Humanity Comes First

Elephant Orphanage: The David Sheldrick Wildlife

In early December I decided to go to The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s Elephant Orphanage.  This is within Nairobi National Park and is where infant elephants are taken and raised if they have been orphaned.  Elephant communities themselves do not stay in Nairobi National Park because the park is too small.  Elephants require lots of space.  Walking 100 miles a day is an average stroll for a herd of elephants.    According to the Trust, 30 years ago the number of elephants in Africa was 3 million.  Now, the number is less than 400,000 and is declining steadily.  This is because the space elephants require is no longer available due to the huge population explosion which resulted in elephants competing with humans for space.   Of course, being kept within the limits of a national park is not the best option, leaving elephants are dependent on unreliable rainfalls; however it remains the best alternative when the elephants are viewed as threats when they step outside the park.  If not seen as threatening, they are seen as valuable – not only for their ivory, but also for leather, curios, and meat.  There is much more information about this available at the Trust’s website: http://sheldrickwildlifetrust.org.  It also shares unfortunate details about elephants being poached and trafficked, particularly the infants.  It is incredibly sad.  The International Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) also has some interesting information available.

It was at the Elephant Orphanage that I learned elephant orphaned younger than 3 years cannot survive without milk.  Usually the mother elephant’s milk supplements elephant infants’ vegetarian diets for the first 5 years of its life.  While elephants are known for being human-like and emotional, resulting in their strong nature to care for and protect each other, mothers are also aware that they cannot supply milk for an orphan infant without sacrificing the survival of her own.

The Trust developed a milk formula similar to the natural milk of elephant mothers, and has the elephant infants spend a large portion of their day in Nairobi National Park, encouraging them to thrive in their natural wild habitat.  This might seem contradictory considering that the elephant infants sleep in the same stall as their individual Keepers; however this is necessary for the elephant survive as elephants only thrive if they are happy.  They are inherently emotional and need to know that they are valued and in community.  They develop a bond, each with their own Keepers, and are reliant on their Keepers until their rehabilitation is complete.  The orphans grow up with each other as family until they are eventually re-integrated with their herd in the wild.  Their herds are usually traced once the elephant infants are discovered so that they will be able to release the elephants to the same herd.  The goal of the Trust is to rear the orphaned elephants in such a way that they grow up psychologically sound.  Most of those released to the wild return to their herds in Kenya’s Tsavo National Park after spending time at a short rehabilitation camp re-introducing them to the park.  They are monitored to ensure that they are accepted and welcomed into the herd.  Apparently it is true, elephants never forget.  They remember and recognize their trainer throughout their lifetime.

Elephant orphans, as humans, each have their own stories however many have similar stories with their mothers having been poached resulting in an elephant infant without milk or nutrients, falling behind in the herd and eventually on its own.  At the Elephant Orphanage there were elephants who were discovered by their mother’s body, wandering a settlement on their own, or being washed up on shore.

The elephant orphans grow up with each other as family.

I saw 3 sets of elephant orphans.  The first were the youngest and newest to the shelter.  They came wearing blankets for it had been so chilly that morning.  If it had been a warm day, apparently I could have seen them having a mud bath.  They only drank their milk and walked around.  When I think elephants I think large round creatures.  The youngest one was still very traumatized.  He was found washed up on a shore and had just arrived at the shelter recently.  He would not drink the milk and barely moved.  I’ve never seen an animal more sad, or an elephant thinner.  It broke my heart.  Unfortunately, I was not surprised when writing this, to discover when looking up the website that he was one of the few who did not survive the Trusts’ intervention.  Found washed up along river shores, he was not only traumatized but also weak and predisposed to sicknesses, such as pneumonia, which took him in the end.

The second set we saw were older and came running for the milk.  They supplemented their milk diet with branches and although they were only by a little older than the first set, they were significantly bigger and had much more energy.  Certain elephants of the second set continually checked in on the first set, seeming to take care of each other, although most often the elephants kept near their Keeper.

When both these sets left, in came the 2-3 year olds.  They were huge and gregarious!  Full of energy  they played with both their trainers, each other, and the crowd.  They were full of life and of all the space they had they stuck together side to side huddled like they were discussing a football play.  A nice testimony of how the Trust has helped elephant infants thrive, this third set left everyone hopeful that the lives of the first set will one day turn around.

The Trust also looks after orphaned rhinos, which up close look both scary and gentle at the same time.  Their skin is so incredibly thick, dry and rough.  I can’t help but wonder how it keeps from cracking.  Since rhinos don’t use cream, there must be a purpose.  One thing I’m sure, nothing can penetrate that skin so I’m guessing rhinos don’t suffer from sun damage.

I was torn.  There animals are cute but part of me feels that we shouldn’t be seeing them as an attraction – at least not the youngest ones when they are clearly still traumatized.  However on the other side, between 1987 and 2009 the Trust has successfully hand-reared over 85 newborn and very young elephant orphans (in addition to those older and fit enough to go directly to the Tsavo rehabilitation camps) that they have proven to be effective if they have the continued funding, and how better to receive donors?  They have a program where you can sponsor an elephant much like a child.  This seemed like a great and innovative way to raise funds for the Trust, and as much as I knew mom always wanted an elephant as a little girl, I couldn’t bring myself to support this when there are so many hungry, abused and orphaned people in this world.  I knew she would agree, but I am still glad to learn that there is someone looking out for these beautiful creatures.

My heart did go out to them, especially as it is my own species which has created so much damage and trouble for these animals in the first place.  However there are many humans which suffer as a result of our own actions as well.  There is one thing I cannot change, no matter how cruel mankind may be to these lovely animals, there is equal and undeserved cruelness towards fellow human beings.  It is justice against this where my effort and support must always lie first and foremost.

To me, humanity comes first.

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.

11 weeks left, but who’s counting?

Here in Gigiri, it does not rain as heavy, or for nearly as long, as it did in Ghana.  I was expecting the rainy season, even the short one, to be continual downpour for its duration.  Instead, it has only drizzled during the day or poured during the night at some point each day over the past 2 weeks.  I would not mind so much if I did not have a reoccurring low-grade migraine each afternoon rendering me to uselessly await the evening rains in order to relieve the pressure in my head.  …Okay, perhaps I am being a little dramatic, but generally speaking by 14:00hrs these last 2 weeks, this has been the case.  Sometimes I am fortunate enough to have the rains come in the afternoon relieving the pressure early in exchange for an incredibly muddy walk home.  All I can say is thank God for Excedrin – the absolute best migraine medication ever – and Diet Coke.

If you are brave enough to venture outside of Gigiri these days, chances have it that the rain will freeze traffic up and you will be stuck bumper to bumper on a road that resembles a parking lot going nowhere fast.  This is especially the case if you are heading to downtown Nairobi because this is where all the China-sponsored road construction is occurring.  Globe Roundabout is a giant red mud pit.  Fun if you are playing football or field hockey but not so great when you are on a mission and stuck in a car that is stilled.

If you decide to walk to the nearest shopping center (perhaps you are in dire need of toothpaste), you will be lucky if you are agile enough to make your way on solid ground.  Most of us barely get 2 minutes from home wearing shoes newly stained from the red mud.

Believe it or not, the sloped drop-off to the right is actually a road that joins this pothole and puddle infested road.

I probably sound really pessimistic.  It is after all, just rain, and I knew coming here that I would be here during the short rainy season, but I know this is just one of those lows in the grand scheme of culture shock.  I think this is probably just in conjunction with the fact that a lot of my friends here on short-term contracts and are leaving within a month, work has been stressful, and everywhere I go I see holiday decorations reminding me that I will not be home for Christmas. Thankfully I have some sweet plans for the holidays which will keep me more than busy, but in the meantime I will continue to dream about all the fun everyone from home will be having in the snow.  Am I crazy? Most people cannot stand the snow, and I love it.  However I suppose this, of course, is nothing new.

Now I have only about 11 weeks to go before I am home again.  The time seems to have escaped on me.  The days feel long but the weeks pass by before I notice and then they are history.  What my next steps should be is the constant question occupying my mind.  Not that I am worried.  No, that is not it at all.  I am still living in the moment and making the most of my time here, but all the while, as the weeks continue to pass, I am increasingly looking forward, excited for the new opportunities that will come and to see where the next path will take me.

Not long ago I was exactly half-way through my contract.  It has been a really great experience and I have had my eyes opened to so many new things from urban sustainability, training effectiveness, evaluations, managing partner relationships and understanding how advisory committees work, to change management and corporate restructuring.  While I will admit that working at a large bureaucracy has been frustrating at times, my recent trip with a friend to see the organization she supports in Kibera reminded me of how unnecessarily frustrating it can be when working with small local organizations.  I think it was really good for me to go and get refresher of what it is like working in that context.  It can become too easy to judge where you are and romanticize what you miss; forgetting that challenges exist in both.  I still think I would lean towards working in a smaller office, with more direct community engagement.  Perhaps experiencing what it would be like in a small UN country office would be a good opportunity.  I am curious to see how much autonomy they have and how they operate with the challenges of working within the local context and as part of the large bureaucracy.  Each has its own strengths and weaknesses. It would also be incredibly interesting to work from a donor point of view, perhaps with a foundation or within the CSR role of a corporation.  Who would you decide to support and in which manner will you support and partner with them?  Or, I can exercise more of the humanitarian response skills and look to employment in relief.  There are so many options!  Oddly enough, I am not scared these endless options and unknowns; rather, I am quite excited.

UN Day was last month.  The day is a celebration of the anniversary of the UN Charter coming into force in 1945.  It has been celebrated on October 24th since 1948. The Nairobi festivities included acknowledging the role the UN plays in addressing gender equality, combating injustice, man-made and natural calamities, and the aversion of climate change.  There were also booths about all of the different UN agencies around for the visiting dignitaries to stop by at and pick up information during their conference breaks.  I of course went to most of these booths as well.  It was perfect!  In a way it was like holding a panel interview; I was able to ask the agencies all my questions and determine which ones I would really like to work for one day.  It still seems surreal to think that I am here.  I wonder if it will ever really sink in.  One thing is for sure: it will all pass quicker than I can imagine, just like Zanzibar did.  I smile when I think of Zanzibar.  Others tell me that I smile more when I speak of being there.  I wonder what they will say when I am home again reflecting on my time here, working in Nairobi.

Before this rainy season I used to wake up with the birds, just like at home.  Some days there where happy birds, cheerfully chirping away.  Other days there were birds that sounded like Canadian Geese.  About 2 or 3 weeks ago I woke up with the feeling I was at home in my bedroom before opening my eyes.  I was surprised to find myself in the German School Boarding House of Nairobi, Kenya instead of back home in Canada.  This has never happened to me before; not in Italy when I was 16 and away from home, or at ballet summer school when I was 12, and definitely not in Ghana just a couple years ago.  The funniest thing was that I fell back into a semi-conscious state and dreamed that I was with the friends I intend to backpack with for Christmas.  For some reason we were in an airport waiting for our backpacks to come on the luggage conveyor belt.  Instead of my backpack coming out towards me on the conveyor belt was the teddy bear I took practically everywhere with me since I was 3 years old.  No, Tippy Bear did not come to Kenya with me.  Dreams are crazy things.  Sometimes I wonder what goes on up in that brain of mine.

I will miss hearing about the monkeys wandering through my office.  I will miss the entire UNEP and UN-Habitat informal 10:00hrs coffee station congregations. I will miss the friendly faces and the tropical flowers and their scents that drift my way as I walk through our work compound.  I will miss funny conversations like the one where I was informed that the ideal world is a mix of China and Norway; both orderly and efficient.  I will miss hearing the practical advice from one expat to another such as how to get around hassle-free downtown: find a big guy and pay him some change to keep everyone else away, aka. choose and hire your own body guard for the day. 

Inside my office, standing by the coffee station.

I will not miss the constant warnings about safety, trying to create in everyone a healthy measure of fear.  In my French class last week we heard gunfire shots go off.  There were only 2 so either it was completely by mistake or the hunter was a good aim.  I do not know which is worse.  Thankfully, we’ve heard nothing more like this and Nairobi is somewhat calm again.

Yesterday morning, on the way to work I could see my breath in the air.  With Christmas music reaching my ears and December 1st tomorrow, you would never know that I am in Africa.  Such a diverse continent this is: mountainous and flat lands, desert sands and thick forests, volcanoes, and great lakes.  Rich in bittersweet complexities; joy and sorrow, famine, faith and inflation.

See You Again Z’bar!

Zanzibar is famous for its spices!

We learn all about the various types of spices and the creative looking shapes they come in.  I am perplexed by whoever decided to try using these leaves, roots and bark in such a complicated way; transforming the raw into powders.  Others are cracked similar to how walnuts are.  There were nuts too: macadamia.  Perhaps my favourite!

These were followed by coffee beans and the hottest, tiniest peppers one can imagine.

Fruit that you will only find in the tropics, of all colours and shapes hung from the trees.  Jack fruit, Star fruit, and something sounding like Apple Blossoms (?) that you eat like an apple.  It has a similar texture to apples and when you bite into it you can hear it crunch and taste refreshing juice.  You also cannot (or should not) eat the core.

(We were all given local spice-jewelry.  Check out the Spice Watch and Spice Ring.  I was also given a necklace and sunglasses.  The men received ties and hats.)

Flowers of all sorts, some of which are processed into a liquid, as oils and perfumes fill the air!  At the end of the tour we are encouraged to purchase a Channel #9 of sorts, as it is made with the same ingredients.  Tempted, an awesome souvenir this would make, both Danika and I resolve to leave it here and search for it in Stone Town’s local market before flying back to Nairobi.

***

Thirty minutes later we are in a farmer’s field.  Its cliffs drop down to a beautiful cavern-filled coastline where you can walk out until you are neck-deep in the crystal clear water.  Crossing the field we find the secret entrance we are looking for and descend into a gigantic cave.  The only light that exists is that which comes in from the entrance.  There is fresh water pooling from underground in a tiny basin to one side.  We gather in this cave (much larger than it once was due to erosion caused by the rains) and they tell us the history of this place.

Zanzibar was not only known for trading spices but for slaves as well.  When it became illegal to sell slaves secret markets took their place.  Some were literally underground.  This cave was one of them.  Used as an auction and storage place of the purchaser’s cargo, the slaves would have to stay in this cave; men, women and children.  Here they would stay crammed together like sardines.  Then, once a month and at night, when the tide was at its lowest point, they would be forced to walk through a series of tunnels until they were outdoors, taking their last steps on Zanzibari sand before being loaded into the boats and shipped off around the world.  Unfortunately this underground slave market flourished for years after the slave trade was abolished.  When the farmer who owned the land eventually died, it ended.

We are told how greatly the local communities, whose villages were pillaged for their people, had their culture changed during this time.  Certain communities adopted facial markings.  This had dual purposes; enabling them to locate each other when captive, and making them worth less – a disincentive for capture.  We are also told that this was the time Ethiopian women, the Mursi who were taken captive for their beauty, began inserting lip plates to make them less attractive.  Both these practices are still done until today.  (I have looked into this much since, but I would like to.  It’s quite interesting.)

 

 

We spent the rest of the afternoon swimming and climbing the rocks and coral along the shore which resembled scenes from the films Pirates of the Caribbean and The Count of Monte Cristo.  It was fun and so peaceful.

We head north toward Nungwi and decide to stay in Kendwa.  We are there Saturday night – perfect timing for the Full Moon Party!  I won’t mention that there was no full moon that night as we were one week early, because you barely noticed amongst everything that was going on.  There was food, entertainment, dancing, the beach, lots of new people to meet from all over the world… (This finally includes North America!  Most people I meet in this region are here from Europe.) …and to top it all off, our accommodation reminded me of a tree house!  It was great.  We had a blast!

Sunday we laze on the beach watching storm clouds until heading back to Stone Town for the Eid ul-Adha, a Muslim holiday known as the “Festival of Sacrifice” or “Greater Eid.”  It remembers the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac as an act of obedience to God, before God intervened to provide him with a sheep to sacrifice instead.

Stone Town is full of life!  It is dark and yet the intricate pathways across the town are lit and full of people everywhere dressed in their very best; women covered head to toe in flowing sequined garments.  Children are still up, playing in the streets with parents watching nearby.  Little girls’ have their hair in braids with colourful ribbons and bows.  Families drive by, piled high on their motorbikes; their youngest boys waving and calling out to us.  We pass a carnival for the children and continue on our way to Forodhani Gardens for our final dinner in Zanzibar.

The place is swarming with people.  Everywhere you look there is somebody.  We eventually make it to the vendors and find all the seafood we were hoping for and more.  The vibe filling Forodhani Gardens is that of a pure exuberant passion for life.  I hear laughter and chatter everywhere.  Everyone seems to be sincerely happy.  Children aren’t tired; their eyes wide with excitement and smiles spread cheek to cheek across their faces.  We enjoy a moment of not being catered to as muzungus.  Here the attention is entirely on those celebrating.  We select our food – delicious once you flick off the bugs and sit down to enjoy it with the famous sugarcane, ginger and lime juice!

The busiest night Forodhani Gardens has had in a long time, with vendors spending countless hours in preparation, we can barely make our way through the crowd at anything but a sloth-like pace, and we not only manage to find our friends, but we also discover others among the crowd whom we had met in Kendwa the evening before.  I suppose island life is a small world after all, but there is something about it that is intricately beautiful.

 

 

We stay up celebrating and the clock runs away with time.  The night of festivities and farewells comes to a close as it dawns on us that on the morrow we must retrace our steps to Nairobi.

We spend the morning having coffee and spiced tea in the emptied out Forodhani Gardens reliving the excitement and adventures of the weekend.  Joined by friends we wander the labyrinth of Stone Town, enjoy a local lunch, select a souvenir, and before we are ready, find ourselves heading to the airport where I realized my days of being called Angelina Jolie were coming to an end.

Kwaheri Zanzibar!  I will forever miss you. Stone Town is definitely on my list of places to return one day.