Posts Tagged ‘MSID Kenya’


Doug: “A state of war”

September 21, 2011

This is how one governmental leader described the series of events over the last week here in Kenya on the news last night. Though a formal conflict has not broken out in the country, the seemingly endless death toll that has emerged in the last seven days has been heart wrenching. But even more frustrating than the series of events themselves is how preventable each accident could have been with better regulation by the Kenyan government. Many of the Kenyans that I’ve talked to, rather than showing sympathy, have expressed more of a weary resignation, saying things like, “Us Kenyans, we never learn…”

Tomorrow is the official mass burial for the 100+ victims of the Sinai gas pipeline disaster. This horrific accident occurred last Monday, at around 9AM, and even made it onto international news stations. Essentially a gas pipeline running underneath the residential slum of Sinai (near Nairobi) burst, after which residents rushed to get containers to collect the free fuel. Tragically, something (people think possibly a cigarette) turned the scene into a blazing fire pretty quickly. The images were almost post-apocalyptic looking, with houses near the gas leak incinerated in seconds. As more bodies were found, Kenyans demanded justice (relatives of victims are now suing both the Kenyan Pipeline Company and the Kenyan government). But one question kept emerging: Did Sinai need to happen? Articles resurfaced from as early as February 2009, in which residents in the slum were told of the dangers of where their homes were located, but refused to move. Also the pipe that burst was over 30 years old, way over the life expectancy for pipelines. One of the major differences I have noticed after living for a month here in Kenya is the lack of effective governmental regulation in so many different sectors in life. In America, despite how much we complain about partisan politics, we place a huge amount of faith in our government to get things done. And oftentimes they deliver. If there is a huge pothole on the highway, usually it is repaved over within a week or two. If there is a water main burst, someone is there to repair it within the day.

But in Kenya (which is considered one of the more relatively advanced African countries) oftentimes those people never show up. Like in the case of Sinai, why was the pipeline not replaced after 30 years? Moreover, how could the Kenyan government not know that this pipeline was due to burst soon? Or if they did know, why did they not move residents away? After all, isn’t one of the sole roles of a government to protect its people?

But the tragedy did not stop at Sinai. Earlier this week another thirteen people lost their lives as a bus lost control trying to pass another car in Mwingi. This is just another addition to the long list of causalities resulting from one of Kenya’s most pressing problems at the moment:  failure to control road safety. Earlier, I wrote a blog post about how crazy matatus (essentially small vans used for transportation) are to ride in. At the time, I thought it was kinda scary but fun, an exciting new experience in Kenya. But now I am realizing how dangerous transportation in Kenya truly is—claiming so many unnecessary lives every year. Many roads are falling apart, while some (those built by the Chinese) are brand new. Seatbelts? Who needs ‘em. Speed limits? Hardly ever even seen a sign for them. Traffic lights and stop signs? Why even bother to obey something if you know you won’t get a ticket for failing to? This is the mentality that the government of Kenya is struggling (failing) to control.

Then, to make matters worse, a few days ago, four more people died in Kiambu after consuming the illicit Chang’aa brew, a cheap, illegal, alcoholic beverage (oftentimes containing ethanol) that has been blinding those who consume it and even killing others. Kibaki (the President of Kenya) ordered an official crackdown on the brewing of the drink last week, but what does that actually mean? The communities affected by this brew are usually those living in poverty, since the drink is so cheap, and they are fed up. These poor areas, the slums, are often the ones who pay the penalty for governmental oversight. Huge crowds (mainly women) stormed suspected pubs, smashing bottles, outraged that some of their husbands suffered the consequences of this unregulated drink.

As an American student who has just started learning about Kenya in the past year, I’m trying to understand why Kenya continues to have these problems after 60 years of independence, and what led to them; but it’s not easy. I’m starting to understand how immensely complicated this field of development is, and how many different factors play into a country’s attempts to alleviate poverty.  But amidst all this sorrow there is still great hope. I went last week with several friends to donate blood at Kenyatta Hospital—the main hospital where many of the burn victims from the Sinai fire were receiving treatment. The number of Kenyans who had showed up to donate blood was inspiring. And though that experience (though perfectly safe) probably banned me from giving blood in the US ever again, it was uplifting to see the support Kenyans had for other Kenyans.

And so life in Kenya pushes onward. Only time will tell what the next 3 months will bring, but undoubtedly it will continue to open my eyes to this country that is, for now, my home.


Mia: the word of the day is “frustration”

September 18, 2011

We got out of class very early today, so I decided to come home and change into warmer clothes (it was very cold today) before going out to get tortillas to make quesadillas for my family. The paper was on the table when I got home, so I sat down and started reading it. When I turned the page, I saw an article that really pissed me off, and I’ve actually been pissed off for several hours now. Looks like the quesadillas are going to have to wait. 

This article described the sadness of one of the firefighters at the Sinai fire, and goes on to quote him saying that it’s the worst thing he’s seen in all his days of firefighting. This is understandable—over 100 hundred people have died so far, mostly because they were either in their houses, which are right next the river in the slum, or they were trying to get oil out of the river to sell later. Some of the pictures I’ve seen of the bodies have been horrifying—people literally burned to a crisp, with entire bones showing through the blackened flesh. It’s enough to make you want to buy every single person living in that slum a house to themselves so that this never happens again.

As I was considering what I could do to do just that (not the house part), that only thing that came to mind was that I can’t. This seems to be one of the many things in this country that I want to help with, but can’t change, which let me tell you, is maddening. I spent the next several hours trying to find some kind of NGO online that helps people in poverty pay for their medical bills. Google tells me there isn’t one, as does the State Department. This would seem to be encouraging, because it opens the door for me to start one, but then the problem arrises as to how exactly I would go about that…

The idea I have for this NGO is an organization that gives small loans to people in Nairobi to pay for their medical bills or the medical bills of their deceased family members. It’s a huge problem here, and getting loans is next to impossible for medical bills. This organization would start off with a small amount of money, loan it out, and when the money is returned, reuse it with other loans. This seems like a good idea in theory, but the work it would involve, and the paperwork that would be needed, is mind-boggling. Especially for one senior in college, in America, in ROTC. Simply put, it’s not possible for me right now. 

So that’s unfortunate. But maybe, I thought, I could keep the idea in the back of my head, and do some research while I’m serving out my time in the Air Force so that I’ll be well-prepared to attempt this venture later. Thankfully, something like this has already been successfully put into action in the form of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, which loans money to the poor, and is almost completely owned by its owners. Seeing such a successful example of what I might want to do, I thought, maybe an internship with them would be a good idea? Judging by how long it’s taking the current commissionees to go active duty (in layman’s terms, it’s going to be 9-12 months before I have a job after I graduate), I would have time. 

Looking at their site, I discovered that an internship is actually fairly easy to get, and not too expensive. The idea actually seemed to be feasible. And then I looked back at the last few months of my life, and realized that if I actually go through with this, I will have studied/researched in Russia, Kenya, and Bangladesh within a year of each other. This brings me to more frustration.

To most people, it probably seems like I’m just bouncing from country to country with no direction, and to an extent, that may be true. I’ve tried to find connections between Russia and Kenya, and believe me, there are no connections. Russia is developing, and Kenya is developing as well, so the streets and buildings may look the same, and they both enjoy tea, but the similiarities end there. The only connection that I can find is myself (and how JFK funneled money into Kenya to stop the spread of Communism during the Cold War, but that’s another term paper…). I went to Russia to polish up my Russian, and I’m in Kenya to study development and try to bring back enough expertise and experience to educate other people, specifically people in the military. However, it’s beginning to seem to me that I may have tried to do too much, something that probably sounds familiar to most of my friends.

So, frustration. Frustration that despite taking 10 semesters of Russian, I can’t score well enough on the military’s language test to get foreign language pay, frustration that I don’t have enough time and resources to start the NGO that I want to, and frustration that on paper, it really looks like I’m throwing darts at a globe to decide where I’m going next. But most of all, frustration with myself that I’m trying to do all these unconnected things at the same time. And that I got REALLY off track with that quesadilla-making.

These problems aren’t things that can be solved overnight, so I can only keep chipping away at them, and hope that eventually all the work will pay off. Oh, the troubles of a middle-class white girl… Well, I’m going to go get that tortilla, and make some Russian and Swahili flashcards.


Mia: Updates from Nairobi

September 15, 2011

Updates: I’ve been going to Kibera, I got braids, I gave blood at the hospital yesterday, and I’m going camping tomorrow. 

I started going to Kibera with Jeremy to help with the girls’ play, which was this Saturday. At first I was incredibly pissed off that people lived like that in the slums, and that no one was doing anything about it. But after being with the girls for a while, I realized that yes, it sucks that they live in a place like that, but they’re making the best of it, and they’re doing a great job of it. It’s incredibly inspiring to see a group of young girls reap the rewards of all their hard work (the entire event was to benefit them).

That same day, in the morning, I visited the giraffe center and got to kiss some giraffes. They let you put giraffe food in your mouth so the the giraffe takes it from you! 

After the play, some of the other students and I went to an Egyptian restaurant and enjoyed some Tuskers while watching the Wisconsin football game online…until we lost the feed. Then we relied on updates from Grace’s boyfriend, and Roy gave me updates on the OSU game. We stayed out for a while, and Chris and I had an unfortunate almost run-in with some men with AKs, but the night ended with all of us happily in our beds.

Also, I managed to find time to get braids last Friday. I sashayed into Kenyatta market and plopped myself down in front of several women that were all too happy to braid a mzungu’s hair. At one point there were five ladies working on my head, it was quite the experience! 

On a darker note, the hospital put out a need for blood a couple days ago after some oil got into a river inside a slum and exploded. Over 100 people were killed, and many more were injured. A lot of the MSID students went to give blood and food to the hospital, and there were tons of people lined up there when we arrived. The hospital staff said the response had been great, and that they’d reached their goal for blood. 

Tomorrow I’ll be going camping with Simon’s (one of our coordinators) family, in Ngong Hills. It should be a great time! We will be matatuing out there (a kind of crazy bus), and then piki-pikiing (a motorcycle) to the camp site. Apparently we’re going on a guided hiking tour, so I’m ver excited for that. 

Also, I’ve finally decided what to do with the reception that I paid for, but don’t need anymore. I’m going to be holding a fundraiser to benefit the Longonot Initiative, a NGO co-founded by Kyle, the ROTC guy that went on this program last year. So far the plan is to have it on Dec 18th, and sell tickets for 20 dollars. We’re working on a contract with the hotel, and finding entertainment. Thankfully, I’m surrounded by like-minded people that are very happy to work with me on it.

It can be overwhelming to look around here and see everything that’s going wrong, but it’s impossible to ‘fix’ all of it, and it may not look like it, but people ARE trying to make things better. It’s just difficult to see sometimes. My host mom says that all the kids that come here get overwhelmed and try to do everything at once, and I think she’s right. We’re not expected to come in and make everything better—we’re expected to learn, and hopefully to contribute something in return. Hopefully, that’s what we’ll all be doing by the end of this. 

That’s all for now, I’m off to write some papers for class.


Doug: Back to school!

September 12, 2011

Well I guess it’s time to start the real “study” part of “study abroad” (couldn’t avoid it forever I guess). Last week we started our first week of real classes after returning from a 5-day-long orientation at Lake Nakuru National Park. Highlights from orientation week included:

  • Trying to learn 21 new names. So far it has been just the 5 of us who came early for the August-Intensive Swahili Pre-Session. Now there are 26 of us total—making it a lot more difficult to go places. A group of 26 wazungu is a pretty big target for pick pockets. One girl already had her bag stolen from underneath a table.)
  • I also had my first experience of being successfully robbed. I was heading downtown with two friends to meet up with the large group of newly arrived semester students. We boarded a bus, and not long afterwards three men with large envelopes (a sure sign of pickpockets) got on after us. They moved to sit closer to us as soon as they could, and when our stop arrived, we stood up to get off. Instantly they started crowding us, “accidentally” pushing me back into my seat, and blocking the exit of the bus. My friend Chelsea realized what was going on and shoved the guy blocking the exit out of the stopped bus. We pushed our way out, and booked it to the other side of the street—only to realize that my travel water bottle had been stolen from the outside of my bag.  Luckily nothing valuable, but still a good reminder that we can never be too careful here.
  • After our 3-hour-long bus ride west of Nairobi to Nakuru National Park, we arrived to the compound in the heart of the park, where we would be staying. We spent the next few days in talks about safety, health, host family stays etc. , doing cheesy bonding games (takes me back to beginning of freshman year of college), and doing evening game drives through the park. Lions, zebra, flamingoes, and buffalo. Oh my! (Going from Arusha National Park in Tanzania, to Nakuru, I’ve seen enough animals to satisfy for the time being).
  • Every morning, afternoon, and evening, a large family of baboons would hop the fence into our compound, and just hang out for an hour or so. We would be sitting in a circle outside, doing one of our talks, and a massive baboon would just come strolling by. It definitely kept things interesting. Periodically our director would have to grab a big stick and chase them away.

Since I haven’t talked about what I’m actually studying here, I’ll briefly tell you guys. The program (University of Minnesota Studies in International Development) is focused on development (surprise!) and there are 4 main academic components:

1)      International Development—here we study developmental theories, what has worked, what hasn’t (and why it hasn’t) and the biggest developmental issues facing Kenya right now. What’s really cool though is that we get to choose a specialization track (Education, Social Services, Microfinance, Environment, or Public Health). I was torn between Education and Social Services, but for now am going with the Social Services track, since I’m thinking of maybe doing Social Work in the future.

2)      Kenya Country Analysis—this is basically overview of Kenyan history, pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial, Kenyan political structures, etc.

3)      Swahili—the never ending attempt to become conversational in Swahili continues (I think I’m getting pretty close)

4)      Internship—this part does not come until late October. At that point we all split off and are sent to different parts of Kenya to work an internship with a developmental NGO for 6 weeks, based on what our development interests are. I finally found out (I was a little impatient) that I will be interning at The Wema Centre (Swahili for ‘goodness’)—a children’s home/ orphanage in the rural coastal town of Bamburi, 20 minutes north of Mombasa. Part of what they do is go into the city of Mombasa and work to get begging street children out of the city and into the orphanage, where many children ages 4-14 live, go to school, and eat meals—(much more to come on this once I get there). Oh, and I also found out I will be living with a Muslim family, with young kids, in a Muslim community, so that should be really interesting (again, more to come later)

Classes here in Kenya are a little different than back home for a few reasons. They almost never start on time, often get out early, and while our professors actually are very intelligent and the classes so far have been very interesting, the academic climate is just much different. Nobody is freaking out about GPA, grades, etc. I love Tufts, but let’s just say I’m not sad to learn for learning’s sake, in a much more chill environment.


Doug: The Tanzania Trip

September 8, 2011

I just returned from a 6 day trip to Arusha, Tanzania with three friends from my program, and it was absolutely amazing. The MSID program coordinators decided that they would give us 5 days to travel after our final exam last Tuesday. So we boarded a bus bound for Arusha, Tanzania. The trip to Arusha was primarily my friend Chelsea’s idea—since there is a school there that she has supported for the last 7 years, The School of St. Jude. One highlight from the 5-hour bus trip from Nairobi to Arusha was paying $100 USD at the border for a visa into Tanzania (USA and Ireland citizens are the only ones that had to pay more than $50; oh yeah, and Pakistan pays $200—sorry Pakistan). Arriving in Arusha, we found it to be a much smaller city than Nairobi, with AMAZING views of Mt. Meru—which looms over this hilly city.

View of downtown Arusha from our hostel

Our first two days and nights were spent at The School of St. Jude, a remarkable school that was started on a bare plot of land about ten years ago by an Australian woman with the dream of a school that would offer excellent education, while being completely free, to train bright young minds from the poorest families in the area. What stands today, nearly ten years since the first 3 students enrolled, is one of the most amazing schools I have ever seen, with 1,500 students (ages 7-20) on three different campuses and a core faculty of Tanzanian teachers. The School of St. Jude (the patron saint of hopeless causes) is fully funded by private donors (you can sponsor a student through their website), and everything (and I mean everything, from the kids’ backpacks, to their uniforms, to school supplies, to tuition, to the brightly colored school buses, is completely free for the students’ families). The school provides hearty meals to every student (in case they aren’t getting it at home). The campus is quite literally a paradise—it is beautifully groomed, covered in rich green grass and vegetation, with colorfully painted playgrounds and clean bright buildings. Walking around the campus, I was speechless that such a school existed in rural Tanzania.

Not a bad view…

But enough about the school—now onto the students. I challenge you to find a happier group of kids than the hundreds of primary school kids we saw running, jumping, screaming, laughing, playing and just being kids every morning before the bell rang for classes. There was no fighting; there were no disobedience issues or behavior problems or crying—just pure joy. And I realized that for these kids, school is paradise. For their families, they realize that getting this education is the only hope for their children to break out of the cycle of poverty, empowered to change their lives. “Fighting Poverty Through Education”—The School of St. Jude’s mission statement is short but powerful. They seek to train the future leaders of Tanzania, and they are well on their way—the students here score unbelievably high on standardized tests and are considered some of the brightest in the country.

I admit it—I teared up twice during our stay at St. Jude’s, both times on the last day. On that Friday, the school opened its gates (like it does every Friday afternoon for 2 months out of the year) to any and all 7-8 year-olds in a 30KM radius from the school for testing for admission. Chelsea and I agreed to help guide the kids during a series of “tests”, from basic identification of pictures, then (if they pass) to a short writing portion. What resulted was something I will never forget, as I stood in the open-air lunch pavilion, waiting for the kids to arrive: hundreds upon hundreds of boys and girls started filing into the school yard; parents (mostly mothers) and even orphanages had started lining their children up at 8AM that morning, hoping beyond all hope that their son, their daughter, would get a coveted spot at St. Jude’s (the school only can let in 150 students each year). My role was to greet each child and lead them to sit on some benches, waiting for their turn, their chance, to prove that they deserved a spot at St. Jude’s. Each kid was so precious, some holding small, dully sharpened pencils (perhaps their family’s only pencil?), with shy, scared expressions. Some light up in a grin as I smiled at them and greeted them in Swahili (most spoke no English). On the one hand (as I greeted child after child), it made me so happy to think that St. Jude’s was giving these kids a chance at an education that they may not otherwise get; on the other hand it broke my heart that the majority of these kids were going to go home empty handed—without that coveted green slip of paper, saying they had earned a spot. And here I was—a kid who always had had access to good education growing up, and in a year’s time, would be back getting my university education (something that will be a challenge to get even for many of the St. Jude’s students).

Hanging out at lunch

Nevertheless, what brought tears of joy was the amazing sight that met our eyes as we walked, later that afternoon, bags packed, to the front gate on our way out. The dozens of students who had gotten those green slips of paper (which meant acceptance to St. Jude’s) were finally making their way out of the gate after a long day of waiting in lines and testing. A huge crowd awaited them on the other side—mothers cried and yelled out screams of joy, picking up their children (who themselves did not seem to be fully aware of the implications that the paper held for their lives). People everywhere were crying and laughing, as these small kids filed one-by-one into the joyous crowd of parents. And as the crowd thinned, and as beaming mothers took their children back home (next the school will visit them at home to survey their socio-economic status to make sure they qualify for free education), I realized the true power that a school has to transform and empower the lives of the families it serves. The smiles of the kids and families also further convinced me that working with youth through education is a career path that I increasingly am feeling called to. Thank you St. Jude’s, for everything you’re doing, and all you taught me.

After the School of St. Jude, the other main thing we did was hire a taxi to drive us through Arusha National Park (while all the other silly tourists paid absurd amounts for their safari trucks, we were bouncing along in our beatup sedan–it was fantastic). Instead of going on and on about how beautiful it was and how many animals we saw, I’ll just put in a few photos:


Mia: Nairobi! Kenya believe it!?!

September 6, 2011

So getting internet took a really long time. I’m actually writing this on the 3rd, because I couldn’t get to an internet cafe, and the service stores close early on Sat and don’t open on Sun. So I’ll tell you about my day today!

I met my host mom, she’s an adorable Kikuyu woman with a 17 year old son. Her husband died about 16 years ago, and she lives alone with her son, but has a househelp come once a week to clean and do the laundry. We watched soap operas and the news all day, and had lots of rice and masala tea. By the way, the soap operas here are English-dubbed telenovelas (figure that one out), and EVERYONE watches them. It’s very odd haha, but I did enjoy watching them with her. Tomorrow I’m going to meet a group of women that she’s part of who loan each other money to start businesses and help each other out.

My mom also does HIV outreach in the slum (Kibera, it’s the biggest one in Africa), and I’m going to try to tag along one of these days. One of the boys, Jeremy, works in the slum with the Kibera Girls Soccer Academy, which tries to keep girls safe by putting them on soccer teams after school. It’s a great program, I might go see them too. I’m very excited by all of this, and I really like Kenya…it’s so beautiful, and the people are so honest with you. I get stares everywhere because people have never seen a whitey (‘mzungu’) before, but everyone I meet has been friendly.

The city itself isn’t that different than the worst parts of Kazan, and the house I’m in is actually bigger than anything I saw in Kazan. I’ve got my own room, desk, and queen sized bed. However, there’s rarely running water because the government rations it, and the electricity is sketchy. But it’s a good trade off—and I have a yard to play in! Also, I’m about 20 feet from a golf course…the Air Force followed me after all.

I doubt I’ll be drinking here. The city is reaaaally unsafe at night, and being drunk after dark, even in a group, is a really bad idea. Some guys got robbed last year, and some guys this year almost got carjacked, so I’m going to be keeping it real with the studying and telenovelas.

Update, 5 Sep 11

So I decided that running by myself during the day wouldn’t be too risky, and went for a 3 or so mile run on the streets. It’s hard to run here. It’s a mile higher than I’m used to, and there’s smog everywhere. But I feel much better now (it’d been two days since I ran).

I talked to Jeremy, and I’m definitely going to the slum with him tomorrow to work with the girls’ soccer school. We also have 4 hours of Swahili lecture tomorrow (the director, Jama, swears up and down that it’s 2 hours straight, then another 2 hours straight, but my experience with Kenyan time leads me to believe otherwise…). I’m very excited to start learning again. 

I’m thinking about getting braids with Barb next week. I know they usually don’t look good on white girls, but I’m hoping to find a style that don’t look too ridiculous. I’ve always wanted to try them, and everyone has them here so it won’t look out of place (even on a mzungu).

I picked up internet today, and I won’t mention names, but it’s awful. Splotchy, slow, and aggitating in general. But it works sometimes, which is all I need. The MSID office has wifi, so I’ll be skyping there. It’s about a 40 minute walk away, so it’ll be very rare.

I’m watching a random American movie with the host fam right now (my brother has lots of them, most of them are recent, and I don’t watch movies so I haven’t seen any of them). It’s great bonding. We watched ‘Friends with Benefits’ last night. It was interesting to watch it with my brother, he got almost all of the random American pop culture references, which I wasn’t expecting. American culture really has permeated Kenya.


Doug: Week 3—Power Outages and Twiga

August 23, 2011

Hamjambo marafiki!

Yeah, we had plaid day at school…

So let’s get to it. As my August Swahili Intensive class comes to a close (final exam tomorrow. Don’t worry mom, I’m still going to study, even though Tufts only sees these classes as Pass/Fail), I’ve outlined some of the highlights from the final week before the other 20 students from the program arrive:

  • Giraffe Center visit–this place was super touristy (wazungu everywhere), but also really awesome. The five of us took a bus 45 minutes outside the city, to a twiga preservation park.

    They were even bigger and more majestic than I could have imagined. We got to practice our Kiswahili with some of the park staff, and may or may not have even kissed/ gotten licked by some of the twiga (everyone was doing it…). The pictures speak for themselves

Just sharing a joke with my old friend Laura

Don’t judge…

  • Soccer–the way it was meant to be played. Last week after school one day, three of my friends decided to go play soccer on a “soccer field” that’s in my friend Jeremy’s neighborhood, so I decided to join. We pumped up my friend Chelsea’s ball that she brought, and journeyed to find the field. Now, I’d be lying if I said I was excited to go play soccer. After all, after 14 years of attempting to play soccer (high school JV for 2 years, what up), I had pretty much come to the conclusion that I kinda strongly disliked soccer. All those days of summer conditioning in the blistering Ohio heat on my high school’s turf field had kinda scarred me. But the 2.5 hours that followed on that soccer pitch changed my view. The goals were a little above waist height and the “field” was completely dirt. Two young neighborhood boys, Toby and Jeremiah, joined us to make it 3 vs 3. Pant legs rolled up, no official gear or scoreboard, with clouds of dust shooting up into the air at every shot, it was not long before we were caked in dirt, smiling with our new friends we had just made. The boys knew English pretty well, but few words were exchanged–games are an international language. Clothes and faces caked with dirt, we called it a game (I myself being a little more winded than I’m proud to say), and headed home all smiles, promising to meet them again another day.
  • Power outages are becoming more of a norm for my family. Every other night in the past week, all will be normal, me doing homework or watching TV, my mom and grandma preparing dinner in the kitchen, and then all of a sudden, pure darkness. My mom will click her tongue and yell in Kikuyu at the electric company, who is apparently to blame for plunging us into darkness for hours on end. Luckily my Kenyan cell phone has a flashlight, and or I just get in bed at some crazy early hour (like 10PM).
And so the August Pre-Session is coming to a close. I leave on Wednesday to travel down to Arusha, Tanzania with a few friends to visit my friend Chelsea’s school that she supports, and to potentially check out Mt. Kilimanjaro, and hopefully do some hiking in the area. I’ll post again after my trip, and put up some pictures (assuming I don’t get my camera stolen). 

Doug: Week 2—Still living and (barely) breathing

August 16, 2011


I’m still alive and, for the time being, malaria-free and well! My second week in Nairobi proved to be a little less hectic than my first.

I’m finally settling into my daily routine, which consists of being up and out the door by 8:25 for 8:30 Swahili class (luckily, I live right across the street from Nazerene University, a university/church combo, with a small collection of simple classrooms). We have 4 hours of Swahili language class (I’m in the “Intermediate” class with two other girls. It’s basically 4 hours of conversation and some grammar, which is helping me to pick up a lot more), with a 30 minute “tea time” break in the middle (enter continued British colonial influence. French fries are also “chips” here, silly British people…)

There is an open-air eating area with an attached kitchen nearby where we get Kenyan chai every day. They also have traditional Kenyan chakula (food). So far I’ve been eating a lot of mchuzi wa mboga (vegetable stew with cabbage, tomatoes, and potatoes), ugali (a white, moldable flour that you eat with meals), chapati (it’s like pita bread, but much better) sikumu wiki (this green spinach-like stuff is with almost every meal. The name literally means “stretch the week”—because it’s cheap and filling, it’ll last until the next pay check”).

There have been some cultural differences that this Ohio mzungu (friendly Swahili term for a white person) is still getting used to:

  • Kenyans not only drive on the left side of the road, they also, naturally, walk on the left side of the sidewalk (which is often just a dirt path). This has resulted in my walking almost directly into multiple Kenyans, but I think I’m finally getting the hang of it.
  • Traffic laws, or rather, a lack-thereof. The rule of thumb is basically if you can get somewhere faster, just make it happen by any means necessary (and I mean by, literally, any means necessary—see previous description of my journey outside the city via matatu)

    Pretty typical sight in some parts of Nairobi

  • The mzungu price. This is whenever you are in a new situation and you don’t know the price of something, the first price they say is probably inflated drastically. For example, I was catching a taxi to meet up with my friend Jeremy and his host family for his birthday dinner. I knew it should be 300 shillings (roughly under $3). I get in the taxi, the driver begins driving a little bit…silence…then “You know how much this costs? It’s 1,000 shillings”. Naturally, I expressed my disbelief, and he went on and on about how far away it was (I knew it was a 10 minute drive), and how there would be construction (there wasn’t). I offered to pay 200, he refused and said 800, I then said 300 or I was going to leave. He freaked a little, saying how little money that was. I then started to get out of the taxi, to which he promptly said “Okay! Okay! Okay!”. The rest of the taxi ride continued in silence.
  • No Hooting! –These signs are everywhere, posted mostly around residential areas. Took us a little while to figure out that this is Kenyan English for “No Honking”. Still, I’ve been hearing my fair share of hooting…
  • The pollution. I’m not much of save-the-trees person, but, simply put, the pollution in Nairobi is AWFUL. I’ll be walking along Ngong Road (the main road outside my house) and I’ll see a matatu or big bus approaching, pumping out a massive cloud of black death. It’s then a race to see how long I can hold my breath.

    Awesome skyline. Not so awesome pollution

  • No snacks—Kenyans don’t really snack. It’s three meals per day (no Cheezits, no Doritos, or chips and salsa, and also no soda at home, perhaps explaining the less obesity—though I’m sure the lack of McDonalds and fast food is also a contributing factor). I can feel my American stomach shrinking daily.

Regardless of being an mzungu here (as well as being in the minority for the first time ever, which is proving to be both a humbling and eye-opening experience), Kenya is already starting to feel like home.  It’s a much different way of life, but, as my professor and advisor at Tufts says “There is order in the disorder”. From the crazy traffic, to people walking everywhere along dusty paths, to street vendors at open-air markets, things here seem to have a different character and life to them. Needless to say, if there ever was any doubt, I’m here for the long haul (aka until December 21st).


Doug: The Kenyan Matatu – public transportation on steroids

August 14, 2011

It is physically impossible to come to Nairobi and not encounter a matatu. These small privately-owned vans are literally everywhere. From “Jesus Van” to “Cash Money”, they always have creative names. I saw an ad in the newspaper that said “Men are like matatus. If you miss one, another will come right along”. Whether that is true or not for Kenyan men, I’m not quite sure, but as far as matatus go, that’s a pretty accurate description. Whether you are being yelled at from across the street (if you’re an mzungu this happens a lot) by the guy trying to get you to ride in his matatu (This gets pretty frustrating and makes no sense. If I need to go somewhere, I’ll just tell you!), or choking down their beautiful exhaust, or almost getting run over by one in the street, these multi-colored vans are the heart and soul of Kenyan public transportation.

My friend Mary and I had the joy of taking multiple matatus last Saturday when we went to go visit the Westlands, an area of town outside Nairobi. After packing into a matatu with a bunch of other Kenyans, we rode for 30 minutes in the wrong direction (my bad…), facing snickers and laughs as we got out to jump into another matatu back the other direction toward downtown Nairobi. Both our matatu ride out to the Westlands, and then back to Nairobi were quite the adventures. At one point, as we bumped and bounced over dusty “roads” going through areas that were questionably under construction, we entered a packed traffic area where there were cars facing almost every direction in a 360 degree circle. There is a guy who drives the matatu, and then one who opens the sliding door and hangs onto the side, recruiting and ushering people inside. The recruiter jumped out as we sat in traffic, while the driver floored it onto and over a curb (legal?), cut through 3 lanes of traffic, and bounced back over another curb, just in time for the recruiter guy to jump back in and slide the door shut. No one in the van said a thing—apparently this is not out of the ordinary. Even more fun, our matatu home broke down directly in the center of a hairpin turn where 4 lanes of traffic were trying to get by and around us (some driving directly over the traffic “barrier”). Somehow it sputtered to life again after 5 minutes—once again all the Kenyans in the van didn’t say a thing, and just waited in silence for the predicament to be resolved. Another typical ride on the Kenyan matatu…


Doug: First week

August 6, 2011

Hamjambo familia na marafiki!

I have officially been in Nairobi, Kenya for 5 days now, but it might as well been a month. Driving to the Cincinnati airport last Sunday afternoon with my mom seems like ages ago. After frantic last minute packing and unpacking (initially my suitcase was over the limit), I began my 28-hour-long journey to Kenya. Following an uneventful flight to DC, I boarded an overnight flight to Zurich, Switzerland. As my first experience in Europe, flying into the misty green hills of Zurich Monday morning was pretty cool. I then had to go through security (again), forgot to put my laptop in its own carton (which resulted in an individual search for concealed weapons—not the greatest, I don’t recommend it), and finally made it to the gate where I picked up my final ticket bound for Nairobi. I survived my 8-hour-long flight to Nairobi through an arrangement of free movies (principally African Cats and Cars).

Sleep-deprived, I left the plane, and meandered the Nairobi airport—a surreal experience. After exchanging all my dollars to shillings (the Kenyan currency), I made my way through customs. Somehow my sole suitcase made it from Ohioto Kenya still intact (with nothing stolen!), and I made my way to the lobby where dozens of Kenyans were holding up signs for different people. This is it, I thought, if I don’t see my name here, I guess I’ll just find my way to a hostel for the night or something… Thank God, a beaming Kenyan man named Simon was holding a sign that said “MSID” (University of Minnesota Studies in Development—my abroad program). I greeted him and together we walked to the van in the parking lot which would take me and the other yet-to-arrive MSID students to a guest hostel where we were staying for the next two nights. After talking a lot with the other Kenyan MSID program manager, Jane, the other 4 students finally arrived. Our van made its way along the road through the night towards our hostel in Nairobi, where two other students were waiting, making 7 of us total on the Swahili-Intensive August Pre-Session.

Our next 36-hours in the hostel together consisted of an orientation on Tuesday by the program managers on homestays and staying safe in the city, an outing to the MSID office headquarters (a small but nice office where we would have access to internet and books), and then a 20-minute walk (first chickens spotted crossing the sidewalk!) to the small collection of buildings known as Nazerene University, where we would be taking Swahili and the rest of our classes. That night I had my first delicious and messy experience with an Ethiopian restaurant and prepared for what we were all most nervous for the next day: moving in with our Kenyan host families.

Wednesday was a crazy, whirl-wind of a day. The seven of us (4 girls, 3 guys) packed up all our stuff, piled into the van, and began our house-to-house trip, led by Jane, to meet our new families for the next 3 months. Our van bounced along bumpy dirt roads surrounded by houses and buildings (many openly exposed or under construction), into different Kenyan neighborhoods, with people everywhere, many staring at the van of mzungu’s (white people) and all our bags. One by one, we pulled up to house after house, and each of us piled out of the car to greet our new families, with the brave ones attempting some Swahili.

We then started down the dirt alleyway which led to my new home. After buzzing through the gate (almost every single Kenyan home has a tall stone or cement wall around it, some lined with glass, others with barbed wire, for safety—a strange thing, since the areas around Nairobi are not even particularly dangerous), I greeted Mama yangu (my mother) Jane and my new 85-year-old nyanya, Elizabeth. My new Baba, Samuel, is a civil engineer, and came home later that evening (their children are grown and out of the house). The house is quite beautiful, with a large grassy yard of trees, planted corn and banana trees. The rest of the day consisted of exploring downtown Nairobi and buying some cheap Nokia cell phones.

My host mom grows maize outside

My New home

Here are some things that I have been adapting to/loving about living with the Kiguru family:

  • Jane’s traditional Kenyan tea with milk, crushed tea leaves, and sugar (most delicious tea ever)
  • Having no internet, which means more reading and journaling (you really don’t realize how time-consuming and mentally draining it is until it’s gone)
  • Closing my windows by 6PM (when the sun sets) due to mosquitoes— (I forgot the first night, and had an epic 3-hour battle through the night with one)
  • Hearing 3 different languages at home (many Kenyans are tri-lingual—in Swahili, English, and their ethnic mother tongue—in the Kiguru’s case, Kikuyu)
  • Hearing the projected Arabic-singing of a man from a mosque, echoing across the city just before dawn
  • Watching TV with Jane and Elizabeth while eating dinner—their 6 channels cover great shows from news in Swahili, to a horribly English-dubbed Spanish soap opera, to random American music videos (tonight Willow Smith made an appearance with “Whip My Hair”—my grandma didn’t seem to know it)
Kenyan trees are awesome. This one’s in the yard

The drying machine

We’ve started daily Swahili language classes, in 2 two-hour sessions per day, and, surprisingly, I can feel my 2 semesters from Tufts (which I thought to have been fruitless), helping greatly. Well, I could go on, about how awesome this place is, exceeding all expectations, but I hear another episode of Soy Tu Dueña starting in the other room.

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