Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A Rather Raucous Revival

It was a rather blustery night. The moon had not yet risen and in the pitch black dark all I could see was our front door ringed in an eerie orange light. The wind rattled the dry acacia fruits, the ragged grasses crackled and swayed, and the call of animals in the distance floated across the plains.

When it rained, which wasn’t often, I would collect water from a rainwater tank behind the dispensary. Rainwater is so precious. It lacks the salty, thirst un-quenching quality of borehole water and smells a whole lot better.

On this particular evening I set a jerry can to fill and wandered in the direction of a tin shack on the Western side of the old dispensary grounds. A bit of noise and the sight of a few dimly lit flashlights was coming from that direction.

Maasai seem quite adept at walking in the dark. Now I don’t mean sort of dark. I mean, it’s dark and you can’t see a damn thing. Occasionally you bump into something that orients you but otherwise, you have to operate on sheer memory, or in my case, bad luck.

As I approached the shed a commotion erupted inside. It sounded a bit like a fistfight, but more organized and with a low, muffled chorus in the background. This commotion lasted a few minutes before a bullhorn on the outside of the house was turned on. The sound was awful. Were they killing a cat?

I recoiled from the muffled screeching and stumbled back across the compound toward the house. The sound lasted a few more minutes and thankfully subsided, as the power source for the bullhorn seemed to die. Probably a poorly charged car battery.

I headed back to the house with my jerry can of water and generally forgot about the strange noises. Jennie and I had dinner and decided to read in bed. It was an early night.

I bolted upright in bed, hands gripping my gut. Shouldn’t have gone for that third roadside chapati. Or maybe it was the raw sugar cane I bought from the guy with a machete and stalks of cane in his wheelbarrow? Fuck me, I never learn.

I rip my way through the bed net and put on some shower sandals, a soon to be big mistake. I throw on a sweatshirt and grab the paper as I head double-time for the door. Outside the night air is cold but still. It’s as dark as ever and I didn’t bring a light. I stumble across the compound in search of the outhouse catching my toes on more than a couple of finish-nail size acacia thorns. The burning in my tummy is a bit more urgent though so I press on.

I locate the choo and walk inside, which isn’t really any different than outside since I don’t have a light. The choo has no door, so I am able to look outside, again at nothing, as I do my business.

Loud screeching pierces the darkness. I don’t even think. I just react on sleepy flight, not fight, instinct. At least one sandal goes down into the choo. I bounce off walls as I both attempt to run away and reposition clothes at the same time—a pretty useless endeavor since it’s dark.

I step on every sharp object between the choo and my house as I stumble, half-clothed, for the front door. My hoodie is over one of my eyes, a fact I realize as I reach the porch and run full on into a man in a three-piece suit.

He stumbles backward and grabs onto me for support. One hand finds my left elbow and the other finds the roll of toilet paper, which does nothing to stop him from falling awkwardly into the dust below.

He curses me, I’m sure of this even though I don’t speak his mother tongue. He addresses me in Kiswahili after righting himself and announces that we were to provide him a generator for the revival he is hosting, a not completely ridiculous request at this time of the morning and at this point I’m starting to put together exactly what those awful noises were.

I’m sure exorcism is just wonderful under daylight conditions, but when one is in a compromised position and only half awake, it’s easy to imagine the horror. And keep in mind; all broadcast full-volume over a momentarily revived bullhorn.

The men at my door had given up trying to get their PA system to work and had come to ask me for help when their batteries last bit of juice decided to broadcast the hairiest part of the service still going on inside.

“It was His hand” muses one of the men.

In the excitement I had ripped a fairly sizeable hole in my shorts. I only noticed this rather unfortunate fact upon lighting a candle and standing open-fronted for several minutes to ask what the men were up to—pun completely unintentional. 

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Disturbance in the darkest night

I woke with a start. The blustery night had given way to an eerily calm, dark early morning. As we went to bed the trees rustled and the clouds raced across the moon. But now there were no sounds, except for the ones, which bolted me upright, wrenching me from my slumber.

As the sun had descended we had dutifully helped Faith with dinner. In the fading light we had pounded corn to remove the husks, rolled dough for chapati and fed the fire that simmered the beans. In fact, squatting in that smokey mud hut is where many of my favorite hours passed.

Mama and Faith talked to us like children, pointing at objects and saying their names in Kiswahili. Jiko, kitchen; kisu, knife; maji, water; and so on. At some point the fire died down and began to smolder, pumping black smoke into the tiny structure. The doorways were caked with the soot that had collected over decades of cooking.

We all would run out coughing, eyes burning, laughing. Moshi, moshi (smoke) Faith anapika moshi! Faith she is cooking smoke! Mama thought this was really funny and it was to be my signature retort whenever I passed the kitchen.

A break from the cooking brought the whole family together to sit in the dirt and enjoy some tea. This was a time for friends to stop by. This was a time for children to run and play in the cool evenings beginning. The dogs chased chickens and were rebuffed by the goats. And the bush babies with their tiny heads and enormous eyes would begin to come out and call.

We would sit quietly to one side and watch the family. Enjoying their closeness, their familiarity and their ease. And I couldn't help but feel that this place was another time. We had stepped through some doorway into a place where people valued, above all else, the relationships that made up their daily lives.

Darkness would come and the conversation would move inside. A tiny black and white television was connected to a car battery and set to the nightly news. We would rush around to help bring in the food, pray, wash our hands, and then devour whatever was set in front of us. Afterwards the Fresh Prince of Bel Air would come on. Baba loved this show. It was peculiar and foreign to him, but he understood the comedy. He knew that, regardless of the setting, Will played the fool and the butler was the voice of reason.

We brushed our teeth outside in the moonlight, went to the choo one last time and retired with our bellies full. Lala salama, sleep peacefully. Turn off the lantern and curl up while the wind rustles the leaves.

The noise was unmistakable. The car was being jostled. It was parked just outside our window and somebody was moving it. The brothers had always told us that robbers would try and take it. They said that people would steal anything if they thought they could get away. But after several months, I had come to find Kitui as safe and friendly a place as I had ever been. I would leave a bike unlocked there before Los Angeles or Boston. I wouldn't dream of leaving my backpack in front of a store in D.C. But Kitui, other than being a bustling market town, was a perfect place to experience real Kenyan life. Big enough to be somewhat anonymous, and yet small enough not to get lost.

I sprung from the bed and crept to the window. The bars prevented a good view, but I was able to fix one eye on the car. It was rocking side to side. The rear end seemed to be lifting slightly. They must be taking the tires!

I raced from our room and into the central living space. One of the brothers was sleeping on a couch and I roused him. He was very alarmed and went to wake his older brother. The older brother woke with a scream and came running out of his room. We conferred in hushed but racing tones and moved towards the big iron door.

I unlatched the door as quietly as I could considering the locking system was three massive iron bars drawn through iron loops in the door frame. We stood for a moment and looked at each other in terror and then slowly opened the door. As we peered around it at the car we could see it was still moving. There was grunting and the car slid forward a small amount. The back wheels seemed to be off the ground.

We recoiled to plan our attack. The brothers stood behind me and said that we should yell and run at the thieves. They grabbed a couple of shoes by the doorway and readied themselves. We took a collective deep breath and turned back towards the door.

During training we had several visits from the embassy security staff concerning personal safety. They told us about muggings and carjackings. They told us that it was better to assume people were dangerous and give them whatever they wanted. Make friends the man had said, they won't think twice about killing a stupid white kid to take his cell phone and wallet.

That flew in the face of what Peace Corps was about for Jennie and I. We had envisioned being with the people. Living right where they lived and not missing a moment of personal interaction because of our fears.

How many men were there? What weapons did they have? Are they big? Their grunting was deep and suggested enormous efforts at taking the car apart. All of the stupid preconceptions that people had said about how dangerous Africa was flew through my head. And with that, I turned, yelled loudly and ran at the back of the car.

We were three determined assailants the brothers and I. Arms raised and running fast, we must have seemed a force to be reckoned with. We swung around the back of the vehicle and recoiled at what we saw.

The cow had escaped from the pen during the storm. Or for that matter it may have stayed outside as the rest were rounded up. Benson, the farm hand, was often drunk when he brought them in and rarely counted correctly. Baba would yell at him and scold his work ethic, knowing full well that there was no one else to do the job no matter how poorly Benson performed.

The old cow was scratching his back on the rear hatch. The cars back wheels lifted off the ground slightly as his deep grunts of satisfaction resonated throughout the compound. He was entirely unimpressed by our display, continuing his exercise despite the cursing and laughing humans around him.

The commotion woke the rest of the family, and the neighbors. And after several minutes of laughing and explaining it was back to bed. The cow was put in his pen, and for now the car was safe.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Chasing Hemingway's Ghost

We are giggling uncontrollably at the mountains of freshly made deserts only feet from our table. An assortment of ice cream flavors is wonderfully garnished with cookies, bonbons and fresh fruit. Behind us a chef prepares stir-fry wearing a tall white hat. He tosses cubed steak into a wok that flames a brilliant blue with the emulsion of flavored oils. At some point a waiter arrives with our drinks—two sweating glasses of perfection with ice cubes that we haven’t even dreamed about having these past nine months. It’s all I can do to stop from erupting into fits of awkward laughter.

Having taken a few days to indulge in a safari we feel as though we have stumbled onto the other side of the planet. Our experience of rural Kenya has been of people raising goats and wearing sandals cut out of old tires. Our rural Maasai home is a world apart from metropolitan Nairobi and the well-trodden track that spirits tourists past in Land Rovers. The Maasai of our world are a culture of people strewn across the Kenyan-Tanzanian border; former nomads that have reluctantly adapted to modern life in a rapidly changing nation. This world and that of tourism only intersect through the window of passing vehicles and at dusty roadside curio shops. Sadly these interactions are so manufactured that they rob tourists of the chance to know these people. The Maasai are genuine, kind, uproariously funny, mischievous and willing to give you their proverbial shirt.

Even with the advance of modernity the Maasai have maintained traditions that make me feel transported to a lost time. Their singing is hauntingly beautiful. They live in homes made of dung and mud and they still wrap themselves in traditional cloth. Standing amongst dancing mamas bedecked with beaded necklaces, cleanly shaven heads and brightly shining faces I am inspired. Their strength and cohesion is amazing, and yet, it is mitigated by a humility and childlike happiness. These people eek out an existence in defiance of their incredibly bleak surroundings, and their unflagging optimism may be a major ingredient to their tragically iconic status as Kenya’s most famous, if not marginalized, tribe.

At times it feels as though we are in a zoo. Tourists pass and take photos of us as we hike out of the bush. Clearly there are two realities that run parallel here. There is the tourist world and the world that millions of rural people inhabit. More to the point, there is Kenya, and then there are places in Kenya that tourists go. As a country, Kenya is a complicated place where business minded Kikuyu, Asian traders, Swahili people and rural Maasai must all be governed equitably, and with deference to their particular climatic, religious and cultural needs.

Kenya is a dizzying array of cultures that few people can grasp through a window and a sad testament to how people oft times take a back seat to big game and hunting lodges. But this is not a new phenomenon. This is the legacy of decades, left behind from colonial rule and the haphazard visitation of the rich and famous. There exists an entire sub-genre of literature dedicated to the imprint Kenya has had on its high-profile visitors. The list includes ex-presidents and movie stars, and even Hemingway in the twilight of his life.

Hemingway loved the sunrise and the way that a hot bath soothed his feet after a long day tracking. He described it all in vivid detail, and thankfully, very little of it has changed. The Giraffe still amble into stands of acacia to feed amongst wildebeest and dikdik. Massive families of Elephant still make their way majestically to the cold waters of Kilimanjaro’s glacial runoff. And decades later camera wielding tourists can still enjoy Observation hill with its dramatic view of the Pleistocene hills.

Hemingway also loved to drink, and this led us on one particular evening to find a small bar bearing his name in Loitokitok. I have no idea if he ever graced the structure with his presence but his pictures are everywhere smiling next to the carcass of some formerly living and beautiful animal. The room has a decidedly friendly atmosphere and huge bay windows at the back. A set of spotlights are focused on a feeding station for nocturnal animals where they place leftovers from the evening’s meal. Jennie and I were the only ones there, and so we ordered a drink and chose the two best leather chairs next to the window.

Our site is arid, but has the capacity to support agriculture. And so, in an attempt to understand why so few people plant crops, we decided to start a garden and suffer through the drought stricken season alongside our neighbors. We started a large compost pile which attracted hyenas to feed in the evening. They make an ominous whooping sound that rolls across the plains and shudders up your spine. I grew up watching nature programs where hyenas stole from lions and snapped the necks of small prey with their powerful jaws. They are ugly and resourceful buggers with a creepy laugh and an appetite for meat. I sat up many nights worried that they would find a way into the house as we slept, maybe taking a limb or two before leaving us in terror. Thankfully that never materialized and as we sat staring out the windows on the feeding scene below we learned why.

Several large hyenas had gathered on the periphery of the spotlights reach. In the middle was a large boulder covered with table scraps upon which several house cats sat feeding. In a most pitiful display the hyenas, far from being vicious and predatory, were skulking in the shadows watching ten pound house cats devour chunks of chicken and steak. Any movement towards the food brought a stern rebuke from the claws of these otherwise domesticated fur balls.

We watched the drama unfold, sipping wine from the comfort of plush leather chairs as a group of German tourists wandered in ushered by a guide dressed in Maasai cloth. After they were settled the guide went behind the bar to prepare drinks. I wandered over, in search of more wine, and greeted him with a traditional Maasai saying. He coolly dismissed this in exceptionally clear English by telling me that he was Akamba. Now, I know that people in theme parks are actors, and that the medieval manor is not, in fact, filled with Elizabethan Englishmen, but I was somehow taken with the idea that this man was Maasai. And in thinking about the situation I began to realize how manufactured the whole tourist experience really was. We could have been in Arizona or New Jersey because the bar, named after an American writer, featuring Italian leather seats, British lagers, and New Zealand wines, was a showcase for domesticated animals and their nocturnal hand-feeding habits.

Hemingway’s baths were heated and drawn for him by servants. Men carried his gun, cooked his food, erected his living quarters, and even washed his clothes, completely separating him from the reality of rural Kenyan life. The man saw a beautiful country, but he totally missed out on the actual life of some amazing people—an eerily similar viewpoint from which modern day tourists view things more than 60 years on. I’m not advocating that safaris be turned into poverty tourism where tourists are routed through shanty towns to learn about how poor people live; that would be ridiculous and potentially immoral.

What I am saying, is that there is so much more to see given a little imagination and patience. Go and experience a safari, but, while you’re at it, take a few days and live amongst the people. Ride public transportation, stay in a cheap hotel, buy food from the roadside, take chai at a strangers home (they will invite you) and haggle for clothing at an open air market—you won’t regret it. It will bring you closer to the people in a way that organized tourism cannot accomplish. A good safari can redefine your view of a great vacation, but, I believe, a good trip through Kenya as it really is, will redefine your view of the world. That may be both the most cliché and most incredibly true thing I have written in my short time on this planet.

Hemingway can keep his guns and his trophies, and all of his widely acclaimed novels too. For all his perceptiveness, he didn’t see Kenya. He saw the animals and the trees instead. He lamented leaving the eerily fast equatorial sunsets and the snow capped peak of Kilimanjaro. But he missed the strength and the beauty of the regions people. He missed their wisdom and their greatest attributes—humility and optimism in the face of crushing poverty and marginalization. I feel like I’m chasing his ghost everywhere I go, and I want to tell him to look again.

Friday, January 25, 2008


Nobody was looking as we got off the plane. Nobody stared as I knelt to tie my shoelaces in the hallway. And nobody cared to notice as I hefted our bags from the carousel. In Orinie every move we made was watched and analyzed. Every item bought was a communication; every person talked to was some sort of political maneuver. Jennie and I were celebrities in our village. People liked to recount what they had observed us do and then ask a litany of questions regarding purpose and outcome. When you enter the Peace Corps they tell you about being in a fishbowl, a feeling that was decidedly absent now that we were back stateside. I'm not complaining, its just novel not to be gawked at.

Stan and Carol met us at Standiford Field with sympathy in their eyes. Sitting amongst a pile of luggage, we were still caked with dirt from our harried departure. I played football on Friday. The evening sky was clear and the snows of Kilimanjaro were visible in the distance. Saturday we got the word and started packing our things. Sunday we said our goodbyes and spent all day getting to Nairobi (at that point we believed our flight was Wednesday evening). Monday we got to the Peace Corps offices and were told we would fly out that night. And so after more than a full days worth of probing from the medical team, and endless paperwork from the admin staff, we piled into a cab, slogged back to the hotel, gathered our things, and were whisked off to the airport past the few remaining jacaranda and matatus we would see for quite some time.

Peace Corps sent us home with a $16 per diem, meant to last a full 24 hours of international travel, in response to which a fellow volunteer wryly opined, “It’s a nice round number.” While in service we got a small stipend for food and the necessities of daily life. This was paid through a bank account Peace Corps arranged. As part of the leaving process we were required to close these accounts. And so prior to getting our sixteen bucks, we were driven to the bank and asked to pay a 500 shilling per person account closure fee. I made a theatrical display of ripping the checkbooks from their jackets and retorted that I was keeping them for my trouble. I was tired and hungry, and really impressed with the clerk’s ability to ignore my flourish despite the cackling line of customers I had won over.

The medical staff was in rare form as we processed out. The nurses gabbed about the election troubles and other countries they had evacuated. They named off a shocking list of countries and sighed heavily over Kenya’s current state. One of the ladies actually got a text message the day before Kibaki’s swearing in. Her friend watched them pre-tape the ceremony and felt betrayed enough to send messages about it to colleagues. Maybe it’s a lesson for aspiring dictators. You can clamp down on the media, and bribe officials, but in this modern age, you can’t silence a country full of cell phone owners.

Our flight was re-routed south to Dar es Salaam before heading back north to Amsterdam. Still clutching my $16 dollars, I decided to invest in a Heineken and one stylish eye patch for sleeping. At this point airline peanuts and beer was a luxury I was happy to indulge, and really guilty for having the chance to do so.

By all accounts, our leaving was justified, but that doesn’t make sleeping with that decision any easier. Leaving a troubled country feels like kicking someone when they’re down. The peanuts and beer did nothing to quiet my conscience, and so I tried talking to passengers around me. Unfortunately I met eyes with a missionary who had been in country for a week. I told him that several of our friends were in western Kenya when the rioting started and had to be evacuated by helicopter. To this he replied that he had been through western and thought it was “no big deal.” I could have puked on him, and may have if the embarrassment of being accidentally associated with him hadn’t made me turn away first. I descended into the logic of a 3 year old and decided that my eye patch made me invisible.

We landed and went through customs in Minneapolis. The officer who looked over our passports asked why we had been in country. “Peace Corps” we replied in the stereo speak that couples acquire after 20 years of marriage, and/or a year of isolated Peace Corps service. He handed back our passports and said “was it everything you dreamed of?” Jennie nearly lost her hand while trying to pet a customs dog, and then broke out into a violent nosebleed which stopped only moments before leaving the tarmac for Louisville. By the time we found Stan and Carol, we must have looked pretty ragged.

We have returned home abruptly. Things in Kenya have not been good, and we have come home under a status of interrupted service, which means we can go back if the situation permits. Regardless, I hope that you will stick with us. I have a fair amount of material squirreled away in notebooks that I will post given the time and electricity.

As always, thanks for reading.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Some days in December

For the holidays and election time, we were invited to stay in Karen at a friend’s home while he and his wife were away. Among other things there is a Rothschild giraffe rescue, an orphaned elephant reserve, and an abundance of colonial era relics that add to Kenya’s interesting, if not unique, brand of African culture. Most importantly, we were eager to soak up all the electricity and hot showers we could in a week’s time.

Quite a world apart from our site, Karen could be a small British village. Besides the enormous, vaguely Mediterranean mansions, the roads are small and walled by thick hedge. I am taken back to my childhood. My mother, still a green-card holding British citizen, brought me to the family farm in Ockbrook every summer as a child. We would whiz through hedge-lined corridors in some rented bomber, or pass thousands of small homesteads nestled in greenery dotting the English countryside on the train into Derbyshire. Taking a cab home from the veritable American atmosphere of Nakumatt (a Walmartesque superstore) I am struck by how reminiscent the journey is of the British Midlands. I could be seven again, humming along to pop music, buckled into the wrong side of the car, and gazing at the monotony of the impenetrable hedgerows.

Thursday, December 27th, 2007 – Election Day

Outside observers have rubber stamped the election proceedings as overwhelmingly free and fair. In the space of 24 hours 70% of the Kenyan electorate has showed up to perform their civic duty. This is almost double the amount that American presidential aspirants can expect, and a monumental achievement for such a fledgling democracy. Consider that Mwai Kibaki is only the third president in Kenyan history. He was born and educated before independence. And he was one of the drafters of Kenya’s first constitution.

Friday, December 28th - Our two year anniversary

We start our day with a long run through the neighborhoods of Karen. A thick foggy blanket sits over the hills making it feel insulated and quiet. We notice with building curiosity that the roads are empty. It’s our second anniversary, so we decide to enjoy an evening in the city.

Overwhelmingly we are struck by the complete lack of activity given that it’s a Friday afternoon. We skirt the Kibera slum on Langata road—the streets are empty of vehicles, and the sidewalks are devoid of pedestrians. Everybody seems to have gotten the memo except for us. There are no men on bicycles or mamas with shopping bags balanced on their heads, and there is a decided absence of noisy youth.

Upon reaching Uhuru highway we turn left without stopping. The normally congested route is lacking in human presence. On workdays Uhuru Park, Nairobi’s central meeting place, fills with people enjoying sunlit benches or napping under towering Eucalyptus. But today, an eerie silence prevails. No hawkers or people in suits; no soda carts or maintenance staff; just empty space and political leaflets. We make the turn towards city center on Haile Selassie, and finally a few people are visible. There is no traffic at all, and it makes the four lane barricaded route seem like a marathon in which we have finished dead last. The lack of people, in a normally crowded city is ominous.

We wander into a supermarket where the workers anxiously crowd around a television monitor blaring results of the parliamentary seats, but still no presidential outcome. The bakery staff is setting up for the next day and heatedly exchanging ideas. Their Swahili is mixed with Kikuyu, a slang referred to as Cheng. I can only catch parts of the conversation, but it seems that several prominent MPs have been ousted. “A future without corrupt officials is still an uncertain future” says one man, waving a gloved finger at his bread making coworkers. “Now, will you take your bread sliced bwana?”

After dinner and a movie we arrange for a cab and head home. In the pitch of a Nairobi evening we pass onto a section of the Gichuru road lined by Jacaranda. The trees make an impenetrable tunnel, blotting out the stars in an eerie, sleepy-hollow sort of way. Posters cover the lower trunks. The orange and white of the Orange Democratic Movement (Odinga’s opposition party) are most numerous, with some blue Party of National Unity (Kibaki’s chosen party) posters intermixed. The polls have long since closed, but there are still no results.

I discuss with the driver, a young Kikuyu, how the president is fairing. What does he think the future holds given that the incumbent, also a Kikuyu, may lose? Current polls put him almost a million votes back from Odinga, a Luo and former political prisoner of the Moi era.

He thinks that legacy has a lot to do with the current situation. Kibaki has been in government since independence, and shares close political ties with the previous administration of President Daniel arap Moi. Power is shared by a select few, its borderline aristocracy, and according to our cabby, it has welled up in the non-Kikuyu consciousness as something to oppose. The driver worries that it will again marginalize the Kikuyu, the historical implications of which are not lost on him. And he makes an interesting connection as well.

Wealth, in his estimation, curbs civic action. “Your people probably don’t vote because they are rich” he says as we round Nakumatt junction, a bastion of Asian and Kikuyu owned consumerism. “My people have gained wealth and power through politics, something they stand to lose if they don’t get out and vote. All these businesses are here because of political connections, other tribes see this and feel resentful—they have reasons to vote.” He is young, and doesn’t feel that he votes along tribal lines, but he quickly follows by outlining why voting based on tribe is essential.

Saturday, December 29th

The country is still waiting for results in the presidential election, but the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) says it needs more time. Things are degenerating here quickly. To the south of us in Ngong, people are raising homes and killing each other with pangas. To the northeast of us in the Kibera slum, armed groups are engaged in small-scale warfare—poor Kenyan against poor Kenyan. The electoral commission has delayed issuing the results to the detriment of stability. The opposition party ODM is saying that the substantial lead they had is disappearing under the cloak of corruption as the incumbent PNU candidate catches up and, according to some sources, overtakes him.

Sunday, December 30th,

I walk into the small town center and chat with some of the merchants. And after procuring bread, tomatoes and Safaricom I head back home. Upon arriving, we decide to order pizza. I call to order and a distraught voice comes over the other end. The accent is clearly Indian, and he is sending his staff home “right now” as there is prone to be violence. “Did you hear? They have announced Kibaki the winner. I can’t believe it! Wherever you are” he says breathlessly, “stay there and don’t go outside, it’s going to be a very bad night.” He hangs up leaving me staring at the phone.

Renewed chaos has broken out in many parts of the country as the incumbent is announced to have won a second term. This is a monumental comeback considering two days ago he was almost a million votes down to the opposition candidate. Within an hour of the announcement Kibaki suspends nearly all media coverage of the elections, and swears-in for a second term. A stunned silence seems to follow Kibaki’s hasty swearing in ceremony, and the normally scheduled news hour gives way to cartoon re-runs.

Monday, December 31st – New Years Eve

Our food supplies running short, we decided to venture a little further than the kiosks in the center, but there was no transport. Rioters have been turning Kikuyu owned matatus into rolling Bunsen burners, leaving the transportation sector fearful and walking. In light of this, we called a cab and asked him to drive fast.

We arrived at Nakumatt just as they were closing the big metal doors. Apparently they were keeping them closed while groups of customers shopped, opening for successive groups every half hour. I have never personally attended one of those midnight super sales, but the bonanza type atmosphere upon the next door opening was quite ridiculous. We watched as rich Kenyans, expatriates and tourists trampled children, cut lines and swore at the more modest native Kenyans. Maybe wealth wears the same face the world over—the best dressed and the worst behaved. Or maybe we are still reeling from how different this world is to our site. Arriving at an ultra-modern supermarket after months of living in the bush was particularly jarring, and the brusque self-importance of the shoppers only insulted our senses further.

On getting inside we noticed that people were taking this civil unrest really seriously. The normally overstocked abundance of Nakumatt had been reduced to a ragged collection of damaged items strewn about on empty shelves and dirty floors. There were shopping carts everywhere filled with rotting produce, meat, and dairy products abandoned by impatient customers. The few remaining eggs were broken, the produce section was barren, and there had been a run on water and toilet paper. The apocalyptic state of one of East Africa’s best stores begged the question, what is it like in other parts of the country?

On the ride home, our cab driver acted oblivious as to why people were unhappy with the election results. I told him that as a neutral observer I only wanted the country to find a way through this mess. But he seemed much more dismayed that people would “play stupid with police and lose their lives,” as though government soldiers were crocodiles just waiting by the riverbed for an easy meal. “You can’t blame the soldiers he said.” But I wonder if he had considered blaming the men behind the soldiers that may have robbed the people of their right to a fair electoral process. I’m sure we don’t fully understand. I just hope that he acknowledges that he doesn’t either.

As I am writing this, Odinga has planned to swear-in as the people’s president—a move which the Kibaki administration has said will be construed as a coup attempt, and will deal with in a swift and militaristic way. This does not seem to be headed towards a speedy resolution. Frankly, it seems like the country we have come to love is screeching to a halt before our eyes.

Sunday, December 23, 2007


We hiked the two exhausting hours out to the main road, dropped our luggage, and began looking for transportation into Kajiado. Looking north, I noticed a man laboring up the hill toward us on a mountain bike, loaded down with gear and towing a sizeable trailer. I turned to Jennie and said, in rather Kenyan fashion, “Look, it’s a mzungu!” Adrian was riding his bicycle from Switzerland to Cape Town South Africa. He had ridden down through France and Spain, caught a boat to Morocco, and rode his way through West Africa, stopping in Timbuktu for a night (because everybody has heard of Timbuktu), through the Central African Republic, and then finally down into Nairobi. He had spent a few months in Nairobi recuperating and touring around with a friend, and then had set out, the day before we saw him, headed south for the Tanzanian border. We spent about ten minutes with him before a matatu showed up and finished the conversation, but we did get a website address

I would say that this type of chance meeting is odd, because it is by my standards at home in the U.S. But for some reason, this is an altogether typical event in our lives here. Okay, it’s not everyday we meet someone on such an epic journey, but considering that he had, not ten minutes earlier, passed a Japanese man headed for Cairo, coming from Cape Town, gives you an idea of what I mean. Sometimes being a Peace Corps volunteer fits into what policemen have told me, “hours of boredom punctuated by moments of shear adrenaline.” We aren’t getting shot at, but things are a bit more interesting than a normal morning commute.

And so we set out for a Nairobi Christmas in our matatu, thinking of how amazing it must be to ride a bike that far. And it wasn’t long before we passed a small, determined looking Japanese cyclist, gritting his teeth under the strain of a rather long hill.

Leaving Kajiado to the north we encounter Isiniya and Kitengela. Western sensibilities would lead you to the conclusion that these areas are on a dangerous decline, but they are actually quite friendly cosmopolitan intermediaries between the bustle of Nairobi and the quiet border towns to the south. In both towns, litter covers the main thoroughfare and muddy side roads, where construction is happening faster than should be expected or allowed. Except for the gangs of roaming goats, nobody is working on trash removal as the local economy explodes. New businesses spring up almost daily, creating strange juxtapositions. One brand-new supermarket in Kitengela is particularly jarring with its bright white flooring and fluorescent lights, whirring checkout lines and expansive isles. From this paragon of consumerism, patrons step onto a muddy, trash laden embankment where hawkers and touts raise a frenzied din.

At some point, our route takes us over the Athi River as it winds its way out of Nairobi national park. One of the muddy shorelines serves as a car wash currently, which due to its profitability, seems to persist despite government fines and the arrest of its operators. The oil slicked river runs out of the park ostensibly saving the rare animals contained within from poisoning but leaving the regions human population in a rather awkward fix. I notice that ironically, one of the areas largest tree and plant nurseries is located across the street, sporting freakishly large banana trees, and enough bougainvillea to choke the Charles twice over.

After Kitengela, you reach the Athi river junction and the main Mombasa highway which runs into Nairobi. The highway is getting a much needed face lift at present which serves to both anger and excite matatu drivers who see it as an especially perfect opportunity to drive recklessly. The few parts gravel, and busted tarmac detour is an unhinged matatu driver’s paradise. Women line the road selling food cooked in shabbily erected tin enclosures. Hawkers wander in the middle of traffic selling T-shirts, auto accessories and anything else that can be passed through a car window quickly. Also intermixed are surveyors, construction workers, livestock from god knows where, and an assortment of hangers-on. This eclectic mix crowds the ill-defined route where drivers commonly use the shoulders for passing and avoiding crater-like potholes. I sit in the back of our matatu, somewhere between nausea and hysteria, staring at a sticker that says “don’t just sit there while he drives crazy.”

I just sit there, wincing every time a pedestrian narrowly escapes being struck, or livestock avoid becoming road kill. I have no idea how the whole thing works, but I have yet to witness any carnage. Through a seemingly intricate barrage of hand signals and traditional traffic laws, everyone seems to get where they are going while narrowly avoiding death, transacting business, or chatting away on cell phones. I just hope that no one notices my white knuckles and feverishly sweating forehead. I look funny enough as it is, perched on the tiny seat, clutching my luggage and swearing I will never again board another vehicle with the words “Thug Life” stenciled across the windshield. For now, squished between a business man and a goat, I dream of a hot shower, electricity, and an ice cold beverage which is after all worth risking your neck for. I can only imagine the stories Adrian will have to tell about encountering drivers during his trek, and I just hope that he makes it in one piece.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Maisha yako, Chaguo lako

A cold breeze blew through the pitch as players anxiously perched along the penalty box, side-by-side with spectators. For the moment the ball was motionless—the goalie poised in anticipation and the shooter nervously eyeing his shoelaces. A whistle broke the silence and the shooter lunged at the ball, shuffling his feet before striking at its middle with a laced arch. The goalie dove right, guessing at the shooters direction, and for the briefest of moments the village was captivated.

They had come together to acknowledge a day and celebrate life. These people had summoned the interest and capacity to place their arduous lives on hold and attend a function. They sang together, ate together and prayed together, all at the behest of an invisible force, both powerful and uniting, that required an entire day to pause and reflect. World AIDS Day—an annual event where we acknowledge that an unliving chain of nucleic acids is dismantling human lives the world over. This unstoppable bug made its way into the blood stream of 4.3 million people in the last year alone, crippling economies, devastating communities and orphaning children. Not exactly the rally cry we would have hoped for, but a desperate and necessary annual acknowledgement of our shared reality.

The ball sailed wide left, the goalies guess irrelevant, and one teams struggle vindicated. After a 1-1 draw, penalty kicks decided the victors of Saturday’s game between Orinie and Oleshaki. The game had been a rousing success, and even though the home team lost, an entire community had come together. In the fading light of a cool December evening, I handed over a shiny new Adidas trophy ball to the visiting village and concluded a very successful World AIDS Day celebration.

The African Inland Church, our sponsor organization, provided funding for the food, beverages and enough gasoline for the entire days festivities. Solar Cookers International pitched in to provide a demonstration of fireless cooking and energy saving thermal baskets. The Mamas used nothing but sunlight to prepare chai and rice for the spectators. The Demille family got together several months ago and shipped some footballs, without which the soccer tournament would have been impossible. And our friend and fellow PCV Milcah showed up with her youth group and entertained the trousers off the whole community. Hope Worldwide, Milcah’s sponsor organization, supports youth mobilization with the goal of training youth in life skills that they will in turn disseminate to the community through various means. In the case of Milcah and her Kajiado based youth group, dramas and song are the chosen method. They were both hilarious and inspiring and showed the youth in Orinie a glimpse of what is possible when creativity and public health knowledge are inter mixed with energetic teenagers and far too many caffeinated beverages. Its no small feat when outsiders are able to tell old mamas penis jokes and come away seeming like saintly harbingers of vital information.

In truth, Jennie and I sweat over this day for months, worried sick that we would spend the day alone in failure. But the morning came, a goat was slaughtered, the district officer arrived, football happened, music was enjoyed, and hopefully, a few more people walked away determined to take their personal health seriously. Our theme, Maisha yako, Chaguo lako (your life, your choice) really seemed to resonate with the youth. Jennie ran a poster contest in November with some of the kids here. They took the idea and ran; I would try to explain, but a picture is so much better. This was the 1st place winner, and by far the community favorite. That's a coffin at the bottom with the words, "AIDS can cause death" scrawled across. It would be hilarious if it wasn't way too close to home.