Monthly Archives: December 2009

Last night in Kenya

I spent my last day here in Nairobi lazing around the Okemwa home, reflecting on my journey and feeling rather under the weather. I floated in and out of sleep, and in between naps took a few walks around the neighborhood with the sisters. I can’t believe that on Wednesday I’ll step out onto snowy ground and be reunited with my car, cell phone, credit cards, job and responsibilities. I’ll be confronted with the excess in my life and the lives of those around me and to contrast that reality with what I’ve seen here will be troubling. It’s hard to find a way to channel that emotional energy into something constructive and intelligent. I’ve certainly felt a pull to this place, and whether that’s my own romanticizing of this culture and the idea of something so different from what I know or the fact that this place actually makes sense to me, I’m not sure. Logically, everyone points to NGO work for opportunity, but I find it too ironic and imperialistic in most cases.
The most compelling idea I’ve had yet is to work with the rural women here who are survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. In fact, when we visited Grandma in Kisii, Benja’s auntie was gone because she left her abusive husband, temporarily. It sounds like this happens frequently – she goes to stay at a friend’s house and leaves him with the children, who can’t really care for themselves well, then eventually comes back until she decides to leave again. The both drink whatever moonshine is popular there, and I’m not sure how anything could ever really change between them, as they’re locked in by poverty and social pressures and lack of resources. She could never leave and survive without the land and the food they grow there and he may never stop his abusive behavior; the children will probably also grow up to perpetuate such behavior. I’m not sure what the answer is or if there is one, but it seems possible that someone who understands the cycle of control and abuse as well as cultural implications and factors could have a strong effect on a situation like this.
Until tomorrow night, I will continue to marvel at the small-time entrepreneurs who line the sidewalks of every street in this dirty city with their own micro-businesses and creativity. I will enjoy washing my own clothes by hand in buckets outside, waking up to the sounds of birds, using toilets without seats, and eating a simple diet, because soon enough I’ll be back to a steady supply of coffee and whiskey and cigarettes, and I’ll miss it.

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

There are so many ways to die in Kenya

A tired Mamma Baobab along the way to the coast; I saw wild giraffes and zebras and monkeys along the way – who needs a safari when you can ride a cheap, hot, packed bus!?
Photobucket

Photobucket

Check out the giant ant hill on the left – wow. Some of these were structured around tree trunks and crept at least six feet up towards the sky….
Photobucket
I survived a grueling weekend in the land of tourists, Mombasa. When I think about it now, I guess I spent about 18 hours on a bus just to go to the beach. It was late when we got to the city after the incredibly hot, eight-hour bus ride from Nairobi. My jeans were soaked with sweat and squeezing into a matatu with my bags was not easy. We found a hotel for a decent price after some looking, and were given a higher price as soon as the management saw me – so we slept without air conditioning. We did wake up and go straight to the public beach, which was not yet very busy, and I luxuriated like a true tourist should, I ate mangos with salt and red hot pepper and dank coconut from the shell and floated in my bikini in the warm, salty water.

Photobucket

Photobucket
(This camel tried to eat my leg shortly after this photo was taken and I jumped back in fright – they have MUCH larger mouths than you’d imagine!)
But I only had a few hours to relax before scads of people swarmed onto the beach, all of them staring at me if within eye sight. Benja even overheard one couple speaking in his mother tongue, Kisii, about how I must have hired him as an escort and how they hated people like me. Indeed, there were a lot of unusual couplings to observe at the public beach – the most common being the unsurprising old white guy with a beautiful young African woman – but there’s a weirder version of this I wouldn’t have thought of, “Beach Boys,” handsome young black men with old white women. I found this fascinating to no end and spent as much time as possible looking for such pairings.
We were supposed to be picked up by Benja’s uncle around 3pm, but ended up waiting until about six. I was amazed at my own patience. I sat on the ground and leaned against a water resovoire, still wearing my backpack, and faced the stares of the glaring public. I’ve tried to be generous and accepting and respectful, but I’ve become so tired of these stares, and began glaring back. Anyway, the point is not to highlight my ability to glare, but the fact that I have learnt to be amazingly patient here. Not only did I spend eight hours on an excruciatingly hot bus, get sunburned and have to wait for three hours to get picked up by Benja’s relatives, then wait while they bought groceries, then go to their hot house, full of children, and have to watch cartoons in a hot living room and be told not to leave the property – I was okay with it.
I think I might be learning something! Or else it’s just Mombasa, where everything moves a little more slowly, perhaps even tempers.

The place wasn’t that bad though – they did have a Masaai guard. I’ve heard they are popular guards, known for their craftiness and honor. He couldn’t speak a word of English, but one of the uncles translated for me and the guard, Steven, (not an incredibly traditional name…) told me about how he had had to move to the city to make money to support his family because of the drought and the difficulty in taking care of his cattle. He let me check out his club and bow and arrow, and he carried a large knife and wore beaded jewelry, all of which were definitely hand-made and I slipped him some money before I left because I couldn’t help it.

Photobucket

The huge compound was located in the middle of a Mombasa slum, and while Ben’s uncle said that he felt the inhabitants around the mansion protected them, like last year during the violence following elections here, his hiring of a Maasai guard spoke to the truth of his fear.
It was hard being in such a beautiful place and not being able to leave the compound – the uncle said it was too dangerous, and when I asked if I could just walk to the beach that night, he became very upset because he thought that was code for partying. Mombasa is a big party town, with lots of bars and discos, and his teenaged daughters are clearly very into it. As soon as they understood the misunderstanding they tried to take advantage of it and told their father they were going to take me out, because I wanted to go party. I, of course, was hot and tired and just didn’t want to be stuck in the mansion, but had to respect the situation. I stayed within the walls until mid-morning, where, despite the sister’s efforts to make us leave later, we managed to get to the bus station downtown and headed back to Nairobi on an independent line (the most dangerous to ride because they have less resources – so if you break down, no one comes and replaces the bus, you just sit until it’s fixed, which makes the bus full of people very vulnerable to “bandits,” especially at night.)
Mombasa Road is a particularly dangerous highway because it’s so rural and there’s so many hyenas and bandits people rarely walk along it like they do near Kisii. Hyenas frequently eat people – a young boy recently saved his mother from one, though they were both badly mauled. Another big story here this weekend was a man being killed by a hippo in Lake Victoria after his boat capsized. Seeing so many accidents on the highway, mostly tipped-over semis, furthered my morbid line of thought. I was also discomforted by the lack of seat belts and the fact the bus was extremely overcrowded – I couldn’t lean back because so many people were packed into my row that our shoulders wouldn’t fit; Benja had a kid on his lap who had no seat; and at least five more people stood; while a very annoyed young French couple were forced to sit in a row that had a seat with no back. A very stereotypical African bus experience, though by Kenyan standards, this bus was actually pretty bad. I imagined our driver in a head-on collision every time he passed a semi, usually fuel-tankers, on the narrow, curving road and barely made it. But, I didn’t die and I’m on the homestretch now – it seems I might actually survive, even though there are so many ways to die in Kenya.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A Night in Kisii

Benja, his ma and I took a trip to rural Kisii, which is Northeast of Nairobi near the border with Tanzania, to visit extended family. We took a five hour bus ride from Nairobi through the Rift Valley to reach the mountainside farmland.
<Photobucket

Photobucket

Photobucket

It was near dark by the time we got there and met up with a friend for a ride to ma’s childhood home, still the home to her elderly mother who is taken care of by her youngest son at the family compound, as is traditional practice.
The friend drove us through very dark countryside around 8pm, and a constant stream of people walked along the road on both sides. We left the paved road and tested the off-road abilities of the Toyota Corolla – which are not great. We drove over terrifying ruts dried into the red mud until we finally came upon a steep embankment lined with dirty children in the dark, and came to a stop. The kids greeted us and each of them shook my white hand in the dark and stared at me. We followed them through tall grass and stubby trees and past corn and around ruts until we reached a large hut with sheet-metal roofing, the light from its doorway shining out across the field.
We were taken inside and I was startled to find an empty room – dark except for a small fuel lamp on the wooden table and several battered old chairs. The walls were freshly covered with red clay and the darkness gave the empty space a warm feeling. We all waited for grandma to come and greet Benja, and eventually a small old woman appeared in the dark room and shook our hands, speaking only her native tongue – Kisii.
Photobucket
She sat for awhile to talk to her grandson, Benja, and then we took some photos while the children lined the wall in the dark and looked on. Grandma shook my hand again and held it, saying a blessing for me – that I should become old like a banana tree until the tree is so old it’s top branches must be propped. I thanked her profusely for the sweetest prayer that has ever been said for me, and studied her wrinkled face and held her small, cold boney hand.
Eventually, our short, night-time visit came to an end, and they all walked us back to the Corolla and received took the gifts we had brought back to the compound. I gave the children some candy I had brought, and they devoured it and tossed the wrappers on the red road.
Photobucket
Later, we arrived at the extended family’s home at which we would stay the night. I couldn’t figure out why it smelled so strongly of cows – until I sat to take my dinner and looked out the kitchen door to find that the cow’s stall was literally steps away. The family owned three cows and used their milk profusely, which I decided to avoid. The paint chipped off of the walls. Three children sat on the tattered old couch and watched my every move as flies and mosquitos swarmed and the TV showed a fuzzy image of a news program about matatu drivers striking. The mother nursed the youngest, an 8-month old baby who was getting over malaria. I went to brush my teeth and found no sink in the cold bathing rooms, though there was a toilet that didn’t flush with half of the seat broken off, so I spat down the floor drain. I crawled onto the top of a bunk bed in the girl’s tiny room and tried to decipher the meaning behind the etchings on the door which read – “Ghetto Passy” and tried to be less incredibly uncomfortable and more understanding and thankful.
I slept poorly and worried about the holes in the mosquito net.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

From Villages to Sky Scrapers

Photobucket
I’ve less than a week left in Kenya and the time is going fast (especially given that it takes so long to do anything here… sometimes I wonder if it’s just Nairobi or if it’s the public transportation I am so unaccustomed to relying on, but I’ve decided it’s Nairobi. There’s no posted or promised arrival time and traffic jams can be caused by everything from an accident to an art expo to rain.)
Yesterday the single activity chosen was to visit the Bomas, a display of re-created traditional villages in the style of their respective Kenyan tribes. Benja’s mom said she would take me while he met a friend, and I was really excited to get my mom time on – plus all of the teens hate the Bomas. Anyway, we had lunch at a small restaurant in a metal shipping crate near the city airport and then ma ditched us to do some work. So we went alone and met two other cousins there, who were as equally un-enthused as India and Belinda. We walked through the villages and made fun of their well-dressed boy cousin, Edmund, who had just come from a meeting at university.
Photobucket
Photobucket

I slept in rather late this morning and then headed downtown with Ben and India. We went to the Kenya International Conference Center and snuck through security to take the elevator to the 30th floor, where we went out on the helicopter landing pad and enjoyed the incredible view of the city from above.
Photobucket
Photobucket
We had some mango juice downtown; spotted the famous Kenyan rapper Abbas dropping off some new CD’s at a record store; then caught a taxi to Karen, again. Ah, Karen. How I love to love and hate you. I went to meet a friend of a friend in the US who has some connections with interesting NGO’s here and might have ideas for me regarding employment in Kenya. We waited for them at the incredibly posh restaurant they had chosen, where there were more white people than I even knew lived in Kenya. They treated us to dinner, which included nothing traditionally Kenyan. They talked about the causes they were working for; a lion sanctuary (in fact, one of the lions we saw on Sunday at the Animal Orphanage was named after one of the women) and a small women’s cooperative in Somalia. They were excited about their work but I was curious as to how they could live so well and feel at peace in this country. I saw the American and Kenyan Embassies and the UN headquarters earlier today when Benja picked up his visa, and I remembered the overpriced food at the cafe where we ate and the sprawling mowed lawns, landscaped corridors, armed guard and hundreds of cameras in that corridor. I don’t think I could reconcile making money in the world of humanitarian aid.

I saw a pretty nasty accident on the way back home (riding with, incidentally, the worst taxi driver in Nairobi – I was convinced I was going to die.) Someone hit a cow, then flew off the road into an electrical pole. The passenger (remember: on the left side of the car, English style) looked pretty beat up and couldn’t get out of the wrecked vehicle. An ambulance soundlessly drove up from behind. The cow lay dead in the middle of the road. Somewhere, a Maasai herdsman cried.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Animal Orphans

We visited the “Animal Orphanage” near Karen yesterday after we left the Okemwa’s uncle and aunties’ mansion. It was a beautiful, hot day, and though I was suffering from persistent jetlag (the afternoon here is the middle of the night for my body back in America) and lack of strong coffee (the milky chai here just doesn’t cut it) I had a wonderful time. It was my first chance to enjoy the natural beauty here, as all of my experiences have been oh urban Nairobi.
One downfall of being white here is that every tourist attraction charges you about 14 times more then Kenyans must pay – at the zoo they asked for $20! So I pretended to attend a posh local high school and said I was 17 and had no ID. Of course, they’d rather have my money than turn me away, so I ended up paying just KS50, which is about 75 cents.
The zoo was really gorgeous, with huge bridges and walkways spanning over the pens where one could look down at baboons and rhinos. One major delight was the lack of security there compared to American counterparts – I don’t think you’d ever be able to look at a panther through an open window on a platform above the cage in the US, and it was much more fun.
Up close and personal with a huge Rhino
Photobucket
Sleepy lion
Photobucket
Gazelle?
Photobucket
Warthog!
Photobucket

Photobucket

Afterwards, we took a matatu downtown where we had to transfer. Benja was carrying a bag with his laptop because we were returning from the uncle’s house so we were trying to be extra careful. But as we waited we were approached by a young homeless man dressed in baggy rags who stared at me, and at my purse, and at me again and asked repeatedly in Swahilli why I didn’t give him money (which, of course, the Okemwa kids wouldn’t allow – it’s too dangerous to open your bag like that downtown and they said he would continue asking for more.) I felt bad, but also a little scared. It seemed like he would reach out and grab me at any moment, so I stood behind them and let them do the talking. Our bus appeared just as the man pulled out an old plastic bottle of glue and inhaled hard while he stared into my eyes.
The weirdest part was that later last night as we watched the evening news after dinner in the living room, a feature about homelessness aired on the Kenyan TV Network. It compared the lives of a homeless man in Britain with one in Nairobi – and guess who they chose? The same dude who bothered us downtown. No wonder he was so brazen, seeing he’s a rock star now and all.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Kenya is

It’s time for another oversimplified prose analysis of a country and culture per my impressions. Here goes.

Kenya is dirt and sweat and no speed limit
it’s over packed busses with young men clinging to the outside
Kenya is open doors and barred windows
Kenya is waking up late this morning, but it doesn’t mind because it doesn’t have a clock anyway
It grows coffee, but it doesn’t drink it
Kenya has beautiful plaited hair, but it’s all fake extensions
Doesn’t have any phonebooks
Is wondering what Americans find so romantic about mosquito nets
It is shantytowns and mansions, only miles apart
red sand and dust and motor oil, all of which are in your lungs
Kenya is rice and white potato flour, chickens butchered while you wait at the market for a few more cents than doing it yourself
Kenya has shower heads, but no water comes out; and toilets without seat that often don’t flush
Kenya will meet you for lunch downtown today, but it might end up being for dinner and it might just take you back to it’s place
It’s black and brown with speckles of white, though sometimes they all leave for Safari
It’s hand-pulled carts and hand-washed clothes and plastic sandals with tire treads
It is Masaii herders with canes and herds of cattle lazily crossing highways
It’s urban and wild, and lions live just outside the city
Kenya wishes you were here and would spend some money

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Road Construction, by hand

Extended Okemwa family…

Photobucket

Before I left the US many people warned me of the poverty and dangers of traveling in Africa. I payed more than $600 for all of the shots and anti-typhoid and anti-malarial pills the doctor told me I would need, and was warned to never drink the water or eat street food or get cuts or touch stagnant pools or give to beggars, etc, etc. But this Sunday morning I find myself in a large stone mansion in the richest part of the city, Karen, and it’s totally walled in and protected by a guard who lives in a small shanty of corrugated metal on the other side of the wall. They have a live-in cook and caretakers, and two living rooms with two televisions and 4 bedrooms with verandas. This is the home of Okemwa’s aunt and uncle, who work for the UN and a major hospital. And while the live-in maid and guard in a shanty are a little weird, it’s otherwise like many other rich American homes. (Except, like everywhere here, the water is unreliable and the toilets often don’t flush on weekends.)
I guess what strikes me most, then, is the income disparity. The fact that there can be so many with so little that are taken advantage of, in a way, by the few with so much. But at the same time, I can see that richer families may see it as generous to employ a poor rural woman, even if the wage is as little as $20 a month – such is the case with Benja’s family – where Emma came from the countryside to be a live-in servant, though she is treated as a member of the family, and they can afford her even though they can’t afford a new double-burner gas stove. She sends all of the money home. It just seems like this mentality perpetuates such disparity here. The government, for example, relies of the low cost of manual labor for building roads. I saw a road under construction and was utterly awestruck – a huge team of people in dusty old clothes smashed small stones and arranged them as a bed for the asphalt. They were breaking the stones with other stones or hammers and arranging them perfectly. It was hot, and it looked like it would take hours or even days just to progress a few feet, even with all of those people. I couldn’t believe it. But according to Benja’s uncle David, the government thinks it’s doing the people a favor by offering such jobs, while it seems to me they are taking advantage of desperation instead of creating better paid professional positions.
There’s street markets everywhere where used clothing from the US is sold really cheap, the vendors pick it up from some warehouse where it’s sold in large bundles. I’m not sure if it comes as aid or is sold in mass quantities from distributers, but there’s a niche being filled by the plethora of used clothes that could be filled by Kenyan textile manufacturers.
Another note, I’ll be lucky just to survive the bus rides around the city. Does this look dangerous or what?
Photobucket

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized