A Good Monday

Today I checked some of my favourite news websites and while Kenya was on top of the African news-feed on the one of them, it was leading the international news on the other.  If you don’t know IRIN or Reuters, you should definitely be checking them out!

Today was a good day at work.  I realized I’m not behind which I, like any other overachiever, was beginning to think.  The positive feedback makes me feel much more comfortable in the work I’m doing, not to mention the fact that I had planned to take Friday off to visit Lisa in Zanzibar this weekend!  As for work, I’m very excited for tomorrow because I will have a sneak peek into more of the organization’s operations.  I will write more about my impressions tomorrow, I’m sure.  In the meantime, I look forward to being a fly on the wall in a committee whose purpose is to determine if particular potential projects are necessary; if they would adequately address the problem presented; if they have been effectively designed; and, to determine whether or not the project would fulfill the organization’s mandate.   Those that receive the stamp of approval are sent out to seek funding, though of course, in the development world things often operate backwards and certain projects are proposed to the committee only because they have donor support or interest already, the organization’s stamp of approval as an item on a checklist.  I’ve been warned that sitting in may be both overwhelming and underwhelming, for someone with my background.  Nonetheless, I look forward to seeing what happens.

Anyway, it’s off to some French revision, Jane Eyre and an early night for me.

I think I’m still catching up from a fun, sleep-deprived weekend full of great music, rooftop dancing, wine on the tin-covered terrace (through which we imagined seeing the stars overhead instead), cultured conversations, and one US Marine-hosted Halloween party at the American Embassy.

Just for the record, one must always travel with a classic novel, such as Jane Eyre.  It just isn’t the same with any other type of book.

The chill that has settled upon Nairobi.

This is my favourite report on the Al-Shabaab threats to Nairobi so far.  It’s written by Carolyn Dunn, of CBC.

http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/story/2011/10/26/f-vp-carolyn-dunn-nairobi-al-shabaab.htm

Like her, I think twice as much about going to run errands and minimizing my time in public places, but is this really possible when I need to get to the ATM at Village Market mall to pay rent, etc.?  How long will it be like this?  I have no idea but there is a drastic difference in what I saw at the mall before and what I am seeing now, after the threats.  It’s exactly as she wrote.  Limited mall entrances are in use, security is at least doubled, everyone is screened and their bags are checked.  Relative to busting at the seams only a short while ago, it seems like a ghost town.

Friends and I were talking the other day about how some people don’t seem to notice that the living environment of Nairobi has changed.  Continuing as if these threats never occurred, they carry on as per usual.  Carolyn’s writing highlights this too, and especially the change in attitudes of the Kenyan’s towards safety and security.

As before, I am not intending to worry anyone.  While I receive security warnings as necessary, check the travel advisory by the Canadian government regularly, and am acting with extra caution, I do find this an extremely fascinating time to be here and merely wanted to share this article.

Mombasa

Well if you didn’t know that I can see beauty in buildings, you would definitely know it now.  Mombasa, an absolutely beautiful port city with architecture so distinctive you can read it, was the highlight of my mini-vacation to the coast.  That’s right, what is a perfectly endless, gorgeous, naturally white sand beach, when you can walk history?  The city is a puzzle of traditional and modern African styled buildings, mixed with Colonial and Arabic influences.  A coastal town, with beautiful views of the Indian Ocean, Mombasa hosts the largest port in East Africa.  It feels more laid back than busy and impersonal Nairobi, a 7 hour bus ride North-West, and I like it.

One thing did remind me of Nairobi though, or its nickname Nairobbery to be more exact.  During our briefing months ago, we were warned about those who would try and steal necklaces as you walk down the street or from an open car window.  Well, I forgot to take mine off one day and we three of us were walking down the street single-file, trying to avoid a garbage truck, when all of a sudden, a strong pressure took me from the side – the back of my shoulder and neck – in such a way I felt certain I was being guided, taken somewhere I knew I didn’t want to go.  My initial reaction, most of you can probably guess, was to make a lot of noise and throw my arms defensively up and at the back of my head.  I guess it worked (thanks to fencing where one is trained to respond quickly, or more likely to the football tackles of a brother) and I managed to keep my necklace.  It was a little frightening how fast it all happened, and how quickly the perpetrator got away.  Perhaps this is the one time I could be thankful for the high humidity.  It may likely have been that my neck too slippery for the thin chain to be grasped.  Did I mention Mombasa is humid?  I meant it.  Thank you sultry, muggy, oh-too-humid Mombasa climate.

That being said, most people are kind and take the time to share their stories and teach about what crazy fruit you’re looking at and how to eat it.Jack fruit is the watermelon looking shape with spikes behind where this man is sitting.  I have never seen jack fruit other than from a can (and no, definitely not from my mother – we don’t eat canned fruit at home).  This spikey watermelon?  Not at all how I imagined the fruit to grow.

In the spice market, which I loved, not only did they teach us about the spices and how they are processed, but we learned to compare Kenyan, Ugandan and Tanzanian passion fruit.

Passion fruit is fun to eat.  When opening passion fruit, you have to squeeze until the outer shell just starts to snap, and then you pull it open into two halves.  A word to the wise, don’t squeeze the passion fruit in the direction of someone else.  They may not appreciate wearing fruit the rest of the day, not that I did this to anyone, on purpose.

Walking through Fort Jesus, an old Portuguese fort to facilitate the transport of spices on their ships, instead of paying the middlemen in the trade route through the Middle East and Mediterranean, was quite the experience.  Over the history of the Fort, it also transported slaves and served as a jail.  Hands down the best tour guide I will find in Africa!  A living fact-book, he walked us through the Fort, revealing the ways in which you can see the imprint of different controlling powers.  The Fort changed hands at least nine times, including those of the Portuguese sailors, Omani soldiers and Sawhili rebellions, before ending up in the power of the British.

Passing some of the Arabic editions to the Fort we see the most beautifully detailed doors decorated in symbols harmony and peace among others,  and were given some jasmine flowers.  Their scent was much nicer than I anticipated; not too sweet.

 

Another great thing about Mombasa?  Tuk tuks are everywhere!  While they may not particularly be the safest, they are just so cheap, fun and likeable that you can’t not take one. 

With 3 wheels they have a 3 passengers maximum and wind in and out of the traffic where the can.  This sign serves to remind that while at shopping malls, tuk tuks cannot go where shopping carts are meant to be.

It was nice to get out of Nairobi.   I went with a Canadian, German, Swede and some Italians and French.  Nairobi really is the hub of expatriates.  Sometimes it seems quite unusual because I have met more expats from other countries than Kenyans.  I suppose it also has to do with the areas we are living in, where we eat, and work, etc.  That being said, this weekend we embraced our identity as true foreigners and spent most of the time on Diani beach, in the Indian Ocean, on a day trip to Wasini Island where we watched dolphins, snorkeled (the stingrays were my favourite part), saw a really interesting coral and mangrove park that only gets flooded during half and full moons, and had to crack open our own crabs for dinner.   Of course I would have photos of the time we spent at Ali Barbour’s and then at the 40 Thieves (great restaurant names) and all the camels that parade by on the beach but my camera had stopped working. So sad, but much to my surprise, it decided to work perfectly again after being back in Nairobi for a day. So happy!  Also, let me just say, I was the only one who managed 4 days in the intense tropical sun without getting a burn!  I do believe I have finally mastered the trick of sunscreen.

Returning to Nairobi was bittersweet.  While most people mourned that the sand was far behind us, I rejoiced in returning to a climate much more to my taste.  Less sticky.

Nairobi was bustling with activity when our bus arrived.  Quite unexpected for a Sunday, especially when security had stepped up all around the city. You can ask any Kenyan their perspective about what is happening on the Kenya-Somalia border; everyone has an opinion.  Every time I see the newspapers I am reminded that it’s quite an interesting time to be here.  However, even in light of this, I was still glad to come back to Nairobi, higher elevation, and cooler temperatures.  I can only handle the humidity – constant stickiness, continuous utilization of my handkerchief, sand in my hair, and salt water showers for so long.  I can’t help but acknowledge, when in relation to other African experiences, Nairobi has spoiled me.

PS. Meet one of our hotel neighbours.  They always managed to find a way to invite themselves to our meals, somehow or another.  Don’t let them deceive you – they can be quite vicious!

It Rains

It is Monday, and we are looking forward to the finishing the work day.  Only 45 minutes left to go, when the heaven’s open up and an endless, heavy rain, races itself to the ground. 

For the last two weeks it has been raining softly, leaving people debating everywhere whether or not to actually open and raise the umbrella.  This being said, most of the rain to-date has been at night.

Today marks the beginning of my raining season in Nairobi.  It is still raining hard and soon I will be walking home under an umbrella with my trousers still wet a foot deep.  Hopefully the red mud that stains will not overtake them or my shoes.  Perhaps today will be one for a taxi.  Either way, it is time, I believe, to find some boots or shoes that will work for work only.  Afterall, rain boots and a pencil skirt never looked better…

The Authentically Kenyan “Canadian Thanksgiving” and “German Oktoberfest”

So toward the end of September, I began to not only miss family, friends, places, activities, but also food. My body was telling me that I am supposed to be in my favourite season (of beautiful boots and coats!) with the leaves changing colours, families gathering for autumn activities, and people wearing extra layers because it is getting chilly out (well that part I’m not missing, it’s plenty cold enough here in Nairobi). I had written an e-mail home with my wish-list for the “Welcome Home Meal” we always have when someone comes home from an extended stay away. It had autumn classics like pumpkin pie, squash and sweet potato soup. There were also other things such as yogurt and ice cream which are widely available here but never for the lactose intolerant. Yogurt is EVERYWHERE here. I think it’s the large Indian population that buys so much of it. I was able to find soya milk and camel milk (ever seen the Amazing Race episode where they had to milk a camel?), but no yogurt, so it just teases me all the time. I really hope gelato and dairy-free ice cream will be waiting in the freezer. Other meals that made it onto the list was Mom’s chicken noodle soup (that fact that I had been getting over the flu probably helped this one), Mom’s pasta dish of broccoli, sun-dried tomato and olives (I know I am not eating enough vegetables here b/c I’m particular about how they are cooked, for health reasons, but I’ll have to make a bigger effort.) and one of Andrew’s tuna melts. Oh yes, and if my grandmother were to cook, I’d ask for the little-bit-spicy vegetable noodle soup.

To be completely honest though, I have been about to find quite a few things here that I love! I have found all the fennel and anise flavoured things you can imagine, and even know a place with a superb selection of olives and capers. Ahhhh… perfect. Sometimes it’s great even just to look at.

What is the BEST PART OF ALL OF THIS?

The Canadians that I work with invited me to their Thanksgiving! Okay, so it was a Canadian thanksgiving on a Saturday in Kenya, and there were more people from New Zealand than Canada, (not to mention an American, South African, Norwegian and Swede) so things were a little unconventional but perfect nonetheless. We passed around the spuds, (not potatoes) and had some Abba playing in the background and one point, talked development and East African tourism. All in all, it was a fabulous time and I even had pumpkin pie (with whipped cream), turkey stuffing and sweet potatoes! Just like I had been dreaming of!  Or at least, as close as I will get.  Not to mention the oversized 10.6 turkey that got mixed up and sent to the 12 of us! Need I say, I was happy?

It seemed this had been the weekend of cultural events because the Friday before my Kenyan-New Zealand-Canadian Thanksgiving, it was Oktoberfest, and when you are living at a German Boarding House, with many Germans, apparently you attend. So off we had gone, the Germans, Canadians, Swedes, Belgians, and a Sri Lankan, to the Kenyan version of Oktoberfest put on by the German Embassy. There was traditional Bavarian music (which was so much fun), dancing, live musicians, food (including salted pretzels!), beer, and various competitions for giveaways. I didn’t win anything, but the beer mug we were given has become quite handy for making Mr. Noodles in the evening (I did tell you I can get everything here, right?).

So these weeks have been good. On top of the craziness of work, too few hours in a day, World Habitat Day, and the conference my branch held which was quite a success and very interesting (where I met Michael Cohen – really cool), my week of running around like a chicken with my head cut off ended with someone telling me I looked regal and another person saying I astounded them with my insight. Not to toot my own horn, but I will be honest, it was nice to hear after a week of racing the clock and nearly drowning in deadlines.

This Thursday is a holiday, so I have been fortunate enough to be able to take Friday off and I am going to the coast (the safe areas, of course).  I recently heard some locations are experiencing flooding from the rain, but hey, maybe I’ll respond to the flooding in my professional capacity and be offered my next job. You never know.

E-mail Inbox Follow-Up

Quote

So it’s getting increasingly common to hear people talk about the escalating situation along the Kenya – Somalia border, in light of the recent abductions of foreign nationals and the military reaction of the Kenyan Authorities. Yesterday work assured us that they are closely monitoring the situation in Nairobi and frontier locations where other staff may be either directly or indirectly affected and are taking proportional measures to better mitigate any potential incident.  We were also asked to report any suspicious behaviour in and around the UN premises throughout Kenya.

Then this arrived in my e-mail last night from the consulate.

Dear Canadians

Recent kidnappings and cross-border military action have further increased security concerns near the Kenya-Somalia border. Canadian citizens are strongly recommended to avoid all travel to areas within 150km of the Somalia border including El Wak Wajir, Lamu, Dadaab, Mandera, Liboi and parts of Garissa.

Canadians should also avoid visiting businesses during peak hours, steer clear of areas with large crowds and remain vigilant when in restaurants, sports bars, shopping centers and other public areas.

Canadians are also encouraged to consult regularly the travel report for Kenya which can be found at www.voyage.gc.ca.

At the same time, we would like to remind Canadians to update their registration at http://www.voyage.gc.ca/register in order to continue to receive safety and security updates.

Should you have any questions, please contact the Canadian High Commission (Limuru Road, Gigiri) at 020-366-3000 or the 24/7 Emergency Operations Centre in Ottawa by calling collect to 613-996-8885.

Canadian High Commission, Nairobi

I’m not sharing this information to frighten, scare or worry you.  Just to share with you what my life here is life.  Actually, I enjoy receiving these e-mails because I find it really interesting to see how the organization operates at different times and to know that some people (in this case those responsible for staff security and safety) are actually doing their job and doing it well.  Some organizations don’t take security seriously enough.  Anyway, you don’t have to worry; I’m not going to, never mind near, any of those locations.

My work inbox is full of e-mails from our Department of Staff Safety and Security.

I get the most interesting e-mails at work.   The last few weeks have been full of news: valuable information and unfortunate events.

Two weeks ago the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Uganda Minister for Health confirmed the outbreak of Yellow Fever cases in northern Uganda.  This e-mail also informed us of an out break of Dengue Fever in Mandera, Kenya (far away so don’t worry!).  We were reminded to keep our Yellow Fever vaccination cards with us in case we get stopped at international borders.  Good to know because I just booked a flight to visit Lisa in Zanzibar!!!  So excited!  I’ll be heading there in November with Danika.

Then, last week we received an e-mail informing us that the US Embassy in Nairobi had credible information about a potential threat towards Americans residing in and visiting Kenya.  All Americans and other foreigners were specially advised to avoid sporting events.

Then, last week we received an e-mail warning all staff about the escalating security threats in the Coast Province near Somalia.  While these issues have been in our weekly security briefings for as long as I can remember, there has been an increasing number of incidents and all staff have been reminded to ensure they are following proper security level protocol.  This e-mail specifically spoke of a French national who was kidnapped from Manda, one of the islands near Lamu, in the Coast Province. Apparently she was forcibly taken to Somalia by boat.  This incident follows by the September killing of a British tourist and the kidnapping of his  wife from Kiwayu Safari Village, located 57 kilometers northeast of Lamu Town.  Lamu is known as the perfect place to relax.  A series of islands with no one around; a recipe for disaster when there are pirates in the seas.  Luckily 3 of my friends had just returned from Lamu when this news broke.  Don’t worry, I don’t have plans to visit any time in the near future and the Department of Safety and Security made it pretty clear in their warning that staff should avoid all non-essential travel to this region.

Since then, we received an e-mail about the worsening security situation near Dadaab refugee camp as two Spanish female NGO workers (MSF, or Doctors Without Borders) were kidnapped.  A local said the driver was shot and injured when he tried to negotiate.  The local authorities responded by sealing the border to Somalia forbidding vehicles to leave Kenya into Somalia. 

Here’s to hope for less news of this sort, a wish for peace, a prayer of thanksgiving for my continued safety, and thoughts of comfort and hope for those abducted to unknown places.