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 ( 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.

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