Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Visiting Furaha

On Thursday morning, I (Mer) headed to Marafa, a small village about one hour north west of Watamu. I was heading to meet Furaha, the 10-year-old boy whom Kiki and Zac (my sister and brother-in-law) are sponsoring on my behalf through the organization, World Visions. The sponsorship was a birthday gift from them, and one of the best I’ve ever received. Jessie stayed at the hotel on this day and successfully read Tony Morrison’s, A Mercy cover to cover (which was our last book swap with each other…so once we were out of books, Jessie “borrowed” one from the hotel and accidentally still has it with her to finish it).

Emmanuel, the director of the Murafa division of World Visions, picked me up at the hotel after insisting that we use their 4-wheel drive vehicle rather than have Justus take me in our little rented Toyota. I was glad he insisted because once we got past Malindi and turned off on the dirt roads to Furaha’s homestead, I realized our rental car probably would have not made the 45 min bumpy ride on the dirt roads.

We went first to the World Visions office, which was a very modest building with a main greeting area, which served as the conference room, and five small offices surrounding it. There were eight employees at this division headquarter office. They all came out and we sat and chatted about the organization and they each told me their role; the one woman in the office was in charge of pairing sponsors with kids, and she showed me her office that was stacked floor to ceiling with the 4,000 files of sponsor children. (Just in this division…I can’t remember the exact number of sponsors the organization has throughout Kenya, but it’s quite astounding). The employees in the office work with community groups in each area, and the community groups actually work with the children in social activities, conduct medical exams, and keep up their school records and other things that the organization reports back to the sponsors abroad.

I asked Emmanuel about the breakdown of donations and how much actually goes to the child. He said that only about 10% goes directly to the child – that is for school fees/uniforms and medical costs. About 25% goes to the staff for salaries (which are not huge…all the World Vision employees lived in small hand built homes right around the office). The remainder portion of the donations goes to community development. World Vision has built a permanent structure for the primary school and is in the process of saving for desks for every student. Emmanuel was proud to show me the plans for future growth in the community. It was refreshing that the organization seemed so transparent. After seeing the office and talking with people, I am confident that Kiki and Zac’s monthly sponsorship is money very well spent. Meeting Furaha and his parents also really confirmed this.

After filling out the appropriate paperwork (and wrapping a skirt, provided by the woman working in the office, around my shorts) we hopped back in the truck and headed just about 10 minutes to Furaha’s homestead. I have to say, I was a bit nervous. I was excited to meet the family and see a homestead not propped up for tourists and to see real life in a rural village, but I just felt sort of weird…like I was looking to be thanked by the family or something. I don’t know…I guess I just wasn’t sure what we were going to talk about. Sure, I had a lot of questions I thought would be interesting to ask Furaha and his parents, but I sure didn’t want to go to their home just to spew interview questions at them.

When we pulled up, the entire homestead (extended family living together on land with maybe 6 or 7 mud huts situated together) came walking up, with proud little Furaha and his father leading them. There were maybe 20-25 kids and about 12-15 adults who were there at the time, but quite a few other young men were out herding, I was told. Anyway, Furaha was dressed in his nice button down shirt and slacks, clearly standing out from any of the other kids. He was painfully shy, especially at first, but shook my hand to greet me and whispered “welcome” is Kiswahili.

The family escorted me over to the three chairs that another World Vision worker had set up and we all sat down for a chat. The hoards of children were scurrying behind me, laughing, which had me cracking up. One little girl kept running up close to me and then freaking out a bit when she’d get too close for her comfort and run away. I nearly broke into a fit of laughter with this little one but luckily I recovered. Furaha is studying English in school (he is in grade 2), but knows only a few vocabulary words. His parents do not speak English either, so Emmanuel did a good job translating. The matriarch of the family opened with a prayer and Furaha’s mother and father welcomed me formally and thanked me for the contributions to their family. I thanked them for having me to their home and explained that it was actually my sister and brother-in-law who were sponsoring Furaha and promised to pass their thanks along. They couldn’t get over that and expressed multiple times how they would love to meet Kiki and Zac too.

Anyway, we sat and had some chit chat conversation for only a few minutes—it was quite awkward…I felt like a foreigner for real. All these people were just sort of looking at me and I at them, so I asked Furaha to show me where he slept. He walked me over to the thatched roof mud house in which he and his five siblings slept and was excited to grab his school workbooks to show me. I wondered why the sunlight suddenly stopped coming through the doorway, which was maybe only 4 or so feet high, and I turned around to see about 20 pairs of kids eyes peaking in. Their parents laughed at their interest in me and I was glad I wasn’t the only one to find it a bit comical. Furaha remained shy but flipped through his schoolbooks and read single words to me.

Emmanuel translated the words chocolate and sweets and Furaha, of course, lit up. I passed out starbursts to all the kids, who really liked them, and passed the rest of the treats off to Furaha and told him the rest was his to share. I passed out a few little things I had brought from home and they appreciated them while I was wishing I had brought more (although his dad couldn’t have loved his Obama shirt more and proudly wore it from the moment he opened it). At this point, a group of about 8 kids came up and performed three songs for me…adorable. Furaha wouldn’t get up there with them, but he was keeping the beat on my leg. It was a wonderful little performance (see video when linked up).

After about 40 min., we were ready to go. I gave the family some maize and beans and other dry food we had picked up on our way to thank them for hosting me. They had prepared a meal for me, but Emmanuel politely refused on my behalf saying our time was short and that we had to go (he later told me in the car that of course it’s somewhat rude to deny food someone has prepared for you, but that they generally don’t like visitors eating in homes because all food is prepared with non-treated water and at times the livestock has made tourists sick).

As I stood up to shake hands with Furaha’s parents, his mother got up, went over by the larger mud house, and came back carrying a live chicken upside down and handed me its bound feet. I mean, I grew up in Iowa and spent a lot of time at my aunt and uncle’s turkey farm, but I had no idea how to grab this squawking thing from her! She asked me to accept the gift for their appreciation of the sponsorship and for coming to their village. After refusing food, of course I had to take this gift…I just didn’t quite know how! I found this gift incredibly generous and felt bad taking food from the family, but Emmanuel whispered into my ear that I must take it from her…quickly, so not to be rude. I grabbed the chicken and turned him face up for a photo-op. It was pretty hilarious.

Everyone walked us back to the car, and we said our goodbye’s. Furaha and I exchanged a hug and I promised him I’d work on my Kiswahili and he his English so that we might be able to communicate better in writing in the future. It was truly a wonderful visit and I felt incredibly lucky to have met the family. Sure, it was a bit uncomfortable, especially at first, being this white person going into an African village bearing gifts…it sort of felt like a really bad made for TV movie or something, but I think meeting Furaha and his family was well worth any awkward feelings I may have felt about it. I was glad to see the contributions of this organization at work and, of course, was so thankful for the generous and thoughtful gift from Kiki and Zac.

Continuing up the coast -- To Watamu

(um...these are the two blogs we had written while in Kenya and simply hadn't uploaded...things got a bit hectic once we got back home! If anyone's still interested in hearing about the end of the trip, you can read these entries. Soon, when we focus our thoughts back on Kenya to write our formal write-up for the grant, we will finish our final reflections on the last few days in Kenya and upload them. We are still struck by what an amazing trip we had!)

We arrived late morning to Watamu, along the northern coast of Kenya, ready to see up close and personal how the tourist industry works (read: go into true vacation/lazy mode). When we walked into the lobby and were greeted with eucalyptus towels, fresh juice, coffee, and tea, the idea of staying a fourth night rather than the planned three was already taking root in our minds. The Turtle Bay Hotel was beautiful; our room had a comfy bed, provided drinking water, and a hot shower, had an electric tea pot for morning tea on the balcony and even a/c…we were loving it. The hotel boasted eco-friendliness and marine conservation and we appreciated that as well. They sponsored a project to save endangered sea turtles, offered volunteer trips for hotel guests to help repair schools, planted extra trees to cover their carbon footprint, recycled water they used to keep the lawn up and asked guests to re-use towels (the first place we’d seen that urged that). We made our way down to the pool after grabbing some bitings, as they say in Kenya, from the great all-inclusive buffet and some mimosas from the all-inclusive bar…nice.
At 4pm Justus picked us up to go visit the Gede Ruins – an ancient city from the 15th century (as we write this we wished we had taken notes while the guide spoke though we did record the tour). We had a guide who spoke faster than anyone we’d met in English or Kiswahili. He had a special thing for the toilets and at every part of the ruins, made sure to point out where the sultan relieved himself. He had been a guide there for 7 years and was very knowledgeable, although he did say some contradictory things to what we later read in the museum. What was really cool from the ruins was to see how this ancient village had so many archeological finds from other countries. There were Spanish scissors, Chinese pottery, and Arab architectural influence. In the museum we saw hairpins made from ivory, pots and vases, jewelry, and replicas of original dhows in which they traveled. The place was also full of a new kind of monkey that we hadn’t seen and gorgeous, huge trees. We were impressed with the physical beauty and the historical significance of the ruins.

Unfortunately we were too late to see the Kapepeo Butterfly farm but got to read about it – a project employing local community members to collect butterfly larvae in the local forests. The butterflies that are raised here are shipped out all over the world and the profit from the sale comes back to the community. As we were driving away we saw a local dance group performing traditional dances – there was a small charge to enter. One thing that stands out so far about the coast vs. other areas of Kenya that we have visited thus far is that there is much more effort to include the local community in profiting from tourism. The money earned from many of the local projects and sites come back to the community. While it still might not be supporting the community as people there might like, it was definitely more than any other place we saw.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

August 15-18 - Car Troubles and Mombasa South Coast

Heading East – Tiwi Beach and Ben’s Car Rental, August 15th – 18th

On the morning of the 15th we woke up really early to head east towards the coast south of Mombasa. The trip was to be 6-8 hours depending on traffic and our goal was to be out of the door by 9 a.m. The car that Justus had picked up from Ben’s rental had a back left tire that seemed to wobble and made the whole car shake (we learned this when he picked us up from the Journey show the night before). He got up very early and headed to Ben’s early to get the tire changed and checked out. By the time the tire had been changed it was now 11 a.m. and we were already behind. The tire still did not look or feel right though he assured us we would be fine.

Less than 50 minutes outside of Nairobi the car, which had been shaking, began to really move and Mer heard a metal clanking. When she stuck her head out the window she discovered a completely flat tire. We pulled over slowly, examined the car. We discovered how bad it was when the tire was removed to put on the donut and we saw a huge patch on the inside of this worn and used tire. We called Ben who said he’d check on our options; we waited a long time to hear from him. Meanwhile Mer is calling his boss to demand a new car. She is dialing furiously and shaking with the vengeance of a stalker because the boss refuses to pick up the phone but does manage to text saying he will send money for a tire. We don’t want a new tire; we want a new car. Three hours later one arrives. While a tad bit calmer we are still pretty annoyed and anxious to get our trip started. They show up with a markedly smaller car (we are five people) that has squeaky breaks. We try to argue for a refund (we had paid in full up front so our chances seemed slim) but when Njeri began to be rude to the man the conversation ended and he refused to speak more to us. We got back in the car and headed to Mombasa eager to forget it all.

Two hours later, POP! Another tire is blown, this time the front tire on the left side. Two young men appeared out of nowhere, ran up to the car and began helping us change the tire. We couldn’t believe our luck. We drove another hour to a gas station where we paid $1,200 Kenyan shillings to have the tube of the tire replaced. We had some food to eat because we were starving, and it was now 6 pm and getting dark. By the time food and drink were had and we were back on the road it was very dark out and we had at least another 4 hours ahead of us on the bumpy, unlit and treacherous Mombasa road. We all sat mostly silent and white knuckled for the following 5 hours – 5 because we got all kinds of lost when we got to Mombasa and took us a while before we found Tiwi beach on the south coast down some dark, unpaved roads. We were particularly frustrated when people in the car, speaking only in Swahili, kept asking directions but not sharing with us what the confusion was. This was especially annoying because we were the ones that actually had the map and knew where the hotel was. By the end we were all pretty testy and ready to go to bed. Poor Justus had been driving for the last five hours completely erect with his eyes being blinded by the bright lights of oncoming trucks on the two lane highway that refused to dim their headlights. He was so tired he ended up taking several road bumps at 40 miles an hour and we were sure we’d lost at least a muffler.

The saving grace of the trip was that when we arrived at Coral Cove Cottages we fell in love with the place. It was the cutest cottages you’d ever seen and at such a reasonable price. There were two bedrooms, a decent kitchen and a really nice living room. We decided that after a good night’s sleep we could all use the rest of the next day for some relax time. When we woke up to the sound of monkeys and birds all around us we walked down to find the most beautiful white sand beach ever. There was a great little ocean front restaurant with good coffee and decent (actually crispy) toast. We spent the whole day walking on the beach, playing cards, reading and trying to get over the terrible trip.

The next morning we got up early and ready to get our research on. As we waited for every one to get ready for our day trip to Mombasa to see Fort Jesus (the former Portuguese trading post) and Old Town Mombasa, Njeri decided she would take the car for a drive in the unpaved and grassy road. Despite Justus’ telling her it was a rented car and an automatic, which she had never driven (she’d been begging the past three days) she grabs the keys and gets in the car to show off her driving skills.


We look over and Njeri has just reversed the car into a palm tree which rests on the side of the cottage. The side mirror has been knocked off and the entire side has been dented and scratched, not to mention the big mark she left in the poor tree. We look at each other trying to decide if we should laugh or scream at the irony of it all – no luck with cars! We walk over to inspect the car and find an embarrassed Njeri and an extremely irate Justus. For the next two days we were trapped at the cottages while poor Justus and Andrew spent their days at the car garage in a nearby town trying to have the car fixed so the rental place wouldn’t know what had happened. Justus didn’t trust them to do the car well or use the car for a joy ride and camped out the entire time watching their every move.

While we were sad not to get to go to the Elephant Sanctuary or Fort Jesus, we appreciated the two days to enjoy the gorgeous beach and relax. It was our first time spending more than two days in the same place after the last two and half week whirlwind trip. We caught up on receipts, discussed curriculum and found ourselves reflecting on our trip thus far. We appreciated alone time where we could talk privately, share our frustrations and remind ourselves of how lucky we were to be there. At night we stayed up late, played Kenyan Poker, “Cadi”, with Andrew and Justus, shared stories and taught them how to play “rock, paper, scissors.”

While we were sad that the accident meant we didn’t get to do most of what we’d planned on the South Coast (the cottages are in a very remote place with no matatus running there and dangerous to walk to – we were told that even people who work in the various beach-side hotels and cottages get mugged on the dirt road). We did get to head out to Mombasa one night once the car was fixed. We drove around, saw Old Town Mombasa (which is largely crumbling and not well restored), and had a final meal together. The next morning we woke early to drop Andrew and Njeri off at the bus station. The price of fixing the car meant that Njeri had no more money to continue the trip with us up to Malindi. Andrew also had a tight budget but he thanked us repeatedly for letting him tag along and we were sad to say good-bye to him though we promised to hook back up in Nairobi. He is going to take us music and book shopping and show us some other parts of Nairobi we might have missed.

August 14 - Visit to "Journey"

Journey – August 14th

Friday, the 14th, was Pat’s birthday so after spending a good part of the morning in the internet cafĂ© downstairs we went with her, Daudi, Njeri, and Njeri’s brother Derek to a nice restaurant that had grilled meat that Pat likes. Daudi entertained us with stories of his fear of the ocean and travel stories about his time in Finland that made us laugh. While we were there a friend of Pat’s named Abu stopped by the restaurant and we got a chance to chat with him. He was a really sweet guy who does a lot of work on AIDS and HIV education among youth. He was describing a project he does in the prisons with young men where they use theater to educate and encourage safer sex practices. His work really focuses on de-stigmatizing HIV/AIDS and looking at it as a medical issue and dispel some of the myths that surround it. It was really interesting to talk to him about some of the HIV/AIDS issues – he answered questions like, “Why is there a 20% HIV infection rate in Kisumu but only about 10% in the rest of the country?” His answer – in the western part of Kenya they still practice the tradition of wife inheritance. If a man dies his wife (or wives) go to the brother or next closest male relative. So, if a man had been infected and died and his wife, also presumably infected, gets passed on to a new partner and all of his partners you can understand how the disease can spread faster. He also explained that in Kenya it is still quite common for men to have “side jobs” – meaning mistresses. Because there are still lots of superstitions around AIDS/HIV (the virgin cure is one still alive in some parts) this makes his job of educating people a bit more difficult. We hope to hook up with him when we get back from our Coast trip and maybe peek in on one of his projects. His interest in using theater to engage young people seems like a natural fit with some of the people we work with back at home – if only we could find more ways for people like Abu to share his work. Some of the problems he encounters and the difficulties facing youth are so similar to what we also see in the Bronx.

After the dinner we headed over to the University campus to check out Journey – a band that Njeri and her friend Andrew are part of. Apparently they have a Friday night youth gathering on the campus with music, discussion and dancing for Christian youth. Because they raved so much about it we wanted to see it and also support Njeri and Andrew who were to sing that night. Despite our protests Pat insisted on calling Justus to come pick us up from the restaurant and take us to the band practice as he was to pick up the rental car that evening. We felt that it was unfair to ask him to transport us around since we weren’t paying him to do so and because it was his last night with his family before we headed east for our big Coast trip. We waited for a long time for him and it was getting late so we finally took a taxi. Njeri was annoyed but we were secretly relieved to not make Justus come all the way there, pick us up and take us somewhere else and wait for us. (NOTE: we have had several conversations with Pat and Njeri about this and feel that even though they explain this as part of the culture we feel very uncomfortable treating Justus like a servant there to do whatever we say whenever we say. Though it is true we are paying him, on this particular day we were not and felt it rude to even assume that he would leave his home to drive across town and drive us around.) When we arrived we looked around and saw that two of the seven rows of chairs are filled with Americans; we were a bit surprised as this is not part of the tourist circuit as far as we knew.

After four or five songs the white American minister that helps to organize Journey, Brent (the same guy who spoke at the church service the first day), got up to introduce a guy who was going to introduce a guy to speak – Brent mentions he doesn’t really know either of them but welcomes them to share. The first guy, gets up and gives a shout out to all the Americans in the house; weird. Then he starts talking about how he’s so happy to be in “Africa” and “Africa is so great” and this is his second time in “this great country, Africa”. Then he starts describing his important work here in “Africa.” He’s here on a two week trip to Kibera to run a basketball camp. He tells the story of how he found Jesus after losing him for two years in his youth and how now he uses basketball to help others find Jesus too. While we didn’t mind his quest to get to know Jesus well and it didn’t strike us as odd that he chose basketball to do it, we did think it a little weird to come all the way to “Africa” to try to convert people living in the largest slum in Kenya to Christianity and he didn’t even think to call the country by its name. He wanted it to be clear that we not think that basketball was part of the religion but a way to connect to the young people so they’d be more willing to open their hearts to Jesus and get to know him and accept him as their savior. This hit us most because Kenya is a primarily Christian nation and Kibera, the slum where he was working, was in Nairobi, which is overwhelmingly Christian. Why did he assume that these children didn’t know who Jesus was or had never been to church?

The guy quickly ended his explanation of his trip because he wanted to introduce one of the youth pastors that was with him who was to give us a sermon. The young man started out his sermon trying to tell jokes but the humor, a very American and sarcastic humor, was lost on the audience though we chuckled. He also spoke fast in a strong Midwestern accent and many visibly strained to follow him. He had a powerpoint presentation to go with it with different bible passages flashing on the screen. He asked everyone to take out their bibles, about 10 of the Americans reached in their pocket for their bibles and the other six pulled out their iPhones with an app for Bible passages I guess. It was weird to see, only about 2 or 3 of the Kenyan youth had bibles with them. He began to deliver a sermon with the title “How to live a good life”. He jumped from one passage to the next, trying desperately to connect them all to the theme and peppering his sermon with personal anecdotes of a mean boss who he didn’t like but served with a servants heart as the bible told him to do until one day the boss was fired. The sermon was still going on after 20 minutes when Njeri finally decided it was time to go. As we walked out the Kenyan young people looked literally bored to sleep (some were in fact) and the poor young guy, who sensed it, kept trying to explain what he was saying. We felt bad for everyone in the room, including him.

Leaving Journey we were a little bit in shock because it seemed, though he was sincere in wanting to help others, it felt odd that this 19 year old guy had chosen to travel half way across the world and lecture Kenyans about having a servants heart and loving and serving even those who oppress you – and all this based on his experiences as a barista in a coffee shop in Wisconsin. We don’t think he caught the irony of a white man from one of the richest and most powerful countries in the world telling young black Africans from a developing nation with a huge unemployment rate, an economy in big trouble, and a long and impressive history of being colonized and exploited by various European nations (and the US), about how to be a servant of God by praying for those who do harm unto you.

It reminded us of a quote we saw in the national museum of Kenya earlier in our trip from the country’s independence leader Jomo Kenyatta,

“When they arrived we had the land and they had the bibles. They told us to close our eyes to pray and when we opened them we had the bibles and they had the land”

There might be a word or two off there but that’s how we remember the quote.

While we respect the idea of going to others and helping them, sharing your beliefs with people, and making the world a place more like the one you envision, Africa with its history of missionaries with alterior motives makes the abundance of missionaries we’ve run into (we met others in our trip at virtually every stop) weird. They don’t seem to have bad intentions but the way they deliver their message to Kenyan audiences carries a certain arrogance that has multiple times made us feel uncomfortable. For their first time visiting Journey you might expect them to sit and listen, perhaps ask questions and try to learn from the young Kenyans themselves who have organized this space and time instead of standing up and reporting on all their good work in teaching Kenyans about Jesus.

Friday, August 14, 2009

8/12 Return from the West, Flower Farm and Delamere

Today we took off early from Lake Baringo ready for our drive back to Nairobi. On the way we planned to make 2 stops in and near Naivasha that we hadn't made earlier - the flower farm and the Delamere estates. We decided we wouldn't have time to get to Lake Bogoria or the Menegai crater because of time but these two other stops would be important for our research into Kenya history and economy.

First stop was Delamere estates - on our way out we had been denied entry because it was a Sunday. This time there was no getting lost and it was a weekday so we expected no trouble. WRONG. First of all the guard said she knew not of what we spoke. She didn't know who told us we could visit but we would have to drive to Naivasha make a reservation and then come another day. We asked her to call the manager but she said she had no phone. She would have to radio and there was no response. She said the general manager was on the property but she was not allowed to call him directly she'd have to ask the manager to ask the secretary to call him to let us in. We tried being nice and sweet, tough and demanding, and even stubborn but to no avail. There was no way we were getting in. We couldn't figure it out! We could walk into Kenyan National Parliament with hardly a check but to get in to see a famous colonial estate (hidden under the name of a private conservation park) was impossible. As we headed out the guard confessed that if we had wanted a game drive to see animals it would've been quite easy but because we mentioned the Delamere name they were not going to let us in. Thought streets, bars, restaurants, schools and all kinds of buildings have the name of Delamere, the estate from where the colonial dirty work and business was run was off limits.

Still today the Delamere's own thousands of acres of Kenyan land and dispute the claims of local Masaai who want their land back that was stolen. Though Kenya is now independent you can't help but feel, and Kenyan's say this too, that there is still some work to be done on that front. Even Justus was surprised at how secretive and weird the whole visit was. Hmmm...

On to the Nini Flower Farm where we received a much warmer and informative reception. We were greated by George, an assistant to the manager of the flower farm who walked us through the entire place. He explained the way the farm works, the different kinds of roses they grow, where they ship them to, how the workers are treated/paid, what chemicals they use and the new and different ways they are using to conserve water and prevent pests and diseases without chemicals. We wished our mothers were with us. Bobbie would've especially found the part about microscopic spiders that eat harmful algae flies and the fly tape that they hang in the greenhouses as ways of controlling pests. Rita would've loved the explanation of a process used by a Japanese florist which sucks the sap and color from roses, then replaces them with color and a chemical which basically freeze dries them so that they look fresh but are really preserved flowers. At the end of our tour George gave us a bouquet of the "reject roses" which we thought looked pretty damned good. We took them back to Nairobi for Pat as her birthday was coming soon.

We arrived back in Nairobi and crashed for the evening.

Back in Nairobi 8/13 - Kenyan Parliament Visit

8/13 Back in Nairobi

We awoke this morning happy to be back in our Nairobi home. After the hundreds of kilometers we've driven it was nice to not have to get up this morning and get back in the car; in fact the last thing we wanted to do this morning is get in a vehicle. We were feeling a bit drained from our travels and the natural ebb and flow of our bodily functions and their ability to adjust to new foods (a convoluted way of saying we got some intestinal challenges!) meant that we just wanted to stay at home and relax.

Jessie took an unusual late morning nap while Mer read on the couch. Finally at 2 pm we decided to venture out of the house and head into downtown. We couldn't justify wasting a whole day in Kenya at Pat's house when there was so much in Nairobi we still hadn't done. Plus, there was no power in Pat's neighborhood so that meant no updating of blogs or catching up on email for us. We headed into the downtown area with Njeri in one of the matatus that we now were starting to dread. We continue to be frustrated with "the jam" and ask ourselves how much more progress could this country make without a jam? Why isn't this problem being addressed? Every Kenyan we talk to is frustrated by it and people plan their lives around it. Daudi, Pat's husband, drives about 5 hours per day to Kenyatta University (this is a commute that should only take 30 minutes each way). When we ask Kenyans how they think this can be fixed, they all say the roads should be widened, the public transportation improved, etc but that the politicians are too corrupt and lazy to do anything. It is amazing how universally disillusioned people seem to be with the government.

We headed to the Kenyan National Parliament where we heard you can view proceedings from the public gallery. It took quite a while to get in - though we weren't asked to show our passports or even get searched though they told us this was the reason for the wait. The only other visitors that day were three sets of school children who looked to be between the ages of 13 and 17. Njeri said, "they must be public school children" because of how they were dressed and being treated. The students were wearing uniforms that were tattered and old. Their old shoes and slouching socks also gave it away. They were made to stand in single file lines while the guard told them to behave and took any cameras away (there were two total in the group of 60). The students filed in to sit in the gallery viewing area. They were very interested in us and a few reached out to touch us or give us high fives. As we climbed up to the viewing gallery we had to ask ourselves if we'd already missed the session. We were told it started at 3 and it was about 3:30 so we couldn't understand why the less than 40 members present started filing out within five minute of our arrival. Less than 10 remained as one gentleman from the Ministry of Trade got up to give his report on the request for funding for the ministry and a report of their work. There was, literally, not a single person listening to him as he gave his report. One woman was texting and picking up the phone to call people, there were two groups of people sitting and talking and laughing and a row of reporters one level below us who seemed to get bored and got up and left. It was really confusing and sad from our perspective.

The students sat up straight and very polite, not one talked or elbowed his neighbor, though a few kept turning around to sneak a peak at us or wave and smile. They looked bored but attentive and we wondered how they were following the speech - many of the students in the public schools receive very poor education and these students from the interior generally do not have a strong command of English; the language the government uses. Njeri had decided not to come in with us. "I went once when I was 12 and I choose never to go back again," she said as she had left us at the gate. We now understood why. How sad. The truth is that we were so disappointed. There are 230 or something close to elected members of parliament. To see literally 8 in there was such a shock to the system. Trade is such a hot topic issue and the AGOA conference had just occured in Kenya less than a week earlier - how could there be such low attendance? The few who spoke mentioned the importance of developing Africa as a trading region and not just going after Euros and Dollars. Some debated whether or not they should continue to develop and strengthen trade with Uganda given the current tension between the two countries. Others challenged them to think outside the box but offered few examples or solutions. After 45 minutes of the gentleman's report and then a few other speeches from people who hadn't been listening to his speech we decided it was time to go. While this is an area of interest to both of us and we really wanted to hear more, we felt like there wasn't much new we were going to learn. After less than an hour in session they all appeared to be winding down.

On our way out we asked the guard where all the MPs were - he said the President had gone to the coast for a conference so maybe they went to join him. When we asked Pat later she snorted and said "yeah right!" She was not at all shocked when we told her only 8 MPs were there that day - "this is how things work here girls. Wait until election time then they'll all show up" We told her how the parking lot was filled with luxury SUVs and she said, "you know we pay them an allowance for that! We pay housing, travel and food expenses for them and they don't even pay taxes!" She was disgusted but we asked her why she didn't run for office. "I should" she said. But she said she probably wouldn't.

As an outsider it's hard to be critical of someone elses government or system. You want to respect each country's right to develop their own system and how they choose to run their country. At the same time we understood the reason so many Kenyans lack trust in their government. The front page of the paper that day said that the drought has gotten so bad that people are starting to starve and there is a serious food shortage problem. Not only are animals running out of land to graze, the field crops are not yielding enough for people and food borne illnesses are also on the rise. Then to see that in the face of this crisis less than 40 MPs were present and less than 10 stayed for the whole session made the situation even more depressing.

We left the gallery to meet Njeri and her friend Andrew (who will be traveling with us to Mombasa). After a quick bite we headed to the Matatu stand where it took us about an hour to catch a matatu back to Pat's neighborhood - we had to face "the jam" all over again. If ever the country was in need of a government to help fix some of the problems that plague Kenyans every day it is now - we're anxious to find someone to talk to who can explain a little bit about how and why things have developed the way they have here. We know that the legacy of colonialism and the challenges of a developing country play a large role - we were reminded of that as we walked into the building of the Parliament and read a plaque proudly proclaiming that the foundation for the building had been paid for and laid by British nobility.

From Kericho to Lake Baringo 8/11-8/12

We had a great little tea plantation tour on the morning of the 11th...and discovered just how close to the equator we are with the sunburns on the back of our necks from walking through tea for an hour! We learned how tea is pruned and harvested and just what parts of the leaves to pick. The guys demonstrating on the tour were so incredibly quick at it...quite impressive. Lipton Tea is among the three major companies who purchase tea from these immense fields. Kericho is the largest tea exporting region in the world (though not producing...India is, but much is used there for consuption rather than exports), and it was interesting to learn the process from picking to cutting to drying to packaging to shipping.

The main guy giving the tour (not a tea picker...clearly works in an office somewhere) gave an interesting and presumably skewed perspective of the conditions in which the workers work. He was quick to say that the housing provided for the workers (most of whom are migrant workers) was more than adequate (though they sure didn't look like it from afar) and the poridge they were fed for lunch was nourishing. He noted that it was a good job that earned a respectable salary (they are paid per kilo they pick per day). He also commented that the tea bushes were cut at a level so the bending over for the workers was minimal and that their backs were not sore at the end of the 8 hour work day (this was clearly not the case since our backs would have easily been sore had we really been picking tea out there much longer). We apprecieated the tour and learned a lot, but made mental notes to ask Justus about the accuracy of the information the guide was so quick to offer. Justus nearly laughed when we told him the information we had learned...he said if all those things were true, he would have not left home to go to the city looking for work (ultimately finding a well paying job as a school bus driver at Pat's school). He said, in fact, that the housing and "provided medical care" were not nearly sufficient, especially considering that entire families lived in these tiny one room houses. He also said the actual pay is less than 1 USD per day which was too little for him (or anyone desiring a small amount of comfort) to take a job in any of the plantations. He suggested that an interview with one of the workers would paint a very different picture than that which was created by the guy giving the tour...as we suspected.

We headed for our last destination on our Western tour, Lake Baringo. We had actually not planned on going here but Justus said it would be well worth the 2 hour drive north and moving hotels yet again to see the lake and the wildlife there. We agreed and set off. Again, we watched the scenery change from lush to dry to incredibly dry and scarce (in between intense card games of Gin Rummy and War). We had to puase a couple of times for big heards of cattle or donkeys taking up the whole road...love it. Didn't love the seeing how the cows get skinnier and skinnier the further out we went.

We arrived at Lake Baringo around 4pm and crossed our fingers that the one "midrange" hotel, according to our guidebook, had available accomodations. There were a few places costing 300ksh per night and a bunch of extravagent places costing around 200USD. Robert's camp, the book said, had some bandas for around 40USD. We got the last one! It was a cute little hut with cement walls and a thatched roof and we were loving it. We wished we had our own tent so that we might camp for much cheaper and sleep outside with the 450 bird species that live around the lake...their chirping is LOUD! We were loving this place... we dropped our stuff and headed to the bar to grab a Tusker and see if we could sneak in a boat tour around the lake to experience the crocadiles and hippos the guidebooks boasted. We ran into a couple from Slovakia who was looking for others with whom to share their boat (3000ksh per boat, seating up to 7 people). Perfect timing! The two of us and Justus hopped on with them and a teenage kid named Robert, who lived on the land around the lake, took us on a well informed tour for about an hour.

The boat ride was awesome...it was an aquatic safari! Robert kept motoring into the marsh so we might get up close and personal with the crocodiles (which was not cool...at least mer didn't think so, being the front passenger in the boat). 5:30pm with the sun setting on the lake was a beautiful time for a ride, and also convenient (or not) because so many hippos were in full view in the water just 10 ft from the boat. Those are some big ass animals, for real. Dangerous also, and whenever one would go underwater, Robert would quickly motor away... It was a pretty amazing sunset cruise! And Tusker tastes even better on the water of lake Baringo.

We walked back to the camp with our new friends from Slovakia and sat and exchanged our travel stories and advice with one another before dinner. They were heading to the coast from there so we exchanged information in hopes of crossing paths at the beach in Mombasa. We had a great pizza dinner (the spiciest pizza either of us had ever ingested...), Jessie dominated Mer in scrabble, and chatted about our experiences. As we got up to head to our banda, one of the waiters said, "whoa, whoa, are you walking to your banda alone without a light?" "Well, yea, it's just around there and the bathroom light, just across from our banda, looks like it's on". Two other Kenyan residents and the waiter shared a chuckle and said, "No, we must take you with a spotlight. You don't walk around here at night without one...these hippos are mean to come across and they come up on land at night. We will take you." I mean.... So, we were glad for the escort but sure as hell were not walking to the bathroom to use it or brush our teeth...the dirt outside our banda door and sprinting back in was just fine (and hilarious). ; )

We were greeted in our banda by a truly gigantic spider and Mer nearly hypervenelated while Jessie begrudgingly killed it with her shoe ("spiders are good, they eat mosquitos," she kept saying). This thing would have eaten us...it had to go. Uggghhhh. Other than that, it was a peaceful night and we could hear the songs of hundreds of birds through our thatched roof, which got about 20 times louder as the sun rose the next morning...no alarm clocks needed here! We had a beautiful, if brief, time at the Lake and only wished we could have stayed another night. We were grateful Justus recommended it!