Friday, September 26, 2008

Random Thoughts from the Dark Continent

Hello loved ones! I don’t really have a cohesive theme for this one; eventually I will do a “Day in the Life of...” post like twin did but today I just have random thoughts. There are as follows!

1. I’m going on safari this weekend!! Like, a legitimate drive-around-in-a-safari-truck-and-take-pictures-of-large-kitties safari. I’m so super excited. This will be my first real trip outside of Nairobi, which I’m also excited about because while Nairobi is cool and all, it’s really not what comes to mind when one thinks of Kenya. While not part of the program, I will be going with most of the girls in my program (14 of us total). We are going on a 3-day, 2-night trip to Masaii Mara, which involves a six hour drive through the Rift Valley to get there. This very famous nature reserve is home to the equally famous Masaii people, who are the ones you see in the documentaries with super stretched out ears or drinking cow blood or wearing blankets. We are going during the time of the wildebeest migration across Kenya, which is supposed to be an amazing sight. I plan on stocking up on lots of AA batteries, so be ready for pictures!

2. The people of Kenya have a very short national memory. It shocks me because there are pretty high levels of anti-Americanism here (towards government policy towards Africa, not me), but they are just peachy with the British, who colonized the Kenyan people and brutalized them for decades while they were at it. While I understand that Africa has a lot of reasons to not like American foreign policy, I can honestly not understand why the Kenyans positively love British people, television, and universities. Kenya’s population is very young, so most the people alive today are already 2 generations removed from any experience with colonialism. But still, you would think that there would be some bitterness? I can’t help but think it’s a little unfair...

3. It’s really funny the stuff I end up missing while I’m here, especially when it comes to food. Most food here is insanely cheap, but food that can’t be imported from Africa or Asia is so expensive or just non-existent. I miss olive oil, cream cheese, honey roasted peanuts and every type of sour candy. I don’t even eat any of these things with any regularity, but now that I can’t have them it’s driving me crazy. I’m lucky though, my roommate Dana is obsessed with Diet Coke and they don’t have that hear at all (Coke Light isn’t the same, so don’t suggest it).
I also miss wearing shorts and tank tops. I’m going to come back from Africa paler than ever, because I’m always covering up. I can technically wear shorts or flip fops (“shower shoes” is what those are considered here), as a lot of mzungus do, but I get stared at enough on the streets without showing more skin than absolutely necessary. Dressing like a Kenyan at least gets a little more respect.

That’s about it! I’ve been here over a month now, and I’m getting into the swing of things. The epic adventure called going to school doesn’t kill me now, I’ve gotten a haircut from an African with no problems, I am getting a basic grasp of Kiswahili grammar. So far so good! I don’t think my poor dirty feet will ever be the same after this...

Monday, September 15, 2008

A life of contrasts.

Today was a breakthrough day for me in Kenya. I went through my entire day without once feeling overwhelmed or frustrated. I traveled by myself to a place I had never been before, spent the day at an amazing internship talking to some fascinating Kenyans, made my way through the jam by myself back to Westlands, and going grocery shopping with friends. A good day, and a day that proves that I will get used to this, and the bad times will eventually disappear and become more days to enjoy this amazing place.

On my internship. I am now the new intern at Action Now Kenya (ANK). Right on the edge of the slum Kibera, ANK is a non-profit that provides micro-financing to women of various slums around Nairobi. To non-econ people, this means that ANK gives out small loans to women in order to expand their small businesses within their communities. These loans are paid back in increments with very low interest. Through this loan program they can also obtain information on HIV and financial leadership training. These women, being in informal slums and not even technically counted as part of Nairobi population, would never ever have a chance at a loan at a bank, so this is their only chance to expand their business. I spent today reading the profiles and stories of all of the women who receive loans. There are some amazing stories out there. In the slums of Nairobi, a $100 loan can mean the difference, literally, of live and death for a business or even a family. I read a story of a woman widowed by HIV who is supporting her seven children and five nieces/nephews (orphaned by HIV) with a small candlemaking store in Kibera. Amazing stories. The greatest part of this internship is that I get to meet these women. I will be working with the Community Mobilizer, which means I will be going into the slums and talking these women. I will be interviewing them before the loan to get their story, which I will then send into Kiva, the funder of the loans. After they get the loan, I will be visiting them to see what impact the micro-loan made on the business and if the funds are being used correctly. I’m pretty excited.

I’m getting used to this place. I can greet people without offending them, I can ride matatus without fear, I can talk politics with the old lady sitting next to me on the bus. When I first drove through Nairobi, I thought I would never understand the jumbled mess that was this urban infrastructure. Now, when I ride through, I not only know where I am and where I’m going; I also know the names of several streets, roundabouts, and important buildings. I walk through the streets as a white woman and only feel minorly out of place. I can even deal with crazy shop owners who try to pull you in their shops. This might all sound very simplistic and rudimentary for someone who’s been somewhere for three weeks now, but it’s an entirely different story south of the Sahara, so I feel proud of myself.

Before coming here, I knew conceptually where I was going. I knew, in theory, that the third world would be completely different from what I was used to. But theory and reality are such different things. Being here has already completely altered, forever, my view of the world: how it works, and how it should work. Living in Njema Court makes it possible to escape, but only for so long. I’ve been painting a happy picture of Nairobi, mostly because I like it a lot. But it’s hard. The electricity goes out almost everyday, sometimes for several hours. If you drink the water without boiling it, you will probably get typhoid at some point. Even if you boil the water, something will give you the stomach bug several times while you’re here. Your feet are black, literally, every night from the dust and pollution. You are faced everyday with the apathy of the police and the frantic failings of the government. And this is when you’re white. Everyday I live a life of contrasts, going between Njema Court where I have a toilet and hot water to places that have one toilet for every 200 people. I personally witness the struggle for life that goes on everyday, and then return here to type on my Mac every night. The contrast is hardest for me. It’s something that will stay with me forever.

Also, sorry for everyone who has emailed me and have not received an email back yet. I've been super busy or exhausted, but you will be contacted back shortly!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Picture time!



These pictures are from the first couple of weeks of Africa. It involves orientation, going out to a Jazz Night at a Kenyan club, and cooking a Kenyan meal for all of us.

My goal is to get many more pictures of my actual experience, but it is very very difficult to do because a) it's risky to travel with cameras given the crime rate here, b) taking out cameras to take pictures is even riskier to the level of stupidity, and c) some people think that taking pictures of someone steals that person's soul. It happens. So I will certainly try later on, but not now! I will take pictures of the apartment, university, etc. later.


Sunday, September 7, 2008

On Mzungus and Matatus.

My grasp of Swahili is not very strong; we don’t start Kiswahili classes until next Tuesday, so my understanding of Swahili extends to Habari, Mzuri, Pesa ngapi, etc. (How are you, I’m fine, How much does it cost, etc.). One word, however, that I was bombarded with as soon as I got off the plane was mzungu. The word mzungu is technically translated into “foreigner”, but in my opinion the more accurate translation is “whitey”. As a whitey, I am constantly overrun with people shouting mzungu! mzungu! Sometimes they want to sell me something, sometimes they just think it’s hilarious that a whitey is walking through their neighborhood, sometimes they just want to find out why on earth I’m in Kenya.

I must say, it’s one of the strangest experiences in the world to walk down a street and have everyone stare at you. Everywhere I go, I make a scene. The other day I was walking down the street in a neighborhood that rarely sees white people. This little Somali boy was playing in a front yard, and as I passed his eyes got alarmingly wide. He screamed “Moooooooom” as he ran into the house, presumably to show his mom the mzungu walking down the street. Again, odd. We (the girls in the program) have made a joke about it and whisper “look, a mzungu!” if we see another whitey in town.

The language barrier is a very interesting experience in this city. For the most part, people can speak English and a lot of the signs are in English. They learn English in school, and several people I’ve met prefer writing and reading in English, even if their first and spoken language in Kiswahili (what the language of Swahili is actually called). The form of slang used by youth, called Sheng, is a combination of Kiswahili, English, and tribal languages. Oddly enough, I can almost always understand people’s accents on the street, even in the slums, but have a very hard time understanding professionals, such as my professors or actors in a play I saw. Regardless of the area, if you speak a little Kiswahili you will immediately separate yourself from the safari tourists and will almost certainly get much better prices or services.

On to matatus. Matatus are the main form of public transportation in and around Nairobi. They are usually very old, very beat up 14-passenger vans. They are notorious for breaking down or running out of gas in the middle of a ride. They are very very cheap (about 30 cents per ride), so most of the lower and middle class use them to get to work. Matatus are also well known for their designs. Most of them are covered on the outside in pictures of the most random pop cultural icons or phrases. I’ve seen ones with pictures of Obama (with the words “Time for REAL Change”), Timbaland, Jesus, Osama bin Laden and Britney Spears on the same van, and Bow Wow. They are hilarious. Most of them are blasting very loud hip hop, and some of the nicer ones are even equipped with DVD players! A lot of them, though, are in really poor conditions, with seats not anchored to the ground or broken windows.

Mzungus almost never ride on matatus, as they have bad reputations for theft and other crime. Mzungus generally take cabs or even the busses. Not us. We use matatus to get to school and internships everyday, and to get anywhere else we go during the day. If you’re smart about it, they really aren’t dangerous. At night though, we are required to take taxis (understandably; you would have to be stupid to take a matatu at night). We actually aren’t even allowed to outside after dark, so we often have to “chase the sun” to get back inside before darkness falls. Amazingly enough, despite there almost never being mzungus on the matatus, I never get comments or even second glance when I board. And a couple of stern words to the tot (the conductor, whose job it is to get people onto the matatu and collect fares) will lower the price to what the Kenyans are paying.

Well that’s all for now! On a final note, Anjali and I had some fantastic Indian food last night in a pure vegetarian, South Indian restaurant called Chowpaty. There is a very large Indian population here, so I’m looking forward to a semester full of amazing Indian food!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Mambo Nairobi...

I’ve been in Kenya for about a week and a half now. I’ve been putting off this first blog entry because, frankly, I don’t really know what to say. I’ve seen and done so much that I feel like I’ve been here for a month already. But, for everyone’s sake including my own, I need to document this experience. So here it goes!

Nairobi as a city is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It is loud, dusty, and packed with both cars and people zooming by at an alarming speed. The city centre is considered to be very “developed” by most third world standards, with skyscrapers, fast food chains, and businessmen on cell phones. The surrounding areas are absolutely covered in informal settlements (slums), markets, ritzy neighborhoods, and everything in between. Nairobi is one of the fastest growing cities in the world, so it’s in a constant state of frenzy, with an overwhelmed infrastructure. Despite the fact that is by far the dirtiest place I’ve ever spent time in, it is also gorgeous. The city is covered in parks and trees, making for a very sharp contrast between brown and green. This city is so disorganized and crazy, but it’s also why I love it. Everything is haphazard but it all works somehow. It’s endlessly entertaining.

The area that I’m staying in, called the Westlands, in very nice. The way the class division works in Kenya is that the rich are wealthy enough to afford guards, gates, and electric fences to keep out the desperate and therefore dangerous poor. It’s very sad, but true. The apartment that I am living in is by far the nicest and biggest apartment I have ever come across; at a rent of about 1,200 dollars a month, we have a three bedroom, two bathroom apartment with wood floors, a patio, a fully furnished living room/dining room, a full kitchen, and a laundry room. Included in the rent is 24 hour guards at the gate, gym access, and a housekeeper that does our dishes and cleans the apartment everyday. We also have someone who does our laundry everyday. This is typical of the uppercrust of Kenyan society, and I must say I’m enjoying it quite a bit! It does create a fairly shaking contrast when I leave my gated community to go into the city and view the poorest of the poor firsthand. In fact, right outside my apartment window, outside of the gate, there are two men living against a wall. I watch them sit there, day after day, and it’s a true experience of culture shock.

This experience has been absolutely amazing so far though. It’s impossible to go through the “honeymoon” stage in Nairobi; I can’t put it on a pedestal when I see directly huge disparities that exists. But I really feel like I’m part of a city that is going somewhere, part of a city full of residents who are determined to empower their own population, part of a city full of unique ideas. When people find out I just arrived in Kenya, the most common response is a broad smile and “you’ll love it here. Kenyans are a good people, and Kenya is a good place”. And I tend to agree.

I started my classes at USIU on Tuesday. It takes about two hours to get to school and at least two hours to get back, so taking two classes turns out to be quite an endeavor. The classes don’t seem to be on the same standard as what I’m used to at AU; however, just being in a classroom with all African classmates and an African professor will teach me quite a bit. I was in my Politics of Africa course, and the professor asked the class to call out what they thought of when they thought of Africa. Students immediately began to offer up their opinions, and I was treated, for the first time, to a first hand account of what Africans thought of Africa. That alone is an experience I can take back to my life back home.

I’ve been spending most of the last week getting settled into the apartment, getting food, and getting to know my fellow program mates (all girls). Even getting food at the market can be a several hour trek. My program director advised us that we should schedule one thing for the morning, and one thing for the afternoon, and if we did more we’d just be stressed. I think she’s right. Still, I’ve managed to find everything I need, including a towel, hangers, and a delicious looking pineapple.

Well, there it is, my first attempt at defining my Kenyan experience. I will try to start updating more often so that I can cover more adventures!