No, no,” she mouthed. “I don’t like the little boys.”

I must have been on my third beer, hoping to drink my night away, by the time I had the sudden urge to pee. Krieger and his companion had moved on to taking lime shots off each other’s necks. On the way to the restroom, I passed a window, and looked out below toward the parking lot, where I had a clear view of the lounge entrance. Taxi drivers gesticulated to each other and a security guard stood solemnly. Then I was shocked to see someone I knew. Makena. She was standing by the entrance, her eyes determined and alight. She muttered something to the security guard and then walked swiftly by him. 

Perhaps I should have put the pieces together. I should have figured out that she was here to see Krieger. But in that moment I couldn’t concentrate on anything else but the pressure between my legs. Once I relieved myself, I began to ascertain what was going on. I hurried out of the stall and ran back pat the service counter and the blue-colored bar and rushed toward our table. I was too late. Makena was there, directly across from Krieger, her eyes aflame. 

“You lied to me,” she said. “You told me that money was mine.”

Krieger held his hands up and tried to calm her down. “Now, now, now,” he said, and then he offered to buy her wine. Any wine on the menu.

“Now we have nothing,” Makena said. “The bank took it all.” 

Krieger was unmoved. 

Makena reached into her bag and pulled out her phone. She opened a video app and played a recording she had made that night in Krieger’s hotel room. 

“You’re going to pay me back now,” she said. “Otherwise, the video goes online.”  

She paused the video on his face. 

A look of terror crossed Krieger’s eyes.

“Open your phone,” she said.

Krieger took his thumb and tapped the screen with it. 

“Now, transfer the money back to me. You know how much it was.”

“It’s not that simple—”

“From your personal account will be fine. I want my money back. Now.”

Krieger tapped the phone for a few moments, until Makena was sure the money had been transferred. I imagine Makena could have simply left right then. But something still nagged at her, something beyond the point of their business. Makena removed her shoes. 

“Know what you’re going to do, Dr. Krieger?”

Makena replayed the video again and showed him the last part where she knelt near the foot of the bed.Krieger seemed to understand exactly what Makena meant, because he nodded in abeyance and lowered himself to the floor. He got down on his knees and rested on the palm of his hands. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. One-by-one, his lips brushed over Makena’s toes,  kissing them gently, from one knuckle to the next. He made his way to the ball and the bridge. Slowly he embraced her cuticles, her nails, and then the big toe.

People around us stared. A waiter stopped to watch. The security guard scratched his head, and a couple across from us gasped. Makena eventually told Krieger to get back on his feet. I never felt so helpless as when I watched Makena head out the door. It was the sharpest feeling of irrelevance and confusion I had known in my life. A new disenchantment had settled in.

***

The conference turned out to be a great success. Hundreds attended and listened to our accomplished panelists. There were speakers, dancers, photo exhibits, and an art installation. Dr. Krieger delivered his keynote to a crowded ballroom. It was one of his best speeches to date. It was ‘liked’ and shared on social media for days. It even found its way onto his university homepage. He received several awards and applauses. The board members offered thanks. 

Krieger never so much as uttered a single word to me about what happened that night at the lounge. It was if it was all just an accident, something to be quickly forgotten. Like everything that happened out here, it was just an exploration and an adventure—an experiment gone wrong. On the day I took him to the airport, he got out of the car and paused to look at me. He was dressed in the same casual wear he wore on the day he arrived. “Ben,” he said, his face clean and fresh. “Be careful out here. It’s a hell of a place. The wildlife can really bite.”

It was clear to me now why Julietta hated him so much. It was also quite obvious why Franklin said to me, when I got back in the car, “I can’t stand that fucking guy.” 

About two weeks later, I received news from his office that I was being promoted to Regional Director. Congratulatory emails poured in, most of which from people I only vaguely knew. I should have been happy about it. I should have updated my resume and our website, and my LinkedIn. But I didn’t. The moment seemed to impress on me the fact that I had done absolutely nothing meaningful. Nothing at all. No good had come out of my being here. 

That night I went home and called my high school buddy. It was 9:00 in the morning his time. “I’m coming home,” I said. “I’ve had enough.” I told him I wanted something new—something simple and honest. Maybe there was an opening in his office? I was going to pay him a visit, so we could walk around the old town and catch up. Maybe he could take a day off and I would see his wife and kid. We could go out to the back of his house, put on some work clothes, and clean his garage.


Misha Mintz-Roth has been a contributor to The Economist’s online magazine Intelligent Life/1843 and was a recipient of an Honorable Mention in the 48th New Millennium Writing Awards. Prior to writing Fiction, he completed a Ph.D. in African History and was a Fulbright Fellow in India. This fall he will begin as an MFA student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Photo credit: “Flamingo” by Coconut-Cove