Our African Odyssey: life and death in the bush.

I sat in the lobby of the bank on a Wednesday morning late 2001. My job was to open a business account using the money from our savings account. The voice in my head wondered if this would eventually be the smartest thing we ever did, or the thing we regretted most.

By January 2002, my husband and I had two business partners, office space, three engineers, a graphic designer, a top-notch server farm and a prototype. We were in business.

TOPUP logoThe product was a back-office system that allowed mobile users to add minutes to their mobile device from a stand-alone terminal using an emerging cellular GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) technology requiring no wireline tether. Customers could buy minutes using cash or a credit card. Since I was in charge of marketing, I named it “TOP-UP.”

My son spent several afternoons in our office doing hundreds of test transactions with a stack of dollar bills we kept in the desk drawer. Someone had the idea to see how long it took him to buy minutes — it took about a minute. Immediately, I put a trademark on the tag line, “Got A Minute?”

GotAMinute Logo

We worked terribly hard and had loads of fun. A few months after our system went live, we were meeting with First Data and Western Union to allow customers to pay their utility bills or send money to anybody anywhere in the world. We were moving fast.TOPUP screen shot

TOP-UP Screen Ads
TOP-UP Screen Ads

One afternoon an email showed up from Coinstar (NASDAQ: CSTR) requesting information about TOP-UP. My heart stopped. Money was running dry and this email was the most wonderful thing in the world at that moment.

Earlier that year we had sold our beautiful downtown condo just in case our savings account proved a bit short. We found a little fishing cottage on the edge of town and spent a week of lunch hours pulling the flocked wallpaper from the walls and cleaning the kitchen cabinets. Coinstar wanted to use our software on their big green, coin-counting machines in grocery stores all over the U.S. and the U.K. We invited them to our little fishing cottage. My husband grilled steaks, I made home-made french fries, and we talked about a partnership. After 60 some odd field trials, they bought our little company lock, stock and barrel. Poof! It was over.

It had been some time since our last vacation so my husband had the idea that we should do something that would allow us to ‘give back’. He arranged for us to work at Nyumbani, an orphanage just outside of Nairobi Kenya that was home to HIV positive children who had lost their parents to AIDS. But first, we would go on safari.

photoThe safari would take us to the Samburu and Shaba game preserves, a 5-hour drive from Nairobi.The roads were horrible. We stopped at small shops along the way, had a flat tire, marveled at the women who carried loaded baskets atop their heads, dodged speeding bullets (pickup trucks loaded with people) and finally made it to the preserve. Our “room” was a tent and the “restaurant” was an open air pavilion. Breakfast was at 5:30am and the first safari of the day at 6:30am.

Ours was a small group: a married couple, two female friends, an 84-year old woman, who we affectionately called “Mama Safari”, her daughter, my husband and myself. Our vehicle was an open Land Rover, which we sometimes wished was not so open.

giraffe2

Animals of every variety walked right by the vehicle, sometimes they stretched out on the hood. The driver took us to the places he knew the animals frequented, parked in the middle of this area where we waited… and waited. Sometimes the animals showed up quickly, and sometimes they took their good, sweet time.eagle

There were so many animals: Grant Gazelle’s, Somali Ostrich, Baboons, the Oryx, Zebra, Water Buffalo, Hippopotamus, Dic Dic, Impala and Gerenuk, Giraffe, Cheetah, Leopard, Rhinosorus, Elephants, Lions, Hawks, Eagles and the greatly protected White Rhino that would fetch $250,000 if trapped by a poacher.

We were invited to the Samburu Warrior village where the men performed a warrior dance: they jump 4-6 feet off the ground. It appeared effortless, but was clearly super-human. The women would sing and bop up and down making their colorful necklaces fly.

image
The second safari of the day coincided with dinner time in the bush. It wasn’t at all uncommon for the Land Rover to get stuck in mud, but it was a little unnerving when it happened at dinner time. It was already dusk one night when we got stuck, the driver obviously embarrassed and determined to fix the problem on his own in spite of our urging him to call for help. Mama Safari took matters into her own hands, “This is Mama Safari, we’re stuck and you need to come find me….Over.” No one could understand the reply but it wasn’t long before a tractor showed up and pulled us out of the muck. We couldn’t help but wonder how they knew where to find us, but we were glad Mama Safari had the guts to use that radio.

Maasai

It was at dusk again a few nights later when we saw a line of Hyena and a single Lion. The Lion was tracking a lone Wildebeest while the Hyenas were stalking the Lion. It was a dance of survival as each animal avoided its pursuer until dark. Our driver suggested this would be a good place to start the next morning. In the early morning fog, we could see Jackals and Hyena scattered around a fallen animal. It was the Lion….and it was numbing. To have seen the dance begin and now witness what was left of this beautiful creature – we saw the bush in a new light that day.

lion2

lion1

cheetaWe sat quietly for breakfast in the early mornings, the coffee black and strong. Dinners were superb with exquisitely prepared Impala and Ostrich. The Maasai would dance and sing until the wee hours. Hot water bottles were placed between the sheets to warm our beds from the chilly nights. I screamed when I crawled into bed the first night. We slept in simple tents by the river with mosquito netting and sometimes in more permanent tents complete wth hot and cold running water. We visited a reforestation ranch and planted an Acacia tree with a Maasai tribe to ensure an ongoing source of food for the growing population of elephants. We practiced basic Swahili and when we couldn’t last one more day without exercise, an armed guard accompanied us outside the electric fences of the compound for a nice long walk. We did not speak of exercise again.

imageA short flight on a small plane had taken us to our final stop in the Maasai Mara, the Great Rift Valley, Amboseli National Park, and at last, back to Nairobi where we spent a lovely evening in a hotel room with real walls, windows and doors… and a proper bathroom. A nice young lady came to our room and used henna to draw a beautiful design free-hand on my hand, wrist and above the outside of my ankles. The first half of the trip was over.

Safari had been good for our souls… healing in a way. There was no technology, no cell phones, no TOP-UP. We didn’t know what to expect at the orphanage, but safari had been more than we could imagine and we were ready for whatever Africa brought next……at least we thought.

 

The children of Nyumbani
The children of Nyumbani

 

TOP-UP and Prizm Technology memorabilia still on the web:

Prizm Technology Debuts Wireless TOP-UP Terminal
New Cash-Accepting Web-enabled Terminal Kiosk from Prizm Technology, Inc. Offers Retailers a Cost-Efficient Sales Channel
Prepaid top-ups added to 69 Coinstar kiosks for pilot
Coinstar gets serious about prepaid wireless with purchase of Prizm Technologies
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