Saturday, November 29, 2008


Par for the course in a constant stream of amazement, today was more or less like any other day in my life here. In some ways, it was totally exhausting – I was going to the UN Environmental Program library (UNEP) to try and find materials for my upcoming term papers, and needed to take two matatus to get there. For those who are still unclear about the matatu system, this blog has included Lonely Planet's "Guide to surviving a matatu." I was thinking the other day of how to convey just how rattling it is relying on a public transport system that’s based on independent contractors whose take-home pay depends on how many passengers and routes they can get in during the course of the day (rather than a scheduled time table). Every time you go to catch a bus or matatu, it is at a frantic pace in which any baggy clothing or hanging bags/jewelry can be a downright threat to your safety (or it’s own existence if God forbid you drop something) as you scramble into extremely cramped seats. My book bag has likely done more damage to others than it’s experienced itself as I make my way down narrow rows that barely accommodate my curves, let alone whatever books I am carting around on a given day.

After two sets of directions and a walk across the part of town where I am the only muzungu* I see (and where in my second week I had a guy punch me in the neck trying to grab the gold cross I’d stupidly worn for my first day of school), I found my second matatu. I should note that matatu conductors are notorious for tricking passengers as matatus won’t leave a stage until they are full, but they are highly skilled at getting people into an empty one with promises of “leaving right now right now right now boss/madam. Rrrrrrright now.” Today, however, both of the collectors I had went out of their way to get me to where I needed to be as I’d never been to either place before. One actually got me out of the matatu while we were stopped in a traffic jam and tried to get me into another that would take me to the next stage, but it didn’t work out so we hopped back into the first one as everyone started to move. I finally arrived at the UNEP stage and after passing through security found myself in one of the most pristine complexes I’ve been in since arriving. I guess if you’re interested in international anything, the UN just has an aura of magic around it, and I was a bit giddy as I wandered the complex, passing foreign dignitaries in their national dress (the Nigerians are just stunning) and an incredible diversity of staff. I spent a couple of hours at the library, very excited about the… BOOKS!...and an online database that directed me to…BOOKS!...that were actually on the shelves…in order! And then, as if the heavens wanted to smile on me, a photocopier that I get to use for FREE. Seriously – this is a grad student in a developing country’s dream. Oh, and fast internet, that I wasn’t supposed to use for email, but that let me get some pictures sent home before I found out the rules.

After checking out some books under a friend’s name (she is running the UN Billion Tree campaign – check it out!) we headed for lunch in a lovely dining area with four different vendors that felt like I was back at eBay or in the midst of any major American corporate campus. Part of why today was so fun was because I heard from a number of random friends I’ve met in town, on the bus or out and about and I ended up having two lunches (second lunch being second only to second breakfast). I was invited for Nyama Choma by a guy I’ve bought kangas from, for Ethiopian by a native son that I met on the bus last week, for coffee by the Sudanese friend I mentioned in a previous post, for lunch by my friend Esteban who I met my first week here when I realized he spoke Spanish (he’s an attaché for the Mexican embassy - when you're surrounded by a language you don't speak it's very gratifying finding someone who speaks the second language you keep attempting to communicate with) and finally, for pizza (it’s 2x1 Friday!) by Sanjay, my trustee mobile phone dealer. I decided to visit Sanjay as he was closest to my bus home and after enjoying some veggie pizza (ham and pineapple) I finally had the chance to visit his house and meet his 28 day daughter and his first born daughter who is about 15 months. This entailed yet another walk across town, this time in a different direction that gave me my first view of one of the dumps right outside of city center. It’s amazing how a few blocks in any direction can place you in a completely new arena. When we got to Sanjay’s apartment the courtyard was filled with Indian women in saris, seated on the ground sifting what looked like corn. I was amazed to have touched down in the midst of such a different community than I’ve been exposed to here.

After, I trekked back through the city, passing two traditionally dressed samburu (I think!) men, their colorful red fabric, beads and leather gladiator-like sandals snapping me out of grays and browns of the dirt, dust and exhaust that I tend to notice only when I’m tired and walking on sore feet. I had to walk a long way to a bus stop as it was too late to catch my bus where I normally do (all full) but I enjoyed the walk accompanied by the sounds of the new ipod shuffle my parents sent me (thanks guys!) as an early Christmas present. My days here rarely turn out as I plan (I was supposed to spend all afternoon at a coffee shop doing reading) but I find great joy in letting go of expectations, even if it’s challenging to juggle all the opportunities that present themselves socially, educationally, Rotary-related and work wise with matatu commutes and navigating down town by foot. But of course, it's half the fun!

*Muzungu means ‘white person,’ though not in a derogatory way. You’d be surprised at how friendly it sounds when someone exclaims “muzungu!” when you walk by and catch them by surprise ☺

Monday, November 24, 2008


I've been waiting to blog until my internet at home was up, which was supposed to happen a week ago today. As of today, still no word on whether the problem that delayed it has been fixed. When you depend on internet for all your communications (phone calls are quite expensive here - so not only am I trying to keep in good touch with home, but all the various projects I'm working on are heavily conducted via emails and outreach), it's very challenging not having easy access to it. Anyway - all complaints aside, let me offer a few updates as things have been very busy and exciting. School is definitely picking up, but I'm also making some great progress on craft-group outreach and linkages with the U.S. (transport challenges second only to lack of internet!) and have started my Rotary presentations which have been great experiences as well. In a nutshell:
  • Two weeks ago I attended my roommate's (Megan White) official launch for the non-profit she's started called Zanna. Zanna means "tools" in Kiswahili and the organization is focused on coordinating the effort to provide sanitary pads to school girls throughout Kenya. Would you believe that 3.5 million school days are missed PER MONTH because girls cannot afford pads? The mildest result is staying home from school, the more extreme is literal prostitution in order to pay for something that I know most of us take for complete granted. Zanna is working with the Ministry of Education to coordinate outreach efforts and a comprehensive program to ensure girls can stay in school - translating to higher graduation rates, lower pregnancy rates and all around brighter futures. Zanna is also working on designing and manufacturing eco-friendly and locally produced pads - responding to the need for both feminine products and jobs.
  • I was introduced to Hannington Odame, Executive Director of CABE, which is a newish non-profit focused on technology advancements in agriculture in the hopes of creating jobs for youth who are looking to use their education and desire to innovate in one of Kenya's most important industries. Hannington and I have met a few times in the past couple of weeks and I am now officially a Research Associate in charge of Global Partnerships, helping the organization to find partners and funding to build on their expertise and program ideas. I'll share more about this soon as I have a feeling that some of you will have ideas or suggestions for this organization.
  • I'm trying to keep my ears and mind open as I go about day to day life, and this often results in meeting fascinating people. I recently took a short bus ride with a young man from Sudan, who later shared his life story with me over email, offering insight into Sudanese history (this too I'll have to elaborate on in the future). I am fascinated with Sudan right now as they have many untapped natural resources that they are aggressively looking for foreign investment in. How this investment is sought and acquired is likely to determine whether Sudan follows the brutal process that so many other resource-rich African countries have (especially evident in Congo right now). I feel like I am watching history.
  • I spoke to my first Rotary club (I've attended a number of meetings but this was my first speech) two Thursdays ago. I wasn't sure if my story about cultural sensitivity would go over well (it was about a time when I was 13 staying with a family in Taiwan and the father passed gas excessively throughout the duration of our first dinner there, and we had to try not to laugh) but it was a big hit. Of course the following week when I attended the meeting as a guest, I was asked by nearly everyone if I've managed to shake the habits I picked up in Taiwan.
  • I was supposed to visit a women's group in Nanyuki this past weekend to work on exploring product creation for Rising International, but my ride fell through. I'm going to attempt to get there this week on public transport - more news about that in future updates.
I'd like to thank everyone who continues to write and encourage me. This week was tough as my mom had her (successful!) back surgery and all I could do was sit and pray and wait for the phone to ring. I am sorry for those who are awaiting emails from me - I am working on juggling it all and it is so important for me to share my life here and hear about all that's going on at home. I write notes all the time about blog posts and then weeks go by and I realize I haven't shared half of what I'd like to.

I'll sign off with this story as it made me giggle and realize how all things are relative. In class recently we were talking about Newton's discovery of gravity, and the story that is told to explain it. One of my classmate's related it as such, "He was sitting under a tree, and a mango fell on his head."

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Keeping my ears open

To make up for a day spent in a high-up classroom trudging through a cross-discipline mash-up of theorists and confronting just how little I know, the end of my day rewards me with the rich sounds of downtown Nairobi. On my walk to the bus stop I pass a woman in slightly muted but still colorful kangas, shaking a maraca-like rhythm instrument and singing songs I wish I understood from her now familiar spot. Today she hits a cadence higher than normal and so beautiful it makes me stop for a moment, wishing my bulky bag was easier to maneuver so I might offer her some change.

A block further I hear one of the local mosque's familiar call to afternoon prayer, then a bit of conversation about the sister of the woman to my left. Crossing the street I am surprised to see the crossing light is actually green – a few days ago I caught myself subconsciously walking to the crosswalk before I corrected myself with a reminder that there’s really no need for such formality – in Kenya you just cross (sometimes in a sprint) wherever the traffic offers a bit of respite (or you can at least make eye contact with the drivers coming your way).

I walk alongside the barrier in front of the post office that separates the passengers from the buses we are attempting to load. I listen for the call of the #46, which in full is “Hurlingham, Ya Ya Center, Kangweri,” but sounds like “Hurlingyakangweri, kangweri kangweri!” It’s really only perceptible in auditory hindsight. Before we leave another driver approaches our driver to ask him to move forward, calling out a friendly, “Hey, boss” to get his attention.

We wait for the bus to fill then the engine revs and we lurch forward, passing through the puddle-filled roundabout as the ticket lady starts to collect our change. She issues our tickets with a quick crank of the ancient metal machine she wears over one shoulder. As we climb Valley Road we take the sounds of downtown Nairobi's car horns with us in the direction of the setting sun.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Happy Obama Day! (literally)

I got to my election day gathering at 5:00 this morning, thankful to have been spared the angst of waiting for the first returns to come in. Within two hours, Obama was being declared the winner, and we were watching John McCain give an admirable concession speech. Like many, I find it hard to express the joy of this day, the revitalization of hope, the amazement that all of America's struggles in the last century have brought us to a place where this is the man that we would choose to lead us.

To be an American in Kenya right now is to see our country as the world sees us. For so many years when I've traveled I've been forced to acknowledge the fading admiration of the U.S. by those beyond its borders. Today, I walked the streets of a foreign nation with my head held high as an American. In recent years I have had to carry my pride in our country and the dreams it has fostered much more closely to me - sharing what I can of our strengths while often taking responsibility for the increasing abuse of power and valuation of profit over all else that has tarnished our image as a land of equality, innovation and potential for all.

This election is, of course, especially poignant for Kenyans who see Obama as their native son, "our brother." President Kibaki has declared a national holiday tomorrow in celebration and mock voting was conducted in his ancestral village. If you look closely and put nationality aside though, it is the unity that Obama as a candidate stands for that is reflected in the Kenyan response to the elections. In the midst of general revelry during our first class this morning my classmate Gladys said, "we are all Kenyans." This statement may sound simple, but following the deeply traumatic post election violence in this country and the almost forgotten tribal tensions it unveiled, this statement carries so much hope. Kenyans support Obama because he is a Kenyan - not a Luo, a Kenyan. In America I hope we take this to heart - we are all Americans, we are in the midst of our own crisis and this must be a time of unity to address it.

I have been cautioning my classmates and other Kenyans that they cannot expect too much from the U.S. in the near future simply because Obama is now at the helm - we simply have our hands full with our own present crisis'. Further, I've reminded them that the Bush administration has greatly increased aid to Africa - which the new administration may need to cut in order to get the budget in order. I was touched by a classmate's comment to this as she admonished us all to "Never celebrate aid. These are our problems, not donor's problems." As we discussed things further (there was a brief debate with one student suggesting it wasn't right to put Kenya's economy on hold to celebrate an American victory) it was wonderful to realize that the joy we all feel is not because of false promises of an easy road ahead, but because there is so much hope in this leader and the reflection of our history and future potential that he represents. As another classmate said enthusiastically, "This is the first black American president...of Kenyan origin!"

One of my professors also shared how one of the things that stands out to him about Obama are the pictures and stories shared by his Kenyan family of how, during visits, he would rise early every day to help them bring their vegetables to market. For Kenyans, to see someone become president of the United States that has taken that early walk in an effort to support their family, is a great source of pride. For many Americans who have worked their butts off to put themselves through school, to gain success or who have committed their lives to making the country a better place - there is the same pride in seeing the American dream embodied in an Obama presidency.

As I said, there aren't words to convey the joy or hope of this day. I know there are those whose feelings are different than mine, who feel John McCain is a more qualified leader and will better protect Americans interests. With this in mind I pray that our newly elected leader will fulfill his commitments to unify our country in the hope that one day we will all look back and see this day as a turning point in the history of our great nation and the world as a whole. I will reflect further as I start to share some of my studies and how I am confident that a change in policies will ultimately improve the most fundamental of problems throughout the world - most significantly, poverty.

For anyone who has ever marched 'We will overcome,' or rallied to 'Si se puede!' it is a day to rejoice and know that the world celebrates with us. For me, this is the essence of this day:

"To those -- to those who would tear the world down: We will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security: We support you. And to all those who have wondered if America's beacon still burns as bright: Tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope."

Amen, furaha!