Explosions, Canadians, Matatus and a Penniless Mzungu

So I want to keep this in as much chronological order as possible, which means I have to breeze through some things to get to what I really want to write about, so hold on to your hats and here we go!

As many of you heard, there was a pipeline explosion in one of Nairobi’s slums: Mukuru Sinai.  Yes, my friends and I were safe and far from the explosion but many lost their lives and many others still were injured, burned and if lucky, managed to get taken to a hospital.  I was part of young people group organizing a response at work.  It was spearheaded by the Kenyans and we collected non-perishable food items and blankets, etc.  These were given to organizations that already had response mechanisms in place to distribute.  There was also a city-wide campaign for blood donations and the clinic at work asked us all to go to one of the designated donation clinics.  I did not donate blood, could not even if I wanted to, but I did what else I could.  I think the saddest part of the whole incident is what I read in the news describing the situation.  It said that there was a leak and that once discovered, residents were not running away.  Some might say greed, but I would lean towards calling it desperation, as the reason why people ran to the leak with whatever they could to fill as vessels for the priceless liquid.  To think that this could have gone so far in one’s life, for their families, for their children, that they run towards something so sensitive.  I don’t know if it was someone cooking, or a cigarette butt, or what, but yes, the gas exploded.  Not only were people’s lives lost or destroyed, but so were homes and livelihoods.  Many of you have contacted me after this so I am glad that the news has reached home, but please don’t forget.  I really wonder what changes will be put into place to prevent such a thing again, or if this is just a risk of living, at least, in Mukuru Sinai.

On another note, that same day I had a visit with friends from Canada!  Well, I know their purpose in coming to Kenya was not entirely, or at all, to visit me, but I am grateful that we managed to get together.  It was lovely.  They are three friends and former colleagues from Speroway, or FTC Canada at the time I was there.  They were here visiting some partner and other organizations operating in Kenya.  They had been to Kibera earlier that day and I am thankful they had not been in Mukuru Sinai.  I can only image what their family and friends at home must have thought knowing they were in a Nairobi slum the day that unfortunate news came on.  We talked about the news, and shared what we have been up to over dinner.   Wine and pizza (because I’m my father’s daughter) for dinner and I must say, best pizza here yet!  It was so nice to see them again.  They were also able to deliver a small package from home.  I was so thankful, what can I say, I understand how valuable luggage space can be.  What a small world we live in!  Oh, and I haven’t had to practice my marriage refusal lines, which I used to know so well in Ghana, until to the taxi driver that night.  I must say, that is a major difference between Western and Eastern Africa.  In Ghana, you are bound to be proposed to numerous times a day.  Here, it is much more discreet and they ask about boyfriends before continuing the conversation.  Even if you try the boyfriend-line in Ghana, it doesn’t always work.  As I was once told, “He’d understand.  We’re brothers and we like to share.”  (Gag reflex.)  Anyway, by the time I arrived at my destination, he had offered to take me dancing, buy me duty-free wine and pay half my rent. Thankfully, I managed my escape gracefully, or so I hope.  Sure I may have been a little blunt, but what can I say?  No is no, and I haven’t had to practice responding to such offers in a while.

I made a new Kenyan friend the other day.  I was trying to load something on my phone which cost 1000 Kshs.  I also needed 1000 Kshs credit for the phone so I could make calls.  I held 1000 Kshs in my hand, debating what to do as the young lady working there told me that they couldn’t test the thing I needed to load, so the 1000 Kshs for that might or might not work.  I waved the bill, “This is my last 1000 so I can’t waste it.  It must go to credit then.”  She laughed and asked why I have only 1000 left.  I looked at her, “Because I had to pay rent.”  Now she wouldn’t stop laughing and I guess it’s because I live in a very well off area where only expats and wealthy Kenyans shop.  Then there’s me: a young mzungu waving around my last 1000 Kshs needing more than I have.  Maybe she felt bad for me, maybe she felt like she could relate to me, but whatever it was I left there with credit and a new number in my phone.  I wonder what would have happened if I had told her that the 1000 Kshs I had been holding, was in fact borrowed from a friend.  Don’t worry, I’m not in a financial crisis, I just needed to get this done before the store closed and I had forgotten to bring the money with me that morning.  ATM’s are always open so I was able to pay the 1000 Kshs back right away.  Oh, life in Nairobi.

I took a matatu to visit Danika last Saturday.  To date it has been the most interesting matatu I have had the privilege of being on in Kenya.  Yes, they all have their own flavour; you can feel it in the music, decor and style of the driver and conductor (the person in charge of getting people to fill in the seats, collecting their payments, remembering who is owed what change, and making sure not to miss someone’s stop).  I had just arrived at the matatu stop and one pulled up. “Hey Lady! Downtown?”  I get on, wiggle my way to the one available spot in the very back, sit down and look around.  On the upper right hand side of the car there are words saying “The Only Money is Hussle Money” and opposite on the left it says “Blessed Mission.”  Straight ahead, where there is usually a place to look out the front window there is a mirror instead with a red silhouette of a woman’s figure sitting in a martini glass painted on.  The ceiling is padded with cushions in a black and white checkered pattern.  There are mini Christmas lights, not currently glowing, around the ceiling of the vehicle and above the mirror.  The conductor is in a flashy Blue Jays jacket and NY Yankees ball cap.  All I can think is matatus?  Man, I know how to choose ’em.  Roll of eyes.

I will write about last Sunday soon.  It has been by far one of my highlights and there will be many photos!  I will update what things are like at work.  In the meantime, the weather here is getting much warmer (you notice the intense heat during mid-day) and yes, for those wondering I am feeling much better!  After a week of unintentional fasting, I woke up from a long and deep sleep fully re-vitalized with enough energy to walk to Village Market (a nearby mall or sorts that reminds me of Wonderland) and buy myself some necessary items like laundry soap.  Yes, and some non-necessary items as well, however I claim these to be celebratory purchases that my strength is back: a salted pretzel from the Austrian-German bakery (which I ate with the mustard at home – so good!), San Benaditto (Frizzante, of course), and a bunch of Gerbera Daisies (nine) for 200 Kshs (or CAD 2.00)!  I finished my laundry+music dance party, and am still feeling great.  To borrow a line from one of my favourite films, Roman Holiday, I am…

“So happy.”

Snow crunching under my feet

On our way to Lake Magadi, about a 3 hour drive outside Nairobi, we are passing through the beautiful landscape, seeing giraffes in the distance and people herding cattle wrapped in bright red cloth.  Kenya, even 1 hour from Nairobi, is so different.  I couldn’t help but think of Ghana.  The capital cities in both countries are lush and green, while the countryside is dry and brown.  We pass a sign advertising plots of land to be developed.  A gigantic red arrow points to where the bore hole is.  Something about the idea of a land development company similar to one at home operating in the seemingly middle of nowhere, highlighting distance to the bore hole as the main selling feature makes me laugh.  Such a paradox; but so vital.  Without water, there can be no life.

We wonder why the road is paved.  It doesn’t seem to fit among the starved livestock and huts.  As we near Lake Magadi, the ground is sectioned off, reminiscent of the countryside at home, except here the land is brown and pink.  Yes, pink.  We wonder why and eventually pass a set of train tracks.  In this area, we are told, salt and soda is produced.  This explains the train tracks and the paved road.

According to my handy Lonely Planet guidebook, Lake Magadi is the southernmost of Kenya’s Rift Valley lakes and is the most mineral rich of the soda lakes.  It is the encrustation of the minerals that support the surrounding wildlife.  The mineral-rich water evaporates rapidly at 38*C leaving the mineral layer.  From these encrusted minerals, salt and soda is extracted. It was quite interesting to pass through a town with a swimming pool and high-rise apartments in the middle of nowhere, but I suppose the factory workers have to live somewhere.

We continue on our way, the roof of our vehicle now lifted up so we can stand in the car and see out the top under the shade of the roof lifted above us.  Driving through a currently dried up river bed, we round the corner and see flocks of flamingos standing in shallow water.  Very pretty.  We are told they stay were the salt water is.  Exiting the vehicle, camera in hand, I discover my joy of the day: walking on the salty shore is just like walking on crunchy snow.  The type of snow you try to stay above but every once in a while you fall through.  Now I know where to go if I am ever homesick, especially if I miss Canada’s winter.

After scaring the flamingos to the far side of the water, we continue our drive and eventually arrive at Lake Magadi’s hot springs.  I must be honest, this was nothing at all like what I was expecting.  I thought we’d have to trek up somewhere and then would happen across the hot springs, but it looked like a little pond.  Not too impressive, but then I stand in it.  Eek!!!  My feet are burning red for the rest of the day.  Some of the locals wash their clothing with the deep-cleansing salt in this volcanic heated water.  Apparently it does wonders, but the wonders don’t end there.  The hot springs are also known for the healing powers.  While we, and students from a Kenyan university, could only wade in ankle-deep water, we all stared, completely flabbergasted, at a man who went neck-deep in the scorching water.

While this was a good time, I couldn’t help wonder that any body of water, under this intense sun, without shade would also be this hot, even if it wasn’t volcanically heated water.  As soon as I had stepped off out of our vehicle, I had been immersed in such a heat that I was immediately tired and left with very little energy.  So glad I brought my hat!  I guess the beauty of this place is different for everyone; that this water is heated from inside the earth and the sun.

I make many footprints in the white salt covered ground surrounding the lake, like any other child would, before we head to an archeological site on the way back to Nairobi.

Olorgasailie Prehistoric Site is at the bottom of the Rift Valley.  While it is interesting to hear about the change in land formations and to discover what chalk is make of, I am disappointed by the lack of unique findings, the methods (or lack of) of artifact preservation, and the overwhelming sites of flints after flints.  All I can think is that I am predisposed to finding this most interesting, having taken some anthropology classes at spent a quarter of the year studying archeology; however the sites, primarily of flints, quickly became repetitive.  I wonder what the others think.  Perhaps one of the saddest things was that the elephant bones (modern and prehistoric) are taken care of where they lie and when they eventually break, crazy glue is brought in.  Must this be the case when there are so many archaeologists still working in the area?  Perhaps they could invest in a more solid shelter or updated preservation techniques to protect the artifacts where they lie.  On a side note, they also told us to pull a spike off the thorn trees and smell: so fresh!

The Housing Fiasco

So, I know it’s been a while since I last wrote but hopefully you will soon understand why.

My accommodation experiences have been so varied that at times I have laughed, been utterly shocked, completely overwhelmed, in a state of disbelief, relieved, thankful, uncomfortable, desperate, and finally peaceful.  Let’s just start by saying, to move four times in one week, is four times too many.

In Gigiri, Nairobi there are four places of accommodation where short-term consultants and interns stay.  I had done all my preparatory work, and solidified in June where I would be living.  I even confirmed it numerous times before leaving Canada, and upon my arrival in Kenya. Believe me, I was not planning to move quite so much.  There is the German School Boarding House (GSBH), where I had arranged to stay for August, Slum Gardens (SG), where I had arranged to stay from September to February, and two other locations, China Gardens and Home 51.

Monday, September 5th came along, I packed my bags and said good-bye to the GSBH, my friends and the manager who was so kind and said “Laura, you’ve been a pleasure to have.  Come back anytime.  We hope to be seeing you soon.”  Little did they know how soon I’d be back.

I arrived at SG by taxi.  The guard was expecting me.  He opened the gate and inside the taxi drove – right into one of the guard dogs.  I thought the dog was running towards the car as the car entered; Ulli (a friend who was kind enough to help me move) thought she saw the dog lying down and the car running into it.  Either way, the dog went running away, seemingly fine.  There are some words exchanged between the driver and the guard that we did not understand, eventually my bags are unloaded, and I am led to my room.  About 10 minutes later Ulli and I are heading to the gate ready to go get my last few things and meet the others for one last drink, when we notice the taxi is still in the compound.  He’s not allowed to leave because he hit the dog.  The guard is on the phone and we ask some questions trying to determine what’s going on.  The dog is walking around sniffing the taxi, so I conclude it must be fine.  What seriously injured creature returns to the object that struck it?  Ulli asks some more questions about the dog, and the guard tells me to go ahead and get my other belongings.

Saying a ‘see you later’ to my friends after drinking my new favourite soft drink, Alvaro Sparkling Pear (So delicious!), I was enroute to SG and received a text message from the lady who runs the place saying that the owner is very angry that I did not handle the situation so I’m not welcomed to stay anymore and that I must find somewhere else to live.  I call the lady and said, let’s talk, I’m 30 seconds away.  When I got there the lady, who sent me the text, was almost in tears.  She felt horrible.  Apparently I failed to handle the situation with the dog being hit.  This really surprised me as the dog seemed fine (even as we were talking), that Ulli and I had asked about the dog before leaving, and most of all, that I had not been the person responsible for driving the car.  I was told that the owner was very angry and that I could only stay for one night.

Well, dark or not, I knew I was not going to be staying there.  Not only did it not make sense to stay and unpack my bags for one night, but I was not going to stay somewhere where I now felt unsafe and uncomfortable, with an owner threateningly upset that my taxi driver hit their dog.  So I said, that’s fine, bring in the car (that I had just arrived in) and I’ll load my bags back up and leave.  However, of course, that was not possible, because the new rules were that no vehicles could enter the compound, due to the dog having been hit.  I haul everything from the furthest building on the compound to the front gate, in the dark and in the mud.  The lady who felt so bad, and the guard, offered to help me.  Pain crossed her face and she asked me where I would go.  It was late and dark.  All I could hear was the voice of the lady from the GSBH in my head saying again and again, ‘Laura… Come back anytime. We hope to be seeing you soon.”

I arrived at the GSBH and the lady who runs the night shift was in the office.  She, and all the boarders were shocked to see me back there, with all my belongings.  We all laughed in utter disbelief at my story, and the lady on night shift felt so bad I was told, even if they had no beds left, I could sleep on the floor in her room.  I ended up the third person, on the top bunk, in a room that normally goes to two.  Thankfully everyone was so understanding, and my new roommates didn’t mind sharing with an extra person.

The next day I decided to be diplomatic and polite.  I got to work early and sent an e-mail to the owner of SG acknowledging, without implying guilt, that … the taxi driver did hit one of the guard dogs and I understand that I can no longer stay.  I know you will have no problem filling the space, and I wish you the best in all your endeavours.  Regards, Laura…

To which I am further shocked with the reply I receive stating …that the dog has internal injuries and was bleeding quite badly by the time I (the owner) arrived.  You should understand my (the owner’s) anger as no responsible person entering the yard would be so uncaring and without concern… This letter continued to the point where I was told that I should have arranged for the dog to be taken to the vet (I have yet to see a vet in Nairobi).  I still find this oddly hilarious seeing as the dog had run off, that Ulli and I had asked about the dog before leaving and had not been told any of this, and most importantly, I had not been the one driving the car.

To avoid this conversation continuing, I wrote briefly that …I had no idea the dog was so injured.  I hope the dog continues to get well soon and that the driver of the vehicle acted responsibly… I do not believe that the owner was impressed.  I am still shocked, with management like this, that this place remains the most highly recommended by many people in similar work positions as myself.

After work that day I returned to the GSBH and the lady which had told me ‘Laura… Come back anytime’ had not received the message that I was back.  I was told that they had already filled my room and that another girl was coming.  So, while I wasn’t forced to leave, I knew I couldn’t stay.

Bring on Tuesday, September 6.  Having to look elsewhere I ended up at Home 51, the most eccentric and old movie-like place I have seen, because they had a room available immediately.  I later found out that this was because an individual had received a midnight call the night before, saying that a room at SG had opened up, so they moved to what had been my room for barely a couple of hours; essentially we traded places.

Home 51 hosted mainly female UN interns who loved living here and had only positive things to say.  There were two others looking at the room too, so after checking the place out, and not really having an option (as China Gardens, the only other option, was full until the new year) I moved in.  For some reason, however, I felt so uncomfortable, unsettled and unsafe inside (difficult to explain why), that I knew I couldn’t stay.  I managed to delay my move until Friday the 9th, when I had moved my things in and the extent of my unpacking had been to find a certain pair of shoes and put flowers in a glass.  As I left the place and closed to compound gate, I looked back at the house and my insides ached.  I had been on my way to a cafe so that I could e-mail my parents that I was in the new house, settled and fine when I suddenly realized that I couldn’t do it.  How could I e-mail them that when internally I felt the opposite?  Now most of you know that I am not crazy emotional and I sincerely hate to cry, but for some reason these sad forlorn tears kept coming (really uncool walking the street as the only mzungu) so I hid behind my sunglasses.  Without knowing where to go, and because I couldn’t go to the cafe in this state, I found myself back at the GSBH; the only safe place I knew.

Perhaps you will understand: Home 51









I walked in to the GSBH, calm and collected (or so I thought) and the main lady immediately said that I always have a smile and she knew something was wrong.  She ushered me into the office, even though some other people were there for a meeting, and had me explain right away what was bothering me and why I was back.  She hugged me and was so happy to hear that I wanted to stay.  She said that she never meant to push me out to anywhere that would be uncomfortable and supported me for following my instinct.  They said that I brighten their day with my smiles and that if I had to, I could stay at her house.  Luckily for me, they later received a cancellation and a room became available in a couple of days after someone left.  Such happiness, I felt like a fool because now I was crying for joy (what was happening to me?).  Everyone was telling me that I have to stop trying to leave, that this is where I should be and I can honestly say, that is what I intend to do.

The flowers which I mentioned were the only thing I had set up in my room, had been left for me on my bed at the GSBH from my roommate and some of the other boarders who knew I was struggling with the decision to move to Home 51, on the Thursday.  They had seen me internally debating and trying to convince myself for some time the fact that I can’t be so picky, that this place was shelter, had nothing for me to complain about, was much cheaper, that the other girls there were happy, and that I had no other option. The note said “Sometimes days seem to be cloudy… but then there is some light… Or at least a flower which shows, that there was and will be a sun coming. Greetings from some friends from the Boarding House.”  They were so sweet!  Not to mention that the only way you can get flowers at night, when all the shops are closed, is to be creative.  Such a bonding moment!

So I am back where I started, where I am comfortable and safe.  I do not have plans to attempt moving again.  My supervisor and the lady in charge of the JPCs and interns at the UNON both told me that the owner of SG had been looking for a handout, advised me of what to do when I received further suspicious e-mails, and helped me look into other accommodation options when I was essentially without a place to stay.  I cannot imagine what would have happened had my attempt to move to SG been my first day here.  I would not have known where to go or what to do.

The German School Boarding House

Not to be a downer, there is always a positive side.  Since my supervisor had been asking about my accommodation situation throughout the week, he knows the story and thinks I win for best accommodation experiences so far, said that I have a great sense of humour because I laugh about it, and was impressed that I managed to finish an important piece of my work that same week.  Sweet!  (I just didn’t mention anything about the stress and lack of sleep induced migraine Thursday night!)

I am so thankful to know that I have a network of people looking out for me, both at home and here.   Thank you for your thoughts and prayers. I miss you all!

Walking the Red Carpet

I just think you should all know that Friday at work there were extra security guards everywhere and a red carpet laid out from the main entrance and down some stairs to a room where important delegates and heads of state met for the Horn of Africa Summit… and I walked on the red carpet!  Not the whole distance, but enough to feel very important and special.  Of course, had the delegates started arriving, I probably would have been asked to move, so don’t worry, as a small peon in the whole UN system my head has not inflated, I know my place… but perhaps a sign of things to come?  A girl can dream, right?

I really wanted to sit in on the Summit but unfortunately that was not possible.  I am starting to think that I should go to the Canadian High Commission and see if they have jobs coming up in the spring that I can apply for.  My friends who work at the Austrian and German embassies are in charge of representing their nations at UN conferences, advising the higher-ups about new regional economic and policy decisions, and updating them on the Horn of Africa drought, etc.  It would be like researching my own interests while getting to meet a whole new group of interesting people.  There is no rush however, I am happy with what I’m doing now, and mid-February is still a long way away.

Anyway, just wanted you to know.  After a somewhat bothersome week, it was an exciting way to start Friday morning!

8 Cow Saints

Sunday Kerstin, Andreas, Marcus, Maafak, Peter, and I attended church in downtown Nairobi.  It was a church that Kerstin has been going to and this Sunday turned out to be family Sunday.  How fitting as half of the interns staying at the German School Boarding House decided to go; my family away from home.

The church was wrapping up their last series, Who Am I? with a drama production.  (They even included Who Am I by Point of Grace and by Casting Crowns, which oddly enough, I had been listening to earlier that week.)  Now, I know you are probably thinking drama, church, cheesy and lame, but it was amazing!  It was a musical who choreographed music and humour, reminded me of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dream-Coat.  Certainly, it was not on the same production level and lacked the awesome splendor as many things were far from comparable: the special effects, over the top music, lighting, and actors that could hold a note, but it was great nonetheless.  The creativeness and ingenuity of the script, is what sent it home.  We all really liked it.

The presentation was about a young lady who is told she’s nothing, will never amount to anything and will never get married.  She is too plain and only every works with her head hung low.  Her father is disappointed in her and sees her as a burden.  In this context, when a bride gets married, there is also an exchange of cattle.  Average brides are one-cow brides, while amazing brides get more.  The record in the village where the drama took place was a three-cow bride.  The father tried to marry his daughter off by offering a three-cow deal, three of the best cows in the country, far greater than what his daughter is worth, practically begging the village baker to take her, but to no avail.  This news spread making it worse for the father and daughter as rumours increased the number of cattle and still she had been refused.  She didn’t understand because her mother had always said she was special, but unfortunately had not lived long enough to see how the father’s negative words and the villages attitude just made her hang her head lower.  Eventually, this famous businessman, all in white and wearing a Bluetooth, came to the village, struck a pose in the single bright pink spot light (hilarious).  He was an entrepreneur, famous for finding diamonds in the rough and turning them into profit.  He had heard that the best cattle in the country were in this village and he wanted to see them.  But the daughter had caught his eye.  He said that the cattle were beautiful, but definitely not the best he had seen.  The whole village was shocked.  However he said he would take eight, only if he could have the daughters hand in marriage.  Another shock.  An eight-cow bride was unheard of.  (My only amendment would be that the daughter have had a choice too, at least a voice to say yes or no, to the marriage, but that is my culture speaking about a drama that had earlier implied every young lady in that village wanted to get married.)  The lesson was sang to us at the end… there is no way to determine our worth but to look from another perspective, God’s perspective.  He sees us all as the businessman does.  We are all eight-cow saints.

Just thought I’d pass that story on to all of you.  You are all eight-cow saints!

The Luck Continues

As if the bird yesterday weren’t enough (and earning a nice bruise when falling in the shower, which I failed to mention earlier), this morning I pulled a banana off from the rest and brought it to the table. I peeled off one strip and put it on my plate. As soon as I did so, all kinds of tiny black ants came crawling out of it! Thankfully I noticed before I ate it. My appetite was gone.

Then, to end my day, luck not yet improving, there was some creature flying about the dining hall tonight which I did not know about until someone cautioned me to look out. I turned to see what they were talking about just in time to see this big insect fly to and land on my plate, its wings stuck in the leftover sauce that had accompanied dinner. This time everyone had a comment… How do you like Africa these days? Still not such great luck, eh? …Oh boy.

Let me just finish this story by saying that there is a German family living here too (on the other side of the building) that is in the middle of adopting a little boy. They adopted a boy from South Africa a couple years earlier who is now in kindergarten at the German School and spoke to me the other night as I was putting some of the dessert into my bowl: whipped cream, chocolate sprinkles and banana. As soon as he spoke, in his serious 5-year old tone, everyone who understands German started laughing and the mother smiled but looked embarrassed. I had no idea what was happening. He had been so serious. Eventually someone translated and evidently I had been putting things into my bowl in the wrong order. So yes, let’s add to this list of unusual events, my being told off by a 5 year old. Although in that, at least, I can see the humour.

Luck at a Football Game

Yesterday I attended an African Cup of Nations qualifier football (soccer) game, Kenya vs Guinea-Bissau.  It was great, and only 800 Kshs! (100 Kshs is about 1 CAD).  I had expected it to be more like a game at home than in Ghana, but was pleasantly surprised.  There was a group of fans that danced and sang the whole time and the crowd was so into the game they were calling the shots with hand signals to change the players, etc. We made many friends: Some guy asking where I’ve been all this time, Kyle getting invited to join the (drunk) dancing crowd that barely saw any of the game, and later Andreas was surrounded with drums and people urging him to dance too.  They both kindly refused.

I know people say women are emotional, but if you’ve ever been to a game here you would know men are too.  They love the players one moment and are extremely disappointed and shamed the next.  I guess that is what happens when Kenya had the ball most of the game, and in the other end most of the game, and missed almost every opportunity.  The crowd said they need a mzungu (aka. person of foreign descent) and so we assumed, as is the norm when that word is used, that they were talking about us.  We must have looked so perplexed wondering what we did this time (we had just been sitting there) because someone translated that they had said, “Kenya needed a white football coach.”

A major surprise – barbed wire and a gate surrounding the track (where Kenya’s stars train) and the football field.  I went with some international and local friends from UN Habitat and WFP, and throughout the game we came to understand the need for the barbed wire fence.  When the crowd is mad at the referee, or the coach for not changing the player, or the player does something the crowd thinks is unforgivable, plastic drinking bottles from Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Fanta (you name it) are hurled down from the crowd, half the time landing on the people who’s agony has driven them to the fence where they yell and act like a child with a temper-tantrum.  On the other hand, when rejoicing over a score, everyone not only jumps up to celebrate but half the people run out of their seats (which are designated on a long cement block by paint – only so comfortable…) and run to the fence (they would go straight onto the field if they could) or run the length of the field in pure utter bliss dancing with whoever they run into.

We had barely left the glorious game (in the last minutes Kenya scored the winning goal) of 2:1, and I had been down in the front, looking back just in time to see the player shoot and the crowd erupt around me.  So very overwhelming!  I managed to relocate my group and we wiggled our way out of the sheer fiesta that was the stadium.

Outside there were these HUGE birds that looked like a cross between a vulture and pelican.  They were so big, and their wingspan was enormous.  I pointed them out to the guys, and took a photo.  We continued on our way and then I got blessed with the largest and smelliest luck that’s ever landed on me.  Yes, that’s right, one of those ginormous birds dropped a bomb right onto my neck and shoulder.  Thank the heavens I was not looking up!  I was laughing (because what else can you do?) and so was everyone else.  I had it on my hand too, for my initial reaction, given the slight rain that had started, was to wipe off the rain drop, which in fact, turned out not to be, a rain drop.

I walked on a bit further, a million questions of what to do running through my mind, but the smell was making my stomach churn.  I manged singlehandedly to get a napkin out from my purse and then, because I could not see it, I turned to my friends asking for help.  They laughed, and then in a tone approaching desperation I asked again, looking at each of them, “Won’t someone please help me?”  With the internationals laughing still (in their defense they later said, “It was just so big!” and laughed again) one of their Kenyan friends, whom I had just met that day, wiped the excrement off for me as passers by said “Welcome to Kenya.”  So thankful!  Now I just had to deal with the soiled hand and dread the bus ride back to my accommodation where I was certain I would be hearing “mzungu” and seeing people hold their noses closed with their fingers.

However, it rained A LOT and perhaps I was lucky because by the time we got to the bus, my shirt and skin looked relatively clean.  This was said to me in comfort but the knowledge that this disgusting-ness was now diluted throughout my shirt did not serve that purpose.  Needless to say, it was a long cold ride back with a long warm shower and some laundry ahead of me.

Hopefully the omen is true, and I will have the best luck of my life this week.

Through Hell’s Gates and Back Again


With half of the world’s population living in urban areas as of 2008, a number that is continually on the rise, it is quite astounding to realize that of all the African cities, 90% of this urbanization occurs in the form of slums.  My roommate, Kerstin, used to work at an organization operating in Kibera called Goldmines Foundation (about discovering youth potential; no relation to mining corporations) so I went with her and some friends to visit the organization, learn more about their work, and understand from a local perspective, what it is like to live and work in the Kibera.  Also known as the ‘chocolate city’, a local name promoting positive association to the brown mud-walled homes, in the largest slum in Eastern Africa, likely still in Africa, and debatably, in the world.

I was immediately surprised by how safe I felt.  As Kerstin introduced us to her friends, and took us to her favourite place to eat, a part of me felt like I was back in Bolgatanga, Ghana.  The only difference is that you don’t get warnings in Bolgatanga about flying toilets (excrement sent flying from one’s domain in plastic bags) like you do when it’s heard you are going to Kibera.   A room 2/3rds the size of my bedroom at home houses 3 adults, one of which is desperately ill, and 7 children.  I am surprised how outright the population is to sharing their experiences of times when development organizations, large and small, entered the unofficial settlement with plans of change, without even consulting them first in the project design process. After years of development experience, have we not learned this yet?  The key to sustainable development is to have a culturally appropriate design which is fully supported by the local population.  This means they need to be involved in planning it!  This is Development 101 folks.  That is the best way of increasing the likeliness of their continued engagement in maintaining the project after the development workers have left.  We all know the phrase: community ownership.

After lunch at Kerstin’s favourite place in Kibera, we met with some of Marcus’ other friends (he just moved into the German School Boarding House too) and one of them was a Canadian who looked like Leonardo DiCaprio in Blood Diamonds.  His hair and clothes made the description complete.  They have spent this week in Dadaab (journalists) so I am hoping to meet with them next week.  Kerstin’s friend also joined us and Kyle is certain he is the German Jake Gyllenhaal. Fairly accurate, I must say.  We were quite the mix.  Anyway, once we all met up we headed to a concert showcasing some of Kibera’s rising artists (musicians and performers).  It really is a city in itself.  We didn’t want to stay until dusk for security reasons (even those employed at Goldmines Foundation reiterated this warning to us) and we had a full day ahead of us, so it was back on a matatu we got (just like a Ghanaian trotro, but generally in better condition and with less bumper stickers).

Hell’s Gate National Park lived up to its name for the first half of the day.

After a near death encounter en route to the park, due to the rain subsiding into a layer of fog so dense our driver swerved just in time to save us from being road kill under an 18-wheeler without lights on which was overtaking another 18-wheeler on a one-way each lane road, we began to appreciate our pre-arranged and recommend driver, who frustratingly stopped to ask numerous people on the street for directions.  Needless to say we arrived, thankfully, each in one piece.

That should have been a warning of what was to come.  Our plan to see the park by bicycle was questioned numerous times as Natalia’s bicycle broke down (so did her second bicycle) while we were trying to get to the breathtaking caves, which turned out to be a pile of rocks and a dug-out.  Apparently the gorge is where we were supposed to go.  Half way through the day, Natalia on her third bicycle, we made it back to Fischer’s Tower (the site of a famous German and Maasai encounter) and were pointed in the direction we should have gone to begin with.  While we cycled under the scorching sun, which had come from nowhere, we enjoyed seeing zebras, ostriches, impalas, a giraffe, warthogs (all I could think was “Pumbas!!!” from the Lion King), baboons, and monkeys so much that we didn’t even realize we were frying ourselves.  It’s a good thing Hell’s Gate is a predator-free park, what with the way we looked that night, we would have been perfectly primed, or overdone.

After seeing the animals and Ol Njorowa Gorge, caves imbedded into the walls, we were quite happy and glad we had paid the 500 Kshs, or 5 CAD for a guide.  Really, what’s 5 loonies divided by 7?  Definitely worth not missing the one thing everyone who’s been to Hell’s Gate talks about, apart from the animals, of course.

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That night it rained and the air was chilly, as is normal here at this time of year, so you can understand our surprise at how intense the sun had really been.  Needless to say, we were glad we left the scorching Hell’s Gate sun behind when we did.