one of our favorite sights

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Is There a Lowe's Around Here?

As people who have spent a fair amount of time in hardware stores over the years, both the big box kind and the little old neighborhood variety, we tend to look for/in them wherever we are. Not surprisingly, there are no Big Box hardware stores in Eldoret, Kenya (there is a grocery store that is verging on that status but it is Kenyan) but there are lots of small hardware stores.  At face value, that seems really awesome. However, we have had a few small projects and incidents occur which have made the existence and convenience of something like a Lowe’s more appealing than one would expect. Yep, we, who generally have disdain for  big box stores in general and complain of their ubiquitous existence at home, have actually LONGED for Lowe’s recently. Menards would even do in a pinch!
One reason is that our drill broke. It actually exploded, or got fried, or something. I am not sure, as I was not there, but the tale that is now told is a sad one. Michael and Liam both love our drill. It’s cordless and strong enough for most household projects; HANDY, you might say.  And we hauled it and its charger all the way here, even having it nearly confiscated at customs in Nairobi. Anyway, it was the wrong voltage for the electricity here, so we bought a transformer to charge the battery. We looked and looked for the right one in all of the little electronics shops in town and finally found one which we were promised would do the trick.  It did not.  In fact, it had the opposite effect. So, we have been without a drill since that unfortunate day. A very sad state of affairs in this small project-minded household.
 Recently, Michael and I went on an excursion to look for drills, in case they might have one similar to our now dead one, in one of the many hardware stores in Eldoret. We went to what is considered the “best” one, i.e. it has the most stuff. No, it was not even close to Menards or Lowe’s. It did have drills, though, and screwguns (another favorite of my menfolk). However, they were SO expensive it was kind of shocking, and , even weirder was that they weren’t new! They were refurbished and all were over $200.00. A similar drill at home would cost about $60.00. Although discouraged, we did find this hefty pricing illuminating. Due to the cost, we probably won’t buy one and we have lately found out that IU has one that we may be able to borrow, so we are fortunate. Also, a new friend  who does maintenance work for children’s homes and has Liam help him build playgrounds,  has loaned us one for our current big project at our house (a basketball goal… see attached photos).
Aside from noting the availability and pricing of small hand tools, there are a lot of things going on here which as builders, or “construction people” we notice. There are a few mysteries for us here, though, aside from the price of tools.  Take for instance the current public works job that has been going on outside of our house for the past week. It is a wonder of a job. We walk by every day and we wonder…what is going on here? Michael has done a lot of road work in his career and his observation of this one is that it is mysterious.  
Coming from the US where everything is designed to be as efficient and easy and convenient as possible, almost to a nauseating extreme, there are so many things that go on that just don’t make sense to us, yet they are totally accepted as status quo.  We know that a lot of it has to do with availability of equipment, materials, etc, but what is surreal is here in Kenya,  they seem to be struggling with what seems like basic stuff,  yet they are quite advanced in the more high tech fields, like internet access, moving money by telephone, and cell phone technology.  The contrast/conflict  between the modern world and the developing world is all taking place right here. There surely is a reason why but we have yet to figure it out.
Take for instance,  when the guys were  working on the road outside our house. Now, first of all, they were digging everything by hand, which is fine, slow going, but fine and pretty precise. Digging dirt out of the sides of the road with shovels and pickaxes, and then carrying the dirt with broken down wheelbarrows to where I am not sure. Using sticks as markers. Not sure what the end goal is, but it seems they are going to pave this little lane to our neighborhood and that it must be part of the city’s  overall “public works” projects. And it certainly employed a lot of men.  All good. But, someone hit a water pipe, the main water pipe to our neighborhood, and then there was water flowing everywhere in large quantities. I happened to walk by then, and found them struggling to stanch the flow of water with the most handy of dandy things, Plastic Bags and electric tape (which Liam had given them upon request). The flow was  strong so I was pretty sure that this was not going to work for very long and I mentioned this to Michael who went out and found out who was responsible for the broken pipe so that we wouldn't get charged. They lost a lot of water. The work continued throughout the day and the plastic bags were wound and rewound around the pipe. By the end of the day, no one had come to fix the pipe and the plastic bags were holding….I just hope they don’t bury the bags on the pipe rather than actually fixing it. Michael says they may not have the tools or materials. (this is day 5 and the pipe has yet to be fixed. Glad there is not a drought anywhere in Kenya right now! Ok, day 6…the pipe is fixed and buried….let’s hope it holds!)
Another fine example of this surrealism  is that there are a million, or at least 30, small Indian owned hardware stores downtown. However, they don’t carry all of the various materials that one might need for a building project! We have been trying to get the materials to put up a basketball court for 10 weeks. Michael bought a hoop, at the school supply store, then had to go have it rewelded because it was not welded well at the back. Then Liam cut a piece of plywood that we had found for the backboard, and painted it. Then we had to go find two 2x4 8 ft. boards to nail to the fence posts so that they can hold the backboard up. Well, that turned out to be an interesting effort. We walked around downtown and went to 5 or 6 “hardware” shops, and no one had “timber” for building. Finally we ran across a store owner who directed us to go the “fundis” who build stuff and buy the wood timbers. He said no one else in town would have them.
So we wandered into this interesting little area of “fundis’ who were working on cars, taking out whole engines in a greasy mess, sawing wood, making coffins ( handily you can get one made cheap right there in that little zone!) making clothes, etc. We found the guy who seemed to own the saw and there were boards! Yea! So we had a long broken Swahili-English conversation about purchasing two 10 ft. boards that he would have delivered (we hoped) to our house, since we don’t have a vehicle, all for $10. We left pleased that we had found the boards but not at all sure that we would get them anytime soon. They did arrive later that day, pushed by a laborer, on a dolly, about 3 miles to our house. The final thing that we needed, besides borrowing a drill from someone, were some bolts, to hold the metal rim to the backboard and the boards to the fence posts.  Because of the weight of the backboard and the posts, we needed special bolts and wood screws. These turned out to be hard to find as well. Michael and Liam visited at least 5 little hardware stores in town, none of which carried bolts or screws. There was one store that had a bad selection of screws which were flat heads and according to the familial experts, they “blow” because you might “break your knuckles” using them!

Anyway, the backboard is up, the neighborhood children are deeply involved in learning to shoot, and it is all good. It is just interesting coming from small town America, where almost everything is easily available, to big town Kenya, where it is sometimes hard to find the most basic of things. Most people who can, depend on local labor for projects like these but since we are normally “do it your selfers” that did not occur to us. And who would be better at this job than a couple of Hoosiers?  Certainly if we had done so it may have taken a lot less time because the local folks may have known sooner where to find stuff. However, it is good from our perspective to go through such an experience to really get a handle on what the folks here have to deal with on a day to day basis. Something that would have taken maybe a day at home has literally taken us 10 weeks here. Partly because we don't have a car, but.... I think all of our “handy” friends would get a kick out of visiting these “fundis” in town and seeing what the trades people are doing. It is eye-opening and gives you a whole new appreciation for Lowes!!


  1. Very interesting, Lizzy! We definitely got it good over here.

    Are you sure they even use screws and bolts? Sticks maybe?

    I saw Liam's picture of some big building project and they were using sticks for scaffolding. Wow! What a world we live in, huh?

    I love your posts and always want more!

  2. I just looked at the pictures and am wondering are those your gates? Or do you live in a gated community?

    Also, reflecting on this passage, couldn't Michael help some Kenyans develop their lumber industry somehow? Or help someone establish a more elaborate hardware store. Just a thought.

  3. Liz, your perspective is so valuable. Thank you for blogging your experience!

    Two thoughts:
    1. I was just in Home Depot last week to buy weather stripping with a friend from Indonesia. It struck me at the time that the presence of materials was indeed a component of broader U.S. infrastructure. We can access supplies quickly and cheaply to address urgent (and not-so-urgent) problems. Our stores have inventory that exceeds demand. The volume of product allows materials to be accessed within reasonable budgetary constraints.

    I think you've done an excellent job capturing specific examples of what I've heard in 'development' rhetoric to be a lack of investment in market-based infrastructure for African nations and how it increases the existing gap for rapid development.

    Your observation of the disparity between information technology and traditional materials technology provides an interesting counterpoint. It sounds like the creators of MPESA need to turn their creative minds towards hardware and small business infrastructure for a moment; there must be some integrated solutions to increase momentum towards materials production and distribution. I've heard many specialists bemoan the lack of American investment in the African continent. I have to think that inflated pricing such as you've described would have to provide an interesting enough profit margin for companies like Dewalt of Milwaukee.... (The African economy may be one of the most undervalued in the world.)

    I will say that Dr. Gebisa Ejeta (World Food Prize Winner) has been pushing the notion of business investment in grain/seed markets for similar reasons. In our world of Monsanto, ADM, and ConAgra, I had a knee-jerkingly negative reaction to his suggestions. It terrifies me to think of the largest populated continent sharing in our massive mistakes. But I'm coming to realize the critical scale of the problem, the need for capital allocation, and the role of regulated corporate involvement. Might be an interesting Gates Foundation proposal... Some really amazing potential for African+American partnerships to initiate African companies that fill these niches.

    2. Nice work on those hoops! In 15-20 years, when Western Kenyans replace Americans in NBA championships, we'll know who to blame, lol ;)