My Working World: K is for…
It’s the first Monday of February, it’s time for another in the series of My Working World and today we’ve reached K. If you want to read any of the earlier ones, just click on the appropriate letter below. But in the meantime, let’s move on.
There are five countries in the world beginning with K: Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kiribati, Kuwait City and Kyrgyzstan. I’ve been to three of them, Kazakhstan, Kenya and Kuwait City. According to Wikipedia, there are nearly 300 major cities beginning with K, many of them in Japan. Initially, I thought I’d visited none of them but as I went through the list, names kept popping up that I recognised: Kampala, Kharkiv, Kiev, Kostroma, Kursk. I have visited five in total, four of which are in Russia or Ukraine, and all of which have featured heavily in my fiction. In fact, Nikolevsky, the town in which Gorgito’s Ice Rink is mainly set, is a combination of Kursk and Kostroma. But I’ve talked about my travels in the Former Soviet Union countries several times already in this series. So today, I thought we would spend some time in Africa.
I first visited Kenya back in the 1980s and 1990s when I was still working for a multinational pharmaceutical company. We had a tiny factory making a few older products in Nairobi, and I was part of the team carrying out annual inspections. Three things stick in my memory from those visit: the lush surroundings and colourful garden setting, complete with cows on the front lawn; the sweat running down my back and soaking into my underclothes, causing me to spend much longer inspecting the cold store than was strictly necessary; and my embarrassment when the necklace I was wearing for the closing meeting with the General Manager broke, scattering pearls across his office carpet. That GM later became CEO of the whole company, but by then I had left to become an independent consultant, so I never had to face him again.
But most of my work in Kenya was as part of the project I completed for the Commonwealth Secretariat in the 2000s. We were working with government officials and manufacturing companies in a number of African countries, trying to create a level playing field in regulations, to encourage purchase of local drugs, rather than much more expensive imports from Europe or USA. It was a tough project, laced with politics and, I suspect, elements of corruption on occasion, and I’m not convinced we completed succeeded. But it was a fascinating experience.
The industry was run primarily by Asian families and the standard of the facilities was relatively high. But there was very little experience in the regulatory arm of the Health Ministry. We spend a lot of time helping the inspectors learn what they needed to do. And we had some interesting chats with the Customs Authorities regarding the damage caused to local industries by the imposition of high import tariffs on raw materials.
As always on these trips, the social side was well-organised. Anyone who has read Counterfeit! won’t be surprised to hear the visit to the Game Park described in chapter 23 came straight from my own experience. As did the horror felt by Suzanne when she first saw the sprawling slum township on the outskirts of the city.
On several occasions, we spent some time in the game park. I have always loved watching animals in the wild. And I took my favourite photo of all time on one of those mini safaris. Not sure how I managed to get the creatures to keep still long enough for the shot, but I did!
The capital of Uganda was another interesting place I visited during the same Commonwealth Secretariat project. I knew all about Idi Amin’s rule during the 1970s and was unsure what to expect. The country appeared to have recovered well over the following two decades and I remember the city being warm, welcoming, modern yet flower-filled. I was fascinated with the large colonies of Marabou storks, huge ugly birds that nested in the top of trees throughout the city. This unofficial National Bird of Uganda is also known as the Undertaker bird and tales of why they flourished in the 1970s were horrific.
The industry situation in Uganda was the exact opposite of that of its neighbour, Kenya. The government inspectors were well-trained and knew what was required of a modern pharmaceutical plant. However, there were no such plants in the city, or in fact in the rest of the country. The plant being used to manufacture fake drugs in Zambia in Counterfeit! was based on one I visited in Kampala – although I hasten to add there was no indication the drugs they were making were anything but completely legal. It was the setting, at the top of a dirt hill above the main road, that was so striking and which I felt I had to use.