Thursday, May 28, 2009

Playing hooky

Here's what I know: Hippos are the most dangerous animals in Africa. They can run upwards of 14 miles an hour, have seriously huge tusks and a massive jaw (not to mention their substantial bulk).

Here's where I was on Sunday night: Fisherman's camp - famous for the hippos that come up to eat the grass below the campsite that sits on the edge of Lake Naivasha.

Here's why I was there:
I've wanted to visit Hell's Gate National Park since I got here. It's just an hour from Nairobi (though by matatu it took me 4 hours...grrr...) and the only place where you can do walking or biking safaris (no lions or elephants - but there are buffalo and leopards so it does require some care!). I haven't had any friends interested in going when I've been free, so its been one of the many tourist attractions I've flat out missed until last week when my friend Allan, a volunteer in Mombasa, said he wanted to go and convinced me to skip my Monday classes (two of which ended up canceled thankfully).

Here's where our tent was:
About 15 feet from a very pathetic looking electric fence, that didn't appear to be on. Allan had impulsively leapt over it when the grass was hippo-free just after dinner, hitting it in the process with his metal crutch (he had a sprained ankle) with absolutely no reaction on the part of the fence.

Here's where everyone else's tents were:
A lot further away.

And finally, here's what happened: We went to sleep around 11, sad we hadn't seen any hippos but ready to rest in order to get up at 6 for our biking safari (for which I sadly have no pictures because I forgot to change my battery - snap!). At about 11:30 we were awoken by the unmistakable sound of a large animal outside the tent, most likely chewing the grass, but possibly just walking through the spongy ground (it had rained that day). Allan bolted out of the tent with my headlamp, while I simply rolled over and tried to get back to sleep since I knew I wouldn't be able to see anything and I was comfy.

A few minutes of relative silence passed. Then, I heard the deep, deafening roar of a single adult hippo. It broke through the night like nothing I've ever experienced. It sounded like he was just outside my tent, and I was sure that the fence we'd observed before must have had a gap we hadn't seen that allowed him to wander up to the grass next to the tent.

The roar was followed by the immediate sound of running directly past the tent. I remember being sure that it was the hippo itself, I could hear the weight in the movement, though thinking back I think I was hearing both the hippos mock charge and what I found out was Allan, crutches free, sprinting past the tent at virtually the same time. I wish I had words to articulate the combination of the roar and the speed of the thunderous running. The first few seconds of this video show what a charging hippo can look like:

Then, silence.

So there I was, by myself in a tent with no screen or way of seeing outside, knowing only that one of the most dangerous animals in the world was less than 20 feet away and really, really pissed off.

I didn't know how hippos sense things (apparently it's by smell so you want to get down wind of them if possible). I didn't want to call out to Allan for fear it would attract attention, and I was afraid to move in case of the same. While I could logically run through the fact that there was a fence, that all I represented was the motionless white structure of my tent and that all a hippo at that time would be interested in would be grass, I could not calm down. Allan finally came back to the tent and explained what had happened. He'd followed another hippo down the grass a bit and when he came back caught the second one square on with my head lamp, causing the mock charge.

There were a few more brays throughout the night, but for the most part it was calm. Of course I jumped at every rustle of the trees, constructing all sorts of scenarios in the aftermath of fear (at one point convinced there was a leopard outside, at another dreaming that a man with a machine gun was entering the tent). It is by far the most scared and powerless I have ever been.

The next day we learned that most likely the hippo near us has been cast out of his herd for trying to challenge the dominant male. For now, he's eating as much as he can so he can bulk up and try again. Incidentally, we also found out that a tourist was killed at Fisherman's camp in 2005 when she came between a hippo and its calf late at night.

Suffice it to say I gave the buffaloes a wide berth on our bike safari the next day.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

A new endeavor

Like so many of the most exciting projects I've been a part of in my life, my newest endeavor is the result of a last minute burst of inspiration that moved me to throw my name into the mix and see what came of it. I've just joined the Editorial Advisory Board for JustMeans, an organization dedicated to spreading the word about corporate social responsibility (CSR), providing a forum to discuss it and other related issues (ethical consumption, social entrepreneurship, sustainable development etc.) while raising awareness for both companies and consumers alike. I'll be posting roughly every other day working to generate dialogue, interview CSR professionals and everyday people about what they know of CSR and what they think it should be and much more. Today is my first post and I'd love it if you'd take a look here. Feel free to comment and send any thoughts you have about CSR my way - I'll be on the constant look out for fresh content and perspective as I work to balance this new opportunity with my final month of school and preparation to return home for the summer.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

A Kenyan Wedding

You may or may not know this about me, but I'm a little obsessed with weddings. While I do think they're starting to get a bit out of hand in the U.S. (it's just one day!) I love how they combine all of life's most important pieces into one event. From family and friends to the day's underlying theme of love, plus the added elements from the spectrum of creativity (fashion! music! design! FOOD) everything blends together in celebration of a couple's new life - what's not to love? Thus I've been anxious to attend a local wedding to experience and compare Kenyan traditions and perhaps more importantly, to see what people are wearing. For you see, a Kenyan wedding is one of the best excuses to break out your hottest, brightest and most in your face African outfits. I say African because Kenya doesn't really have a national dress the way some African countries do. Some tribes have traditional wear but when it comes to Nairobi, where society is a blend of backgrounds and tastes, you pretty much get it all. Dresses for formal occasions and weddings are often made specially (and sometimes worn just once) out of traditional kangas, imported wax cloth from West Africa, more locally printed leso and kitenge or any combination thereof. I'm still learning how to distinguish what comes from where and what patterns are more traditional versus new takes on classic pieces, so I loved having the opportunity to see so many designs in one place (though I had to be somewhat surreptitious in how I took my photos!).

A great thing about Kenyan weddings is an invitation is more of a formality than an etiquette lesson. For yesterday's wedding, I was invited by a friend of the bride, who, along with the groom, I have yet to meet! The event started in a Catholic church, where a wonderful choir sang both modern and traditional hymns throughout the service. After the church portion (in which the groom was invited to "embrace" his bride - no kiss!) the guests were invited to take pictures of the bridal party before they left briefly for formal portraits. After that, a buffet line was set up and guests ate and drank (soda - alcohol isn't served until the evening's festivities which are more for the couple and their close friends - less family, more booze) while waiting for the return of the bridal party.

Upon the bride's return, all woman were summoned to greet her at the car and help bring her into the reception with song and dance. The bride is from the Akamba tribe, but her husband is Kikuyu so it was his relatives that participated most in this in order to announce her welcome to the family and her new identity therein. There was a loud call and answer song as the group made their way into the reception. Shortly after, the bride's family and friends from the coastal area were also invited to dance and celebrate their traditional songs in celebration.

A series of dances and speeches followed, culminating in the cutting of the cake, which the bride and groom took turns feeding each other and then to their parents (I thought that was a nice gesture of commitment to each other's family). The whole ceremony was very Christian, with many sound words of advice for making marriage work and biblical references. I loved the honesty and encouragement family members and friends offered - very realistic about the challenges of marriage but also full of hope and blessings for the new couple.

Turns out it's easiest (and quickest) to upload photos to facebook. You can look at the rest of the wedding photos here, whether you're a facebook member or not.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Up Country Easter

As most of you know, I come from a large and treasured family. The beautiful home my grandparents made in Monterey and the family homes nearby have hosted a lifetime worth of holidays full of friends and family, inevitable group sings and some of my favorite, home cooked foods. Easter is traditionally held at my Aunt Carlie’s house, and there have been years when the egg count topped 200 due to the abundance of kidlets in their Easter best, lined up smallest to tallest awaiting their turn to take on the lawn.

In an attempt to stave off the homesickness that is inevitably worse around holidays, I headed to Nakuru to once again visit the boys at the Expanding Opportunity group home. I was joined by Jinna (the other Ambassadorial Scholar who ran the food distro at the Rally for the Disabled) and with a couple of soccer balls and some food coloring in tow, we hopped a matatu for the two hour trip.

A couple months back, a friend I know only through the blogosphere indicated he wanted help the boys by sending some support. Shortly thereafter, my cousin Madeline indicated that for her son David’s birthday, he had elected to collect money in lieu of gifts to support the boy’s home. So, Easter not only meant a fun visit with the boys, but the opportunity to deliver these incredibly generous donations.

It’s hard to imagine over a dozen boys ranging in age from 5 to 18 without any sporting goods or balls, but the intense love and devotion given to such things by the group means they rarely last very long! Still, I think their replenishment is a necessity, and we brought two (funded in part by Frank and David’s donations). The first was put into use immediately and by day 2 looked as if it had been at the house for years! It was amazing to see the boys switch effortlessly between soccer, volleyball, wall ball and general fancy footwork tricks.

On Easter Sunday, we broke out the food coloring and interrupted our marathon Scrabble sessions (one of the oldest boys, Sammy, is a true Scrabble genius. He scrabbled his second play in the second game and won every single game we played by a wide margin). The boys really enjoyed the egg dying, though at first they thought it was a strange activity indeed.

We postponed the egg hunt itself until Monday so everyone could participate – it was fun to see the group apply their keen eyes to the garden where we hid eggs and treats. It was a great weekend and since that time, I’ve received a full report of how the donated funds have been put to use. You wouldn’t believe how far $300+ dollars can be stretched! From helping outfit the new, full time social worker's office and filing system (in order to be compliant with local regulations – this is an amazing step for the home), to getting pajamas, clothes and underwear for the boys along with new (used) games, artwork for the walls, a complete paint job of the main dormitory and general storage solutions for laundry and personal belongings, the money has been put to great use. My unending thanks to my cousin, David (and his parents of course!), and Frank for their generosity and heart for these boys!