Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Struggles Near and Far


We are just back from two days at Cura, during which we had a few meetings, did some work on various projects, and of course played with the kids.

Among other things, Hayden met with all of the pen pal participants from the school to make sure they were happy with their pals in the US and to get more kids onboard with the project. It takes more than you would think to manage something as seemingly simple as a pen pal exchange, but the kids who participate love it. If you aren't writing letters to these kids, you should stop reading this right now and sit there quietly feeling guilty. Then you should send Hayden an email to sign on. I'll wait...

Aside from our meetings with various folks, I had no pressing work that had to get done, so I entertained myself and the kids by making a very detailed but inaccurate survey of the Cura compound. I paced off the perimeter, every building, and every notable feature (if you need to find a latrine, I can show you where they all are.) Of note: nothing in the village is on a right angle to anything, and many of the buildings are not square. Nor level. I am anxious to see what an official land survey looks like, since that is the next task in the coming construction of the secondary school.

An overhead view of Cura

I also sent the kids on litter patrol, and then realized they don't really understand the concept of litter. There is paper and plastic everywhere, but they simply don't see it as trash. Once I modeled the practice of picking up the rubbish, they of course took to it with abandon. So much so that several of them went into the home to find paper with which to fill up the plastic garbage bag I had given them. The goal wasn't to clean up. It was to fill up as many bags as possible (which I didn't really catch onto until Scola, the computer teacher, told me the kids were asking her for more paper to crumple up). Oh well. In the process, the compound did get cleaned up.

As happens with most of my plans, I didn't really think this one through. Now I have five full garbage bags and nowhere to take them, which explains the existence of the trash in the first place.

Thanks to our heroic driver Gilbert, that problem was solved. "I can do it. It will cost very little."

I trust Gilbert, but I hope those bags of trash didn't just find their way to one of the many roadside "dumps" outside Nairobi.

I meant well. And the kids had fun...

Much more on Cura to come, including as many pictures as I can post (once we get a hold of some free wifi and aren't paying by the bit for our internet connection...


Which reminds me to say this: for all of the things that trouble Kenya, they have a few things figured out. One, their cellular networks are outstanding. This is of course due to the fact that they didn't have seven companies fighting for market dominance. Two, the "pay-as-you-go" data packages are marvelous. No contracts, no expensive equipment. Just "top up" your phone when it gets low. You can buy airtime from major stores or from roadside vegetable markets. In Wangige yesterday I saw a woman sitting on a crate with a SafariCom sign on it. She was selling airtime.

For 4,000 shillings you can buy a USB modem for your computer. For 1,000 shillings you can buy enough airtime to last a week or more. At home, Comcast makes me bundle my internet with my cable with my phone with my cat litter with my gasoline. And I'm stuck with it.

Maybe SafariCom will catch on in the US...


Not that news of East Africa reaches the states in much quality or quantity, but if you have been paying attention to the news of late, you know that a lot is going on.

Earlier this week we had dinner with Jeffrey and his wife on the eve of Jeffrey's journey to South Sudan to cover the official secession of the south from the north. The border region is hotly contested (and not coincidentally oil and resource-rich) and it will prove to be a volatile part of the globe for some time unless a diplomatic miracle takes place in the next few days. Or unless Clooney can charm the Sudanese into just getting along. Is there anything that man can't do?

South of here, the Tanzanian government is pushing ahead with plans for a superhighway across the Serengeti, which would slice the major wildlife migration corridor in half.

North of us, Somalia continues to devolve, as leader after leader fails to take hold of the UN-backed transitional government and pirates increase their grasp on the local economy.

In Kenya, food costs are sky-rocketing thanks to commodities price increases and grain local shortages. The Kenyan shilling is falling with little sign of relief, and inflation is pricing many locals out of even a subsistence lifestyle.

The Prime Minister of Kenya, Raila Odinga, publicly paid 4 million shillings in back taxes yesterday to set an example for the other government officials who refuse to do so themselves.

Two nights ago, a University of Nairobi student was killed in mysterious circumstances that may or may not have involved a government official and a cover-up.

This morning we were to have a meeting about the construction of a Cura Secondary School at a coffee house near the University of Nairobi, but the assumption the students will riot in response to the murder of one of their mates led us to seek out a new location for that meeting.

Last night, after returning from two days at Cura, we went for a meal at Tomombo, a restaurant with an African sounding name that apparently means nothing. Halfway through the evening, a scuffle that (apparently) involved a few hundred thousand shillings, a pimp, and plenty of alcohol turned into a full-on floor show that would put the Real Housewives franchise right out of business. When the woman involved ran out of men (armed and otherwise) to brandish her broken wine glass weapon toward, she started in on the decorations, at one point heroically wrestling a potted plant to the ground.

As entertaining as it was, the idea of being collateral damage in a bar fight in Nairobi doesn't appeal.


Our usual route to Kenya is a three flight ordeal that starts in Seattle. There is a short domestic flight (usually to Dallas, which is easily one of the worst airports in the country), a long flight to Europe (usually London Heathrow, easily one of the worst airports, period), and then a long flight to Nairobi (not a great airport but at least explained by the fact that it is in Kenya).  Usually one of the long flights is overnight.
I hate this itinerary mostly because the domestic leg sucks. Domestic flights are cramped and uncomfortable and the service is notoriously bad. A four-hour domestic flight takes eight hours once you navigate both airports. This doesn’t feel like progress to me. Once I suck it up and get on a plane, I’d rather not go through the hassle of changing. Once I’m in my seat, I would rather that seat just teleport me to wherever it is I am going.
This year we took a more direct route out of Los Angeles (easily one of the worst airports – see London, above). Virgin Atlantic flies direct from LA to London and from London to Nairobi. On paper, this appeals to me far more than the three-flight option.
So off we went. 10 hours to London with chatty young Brit behind us. Not a terrible flight. 5 hours navigating Heathrow. Some subpar conveyor belt sushi. An internet check-in. And eventually they announced our gate. Can someone explain to me why there are never any comfortable places to rest in airports? It’s not like people can loiter there. Eventually, everyone’s plane leaves, right? And presumably, everyone in the terminal is a ticketed passenger? What’s the harm of comfortable seating? Anyway…
The real debate here isn’t whether one flying experience is better than another, but the effect the flights have on us once we arrive. Jet lag and whatnot. Three years ago I suffered terrible jet lag after the first couple of days and it took me several days to shake it. Last year, I was fine from start to finish. This year, I had a pretty decent case of jet lag for the first few days we were here. I’m not convinced the flights have much at all to do with it. Basically I think it has more to do with how much rest I get in the days leading up to the flights and how much sleep I manage to piece together on the flights themselves.
I’m sure there is science behind understanding jet lag, but I don’t know what any of it is. I figure we just take the flights we get and see what happens…

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Brief Visit, A Run, Gypsy, and Bomb Drills at the UN.

Yesterday was our first of many trips out to Cura from our base here in Gigiri. After my directions got Gilbert lost a few times, we eventually got ourselves onto the right dirt road outside of Wangige and bounced our way up to the compound that houses the Cura Rotary Home. 
We had the obligatory meeting with Moses, the home manager, over tea and cakes and made plans for the rest of the week. We met the new vicar (the previous one having been sacked for several reasons, the most compelling being that he was "sometimes not drunk") who seems a good fit and has some energy that the community can definitely use. These meetings, often about an hour too long to be comfortable, are always interesting because we learn what the community leaders think are their most pressing needs, and we get a glimpse into how they view their work. 
What became very clear to me in the meeting is that the most pressing need Cura has at the moment is water. They HAVE water. Sometimes they have a lot of it. And there is water in the ground that they could access and use to irrigate their fields, feed the community, and generally improve the quality of life. But because of politics and financial woes that are far too tedious to explain here, they can’t access water that by all logic should be flowing to the fields and homes in the area. As Moses, Edwin (the vicar) and Stephen (a community leader) talked, I took note that included many doodles of rain drops and dollar signs.
This is as good a place as any to note that Kenya is being hit hard by the slow global economy and high food prices. There is a critical shortage of maize after two consecutive dry seasons, and imported maize from neighboring countries has yet to have any effect on local prices. Add to that a severely depressed shilling (when we were here last the Kenyan shilling was at 68-70 to the US dollar. Yesterday it was 90 shillings to the dollar. While this is “good” for us as tourists, it is making life for most Kenyans very expensive.
After our meeting and a surprise lunch with Moses (rice, beans, potato, and cabbage) we said hello to the few kids who had come home from school for lunch, checked out the sleeping quarters we will be in next week (not quite 5 star, but not as bad as the Wagon Wheel Inn in Baker City, Oregon), and made our way back to the city and the NYT office.
When we arrived, Jeffrey was in his office working on yet another story on Sudan, but he took a break long enough to give me a possible running route from the office. So like a moron, I laced up the shoes and took off into the neighborhoods around Gigiri.
“Like a moron” refers to the fact that I forgot we are over 5,000 feet above sea level here. And I’m a little jet lagged. So of course I took off at my normal pace. When my heart rate monitor reached “Hummingbird” I backed it off and settled in for a leisurely 5 mile cruise.
Gigiri is the part of Nairobi that houses the UN, the US Embassy, and most of the diplomatic residences. And the neighborhoods around here show the wealth and power of the people who live in diplomatic circles. If it weren’t for the razor wire topping the walled-in compounds, you could be convinced you were in a wealthy US suburb.
Last night we made our first foray over to Westlands and Gypsy Bar to meet Paul and Gerald (surprise, surprise!). I had forgotten that last year we took our 15 year old here for her first bar experience. Such quality parenting! More on Westlands and Gypsy in another post...
And now? The askari outside our window woke us at 6 am (as reliable as can be) and we are gearing up for a day of meetings here in Nairobi. We have to get rolling early because the UN compound across the street is having bomb drills today, and we don’t want to get swept up in that action.
Yep. Bomb drills. Good times.
Coming soon: pictures. As soon as I find my camera.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Back in Nairobi...

This year we took a slightly different approach to our flights to Kenya this year, first driving to Los Angeles and then flying direct to Heathrow rather than stopping domestically in a US hub like Dallas or Chicago.

The problem with this is that it meant two long overnight flights. 10 hours to London and 9 to Nairobi. Virgin Atlantic and their “you might get a seat” booking policy made the flights a little more chaotic than necessary, and the crowds and construction at Heathrow are always an adventure to navigate, but we arrived at Kenyatta Airport in Nairobi ahead of schedule at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday.

I got zero sleep on the flights. Hayden did a little better. That girl can sleep anywhere, anytime, for any reason. It’s an enviable skill. From LA to London there was a twenty-something British kid in the seat behind us trying to impress the 20-something year old American girl. He tried for 10 straight hours. She was apparently impressed, since they were making out by the end of the flight. We were not impressed. The kid never stopped talking about himself, and it turns out he's not all that interesting.

From London to Nairobi it was a comedic trickle of missing passengers, lost seat assignments, crying babies, and confused first-time air travelers. 

I still like the idea of two flights rather than three, but we’ll see how this plays out in terms of adjusting to the time change.

Our driver, Gilbert met us at the airport and hustled us across town to the New York Times office in Gigiri, our home base for this trip. We stayed here three years ago thanks to the generosity of Jeffrey Gettleman, our friend and – coincidentally – the East Africa Bureau chief for the times. Jeffrey is a little busy these days trying to keep a handle on the issues in Sudan as they anticipate the pending separation of the south and the north into two nations in early July. If you haven’t read about the conflicts in the border region of Sudan, here is your urging to do so.

Traffic in Nairobi.
The midday traffic from the airport to Gigiri wasn’t bad, and the construction projects they were starting last year when we were here seem to be moving along. They are building a series of “fly-overs” (picture elevated freeway onramps) to bypass the gridlock inducing roundabouts of downtown Nairobi. So far only one of these projects has collapsed, and they seem to be moving along. Of interest is that the projects are funded by Kenyan taxes but being constructed by Chinese companies with a mix of Chinese, Kenyan, and immigrant African labor.

It is easy to see the chaos that is coming to Nairobi. There is almost zero long range planning for transit or transportation, and the burgeoning middle class is nabbing up cars as fast as they can buy them. Already it can take hours just to get across town, and it isn’t going to get any better. I could go on a rant about profit motive, private enterprise, and the path the US is on with the whole “let corporations decide what is best for the nation” plan we seem to be following, but I’ll save that for another time when I have a few more minutes.
Right now it is 7:00 a.m. on our first full day in country. The guards outside the office have switched shifts, it’s raining  out (of course…we brought it with us), the Nescafe is hot, and we are getting set to head out to Cura for the morning to meet with Moses and a few others and plan the rest of our visit.
More to come…

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Last Day at Cura, Recycled Glass, and Kibera

Our time at Cura for this trip has come and gone. It seemed too short, of course, but we all had a great time and the visit was a success, I think.

We worked a bit in the classrooms, held a field day with the kids from the school, and spent a day working at the home itself and playing with the kids. While all of this was going on, Hayden and I did a lot of administrative work and politicking with the board members and the teachers. All in all I believe our trip was a success, and we already have a good head start on our next sets of projects and our next steps when we get home.

Of course we were regaled with song and dance the whole visit, and the ladies endured endless hair-braiding and decorating. I attempted to revisit my youth and served as a goal keeper (target) for the footballers. We did some art projects and took portraits of each child for their sponsors back home.

After watching the US lose a heart breaker to Ghana in the loving company of a few hundred Ghana* fans at Gypsy (of course), we took everyone to Kitengela Glass, one of our favorite stops here.

The artisans at Kitengela make amazing glassware and artwork from all recycled Kenyan products. We may or may not have made a large purchase while we were there. It may or may not be being custom made for us. And it may or may not be shipped to the states when it is complete. It may or may not look like this:

I think we are all ready to slow down a bit and head for the coast. I know I am ready to be out of the smog and traffic of Nairobi for a while, though I do have to say it is much easier to take this year than last. I guess maybe I’m just a little more used to it than I was before.

But before we hop a flight to Malindi, we have one last day here in the city. After I send this post, we will visit Kibera, the largest slum in Kenya and depending on who is doing the estimating, the second-largest in Africa behind Soweto in South Africa.

The population density in Kibera is approximately 750,000 people per square mile. That breaks down to about 30 square feet per person. Stand in your bedroom and ponder that.

It is worth reading and learning more about slum culture and the politic and social failures that lead to the proliferation of slums. As with all issues that plague the third world, the slums are a massively complex problem that will take a significant cultural shift, a hell of a lot of money, and a ton of political wherewithal to repair.

After Kibera we will enjoy a small game drive in Nairobi National Park, and in the morning we fly to the coast. Time to start the anti-Malaria medications!

*But before I cry too hard over the loss, I have to remind myself that it could be worse. Matthew had to watch England get absolutely crushed by Germany. Sorry England. But you looked even worse than the Yanks.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

A Few More Pictures

Welcome Home

Hayden in full bloom after a visit to the Cura Hair Salon.

Guess Who! Another endless game.

The boys from the pitch after some rough and tumble football.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Some Photos. Words to Follow.

The whirlwind pace of traveling to Cura during the day and visiting friends in Nairobi at night hasn't left much time for writing. Things should slow down a bit soon. In the meantime, here are some photos to keep you occupied.
Linette went beyond this point. The entrance to Cura Rotary Homes.

Norman "Don't Call Me Lucy" the Cow. Norman is pregnant. Gender issues much? With Norman at the village, the home saves 3,000 Shillings a month on milk bills.

Evan at The Depot. Karibu, Evan!

This is true.

Much more to come. Very soon!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

To Cura via the Depot. But First, World Cup.

Evan the Barfly
Wednesday night, being the good parental figures that we are, we took Evan to the Westlands area of Nairobi to Gypsy, a bar favored by Hayden's old University hooligan friends, Paul and Gerald. I'm fairly certain Paul is the mayor of Gypsy, and if he is, his fiefdom is an excellent one. In Nairobi's lovely rush hour traffic, the 15 km drive took only 1 hour.
It was a mob scene at Gypsy, with both the England and US football matches on and expatriate supporters jamming the bar. Vuvuzelas were in full force. (Truth be told, 99% of the televisions were tuned to the England match. The US supporters were relegated to a little corner of the bar with no tables. It was close to the restroom, though. It was us and a table of Algerians rooting cautiously for our respective teams. When the US scored the winning goal, the Algerians kindly gave us their table.

So Evan's first experience (we assume) at a bar was one to remember (we think.)

US 1 - Algeria 0. Next up on Saturday night: US v. Ghana. Should be epic around here.

In Nairobi there are large communities from just about every country you can imagine. So for World Cup action it isn't just the African nations being supported. Every nation is here, as evidenced by the embassies on every corner in town.

All The Depot Ladies Say "Oh Yeah"
Our driver, Malik, is expressly unhappy with our weird non-tourist destinations. He doesn't know any of our "crazy places" and would clearly rather be driving us on safari or to national parks. Sorry Malik, but you're stuck with us for pretty much the entire trip.

One "crazy" destination is The DEPOT. The DEPOT honors Dan Eldon's life by hosting a small museum of his artifacts and photographs and also conducting leadership training for local and international groups. Seeing Dan's work is always inspiring, and this trip to the DEPOT was no exception.

On to Cura
Our first day at Cura was to be an orientation for the new recruits and a bit of a work day for Hayden and myself. The anticipation in the car was high as we pulled through Wangige and turned onto the red dirt road that leads to Cura. For those who hadn't been there before, it was time to see how the real place lived up to their expectations.

Of course it did not. How could it? No pictures or descriptions can capture any place, but especially not a place like Cura. Cura is an experience more than a place, and you'll just have to come with us next year to understand what I mean.

In addition to our merry band of tourists, we had Matthew with us. Matt is an incoming long term volunteer for Cura, and he was about to get a bit of an education in rural Africa in general and in Cura specifically. The thesis of this lesson: shut up and listen. You have a lot to learn.

We had a very traditional meeting with the board of Cura. These meetings are an exercise in formality, politics, and hierarchy.

Much more on the Cura experience as I have time to reflect.

Useful Phrase of the Day
We love our Swahilli guidebooks. We especially love the "Useful Phrases" sections. So, for all you future Kenya travelers, here is what you say to the waiter when your prawns have run out:
  • Kamba zi mekwisha. (Literally: Prawns, they are finished.)

Trivial Pursuit Question of the Day
To pass the time in our van between Nairobi and Wangige, I have a full box of Trivial Pursuit cards. Today's most interesting question:
  • What Disneyland ride, in 1964, was responsible for the amusement park's first fatality?
Look it up.