Friday, October 31, 2008

Day by Day

This week brought all sorts of news that makes it incredibly difficult to be so far from home. I found out my mom will be having major back surgery next month (we'd hoped it would hold off until I was home next summer) and I can' t stand the thought of not being able to help her and the rest of my family through it. I'm keeping my fingers crossed I'll have skype set up by then so at the very least we can have some good video chats as she prepares!

In better news, I found out last night that my cousin Emily gave birth to a healthy baby girl - and was ecstatic to find that I could dial her direct to congratulate her and Eric briefly before my airtime ran out. It's not the same as being there but it's nice to realize that your loved ones are really just a phone call away.

This week has been very energetic - in large part because the enthusiasm for next week's election is really picking up. As soon as someone finds out you're an American they ask if you've voted, then for who, then tell you their hopes for the election and how proud they are to have Obama in the lead. On the news last night it showed that Obama enjoys a 97% approval rating in Kenya - how jealous are all the politicos in America!? Last night my roommate Angeline and I went across the street to check out our "local" as she calls it and grab a Tusker (beer). We ended up talking to a guy named Oketch who had studied at the Art Institute in Chicago in the 90's and had met with Obama due to his Kenyan heritage (one of Obama's staff came across him and arranged the meeting). He said it was strange to meet someone under the guise of shared heritage, and then to be slotted into the brisk 30-minute meeting standard (and by some accounts generous) for politicians. I joked that in Kenya it would probably take about 30 minutes just to catch up on the well being of the extended family before you really started a visit.

Like so many conversations I have here, I found myself drinking up the cultural and historical insight that Oketch and his friend had to offer (check out his website linked above - you can tell what a fascinating guy he'd be to chat with). From discussing the results of decades of dictatorship under Moi (or M1 according to local slang), to existing economic problems and issues with corruption, it's great to talk to people from different backgrounds and find how they're impacted by the reality of Kenya today. I had some nice chats with classmates this week as well - we're starting to bond a bit more as a group and they enjoy asking me all sorts of questions about my life, what the heck I'm doing in Kenya, what's different here etc. I in turn enjoy hearing how this relatively new city-generation is adapting to the rapid changes underfoot in Kenya. Everyone here has a village their family traces back too - some are still very close to these roots, some only visit once every few years and lament how their "country" relatives seem to only be interested in getting money from them. Here in Nairobi, the majority of my classmates are not considered wealthy by any stretch (some are actually still trying to sort out paying their fees), but to their relatives in rural areas, they have countless resources. I look forward to sharing more about my classmates as I get to know them. Until then... bon weekend!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Pictures and World of Good

Hi there - I chose to blog over at World of Good today - you can see my post by clicking here. I've also finally uploaded some Africa pics and you can see them and my favorite shots from my two weeks in Europe by visiting my smugmug site here. I feel seriously high-tech!

Quick update - the penpal project is growing! I received an email from my friend Tania who I went to Chapman with while she was an exchange student in 1998-99 yesterday. She's just started teaching 7 and 8 year olds in the UK and the majority of her students are of Afro-Caribbean descent. She thought having the opportunity to interact with children in Africa would be great for enhancing their understanding of their heritage, and Red Rose is excited to have found their first European partner. So the ripple is in full effect!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Joy! (and first pics!)

I'm terribly behind in sharing this experience as each day brings some new mini-adventure or general understanding of what my day to day life in Nairobi will be like. Classes started last week, I finally have a schedule (classes M-W and serious library time on Th/F) and I'm settled into my new house. We had a big international celebration yesterday at Uni and I got to meet a number of students from throughout Africa and the handful that have come from beyond to do various degrees at our 40,000+ in population institution. I met guys from Liberia and Southern Sudan who are on scholarships from their governments to encourage them to return and invest their education in the development of their countries (they know if they send them to the U.S. they rarely come back). The university choir performed which was fantastic - I talked to the director about joining and I'm hopeful I can learn the songs and all the various movements that tend to accompany them.

The best part of my day was my morning visit to Kibera. Via an American acquaintance who worked at a high school there last year, I was ultimately put in touch with Red Rose Elementary as a partner school for the kids at Red Hill and their pen-pal project. I do not think I could have found a better school to partner with! First off - I think it's great that Red Hill and Red Rose will partner - what a coincidence in names, right? Second - I can't convey the joy I found in this school. They are clearly doing a great job at providing an education to 80 or so kids from the inner depths of Kibera, Nairobi's biggest slum. But perhaps just as important, they've created a safe, fun and encouraging place for these kids to spend their days. Each child I encountered was just bursting with enthusiasm and energy - it was great to see. I had never been to Kibera before, and as the school is on the outskirts, I don't think I've had the true Kibera experience yet - so that will wait until another post. But my morning with the kids was the most fun I've had in some time. On Fridays they have an extended play time just outside the small little compound their classes are in. We all got in a circle and sang, clapped and danced to various songs, nursery rhymes and games for at least an hour. The school works with kids from the age of two or three through 4th grade - and they are so excited about pen-palling with Lauren and Audrey's classes. Additionally, the teachers look forward to communicating with the teachers at Red Hill, learning about their curriculum and sharing their own. You can see pictures from my visit here, and I will be sharing with the girl's classes what they can start collecting to support Red Rose students. I believe there is sponsorship information on their blog as well - so make sure to visit!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


A bumpy road leads west out of Nairobi. Past rising structures of development and crumbling houses that bear the mark of having once been far enough from the center of town to warrant existing. After a couple of hours we reached Machakos and drove briefly around town before emerging to find the steep road that led to our destination. Down the abrupt and rippled dirt driveway the local children greeted us as we pulled up to Sadat’s house. What a difference a year makes – I’m no longer in the position of being a volunteer inside this house that serves 60 local orphans. I’m here to live amidst a community of my peers, and this day is just that – total immersion into the roots of young men who were raised in the city but can slaughter a goat without getting a speck of blood on their perfectly pressed jeans (a few hours after we arrived they did just that, and I watched the process of taking an animal from the comfort of its well-fed enclosure to the humane insertion of a kitchen knife into its jugular).

Afterwards I took a walk to the edge of the property to see where the children who are cared for at this home stay. As the sun sank lower over the surrounding hills, I breathed in the freshly toiled soil, the pit latrine, the chipati frying in the kitchen. A handful of children in over sized dresses watched me as they held their smaller siblings on a large hill just outside of the compound. Only one of the kids would muster a smile and venture forward to take my hand (which I gave as a lame offering in exchange for the pictures I rushed to take). I wondered how you could choose to take a picture of a crying and runny-nosed toddler left sitting by himself in the middle of a vast hill, rather than scoop him up and comfort him. In lame paralysis I did neither, as these children were local - they were not at this home for lack of parents, and thus even our basic interaction seemed somehow intrusive (not to mention my pictures). The smiling sister who had run away returned to collect the toddler as if he were a casual afterthought. She was the tallest of the lot – the girl with the baby on her back next to her couldn’t have been more than 5 years old. I couldn’t get a smile from the rest, and fear my pictures do not capture the essence of the moment. Even after all I’ve seen it is perhaps the most striking vision I’ve ever had. Something about the size of these kids - the babies on their backs looked almost big in comparison to the size of the siblings looking after them.

This is a different kind of trip for me. I am not watching after these children, not here for a short time to temporarily relieve the burden of those who have undertaken their care full time. I’m here to learn, to connect the dots between the world I come from, the various worlds I’ve been a part of and the theories and practices that find a peaceful and equal line between them all. I went to the church service on Sunday but was not compelled to sit through the four hours as I did last year. I drank in instead the wrinkles on the old woman’s hands and face next to me after giving her a warm greeting. I saw my own dirty fingernails next to the equally dirty nails of the woman seated to my left. I saw the puffy shoulders of the children in the front row in their best dresses, and the nursing mother behind me. I did not ask anything of this experience in all its richness other than to be present and let it inform all that lays ahead as part of my growing understanding of the reality of life here.

I left the service and walked back up the hill, returning to our wanton group of merrymakers who came to this place to celebrate birthdays and graduations. The guard dog growled from its enclosure as I approached, the scent of eucalyptus overwhelmed the music in the background, “When Jesus says yes, no one can say no!” Hours later we sat in a circle and picked at pieces of freshly roasted goat. I’d relinquished my role as a strictly curious outsider, but had not yet embraced this intimate invitation into community to venture a vaguely furry goat hoof.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Settling in

First off - apologies to Audrey, one of the Ripple Kids who has initiated the pen pal project (I mistakenly called her Ashley in my last post!). I'm at the end of a long and fruitful email session - it's so rare to find a computer that has any sort of speed, so when you do, you really relish it. The last few days have been quite full - I had my orientation, visited two Rotary clubs, went to two karaoke nights (what!?) and met my first international student who is even crazier than me. Her name is Angeline and she has come from Ireland to do a 5-year BA/MA in Veterinary studies with a focus on primates. I have warned her of how aggressive chimps can be, but I suppose she knows more about this than I do as she already has a BA/MA in Zoology.

Orientation was great - pretty basic (we'll get more info next week) but a nice opportunity to meet some of the professors and my classmates. I've met 7 of the 15 so far, and we have a pretty diverse range of backgrounds. Some are recent grads, others have been working in NGO's, the education field or have business backgrounds. We took a tour of the IDS library - I may never find it again as you have to go up three flights of stairs, around a couple of corners and then down two more flights to get there. God help me if there's ever a fire.

I have been most excited by the start of my Rotary visits. I have not given any talks yet so I can enjoy visiting and meeting people without the stress of knowing I will be speaking. Rotary in Kenya and throughout District 9200 is very prestigious, I am excited about the various business and community leaders I will have the opportunity to meet, learn from and network with. It is really an honor to represent such a great organization - every meeting I go to I hear about service projects (there has been a big focus here on assisting the IDP population (internally displaced persons)after the unrest earlier this year, as well as on helping with various improvements in rural areas related to water, healthcare and nutrition. One thing I really enjoyed at last nights meeting as I sat alongside a number of prominent business people in an especially formal meeting (we had two AG's there) was the manner in which the club president chose to recognize various members of the club. After acknowledging their contributions he said that in addition to the certificates they'll get for being club members of the month, the four of them will also receive a goat. They just need to let him know when they'd like to enjoy it and he'll make the arrangements. I love this place.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Brighter and Brighter

Yesterday I let myself have some down time, but I resolved it wouldn't last past last night. So, this morning, I got up, took a nice swim in the Y's pool and set out to focus the energy of my day on some of the projects I've been asked to help out with while I'm here. The first is a penpal project that Red Hill Elementary and Ripple Kid's (see link on sidebar) Lauren and Ashley approached me about when their family heard about my plans to come to Kenya. They sent me with letters and worksheets from their classes (hi kids!) and I am working on finding a couple of classes here that will receive the letters and respond. The kids and their teachers, Mrs. Pacelli and Mrs. Pierce, are also interested in doing a drive of some sorts when I find out what the school kids here might use. I have a school in the Kibera slum that a friend worked with last year that I hope will participate, and I will be calling their principal tomorrow to inquire.

I am also working with Rotarians here to identify a partner club and some resources for a new school being supported in part by the Newport Rotary and the African Children's Fund (also at sidebar). One of the great things about Rotary is that everyone knows someone! In fact, I went to my first meeting today, Nairobi South, and was hosted by the YMCA National Secretary, Eric, and introduced to another Megan. She is an American who has been here for eight years, and just *happens* to have rooms available in her beautiful house. So though my energies were focused elsewhere today, I think I managed to find a great living situation, and make my first Rotary contacts.

Many thanks for everyone's comments and emails - it's a joy to share this with you - even if sometimes it's just the day to day stuff I have to write about. Tomorrow is orientation - can't wait to meet my classmates!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Winding Roads

As I finished the first iteration of this blog post yesterday and the power suddenly went out, I remembered I should never be composing in blogger (and, the $38 I was debating for a surge protector might be a good idea after all). The past few days have been full of house hunting, and while I was proud that for the first few days I kept my cool about how challenging it has been, today has been the first down day I've had. I always know in the back of my head when everything is going well that at some point, there will have to be some feelings or experiences to counter the euphoria of what feels like perfection. Still, it never makes it any easier when they hit. I found out today that I did not get a really wonderful cottage I'd found that had been recommended by a contact from Monterey. The delightful British woman who bought the property in 1958 and has been feeling under the weather lately, "you know, a heart attack or some nonsense like that," as she said, had promised it to a guy who hadn't yet deposited. She wanted to follow through on her word and give him another chance, and sure enough - he showed up today to sign the papers. My other leads have fizzled - some due to a loose interpretation of what "unfurnished" means (I can handle getting furniture, but buying my own stove top might be pushing things a bit). Another strong lead - right price bracket, right area, turned out to be scam - you know things aren't good when they ask for 3500 shillings before you've even met in person. There are so many factors to take into account - the prices are quite a bit higher than I expected (I'll likely pay close to what I paid for my room in Berkeley this last year, and could easily pay more than I did living two blocks from the beach in Corona del Mar). More importantly though is safety - both Kenyans and ex-pats alike will indicate just what a property must have to give you a slightly better chance of avoiding robbery - you can take your pick from a 24 guard (mandatory), electric fence (suggested), guard dogs (favorable) etc. I also have to balance out transport as I naively thought I could get by without a car here (oh the irony of having a car that won't sell in the states, and knowing thateven if it did, it wouldn't even buy you a car that runs here!). I haven't yet mustered up the courage to take on the matatus, the exceptionally over-packed Nissan minibuses emblazoned with names like "White Gazelle" and "Teenz Club." They slow just enough to let people hop in to what little space there is before flooring the pedal and weaving through traffic (did I mention I've been prohibited by everyone to whom I've mentioned the possibility of riding a bike here?). I'm still getting the lay of the land and fear getting on the wrong matatu and ending up somewhere I'm not familiar with. I'm also still a bit shaken by the hi-jacking that happened when I was in Kenya last year that resulted in a driver and fair collector being beheaded. Sure, it's not likely - but I'm only human - stories like that stay with you!

On a much less stressful note (for my own and any readers benefit!) I continue to have moments each day where I just can't believe I'm here, or having the conversations or experiences I am. I have a major goal to make progress while I'm here in getting a test area in Africa paypal accessible. On Friday I met someone at a party who is actually interested in the same thing. We have slightly different motivations, but it's always great to be able to churn ideas over with others. I also met another young Kenyan at the same party who was very excited about my studies at IDS (Institute for Development Studies). Many people have told me how much the research and policy recommendations IDS makes are used by the government and various NGO's in Kenya, but his excitement lay in the students he said I'll share the program with. He said the type of thinker the program attracts is very creative and fascinated with innovative approaches to Development and Kenya's evolution as a whole (which everyone I come across seems actively invested in). Young people in general here are very politically astute, informed and motivated to see their country progress and embrace its role as a leader in Africa. It's an exciting time to be here - the business sector is up for the taking and that means there is tons of room for being proactive in the development sector - and hopefully extending the benefits of profit to people throughout the country.

For those of you who pray, please throw a few in for me and my house search and banking issues (won't go into details but suffice it to say I am hitting a lot of roadblocks in terms of timing for getting my funds to my account here in time to pay my tuition and start classes on Monday). Continued thanks for all the encouragement as well!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Sort of a long one...

I’ll be honest, it took me about three hours after I got up yesterday to leave the YMCA. Part of it was that I just wasn’t oriented to where I was, and part of it was because I wasn’t really sure what my objective was. How exactly do you go about “starting” life in a new place? I decided to take it step by step, and so I walked to town and got a phone card. Well. Reflecting on the last day and half it feels a bit like I’m walking around town wearing a sandwich board that says “Help me and I’ll do something really, REALLY cool for you.” Except I’m not giving anyone anything to help me out, but everyone I come across continues to go out of their way to help me get stuff done. For those of you who’ve ever tried to get things done on a bureaucratic level in a foreign country (or heck, in the U.S. – sorry County friends!), you know how critical it can be to have a local on your side. So I buy my phone card and suddenly Sanjay and Maureen from the cell shop are my new best friends. Maureen proceeded to walk me around town, pointing out various places of interest. This included customer service for the SIM card they sold me and an introduction that helped me cut in front of approximately 40 people waiting for help (which I actually felt bad about, though it was certainly a timesaver). Sanjay is also convinced he has an apartment he can rent me – I’m not sure how interested I am given the direction he pointed, but I’m keeping all options open at this point.

After the cell shop I ate lunch at a traditional restaurant Maurine had recommended – 150 Kenyan shillings for a full plate of beef stew, sauteed greens and chapatti (about $2). I then visited a book shop to pick up a comprehensive map, and in the course of that meeting was directed to the taxi driver they use for book transfers and given instructions on negotiating the fairest price. This driver took me quite a way to the Citibank I had hoped to open an account with, only to find out they only work with corporate clients. No matter, he then took me free of charge to another bank so I could inquire about opening account, and waited for me to bring me back to the center of town.

Later in the day I connected with my Rotary host counselor, Pam, who stopped by after a crazy day at work to check in and brainstorm banking and housing options with me. Between her and my other host counselor George (who stopped by early this morning to check in as both were out of town when I arrived), I know I am in great hands! My group of guys I met last year - Dan, Ladama and Chris have all checked in and I am meeting up with friends of friends tonight for drinks. I also dropped in on the National Secretary for the YMCA this morning, Erik, who I met at the Rotary International Convention this summer. He had all sorts of helpful advice and suggestions and introduced me to one of his staff, Jackie, who is a grad student at U of Nairobi as well. Jackie proceeded to spend the next two hours getting the correct fee structure with me from the University (this involved many offices referring us to other offices), and showing me the campus, which is actually quite nice. I was very thankful for her and Erik’s assistance, as when I’d written the school to gain clarity on the fee structure form they’d provided, I received an email that said in just a few more words, “The fee structure form we sent is very clear, please reference it with your questions.” I was quite pleased to know that my confusion was warranted and I must pay my fees from an entirely different form. Good news is that my tuition is less than I’d anticipated – perhaps my new answer when people ask me, “Why are you going to Kenya for grad school?” will be, “because it costs approximately 1/15 of what I’d pay in the U.S.” Of course that’s not the reason, but it doesn’t hurt!

The greatest part about the past day and a half is that as I’ve reached out to people – friends of friends and various organizational connections people have provided, I’ve already started to see opportunities for partnerships and projects I could never do or find on my own. In fact, I got an email from an Orange County acquaintance today indicating an interest in finding a school to sponsor in Kenya, and then a few emails later another from a Rotary member in Orange County with a school they will be visiting here soon and need sponsors for. Who knows if it will be the perfect fit – but the symbolism is profound to me as I know it is opportunities just like these that will validate this journey even more.

I will provide more details about projects and opportunities for support from home as things progress – thank you to those of you who have already asked! I will try and keep posts a bit more manageable from here on out, but it’s always good to share the when the kindness and hospitality of others is making such a difference acclimating to a new place.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

African Soil

The picture in the post below was taken in 1990 on my first trip to Nairobi. My aunt had planned a trip so my grandfather could experience a true safari, but his health intervened and somehow I found myself at the age of ten headed to Kenya. It amazes me that 18 years later I return as an adult, on my own terms, to continue getting to know this place. It’s hard to articulate the reality of landing on Kenyan soil after a year plus of anticipation for this moment. I would say I’m running on adrenaline – but it’s not quite that. It’s more that I’ve been resting in the reality of this approaching experience for so long, and now that it's here I almost feel as if I’m just along for the ride.

As I gathered my cart full of bags and exited the terminal tonight, I was pleased to see the smiling face of my friend Daniel, the brother of a professor from Chapman who showed me around last year when I was unexpectedly in Kenya on my own for a few days. After heaving a large sigh of relief we headed to the YMCA, with a quick stop for me to get cash (and in so doing mix-up the exchange rate and spend $5 in ATM fees to withdraw about $42 – so much for being a seasoned traveler!). The YMCA has a 24 hour gate and guard, and though my room is quite simple I have all I need for the next few nights while I sort out where I’ll live, how I’ll get around and get my enrollment at Uni underway.

Right now I’m sitting under a mosquito net canopy, not quite as romantic as the scenes I watched on the plane from Out of Africa (the last few minutes of which were interrupted by landing IN Africa). My Kenyan friends advised me last year that Out of Africa is not a real story of Kenya, and I understand their point – it does not focus on the story of Africans, but of colonists and settlers, many of whom claimed this land as their own, and whose legacies live on in the tribal strife and land disputes that influenced the unrest earlier this year. Still, the beauty of the country and the people comes through in the story, and reminds me that just as I am but a visitor, the richness of this place has nothing to do with ownership or title as the colonists once thought. Rather, it is in how you go about creating a home, temporary or not, and discovering the small place you will occupy in a country’s ongoing story.

I arrived tonight under the softly dark Kenyan sky, and tomorrow my experience begins in earnest.