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…

1 comment:

  1. Nice going! Seems as though you are having lots of fun. The bar brawl is particularly funny. Stay safe though!
    We thought the competition we have in our cellular phone industry is responsible for the excellent services we receive. The little economics I remember from school suggests that competition is good for business. So we have 5 companies. Have you noticed how cheap it is to call from Kenya to the United States?
    Oh, yes, Odinga complicated the lives of most Members of parliament who had exempted themselves and other Constitutional office bearers from paying taxes. It was quite a farce from the beginning. They had the guile to suggest that we should be taxed more to support their lifestyle. They hoped to hold on to a hollow promise made by the President leading to the referendum that ushered our New Constitution that decrees that every state employee must pay tax. But trust our Members of Parliament to want to subvert this. if it was the old days where they could rush in an amendment to protect their interest, they would have already set the wheels in motion. Let them join us and give unto Ceaser that belongs to Ceaser.
    On a more serious note, the environmental issue you raise, the failure by the children and indeed their teachers to notice garbage and their failure to act on it is an endemic problem born of the fact that the adults have not inculcated in their youth the need to clean up the environment. The neglect pervades all walks of our life, thus we have garbage for leaders. We use parliament as a damping ground and expect leadership to emanate from there. Help is on the way. For the first time ever, a whole part of our Constitution is dedicated to the Environment. Chapter 5 of our Constitution is titled Land and the Environment and it is in part 2 thereof that rights and obligations relating to the Environment are spelt out. But first, there is Article 42 of the Constitution it guarantees rights to a clean and healthy environment for present and future generations.
    What in effect I am saying is that Environmental legislation in this Country has been brought to the very top of our daily discourse. The fact that we have issues such as the degradation of the Mau ecosystem and the desert is expanding at an alarming rate of 40 Kilometres a year means that environmental issues must be taken seriously. Every single step, the cleaning of the environment as you did with those children is a step in the right direction
    Article 69 of our Constitution is titled Obligations in respect of the environment. It obligates the State and every individual to work in tandem to protect our environment while at the same time ensuring sustainable development. Article 70 reads as deals with the enforcement of the rights protected under Article 42 while under Article 22(3)(a)n, there are no prescribed forms for access to the High Court for enforcement of such rights and by Article 22(3)(b)"No fee shall be charged for commencing proceedings"
    The motto moving forward is to keep our environment clean, not as an obligation, but as a right.
    Tukero Ole Kina