There’s no doubt that the events in the article occurred and is worthy of reporting. The NYT, however, has been near silent on the subject of the Kenyan elections, arguably the most important political event in the world in early 2013. After months of nothing, we get a picture of a near decapitated infant.
The 2008 Kenyan elections were an absolute disaster. Such a disaster, in fact, that the entire country is proactively wishing that the next one (scheduled in March) passes peacefully and without incident. I am, of course, skeptical that the elections will proceed entirely without incident as Kenyans universally insist, but I think it unlikely that there will be near the extent of bloodshed.
ICC court proceedings are constantly broadcast live in every eating establishment and bar in the country, likely as a grim reminder as to how bad things can be, but also as a deterrent to further violence. The festering remains of IDP camps on the sides of Kenyan highways are even more grim, particularly when one realizes that a few people are still living in them.
As the article says, Kenya is an oasis of development in a highly troubled region (it borders Somalia). In 2013, Nairobi is no different than Houston, TX. I’m not a fan of either, but it’s telling when I can go into a Nairobi supermarket and be offered free, processed food samples, just as I would at Meijer back home. It’s telling when I can buy real coffee (not instant) at a local Starbucks analogue. Granted, the rest of the country has a lot of catching up to do, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.
My friend, Gabriel, though, knowing I’m into weirdness, took me to one tonight. By sheer coincidence, we happened to run into him on the way walking with a young gentleman. After a brief exchange, he was kind enough to agree to see us and led us back to his house.
Through Gabriel (my Luo is beyond poor), I asked him what the young man was doing there. The healer told me that someone had stolen some items from the guy. He had come to the healer to ask him to use his magic to reveal the identity of the thief and purchase some medicine with with to curse the man who had stolen his property. I asked him if people came to him often with such troubles. He replied that yes, indeed, many people do.
I tried to be snide and ask him what he would do if the thief came to him to try and get the curse removed and put on the guy that cursed him (fueling a never ending cyclic hell of cursing), but he didn’t really get what I was after.The healer then turned to me and asked me what my troubles were. I tried to tell him my knee hurts (which it does), but he kept insisting that my stomach hurt (it does not). Finally, I had to cave and just tell him that I was suffering from stomach pain. When he was describing the pain, he kindly tried to include the knees.
The healer learned his trade from his parents. He claims that his particular magic is strong because he learned it from his mother (rather than his father). I was told that that was a secret but I guess I’ve let it out. I’m sure it’s still a secret here. (My readership numbers show that it’s a secret anyway.)
He took us back to his house, a shack in a fishing compound on the edge of town, which usually smells of weed. He took us inside and had us sit down on his couch while he started pulling out various bottles and bags of powders. I was sitting next to him. Suddenly he jumped up and insisted that the medicines wanted me to move to the far side of the couch. I asked him if the medicines talked to him to which he replied yes, indeed, they do. I figured out pretty quickly that he’s half deaf and wanted Gabriel closer to him so he could hear.He went about mixing up some medications. The first was a small amount of powder that I thought was going to cure my alleged stomach problems, but instead was intended to get me a job. In fact, this medicine is so powerful, that I will never get fired from the job once I get it. I guess this means I’ll get a tenured faculty position any day now.
Next, he produced a number of bags of what looked like Indian spices and proceed to mix a heaping amount of what could be easily mistaken for garam masala. This medicine is what’s supposed to cure my diarrheal ills (which he also insisted I had). He poured some in my hand and told me to taste some. I hesitated but did it anyway. Definitely chili peppers in there. My mouth immediately went numb and my head started to spin a bit. Could be something like kava, definitely not weed. I have no clue what’s in this stuff, but there’s most certainly some active ingredient in it. I suspect that he produces it to emphasize his powers.He gave me very specific instructions on how to mix it, and when to use it. I am only supposed to use it between the hours of 8 and 9 p.m. All of my diarrhea and abdominal pains will immediately disappear. I am to go back to see him after two days (presumably to buy more).
Finally, he recognized that my knee hurts. He asked me if I had time to wait. I said yes, and he left the house to go and get some herbs. We could hear him pounding it into a powder outside. He returned, and said that I should mix the power with Vaseline and cover my entire body with it. I would need a partner to do it. After covering my entire body with the vaseline/powdered grass mixture, I should shake my limbs a bit. After two days, all of my pain would cease. I was to see him again (and again buy more, presumably).
We asked him how much it would be. “This is very expensive. 2,000 Schillings ($24.00).” to which we both balked. Eventually, we talked him down to 500 (about $6.00). Gabriel wanted to talk him down to 100, I just let it go figuring it was a small price to pay for such a weird experience.
Eventually, we had to go. Patients were lined up outside waiting.
The name apparently has some history:
It was renamed “Ruma” upon request of the local community. The area had been so named by one of Kenya’s most powerful wizard, the much feared Gor Mahia who lived around the park. The park is largely of black cotton soil with surrounding area settled with a mix of small scale cultivation and grassy pasture land.
Gor Mahia is a legendary Luo figure, who even has a book written about him.
Without much else to say outside of complaining about the heat, I leave a few pictures.
We went around and continued a survey of shops here in Mbita. Mostly, I tagged along taking GPS readings while secretly dying in the heat. We probably walked more than 10 kilometers total and I probably shook more hands than a politician. All along, I got to hear great tales of employees running away with the day’s profits while the boss is at lunch, stories of false representatives of the “health council” that demand exorbitant weekly payments, how horribly lazy the men of Mbita are, and women who get their hair halfway cut and then run out without paying.
At the end of the day, my survey guy started complaining that he was hungry. To be honest, I’ve never had a survey person ever complain of being hungry. I’ve watched (with awe) Africans go without food and water for far longer than I’m able to. Malawians seem to be able to hold out the longest. (That’s not a generalization. That’s truly my experience.) I have to admit, I was really ready to eat something but was going to hold out until the work was done.
By some bizarre stroke of luck, we happened upon the house of one of the survey managers, who, with no prompting, enthusiastically invited us into his home. Next thing we know, heaping plates of ugali (boiled rice meal) and Nyama Choma (grilled beef and the National Dish of Kenya) are being served up. It was fantastic, of course.
I can’t summon the strength to write much more, so I’ll leave you with a couple of pictures.
Actually, I should title this “Business in Africa” because outside of large mining operations, just about all business in Africa is small. I just walked with my friend Gabriel out to Rusinga island. He had promised to take me to a traditional healer, but, unfortunately the good doctor wasn’t in.
This seemingly tiny community turns out to be a sprawling one. We walked for nearly 2 miles and didn’t see a break in humans once. The walk was a continuum of Cel phone shops, fruit and vegetable stands, butchers, hardware hawkers, electronic shops, cel phone charging places, household and kitchen stores and furniture shops, with the occasional health clinic and school thrown in. It’s the same as just about everywhere else I’ve been in Africa, but while we were walking back I had some thoughts (between moments of trying not to get killed by the motorcycle taxis).
1. African business is the same everywhere. People sell just about the same things, in the same manner as everywhere else. Business models tend to propagate here in ways that they don’t in the developed world, but when something works, it works. The vegetables you find here may not be exactly the same as the ones you might find in Malawi or Ghana, but the selling model is the same: a lady either grows her own or purchases vegetables from a dealer, then sells them for whatever she can get at the market. She then takes the money she earns and buys more the next day.
2. Innovation comes slow here, but when it does arrive, it spreads quickly. Africa’s cel phone model is way ahead of that in the US. We still bog ourselves down with ridiculous contracts and a litany of taxes. I’m no libertarian, but sate and local governments in the US have to get out of the business of regulating communication outside of ponying up money for infrastructure. Cel phones have transformed the continent here.
3. Businesses are way too small. Most are just one person operations that work with no budget, no access to capital and no ability to expand. To make matters worse, the litany of tiny, tiny businesses means that proprietors can’t take advantage of bulk discounts, and, even worse yet, dilute the available market share so thinly that they can’t depend on a regular customer base. Prices depress to rock bottom levels, to the point where businesses are selling goods for less than wholesale, simply in the hopes of keeping customers. The model is exciting, but wholly unsustainable. Because people are so used to working for nothing and have few other options, it continues. It is contexts like this where the free market fails everyone. Better regulation, licensing and standards would improve the situation for everyone, but that’s a tall order in politically troubled areas like Kenya.
1) cleaning data
2) cleaning data
3) cleaning data
Soon the data will be so clean that we won’t have to worry about pesky random error.
Other than that, it’s sweltering, and barring anything interesting to say, I’ll leave you with a picture of a hair salon and this story of improperly disposed bodies in Meru:
Residents of the Mjini and Nkoune area of Meru town are appealing to the Meru Level Five Hospital to properly dispose unclaimed bodies and rid local residents of the odor emanating from exposed bodies.
The hospital which recently disposed unclaimed bodies left the graves uncovered for over 24 hours leaving the Mjini and Nkoune area reeling from the stench of corpses.
Angry residents said street children gathered at the graveyard and started counting the number of bodies they could see inside the grave while making fun of how the deceased met their death.
Residents of Mjini slums claimed dogs sometimes visit the graveyard and exhume bodies which are shallowly buried and sometimes carry human body parts home.
They said it was not only inhuman but also against cultural and Christian norms to dump bodies in a graveyard and delay in covering up the pit.
They appealed to the hospital authorities that deal with disposal of bodies to treat the deceased with honor though their bodies may have been unclaimed.
I’ve seen people making odd installations out of batteries, stick and radio parts. It’s fairly creepy. Given what I know, I would assume that the people making them would be burned on sight, but it would seem that most people just laugh and shake their heads.
These looked like odd childhood dioramas, but they were far too meticulously created to have been made by kids. Honestly, I really don’t know what to say about them and couldn’t get much out of the people around me. People who speak English are so far removed from regular Kenyans, that they don’t make good sources of information on witchcraft, spellcasters and healers. They speak of it in insidious terms, but are pretty vague on the details.
Here are the rest of the photos. I’ve included some other pics of our (fortunately fruitless) trip to find mosquitoes.
Just about everyone has a cel phone in Africa at this point. I think that the only people that don’t are elderly, and even only a small minority of them don’t have phones. In a part of the world where one’s most prized possession is family and friends, it’s pretty much a given to have a cel phone now.
Here, cel minutes are about as necessary as water. Families work and grow food in order to raise money to purchase cel minutes, even if it means that their children will be malnourished. No price is too high for keeping in touch with people in the social network, since one lives and dies by who one knows. The business of cel minutes creates jobs and attracts entrepreneurs, so the situation can’t be seen as all bad.
Now, you can even do your banking through the cel network using M-Pesa, which covers most of East Africa at this point. You can save money without worrying about getting everything stolen, which is really helpful if you are trying to squirrel away money to start or expand a business. You can make purchases with it. You can send money to friends and family.
If you have family overseas, they can send money cheaply and safely through the M-Pesa system. You don’t have to worry about getting robbed on the way out of the western Union office since your money is on the cel network and not in your hand. M-Pesa even supports micro-financing. Customers can receive and pay loans, with no hassle. M-Pesa is one of currently the most advanced mobile banking system in the developing world.
All types of cel phones are for sale, NOKIA being the most popular (the unmmistakable NOKIA ring tone should become Africa’s continental anthem). The shops widely stock smart phone and BlackBerry style phones. There are cheaper phones out there, of course, usually sitting sadly on the bottom shelf.
A decent phone with cel service, texting capability, GPS, and 3G internet service will run you about $30-$100. The good ones even have a dedicated Facebook button (everybody here is on Facebook). You can then buy SIM cards for the backbreaking price of $1.00 and phone minutes for a penny each. There are no screwed up contracts, no extra fees, no bills and no surprises. Everything is prepaid.
I can get 3G access in just about every part of East Africa. Coverage is actually better than and service superior to GDP giant, the United States of America.
And this leads to today. I bought a 3G USB internet stick for the incredible price of $15, and data time for a penny a meg, which is about what I pay in the States. I can use it all over the continent. If I buy a SIM card, I can use it in Japan and Europe. In fact, it seems like I can use this thing everywhere but the United States.
The process of buying the stick was pretty much horribly painful, since the lady at the store didn’t seem to know much about it, but eventually I got it. A new government policy of registration had me making several calls to SafariCom to register the thing, but 3 hours later, it got done.
The long and short of the story is that the US is embarrassingly behind when it comes to cel services. In the States, the stick would have cost me nearly $250 for the same brand and almost the same model, I’d be locked into a medieval contract scheme, and get slapped with overage fees and inexplicable charges on a monthly basis. To make matters worse, I could only use the thing in about 20% of the country, if at all.
The M-Pesa system allows a way of money transfer without the use of cash, unbelievable archaic checks or third party credit cards which levy huge fees on transactions. It’s a system that’s far superior to the patchwork of antiquated and big brother laden money systems that hobble the American economy. Sitting here in poor Kenya, America’s system of money payment is starting to look entirely backwards.
But I have my internet stick, a new phone SIM, and even found out that I can send money back to Kenya for research projects. Life is a little bit easier now, even way out here in the sticks. Amazing.
Called “hearsay ethnography,” it makes ethnographers out of non-professional folks who are already embedded within the community. To date, it has been used in understanding the cultural understanding of HIV in Malawi.
We are turning local young people into anthropologists.
Through this technique, we can minimize the observer effect, i.e. the problem of influencing the data collection environment by being the odd, linguistically challenged white people of ambiguous intent. The writers have to write in English, in a manner assumed to be understood by educated folks, which presents problems of its own, but it’s a somewhat more flexible methodology.
It’s a valuable tool for medical anthropology. Through this study, we hope to begin to understand how people in this area conceptualize malaria, malaria treatment and health delivery.
I hired these guys last May, the money ran out, and I thought that the project was just a bust. To my surprise and delight, the data collectors are still writing in their journals and I was finally able to see the results.
Here’s a sample:
I attended the funeral of a child below five years old at Kamyeri. There were so many people who attended irrespective of their age or gender. The discussion about malaria broke out when the child’s father was narrating the cause of her death. He said that many people may think that his daughter had been bewitched but according to him, her death was as a result of his wife’s negligence.
He went on saying that he wasn’t at home when he received the news about her daughter’s illness. He told his wife to take the child to the hospital. However, he arrived home after two days to find out that the child had not been taken to hospital and have not received any kind of medication. He rushed her to the hospital but it was too late because the child died dew hours after the doctor had confirmed that she had serious malaria.
He went on saying if she would have diagnosed early enough, maybe she could have not died.
He added that before someone make or jump to any conclusions about the cause of any illness, he/she should go to the hospital and get tested in order to know the real cause of a disease he/she must be suffering from.
Then an old woman who was just in front of me said that she had informed the child’s mother to take to her the child so that she could treat her through “frito” and “suro.” ”Frito” means a method in which powder traditional herbs are administered to a patient through snifting, while “suro” means a method in which herbs in a powdered form is put on small cuts made using a knife. However, the woman did not turn up instead she went to a preacher to seek divine healing.
The old woman continued saying that the shivering and headache could have been treated using traditional herbs.
We got into an interesting discussion with our driver. Joseph is a great guy and, most salient on African roads, a great driver. He asked me if I was a Christian. I told him flat out that I didn’t believe in anything. I usually try to hold back, but maybe I was too tired to care.
He asked why, and I told him: The Abrahamic God is a despot. He let’s children die. He punishes his faithful followers with poverty and suffering and astonishingly still demands tribute. Paradoxically, the people that don’t believe in Him live relatively bountiful lives. I told him that I respect and do not think badly of people who choose to believe, but I, personally, have serious problems with religion. We can coexist peacefully.
Joseph struggled to come up with some reason why, pointing out that it is the spiritual failings of the children’s parents that cause infant death. We discussed the subject further, and it expanded into a political discussion of the nature of foreign aid and development.
“Africa is behind because our ancestors weren’t faithful. The white people came to give us the message of Christ, but it was too late. It will take us 100 years to develop.”
Of course, I jokingly replied that the white man came because he want to enslave Africans to act as farming tools and steal African gold.
This brought up some important issues. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs to assume that one’s continent is in disarray because people 300 years ago had made the mistake of practicing indigenous religions (as opposed to a foreign import). It’s worse that white people, in their exploitative glory, are seen as saviors and not the raw opportunists they were (are).
It’s even worse to think that common Africans are stuck in a state of self-loathing simply for not being born European. Western contributions to the world cannot be denied, but it’s fantasy to believe that the world couldn’t live without us. I don’t think that Joseph is particularly set in his views and was likely merely making enjoyable conversation, but the statement was revealing.
It is now almost cliche to talk of the evils of aid and the creation of the problems of dependence. If foreign governments are so motivated, they can simply stop sending money. There are other ways of helping Africa’s economies to grow (ending US/European farm subsidies is one). An issue of identity, however, is a much more difficult problem to solve. If one of the African economies joins the top ranks of the world, as I think one will in the next 50 years (it might be even Kenya), we may, perhaps, see significant change.