Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Welcome to Hell!

When I lived in Nairobi as a junior in college, I was so busy trying not to be a tourist that I never made it to some of the coolest places in Kenya. So when my professor, Dr. Elke de Buhr, proposed that the group go for “a little hike” around Mt. Longonot and then spend a few days at Lake Naivasha, I strapped on my Chacos, called “dibs” on the front seat in the matatu (the only seat with a seatbelt), and headed 2 hours north of Nairobi for the weekend.

I think the rest of the story is best told in pictures:

Mt. Longonot National Park is what remains of a volcano that erupted sometime around the turn of the century. As we were driving to the park’s gate and snapping photographs of the donkeys grazing at the base of the giant crater, it didn’t occur to us that what Elke had described as “a little hike” would involve us climbing straight up the side of a mountain.

Ashley (a friend from Tulane) and I made it up the mountain in about 2 hours. Two sweaty, sun-drenched, exhausting hours. Expecting “a little hike,” I was wearing sandals and SPF 15 sunscreen, and only carrying half a liter of water. We were also ill-prepared for the delightful combination of 30 mph winds and lots of fine volcanic dust, which literally made our teeth muddy. It was rough.

People coming down the mountain, who had already made it to the top and around the crater, kept telling us it was worth it so we forged on. And they were right!

Inside the crater was a completely separate ecosystem, which you could see from the top. (You have to repel to get into the crater, and I wasn’t about to do that…) There are little lakes covered in some sort of bright green vegetation, and lots and lots of birds I couldn’t identify.

The distance around the crater (which was a pretty difficult hike, too) was about 7km. Ashley and I did about 1/3 of it, then turned around and walked back to our starting point. (So, really, we walked about 2/3 of the way around the crater, since we backtracked.) We then sat in the dirt like children (some high schoolers were making fun of us) and took pictures of the view below.

After about an hour up top, we headed back down the steep, steep mountain to the base gate and found some much deserved cold beer and cookies. It was really difficult not to slide down the dusty path, but I managed to make it down without falling down once! (And, judging by the dust on everyone else’s butts, I think I was the only one who didn’t fall down.)

The next morning (on my birthday!), after some much needed R&R and a GIANT buffet dinner at Lake Naivasha’s Fish Eagle Inn, we took a matatu to Hell’s Gate National Park. In the heart of Masaai land, Hell’s Gate was supposedly named such after the eruption of Mt. Longonot created a massive cloud of ash that suffocated plants and animals and rendered the area uninhabitable.

Today, it’s a giant gorge full of baboons (which we didn’t see) and baboon poop (which we tried our best to avoid).

At the main gate, a group of about 8 of us rented dilapidated bikes (for $4 a day) and biked the 8km (4 miles) to the beginning of the hike. (There were no helmets for rent. I asked and they thought I was crazy.) 

The road took us through a game reserve, past herds of zebras, water buffaloes, wildebeest, and a variety of DLCs (deer-like creatures). We biked through pits of volcanic soil, which was so dense and soft that our wheels wouldn’t turn and our bikes would abruptly stop and tip to one side or another. We saw families of eagles who nest high on the rock formation in the park, and heard a Masaai folk tale about the pillars of stone that were once women who were upset about being married off and were turned to stone by the gods for looking back towards their villages as they walked away.

At Hell’s Gate gorge, we took a 2-ish hour hike with a guide whose name I forget. He told us stories of growing up in a Masaai village, about being shunned from his family for letting a cow eat poisonous leaves one day when he was in charge of the herd. As punishment, he was sent to a boarding school, which ended up being the best thing that could have happened to him. When he was 13, he returned to his village for a traditional Masaai right of passage to manhood, where he was trained as a warrior (Moran) and sent with a group of 40 age-mates, all boys, to find and kill a lion. He told us that he threw his spear first and hit the lion’s elbow, so the lion attacked him. He pulled up his pants legs and showed us giant bite and claw marks that he said were from the lion, and told us how the other boys attacked and killed the lion while the lion was busy trying to eat him. He survived and because he was the first to throw his spear, he got to keep the lion’s mane and, when choosing wives from all the eligible ladies in the village, he got to choose first. I’m not sure how much of his story was true, but it was certainly interesting.

Also, Hell’s Gate gorge was apparently the inspiration for the landscape in The Lion King, so we quoted the movie and sang songs all afternoon. It was the best hiking trip ever.

The next morning we hired a boat and boat driver to take us hippo- and bird-watching on Lake Naivasha. We learned about the invasive water hyacinth and Louisiana crawfish that, combined with the massive Italian and Dutch flower plantations, are wrecking the ecosystem in Naivasha.

We saw kingfishers, storks, herons, and a bunch of other birds I can’t identify. We interrupted a hippo family’s morning nap. We watched our friends' boat almost capsize when their driver ran them into a bunch of mangrove trees. A fun time was had by all.

In the afternoon, before heading back to Nairobi, we stopped at Crater Lake National Park, another volcanic area with a variety of wildlife. Members of our group who had gone the previous weekend (before class began) described it as very Jurassic Park-like, and they were absolutely right. We took an hour-long walking safari through the savannah, where we confused zebras, witnessed a duel between male impalas fighting for control of a herd of females, and chased a giraffe through the trees to get a good picture.

Dehydrated, sunburned, and generally exhausted, in the late afternoon we headed back to Nairobi in our private matatu (minibus). We were supposed to stop at the Rift Valley Overlook to take photos, but by the time we got there I was the only person still awake so we continued on back to the hotel. I managed to stay awake long enough to shower and tuck myself into bed before it even got dark out. It was an awesome little vacation, a much needed break from our intense course back in Nairobi, and a great way to spend my 26th birthday.

Now we’re busy conducting and compiling research about water access in Kibera, so sometime this week I’ll update you all about actual school-related things. On the 18th, I’m headed to South Africa/Swaziland to visit some Peace Corps friends, Pasture Valley Children’s Home, and my Swazi family. I’ll keep you posted.


(PS I know this blog post is late, but it's taken me several days to get to internet! I'll update more later, as I'm now done with my project and have moved on to Swaziland!)

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Conspiracy Theories, Shiny Things

I’ve officially been in Nairobi for a week(!) and I only today figured out how to control the temperature in the shower to settings other than “freezing” and “scalding.” (There’s an switch on the water heater, which is in another room, that controls the flow of electricity to the pump, which controls the temperature.) Hey, I’ve been busy…

We started off the week with a brief introduction to the history of East Africa and of the conflicts in Somalia, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, DR Congo, and Sudan that have pushed hundreds of thousands of refugees to Kenya since the late 1960s. Once they arrive in Kenya, they’re supposed to stay in one of two major refugee camps established to house them: Kakuma in the north, which is mostly Sudanese refugees, and Dadaab in the east, which is predominately Somali. In reality, though, as conflicts rage on for decades (particularly in Somalia) and the prospects for return and repatriation seem increasingly remote, tens of thousands of refugees have made their way to Nairobi in search of a more permanent existence.

Estimates vary widely as to the number of urban refugees living in Nairobi, but the actual population probably falls somewhere between 80,000 and 450,000. Probably.

Tuesday morning we took a class field trip to Kibera, the largest “disadvantaged living area” (aka “slum”) in East Africa (and possibly all of Africa?), to talk to a few refugees about their experiences in coming to and living in Nairobi. After a 20 minute bus ride through roads more pot-holed than those in New Orleans, we arrived at the Koinonia Community Project (www.koinoniakenya.org) compound a whole mile away from where we started. Koinonia is a sort of comprehensive skills training center for undocumented migrants and other residents of Kibera where they teach wood carving, painting, batik-making, sewing, and other handicrafts (and also provide free or very cheap health care for undocumented migrants at their in-house clinic). We took an awkward mob tour through the narrow shipping container where John, a Congolese refugee, was teaching the art of wax removal to his 12-year-old batik-making apprentices and stared in anticipation as an old Rwandan wood carver turned a stump into an intricately carved Jesus and lamb. We asked them, as tactfully as possible, about their journeys to Kenya and where they considered to be “home.”

Valencio, a 23-year-old Rwandan man, told me about witnessing the genocide when he was just 5 years old. Since then, he’s lived in Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Kenya, with the surviving members of his extended family who are now scattered across East Africa. Now he carves stereotypical African masks for shipment to some overpriced home décor store in Italy. He told me about tensions and distrust among Rwandan refugees living in Kibera. He would like to be a graphic designer but can’t even afford cigarettes, let alone a laptop and a degree. (I didn’t bother to point out that maybe if he saved his 100/- a day instead of spending it on cigarettes…)

I wandered away from the group to talk to Frederic, a middle-aged Rwandan man sledge-hammering away at a giant Nubian Jesus carving commissioned by a local Cathedral. He told me his life story, about how he’d grown up in a rural community in the south of Rwanda and how his family were farmers. He’d left in 1994 as well, not because of some fear of violence (he’s Hutu) but because everyone else seemed to be leaving and he thought it would be interesting. He ended up in Gabon, then on some mission in Congo-Brazzaville, then returned to Rwanda by boat (this part I think he was lying about, but perhaps I just don’t understand geography).

From his portfolio he pulled out a picture of himself from 2001. In the picture was a carving he’d done: a pile of machetes in the shape of Rwanda, turned on its side with two women marching along the border holding torches above their heads. Standing next to him was Bill Clinton.

“Do you know Bill Clinton?” he asked me. “I do. And I know the truth about Bill Clinton.”

For the next 45 minutes, Frederic told me about how Bill Clinton had hired Osama Bin Laden to assassinate the president of Rwanda in 1994 in hopes that the country would collapse into genocide (which it did). Clinton and the other super powers, he said, wanted to build a military base in the south so they could spy on Russia and wanted access to the mineral wealth in the Congo, but the Rwandan president was standing in their way. So, the genocide happened and Clinton and the rest of the world didn’t intervene because they had secretly started it. They hand-picked Kagame’s puppet government, trained a bunch of Black Americans to look like Rwandans and infiltrate the country (to spy, of course), and never paid Osama. September 11, he said, was punishment for America because Bill Clinton still owed him money, and the War on Terrorism is an American cover-up designed to obscure America’s involvement in the genocide.


Other students heard similar conspiracy theories about the genocide in their conversations, which was incredibly surprising to me. Is it just that particular population of people who had fled the country who felt that way? Are these opinions widely held by Rwandans still living in Rwanda? Or is Frederic just crazy and persuasive enough to convince all of the other Rwandans at Koinonia that his particular version of events was the truth?

We made our way through the overpriced, non-price negotiable gift shop (where I paid an Mzungu price for an adorable clutch) and headed back to town. In the afternoon, I continued my shopping spree at Kazuri Bead Factory, an income generating project started for single mothers in Nairobi some 35 years ago. They dig their own clay from here in Kenya, make it into beautiful hand painted beads and then sell it abroad for exorbitant prices. We took a tour through the factory where clay was being wet and pressed and dried in flat sheets. Women were busily rolling, flattening, and poking toothpick holes in damp clay, then leaving it in the sun to dry. In another building we watched them paint and glaze, fire and string their beads into beautiful necklaces.

I asked our tour guide a million questions unrelated to the process of necklace- and earring-making. How much do the ladies make per hour? (40Ksh starting, with regular annual raises.) Are they paid bonuses or commission? (Not really, but they get promoted if they do well.) Do they get some form of health plan? (Yes, there’s free care for immediate family at the on-site clinic.) Is there a lot of turnover? (Only one woman has quit in the 17 years the guide has worked there for reasons other than wanting to be a stay-at-home mom or moving out of Nairobi.) Basically, the place is perfect. They provide paid training, paid vacation and medical leave, opportunities for certifications and non-job related workshops, educational savings accounts for kids’ secondary school fees, and some of the most competitive pay in the city for women of very low educational level. And, they make some really pretty stuff. (I'll post photos as soon as I have access to internet that works for more than 4 minutes at a time.)

The majority of my week, though, has been unrelated to jewelry shopping. I’ve been going to class in the morning, eating a delicious lunch of beans and rice and Fanta at a little café surrounded by monkeys (all for less than $2.00), going to class in the afternoon, researching in the evening, eating my fill of cheap fruits and vegetables, and going to bed. All while wearing awesome earrings from Kazuri.

Tomorrow (Friday) the whole group is headed up to Mt. Longonot National Park for some marginally school-related activities (“maybe the tour guide will be a refugee or something”), then on to Lake Naivasha for the weekend. We’ll be going on a bike safari and hiking and staying at a place the Lonely Planet describes as “a plywood palace,” so I should have some interesting tidbits to report after the weekend.

 And next time I write, I’ll be 26! Woot woot!

Love from Nairobi.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Motherland ahoy!

After nearly a year and a half break from the African continent, my hands are once again slick from hand washing powder, my feet have a nice bronze glow from walking in the red dust, and my nostrils are black with the soot of diesel exhaust. I’m back!

I arrived in Nairobi late Thursday night with wide eyes and swollen ankles and checked into Milimani Backpackers on the edge of town. After a short night of failed attempts to reset my days and nights, I set out early Friday to explore the city with a fellow American and an Irish girl I met at the hostel.

In the 6 years since I was last in Nairobi, so much has changed. The taxi driver who picked me up from the airport warned me that the Chinese had “taken over” and built up the city, but there’s more to it than that. Modern looking, neon-lit mega hotels with quasi-African names have sprung up in previously abandoned industrial areas. Billboards advertising four new prepaid cell phone networks colorfully line the streets of town where previously SafariCom had the monopoly. The matatus (mini buses) all have signs and prices, standardized by city ordinance, and new trash cans warn of the hefty fines for littering in the streets. The city council has even banned smoking outside of all private residences within city limits, including smoking on buses, in restaurants, and while walking down the sidewalk.

Still, the place is familiar. The sidewalks are broken to pieces and full of unexpected 2-foot-deep holes where cement barricades have been uprooted by stray cars. The overcrowded streets are full of white and yellow striped taxis and westerners’ Land Cruisers, their windows and door panels engraved with VIN numbers to prevent theft. Prices are negotiable by at least 50% to account for the “mzungu” (white person) mark-up, and twenty-something men at every turn shove business cards and brochures in your face while shouting “Jambo! Nice safari, good price!” Women with improbably high heels and brightly colored wraps walk next to Muslim women in full hijab, only their brown eyes showing. And my favorite building, which looks like an upside-down Lego man, is still a great start over point when I get disoriented in the look-alike streets of downtown.

Friday morning we wandered with an affected sense of purpose in search of a chemist (pharmacy with clinician on hand to write prescriptions), a working ATM with reasonably unshady-looking security guards, the Agricultural Campus of Nairobi University (where we were paraded around and introduced to several classes) and cheap authentic Kenyan food. Eventually we ended up on the fourth floor of an office building/casino at Wambo’s Food Place, a questionably clean glass-walled cubicle of a café lined with benches (no room for tables!) that offered standard fare at local prices (and also manicures). I ordered a heaping plate of pilau (spiced rice) with beef, a side of sikumu wiki (kale and cabbage), and a mug of chai (milky Kenyan tea). The whole meal, including tip, set me back 100 shillings ($1.30) and gave me enough energy, despite my lack of sleep, to spend the rest of the afternoon haggling for fabric and scoping out dressmakers for what promises to be an exciting addition to my wardrobe. Just before dusk, I made the smog-filled trek back to the backpackers and tucked my exhausted self into bed at 7:30.

This morning (Saturday), I woke up bright and early as the rest of the dorm packed for their early bus to Tanzania. I took a hot(!) shower, threw on my clothes from Friday, and headed into town with two new arrivals I met at the breakfast table. My goal for the day was to find the Masai Market, a tourist trap full of mass-produced, “my-uncle-made-this” goods sold at exorbitant prices. In 2006, the market was a daily affair set up on an uneven plot of land on the outskirts of the CBD, but in the years of development since it has been displaced by the cement pillars of a new overpass. I’d heard rumors that the place to go for “local” prices was the Saturday morning market in the parking lot of the Kenya International Conference Center (KICC), the tallest building in town (and topped with the only helipad in Nairobi). We navigated the heavy police presence surrounding Hilary Clinton’s entourage and made our way to the colorful madness of the market.

At the door, we were swarmed by men greeting us in the kind of Swahili that is printed on tourist t-shirts and offering to show us around the market (in exchange for a hefty commission from any purchases). I quickly fended them off with my Swahili and made my way to the piles of brightly colored fabric in a sea of beaded jewelry and black shoe-polished figurines. I unfolded (and refolded) kitenge, khanga, and kikoy (3 types of fabric), negotiated for local prices on earrings made of wood and sisal, and explained repeatedly to harassing men why I speak Swahili. (Incidentally, all I bought was a plug converter so I could use my computer!)

Perhaps the biggest (and most fantastic) difference between this visit to Nairobi and my previous experiences in the city is how comfortable I am with Swahili. I’m can so much more easily negotiate my way through both the market and the city as a whole, which is even more helpful than I expected. I’m confident that I know what is going on most of the time, I’m quick to ask questions about things I don’t understand so that I don’t end up in an unsafe situation, and I’m able to easily fend off anyone trying to take advantage of me. I was worried that I’d forgotten some of the more complex grammar rules and advanced vocabulary since I last took a Swahili class in 2010, but it has all come flooding back! I’ve sort of embraced every interaction with Kenyans as an opportunity to practice my Swahili, and everyone so far has been really helpful, especially in correcting my Tanzanian Swahili into Kenyan Swahili.

So far, it’s been an awesome experience, and my actual purpose for being here hasn’t yet begun! Tomorrow (Sunday) I’ll be moving to a proper hotel (where hopefully there’s enough water pressure to wash the days old conditioner out of my hair!) and on Monday I’ll begin my course. We’ll be learning about urban refugees who have fled famine and violence in Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia and elsewhere who have ended up in Nairobi’s slums, and meeting with organizations (both international and local) that work to provide services and support to the refugees. I’ll have a better idea of what exactly we’ll be doing in the next 2 weeks when I actually have a syllabus, but regardless of what we end up doing I’m sure it will be exciting (and will give me opportunities to use my Swahili)!

After the course is finished I’ll be heading to Swaziland to visit my host family and all of the kids at Pasture Valley Children’s Home, so there will be more blog entries to come!

In the meantime, if you’d like to call me my number is: +254 729 731 349

Love from Kenya! (It just doesn’t have the same ring to it…)