[TRADING PLACES] Kenyan beans give fast-paced Korea its coffee fix

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[TRADING PLACES] Kenyan beans give fast-paced Korea its coffee fix


From left, Joseph Owiti, a seven-year Kenyan resident in Korea, Kim In-hack, who was the director of the Paradise Safari Park Hotel in Nairobi, and Kenyan Ambassador to Korea Mohamed Gello discuss the Kenyan lifestyle at Kenya Kiambu Coffee in central Seoul on Nov. 22. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Our latest series about the diplomatic community in Seoul, “Trading Places,” focuses on the experience of living in a foreign land. In each installment, an ambassador invites to his or her home a compatriot living in Korea and a Korean who lived in the ambassador’s country. They swap memories ? good, bad and amusing ? and describe how a distant country that was once an abstraction, a colored patch on a map, became a part of their lives.-Ed.

Kim In-hack came face to face with his own fears on the first night of camping with his family near the bank of the Mara River in Kenya.

Kim In-hack: Kenya is the best place to go camping with your family. And it’s very systemized. There is a company that lends you the tent, the cooking utensils, even the chef comes along, the car and everything. It’s not cheap but it’s worth the experience, because you are never going to get the same anywhere in Korea. We got this spot right opposite the Maasai Mara national park and we had just finished a great barbecue for dinner. The stars were coming out and we could hear the sounds of animals somewhere in the distance.

But some of them did not sound so distant from the camp - in fact, Kim heard something move right outside of his own tent in the middle of the night.

Kim: My wife woke me up, whispering there is a hyena right next to the children’s camp, which was located next to ours. I listened closely, and lo and behold, I did hear a hyena walking through the grass right beside us! My wife kicked me out of the tent to go fight the hyena, but I didn’t have anything on me (laughs).

Kim: I called out for some of the Maasai friends who were camping with us - we had asked them to come along. One came over, and I said, “Hey, I think there is a hyena right outside my children’s tent.” Then the guy just doubled over laughing. I said, “What?” and the guy said, “The hyena you heard is at least a few kilometers away, but you hear it as if it is very close during nighttime.”

Joseph Owiti: Hyenas also don’t approach if the fire is lit. They behave like scavengers so they like to keep a distance.


Left: Kim In-hack, right, with his friends at the Paradise Safari Park Hotel in Nairobi, Kenya. Kim was heavily involved in the construction of the hotel, which he said was one of the earliest examples of Korean participation in a construction project in Kenya. Right: Joseph Owiti with children he taught at Seoul Cheondong Elementary School in Gangdong District, eastern Seoul, as part of the Seoul Metropolitan Government’s program to invite foreign residents in the city to teach classes on their homelands’ cultures at kindergartens and schools in the city. Owiti has been participating in the program since 2012. [KIM IN-HACK, JOSEPH OWITI]

Kim: It was an experience I could never forget. Anyway, my family, especially my wife, made sure that I didn’t forget it (laughs).

Mohamed Gello: Every time I go on a safari, I’ve never had enough of it. It is always different. When you go camping in these places, it is dead silent, so when you hear a small thing, you may think it is just around the corner.

Some of Kenya’s vast natural landscapes remain untouched by humans. But it’s also home to ancient human settlements, like the island of Lamu.

Gello: Lamu is a Unesco World Heritage, one of the six in Kenya, so you cannot change it. The city is over 500 to 600 years old, and the structures have been retained the way they were. They are unique and are absolutely Afro-Arabic architecture.

Kim: A group of Koreans were invited by the governor of Lamu to visit the island. We stayed at a three-story house on the beach and I slept on the top room, it was done with Arabic Somali-style interior. The house was basically an open space with large windows you could open, so there was no need for an air conditioner. A mosque nearby would start a call to prayer in the morning, and I remember waking up to that and seeing the sun coming up from the horizon of the sea. The whole ambience made me want to pray about something. Everything was beautiful.

Gello: Some 85 percent of Kenyans are Christian, but the east African coast has had interactions with Arabs for 100,000 years. And the Kenyan constitution protects the Muslim way of life. We have what is called the Kadhi court, which takes care of Muslim family laws - it handles marriage, divorce and inheritances. When I married, because I am a Muslim, I married through the Islamic court, not the secular court. And when I die, if I don’t leave a will for inheritance, the Islamic way of inheritance will take care of it.

Kenyan coffee in Korean cafe

The next time Ambassador Mohamed Gello visits Nairobi, one of his stops will include an up-and-coming cafe in the city run by a Korean.

Gello: This time in December when I visit Nairobi, I intend to make a trip to the cafe in Nairobi. Kenya now has a cafe culture, but I don’t know if there is another place in the world where every other fourth or fifth shop down a street is a cafe. And this is not only in Seoul - you go to Busan and you see it, you go to Daegu and you see it. I normally go to Gangneung and it’s all coffee there. The Kenyan Embassy was the first embassy to attend their coffee festival in 2015.

Gello: This cafe culture here is unique. You go to a cafe and you see ladies maybe gossiping a bit, two guys having business, a young man doing his research work with his laptop, just friends catching up, and during lunch breaks, many of them are having a talk before they go back to work, it’s so healthy.

Kim: Cafe culture is part of the culture here. Koreans like coffee because it provides a time to socialize in drinking coffee together. Koreans are in a way exporting this particular type of coffee culture.

Gello: And we are contributing to this culture as a country sourcing high-quality coffee. In terms of reliability, Kenyan coffee is the best. And the way we grow coffee is based on a very unique system - we have a cooperative system of small-scale farmers who work through cooperatives, from producing, processing, milling and grating to weekly auctions. We used to produce some 130,000 tons of coffee per year in mid-1980s. Today, we are producing some 40,000 tons. But we have Koreans now going into Kenya to invest in coffee. Most Kenyan coffee grows at certain altitudes and that is why Kenyan coffee is full-bodied and acidic with strong aroma.

An area that more Korean investors could look closely may be the growing cellphone reliance in the country.

Gello: In Kenya, cellphones have now become one of the biggest employers. This is what happened: At the beginning of 20th century, our largest telephone operator called Safaricom, developed an app called Sambaza, an app through which you can send to people what’s called airtime, which they can use to call and text. Say you have with you some 50,000 won ($46) worth of airtime and your kid runs out of airtime. He will ask, can you send me airtime, and I will send him airtime through that app.

Gello: Safaricom noted an interesting trend here, that Kenyans were sending to each other a lot of airtime, in millions of won. So they said, why don’t we use the phone to enable people to send each other money, instead of airtime? So Kenya became the first country to transfer money through mobile phones. M-Pesa is the name of the platform to transfer money, and there are as many M-Pesa shops in Kenya as there are many cafes in Korea.

Kim: We have to pay attention that this will boost development in Kenya. So Koreans have to understand this situation in Kenya in order to plan and invest smartly. In Kenya, especially in urban areas, everyone has a cellphone and they charge it using solar energy, also an area the two countries have been working closely on, as Samsung pitched in funds to power some schools in the country and to create computer labs at these schools.

Haraka haraka haina baraka

Joseph Owiti is a changed man from who he was seven years ago when he arrived in Seoul. A lot of it has to do with keeping time, he said.

Owiti: In Korea I realized time is time. Of course people here are late, too, sometimes, but I saw that people keep time here and that it’s very important. I cannot compare myself with the Joseph I was back in Kenya. You see, in Kenya, though not everyone is late all the time, sometimes it’s considered okay to be late for lectures and there is a general sense of taking things as they come and go.

Gello: A striking difference is our approach to daily life. In Kenya we say, Haraka haraka haina baraka, which loosely translates to “no need to hurry.” This is markedly different from the Korean bballi-bballi culture which focuses on getting things done as quickly as possible.

Kim: I think it may have to do with the weather. When I was involved in building the Safari Park Hotel in Nairobi, I asked two guys to make a dig for an electric line and I could see them working from my office window. And these two guys, they’re smoking, talking and then shoveling once, smoking, talking and shoveling once. So I talked to them and gave them a hard time. But that evening I talked with a Kenyan manager, who said, if you work like Koreans here, you’d die. Because Korean-style is to dig, dig, dig in the morning and dig, dig, dig again in the afternoon. Under the 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) sun, this is impossible. So from that point, I learned to plan earlier and get more people to work on a project.

And the slower lifestyle is reflected in how people enjoy meals together in the country.

Kim: There was barbecue everywhere we went in Kenya. But the way Koreans eat barbecue is very quick, right? But in Kenyan barbecue, you have wait three hours as they put one huge chunk of meat on charcoal, slowly simmering it. In the meanwhile you are talking and drinking. Once, a Kikuyu friend invited my family for a barbecue. We went and they killed a goat in the garden and started a barbecue. They gave out drinks, corn, potatoes and we just kept eating. By the time the barbecue was ready, I was so full.

Gello: We are a nation of barbecue. We are big eaters of meat and our number one loved thing is barbecue. Those days we used to allow sale of game meat - crocodile, ostrich, zebra, impala, chicken and more. But Kenya has banned completely the game killing of wild animals. We also banned the export of game products, including ivory. Ivory should only be owned by elephants. Only two types of animals raised domestically are open for game, and that is ostrich and crocodile.

After Kenyans enjoy a hearty barbecue together, there is a practice that follows right after, which is also commonly found in Korea.

Gello: In Kenya, we fight over who should pay - “No, no, no, I’m going to pay everything,” you hear this a lot at dining tables.

Owiti: You will be very embarrassed if you don’t have cash on you after you have invited someone to a meal in Kenya, because you are expected to pay in this situation.

Kenyan Ambassador
Mohamed Gello

Ambassador Mohamed Gello arrived in Korea in 2015, upon completing his post as ambassador to the United Arab Emirates from 2009 to 2014. He was previously the head of China affairs in the Kenyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was also posted to the Kenyan Embassy in Washington D.C. The top envoy received his master’s degree in public administration at Punjab University in India and another master’s degree in international studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He is married with three sons.

Joseph Owiti

Joseph Owiti traveled to Korea for the first time seven years ago to study Korean. Upon graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in political science and literature from the University of Nairobi, Owiti knew he wanted to pursue studies somewhere in Asia. With a choice of China, Korea and Japan, Owiti said he chose Korea in the end because it was a country he did not know much about. Now he is pursuing a Ph.D. in political science at the Academy of Korean Studies in Gyeonggi. He also teaches from time to time classes on Kenyan culture at schools throughout Seoul. Owiti spends his spare time learning Taekwondo and has a first-degree black belt.

Kim In-hack

Kim In-hack was the director of the Paradise Safari Park Hotel in Nairobi, Kenya, one of the earliest construction projects in Kenya to include Koreans. Kim was the director of the hotel in 1985, and became its vice president in 2001. He is the executive advisor of Paradise Sega Sammy Company and is also working for Grago Air N Tour Travel.

BY ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]
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