Uganda and Rwanda, here I come!

Let the Christmas Holidays begin!  In a few hours I will be on a bus heading west.

First stop: Uganda.

While I miss everyone from home, this year the only white Christmas I’m dreaming of is white water rafting!  Of course, white water rafting in Jinja where the Nile meets Lake Victoria is a childhood dream come true!  I don’t remember where I was when I first heard this was possible, but I’ve wanted to raft here for as long as I can remember.  I’m so excited!  Then on to Kampala to see the city, meet some friends and perhaps do a couple day trips.

Next stop: Rwanda.

In Rwanda I am planning to go to Kigali and see the genocide memorial sites, as well as do some trekking in and around Musanze, and perhaps a few other places too.  I’ve heard from many people that Rwanda is one of the world’s most beautiful countries.  I am looking forward to being able to judge for myself.  I am already amazed by the small country.  Rwanda’s visa application process is incredible!  Simply apply online. They give you a reference number and a tracking number.  A day later you receive an e-mailed visa that needs to be shown with a valid passport at the border crossing.  Ideally you’ll arrive at the border crossing mentioned when applying for the visa online.  It seems so logical.  AND, you only pay for the visa they stamp into your passport when you actually arrive at the border, so if for some reason you don’t make it, it’s okay because you didn’t have to spend the money on the visa ahead of time.  How genius!  For those who didn’t know, Rwanda is well-known for having female leaders.  If this is just a taste of where the country’s headed, I expect to hear great things.  No wonder they say it’s a truly interesting place.

Anyway, we’ll see how this trip goes and how far we get.  After all, we only have 12 days!

I’ll write about the adventure in January, as well as a few other things I’ve been fortunate enough to do the last few weeks, such as visit friend’s family in Kikima and go see the elephant orphanage.  So much to share!

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Among the Masaai

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On a matatu to town, a bus to Ngong, and a motorcycle to the family compound in Masaailand; it was around noon by the time Deanna, Markus and I finally arrived.

The way was interesting.  Nairobi city was the hustle and bustle of life and business found in any big city.  Ngong’s market was the busy hub of the somewhat quaint town found partway up Ngong Hills.  We stopped here to purchase some rice and flour (the type that is used for making chapati) for the family, and some bottled water for ourselves, before hiring motorcycles to take us the rest of the way.  The driver, Markus and I on one bike, Deanna and a driver on the other.

We had gone towards the end of the rainy season.  Thankfully the rain that night had not been too strong the roads of dirt and rocks were no longer completely mud.  It would have definitely been unsurpassable in certain areas.  I was so glad to have brought my sunnys, the Aussie word for sunglasses, because the dust was bad.

I marveled at the brown and green terrain, looking at the man-made ponds storing the rainwater and wondered how they were already seeming to dry out even though it was still the rainy season.  Water really does mean life and I could only guess what would happen when the first month of the dry season had passed.

We rode past many Maasai wrapped in bright red, boys and men, watching over their goats and sheep.  Some goats, stretching themselves along the tree trunk to reach the green leaves above, seemed to be eating the leaves clustered on the thorny trees.  Was I seeing right?  Of all bushes and trees, why choose this tree of thorns?

We passed cactuses.  I am always surprised to see them growing here in Kenya.  Seeing cactuses here, in the rolling hill terrain under the direct sun makes sense, but seeing them up in the Ngong Hills and in Gigiri where the altitude is higher and the temperatures cooler always surprises me.  It seems so unnatural.

Our driver wore a baseball cap.  Half way down one of the bumpy hills he started fidgeting with one hand in his pocket.  Not so cool when there are two passengers and their bags behind him, and the road resembles something like a mined obstacle course.  I asked if he needed help and he pulled out a tuque (or knit beanie).  I placed this over his baseball cap.  Whoever thought Kenya would be hot and humid was wrong.  There are tuques everywhere and even I, the Canadian, am constantly in sweaters.

We entered the compound through a new gate and fence.  Instead of being greeted by the entire extended family that we were told was visiting for the weekend, we spent the day with the primary school children, a couple secondary school children and one grown child.  The others had all gone to the Christmas Bazaar in Ngong to sell their goods.  The secondary school-age children were in charge.  The young kids did some work beating the maize, and the rest of the time they spent playing skip-rope or running around the compound being followed by some very cute puppies.

The family that lives here is polygamous.  There were numerous family homes on the compound.  The homes were made of earthen ingredients, mainly mud and sticks.  In some places the mud had fallen away and the internal stick structure was visible; quite interesting.  From inside we could see the grass or straw strings used to tie the roof in place.  Of course, not every home was like this.  The father’s place was now made of brick and the newer building as well.  In this earthen building, the kitchen was inside and the room small filled quickly with smoke making it hard to see.  The rice and beans awaiting us satisfied and I was reminded how simply it is to live in a rural setting; memories of Bolgatanga, Ghana flooded back to me.  The sound of children playing accompanied by the older brother’s radio blasting some tunes from the neighbouring house filled the air.

I found myself thinking how interesting it is that families everywhere are similar no matter how different the circumstance and context.  Even in this relatively modern Masaai family some of the issues I heard about had parallels quite similar to those one would hear about in North America and in other cultures around the world; others were quite different.  The sons of the first wife are the ones which raise the livestock and therefore have not attended school.  Even though they hold a very valuable position within Masaai culture (according to the Masaai, God entrusted them to care for the cattle, which are invaluable) these young men are disappointed that they could not attend school.  One of the older daughters had a child with someone she wants to marry but her father won’t allow her, and last year one of the younger daughters wanted to run away because she was scared of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).  FGM is one practice that the family continues because it will ensure the daughter is considered eligible for marriage within her community; giving her a better future than to be thought unclean and remain unmarried.  However, being relatively modern, they had it done in a hospital.  Yes, this is illegal, but having hospitals practice this is far safer than having it done in the bush. (If you’ve seen this, you’ll understand how scary my nightmare after watching it was.  In that nightmare, I too was forced to marry someone old enough to be my grandfather.  Thankfully that nightmare was not a long one.)

On this topic, I recently saw the film, Desert Flower, based on the true story of Waris Dirie who ran away from a nomadic family in Somalia as a young girl and eventually became a globally renowned supermodel. http://movies.nationalgeographic.com/movies/desert-flower/  Of course Waris’ Somali culture and the culture of the Masaai I visited are very different.  The FGM practiced in each country is different; however elements of FGM, various reasons for practicing it, and why it is so difficult to stop the practice in both cultures are similar.  Desert Flower was a hard film to watch but it was incredibly done.  It revealed the ups and downs one feels when in a new country, seemingly lost and trying to assimilate to the foreign country surrounding them.  For Waris it was a painful process but she has become a heard voice, able to accomplish so much.  I remember my mother speaking to me about Waris when she first spoke up with raw honesty.   .”  I highly recommend looking into Desert Flower Foundation.  http://www.desertflowerfoundation.org/en/   “According to records kept by the United Nations more than 8000 girls become victims of this heinous crime every day.”

We go for a walk to see the local school and Deanna, who lived here last year showed us around.  A fully-furnished school, there was even a library, nice latrines and piped water.  I am impressed.   We climbed out behind the school and up a cliff.  From here we could oversea much of Masaailand, with Ngong Hills in the distance.

Upon returning the family compound we decide risk the rain and head out to the valley with the secondary school-aged boy and grown one.  The boy left us part way needing to check on the goats.  The remaining four of us trekked on.  We are told that all this land belonged to the family.  Our informant had grown up here but spent the month of September in Spain.  I could not imagine what this Masaailand born and raised, man must have thought when arriving in Madrid.  He spoke of the nice metro, the beauty of the Spanish countryside, the delicious food, and of the lack of natural environment within the city area, and of people engaged in constant partying which included too much drinking and drug use.  He works for a Spanish organization picking people up for the airport in Nairobi once in a while.  His questions to me were about Canada, the metro system of Toronto, and whether or not our cities have natural or artificial nature.

We were a good distance from the family compound and almost at the valley when the rains started.  It was after all, still the rainy season (we had visited one weekend too early, for the following week it barely rained at all).  We marched through what we could until it began to fall like buckets of water being poured from the heavens, and eventually took cover under a tree.   Someone joined us.  He turned out to be a nomadic Masaai that had come to this area in search of better grazing for his cattle.  The wind blowing rain around the tree at us, we run to another.  This one was better, but you had to watch yourself; it had thorns.

By my feet there was a spider’s web.  I point it out to my traveling companions, the 2 muzungus beside me.  Deanna said it looked like the web of a funnel spider.  She warned us to be careful because as funnel spiders are poisonous.  Really?  Oh, of all the luck.  This unfortunate fact was reconfirmed.  Thank God she said that because, as in tune to my natural reaction when looking at spider webs, I had already been looking for something to throw at it.  I vocalized this and was told that was definitely NOT a good idea.  I should have considered this fact already seeing as she had already warned me about poisonous spiders in the outhouse – as if that wasn’t scary!  Of course, Markus thought it would be funny to play a prank on me and freak out pointing near my foot.  I should have seen it coming.  I’ve known Markus long enough and he’s really funny but not when you’re the one being pranked – especially when you can’t escape because of the thorn tree above and around you.  Need I say I was unimpressed?  I’m not sure why they didn’t understand my logic when I then decided I’d rather get rained on, but it seemed quite logical to me.  A funnel web must mean the funnel spider is nearby.  And poisonous or not, big or small, I know I want nothing to do with it.

The rains over, we looked at the valley from high above on a very steep and slippery cliff’s edge and traced the road we had come on as far as we could see.  Heading back to the family compound we see the other Masaai man again and say farewell.  This time he is moving the cattle and I was in awe.  These were the nicest, biggest cattle I have seen in ALL of Africa.  Sure, I haven’t been everywhere, but they were far from the skeletal emancipated cows I’m used to seeing in this part of the world.  These cattle were full, muscular and huge!  I wondered what it must be like, moving from place to place to ensure they can eat.  Caring for them so much that you must travel so far from your family for so long.  Then again, I suppose these valuable cattle also contribute to the family.

We arrive at the family home and the older sister has begun to prepare some chai for us.  This is the first time I had chai the Kenyan way, with tonnes of milk and heaps of sugar.  We graciously accepted and drank the warm liquid sugar.

Our ride back to town was earlier than expected because the rain was threatening again.  Having a motorcycle, I knew how unsafe and unsurpassable the road would become when it is flooded out or a pile of mud.  It was hard enough getting here, slipping here and there as we did.  Our driver came and picked us up just as the rains began to fall again.  We made it to Ngong and got on a bus which pulled out of the market just as the rains began to fall.  We arrived in Nairobi and got onto a matatu which left the stage shortly before the rains began to fall.  We entered the boarding house minutes before the storm rolled into Gigiri.  What timing!  And what an awesomely culture-filled day!

Ngong Hills

I never felt so out of shape in all my life as when I did hiking Ngong Hills months ago before the rains came.

Ngong Hills are the peaks of a ridge formed along the Great Rift Valley.  Ngong Hills refers to the 7 peaks found there; however there are most notably 4.  These 4 explain the meaning of the Maasai word Ngong, or knuckles.   The stories we were told, tell of the Maasai people who lived on the hills doing something displeasing to God.  God eventually punched the ground expressing his feeling to the Maasai.  This action gave the peaks their knuckle shape while making the sound “ngong”.

Like the city of Nairobi, Ngong Hills are at a high altitude, and each peak is a steep climb upwards.  It really is surprising the effect altitude can have.  I could not help but think of this as I caught myself breathing heavily fairly early on.  Even though I knew I wasn’t in the best of shape I’d ever been in, anywhere else these Hills would have been no problem.  It was great for our self-esteem afterwards, however, when we found out that most people don’t climb all 7 hills, and if they do, they have their cars meet them at the other side.  Not us.  We had invited the driver to join us, so after the first 7 steep and high peaks into the hike, we had a brief picnic before making our way back across all 7 for a second time.  Actually, we more likely struggled to make our way back as the last two peaks were quite difficult on the return.  By that point you are out-right exhausted.  Of course, there was one of us who ran the last few peaks, but let me say that our dear friend from Madagascar is constantly training, and didn’t have a backpack to weigh him down (not even lunch for that matter, so we had shared).

Standing tall, Ngong Hills provide a great view overlooking Nairobi as well as over Maasai land.  From the peaks of the Ngong Hills it is amazing to compare the differences visible in the terrain and to think that these Hills are the only things separating their drastic opposites.  Nairobi is green and luscious with city skyline full of skyscrapers.  Maasai land is brown and dry with the very odd pond to store water and with the outline of a family compound here and there.

The first few peaks we climbed took us to a place where birds were singing and flying around us.  They were so close to us and seemed so peaceful.  It was quite the beautiful setting, making it easy for me to understand how people could climb all the way up here every couple Sundays for church.  We happened to see a church meeting on the top of one of the peaks.  People of all ages (I have no idea how the hobbling elderly got here) – reading the Bible and praying up where they felt closer to God.  It must have been so serene before the tourists come traipsing through with their guards (mandatory for small groups to protect them from the increasing number of thugs in the area, and from buffalo).  We didn’t see any wild animals however there were plenty of sheep, goats and cattle.  The cattle we always heard before we saw because of the bells hanging around their necks.

Our driver had teased that he would have to carry us back to the car by the end of the hike.  Well, as it turned out we almost had to carry him back.  He was just as exhausted as the rest of us.  He even sent a message the following day to check in on us.  He was concerned for our health as even he had trouble getting out of bed the following morning.  Don’t worry, we were fine and at work the following morning.

Today’s Date: 15 December 2011

I just saw the date and realized that 4 months ago today was my first day of work.  Then I realized that 2 months yesterday is Valentines Day; my last day of work.  It has been a really good experience here in Kenya so far.  This last month has been so busy that it is as if the Christmas rush of North America has followed me here.  It has made this past month fly by.

I will be sure to rest this weekend, amongst the farewell parties and holiday festivities, making time to write and sketch. There are two of the things I really miss doing.  As much as I want to write now, tomorrow is a workday and, unfortunately, it is already coming fast.

I wonder, where will I be this time next year…

The Clouds Have Dried

It has officially been the 6th day without rain. What I now think was seasonal depression, a tiredness lingering over everyone, has lifted from everyone’s mood.  The second day without rain, the sun was shining and the birds were singing a joyful tune, echoing the life bubbling up in everyone as they worked around the office.  There were more smiles, laughter and light-hearted conversations than I had noticed in a while.  People everywhere were soaking up the sun.  I think it is safe to say that the rainy season is now over and that the hot season, summer, is coming.

It is crazy to think how frequent the rains were and of how muddy the ground was.  On the second day without rain I noticed that a couple permanent puddles (so to speak) had been drastically reduced.  Even more shocking was the realization that some of them had altogether dried up!  That spoke volumes.  Upon looking at the dried up puddle, I couldn’t even remember when the last rains had fallen or what I had been doing.  Had I been caught in the rain again, having forgotten my umbrella, complaining of the red mud that splashes everywhere, staining?  Or had I smiled, being carried off to sleep listening to the gentle pitter-patter of rain on the bedroom window?  How quickly the rains started and how quickly they have ended; their evidence and remembrance fading.

In their absence the same sun illuminates the world, seems to have added strength and intensity over Kenya.  This change to the hot season is has made me exhausted and tired during the afternoons.  I’m not used to this heat, but I am ready for the rain and mud to be behind us.  I have already started wearing my glasses more often, as the weather has been steadily drier.  There is only one thing I dread, sitting at a desk drenched in sweat for all of January and February.  I really wonder to what temperature the self-regulated building I work in will be set.  However, as for now, I don’t have to worry because at least the mornings and evenings are still cool enough to deem a sweater or jacket necessary.   Who would have thought sweaters, jackets, scarves and warm hats were the makings of a good Kenyan wardrobe!

Nairobi National Park

Being in Nairobi National Park reminded me of the African Lion Safari back home.  We saw lots of animals and got some great photos.  This park is the closest protected park to a large city in the world.  It was really perplexing to see these animals so close to the city without being caged up in a zoo.  The park is purposefully only 2 or 3 quarters closed off so it can facilitate the animals continuing with their natural migrations to and from the park lands.  It’s actually quite cool to see the animals with the city skyline in the background.

However, this being said, we spent the first hour in the park’s interior pulling a matatu out of the mud with our jungle truck.  We almost got stuck once too.  Our wheels were spinning and there was nothing happening but mud flying all up the side of the vehicle.  I loved it!!!  Everyone else was concerned but this was exciting and dirty, just like climbing through Bronte Creek when Andrew and I were little.  Ahhh, the good old days!

It’s crazy how close we were to the animals.  Zebras are just like donkeys and horses, and the lions reminded me of dogs.  Part of me wanted to reach out and hug a lioness around her neck the way I used to do to my dog.  She looked so strong, majestic and soft.  Really, really soft.  Don’t worry, I would never actually try to touch a lion, but I will dare to say that I think the film the Lion King did a good job capturing the lions’ characteristics into animation.

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We saw many animals, some of which were endangered.  There were zebras, lions, giraffes, African buffaloes, the white rhinoceros, the black rhinoceros, ostriches, different types of gazelles, impalas, baboons, and I think one waterbuck.  There are so many other animals that live and migrate within the park; however of the animals in season we missed only the leopards and cheetahs.  Hopefully I’ll see those when I go to the Maasai Mara.

It was cool to see how the landscape could change so dramatically within the park, accommodating so many different types of animals.  While some areas are covered in rocks others are full of long grass for as far as one can see.  Some places are dry and dusty, while others places are considered swampland and could only be crossed using flooded and thick muddy roads.  There were cliffs, areas thick with trees, and other areas where one could drive quite some time without seeing a single tree.  At this point there would suddenly appear a picture-perfect watering hole with plenty of animals grazing nearby.

Now, I had heard that Nairobi National Park was home to many bird species – apparently more bird species than there are in the UK – but I did not think much of it until I saw some of the birds, which were in fact, really cool.  One kind in particular had really long tails and a stripe of colour (I think it was yellow or red).  It was fascinating to see them land on a branch and tilt their tails in sharp, abrupt movements trying to keep balance.  My favourite, however, are the blue ones with the golden crown.  How comical and majestic all at the same time!

All in all, it was a good day.  Definitely something Nairobi is known for and as long as I’m spending time doing none-tourist things, I don’t mind embracing being a tourist for a day.

St. Nikolaus Day

I woke up yesterday morning, the 6th of December, to find a bright red box with a shiny gold bow sitting on my shoes.  Ah, my roommate is so thoughtful!  The night before she had asked if I knew about St. Nikolaus Day; a day they celebrate at home in Germany.  This day is celebrated to remember the Roman Catholic bishop who gave everything for the poor and less fortunate.  Good children receive something in their shoes or stockings, goodies of sorts that are meant for sharing.  Traditionally this was nuts, mandarins, oranges or apples, while naughty children received potatoes or charcoal.  Seeing as this morning was a Tuesday, the day when my roommate needs to be downtown extremely early, she had already left when I got up and tried to chase her downtown say thank you.

When I opened the bedroom in search of my roommate, there taped to our bedroom door and everyone else’s doors was a little bag full of treats for each person.  It looks like we were all good this year.

In the breakfast hall the first advent candle on the wreath was lit, there was Happy St. Nikolaus Day poster up and those who are German told us of how they celebrated growing up.  One friend said that St Nikolaus came to deliver the goodies to well-behaved children, but that poorly-behaved children were beaten with a rod or thrown into the sack belonging to the evil character who would accompany St. Nikolaus.  Some believe that this evil character, which many children legitimately fear, would later take them from the sack and eat them up.  I say evil character only because there were so many different interpretations of what he was, what he carried and how he treated the children.  If you look it up online, you’ll see this is true.  Peter said he was terrified because his parents would have someone come in the night dressed up as St. Nikolas and that sometimes the evil devil-like character was there too, lingering.  St. Nikolaus was always dressed in the clothing and hat of a bishop.  In Peter’s house, St. Nikolaus also warned the children about their behaviour, encouraging them to behave well; to get along better with younger brothers and to take care of each other – no more picking fights with siblings.  As kids, they were amazed how St. Nikolaus knew so much about them.  It is clear to see where the North American idea of Christmas and Santa Claus comes from.  From now on I will celebrate St. Nikolaus Day and Christmas.  Pourquoi pas?

Then that evening, when I came home from meeting a friend for dinner the first thing I saw inside Boarding House was a Christmas Tree.  Oh, let the festivities begin!

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Dinner, by the way, was awesome.  I am always so encouraged when I meet other single, strong, female professionals, working and traveling around the world.  This Laura I met in Zanzibar, and she has spent about 2 months traveling since her contract ended, applying for jobs, meeting all kinds of people, and having the time of her life before heading back to the United States.  We had such a fun evening.  It was not only encouraging, but is always good to know there are others out there that would be good to travel with or visit someday; depending where in the world work takes us.