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In the Kenya airport again….. and talking of Marsabit, Camels and cell phones

DSC_270222JKIA has to be one of the worst airports I can think of, and my five hour delay has drawn out the awfulness of this place. No wonder someone burned it down!

While I sit here in Nairobi Java House (which now has a branch in Kisumu…. Kisumu Java House?) eating my standard “Chicken and sun dried tomato sandwich with ABSOLUTELY NO MAYONNAISE” I’m thinking about an exchange I just has with a guy in the line for check-in.

The guy was a tall, obviously northern Kenyan who turned out to be from Marsabit, one of the most remote and lawless areas of Kenya. He works at an American university on HIV things in Kenya. We started talking camels and public health and I just couldn’t help but ask.

“How did you….” I was almost ashamed to try and finish the sentence which I kind of interjected since my interest overrode wherever the conversation was going.

“I was sent to boarding school when I was six.” I didn’t even have to finish it. He knew exactly what I was asking.

To be from a place like Marsabit and working for a major American University is no small feat. First, I have never met anyone from Marsabit and the few times I’ve met people from remote places like Pokot and Turkana, I’ve been tempted to just shake that persons hand and congratulate them. Coming up through University in a place where most kids don’t go to school at all deserves a special prize.

“One cell phone is the only piece of technology you’ll see for miles. It’s an oral culture. Communication is absolutely essential and cell phones are the most prized possession a herder will have outside of his camels.”

His brother has 60 camels. I asked if we might go up there and take some blood. I could stand a trip up to Marsabit, even if armed guards have to accompany.

On the way back from Kwale

Spent the week in Kwale, a sleepy town on near the Mombasa coast. The security situation prevents me from spending a whole lot of time there. I find this to be incredibly saddening but its unavoidable. Some people brave it out and stick with it, but I just can’t justify the awful risks.

The Japanese folks are mostly oblivious to it all, or maybe just indifferent. I’m convinced that they have no real concept of threat, given the relative safety of Japan itself. It’s a horribly dangerous situation but fortunately they stay locked inside. Japanese people love to sit at desks, even when they don’t really have to. Japan has yet to appropriate the concept of the mobile office. (Sorry, generalizations abound….)

I’ve caught some infection, but it’s hard to say exactly what it is. At first, it looked a lot like malaria, but then everything looks like malaria. Now, I’m just in a general state of not feeling well. It’s not responding to antibiotics, which makes me suspect that it’s not bacterial in nature. I started a round of ACTs just in case. They leave me a bit loopy, but I’m improving somewhat. A malaria test turned out faintly negative, but it’s possible the antibiotics are skewing the result or that the guy doing the test spilled to much assay onto the test. So, I’m not sure. I have a somewhat better appreciation for why the tests are treated with suspicion by the locals.

In any case, I feel like total hell, but thankfully have a normal appetite and digestion. I deeply crave red meat though, which leads me to suspect that the dizziness is anemia and thus, the cause could be malaria. This might be wishful thinking though. I could simply be exhausted.

Kenyatta is universally hated on the Coast, which explains a lot of the violence here. Though people apt to disregard domestic politics when talking of terrorism here, it’s hard to rule it out given the vast resentment toward the Jubilee party here on the coast. In fact, the lack of attention to security by the Kenyatta administration is likely fueling even more resentment, which might be fueling even more violence or at least, helping improve recruiting numbers for Al Shabab. As crazy as I think Luo politics are, Raila Odinga would have made a far better president.

People here are convinced that Kenyatta is a weed-head. “He is smoking the mari-ju-a-na.”

I spent the last two days convalescing in a hotel located within the Shimba Hills Nature Reserve. As much as I wanted to tough out the guest house in Kwale (which really isn’t so bad at all), I really needed a decent few hours of rest in a somewhat pleasant environment. It was worth it. A real hot shower and a set of clean sheets is worth the extra cash every now and again. The only wildlife to be seen were bush babies and squirrels, who seem to have worked out a deal where one begs for food in the day, and the other at night.

Malaria transmission here is low and it shows. Malaria endemic areas are characterized by low levels of education, part of which may be attributable to the inhibited cognitive development of children due to repeated malaria infections. Even if educational opportunities are available, kids in malaria endemic areas appear to have worse outcomes. It’s somewhat staggering at times, after having worked in Western. Part of it also could be the influence of Islam.

I’m now flying back to Nairobi where I’ll crawl into my bed. If I’m lucky, I’ll not come out for a few days.

Yesterday, someone gave me a live chicken

I am the owner of this chicken.

I am the owner of this chicken.

Later next month we’re planning to have a soccer match in Gembe East, a village of approximately 15,000 people located just east of Mbita Point in Homa Bay County. We’ve been doing research work there for the past decade or so but I don’t think that my employer has really taken the time to try to integrate with the community in any capacity other than research and health interventions.

We were having choma with the chief of the area a few weeks ago, and we came up with the idea of having a regional soccer match. Yesterday was the first meeting of the planning committee. (Turns out that putting on a soccer match is like setting up a punk show, except that people will probably turn out.)

We discussed the particulars of the football match, and then ate a great chicken dinner from the chief’s mother. We also met the chief’s father, an 87 year old ex-school teacher who had his last child 12 years ago and learned of that gentleman’s mother who died two months ago at the incredible age of 105. In an area where the average life expectancy hovers just around 40, these are some tough people indeed.

After eating, we went and checked out the soccer pitch, which has an amazing view of Lake Victoria and some nearby mountains. It’s going to be a great day.

The roads out there are terrible. I was getting sea sick on the way back, when the guys in the car suggested that we go an visit on of our staff members. I reluctantly said ok since I was just hoping to get out to the main road as quickly as possible. (Plus the Iran/Argentina game was about to start.)

We arrived to his house and it was already dark. The staff guy is there standing outside holding a radio. His wife looks like she’s just come from church.

Everyone suddenly jumps out of the car and proceeds to run around greeting one another. I talk to the staff guy for a moment. He’s exceedingly friendly but looks somewhat impatient. I figure out that the radio means that he’s waiting for the game to begin.

Silas (another staff member) asks me if I like watermelon. I say yes, and the wife comes up behind me and puts a live chicken in my hands. “This one will be very sweet” comes out in a really confident, educated brand of English that’s somewhat uncharacteristic of the area.

I’m not sure what to do. I’ve never held a live chicken before. I say thank you and carry it over to the car and put it in the back with the watermelons. We quickly say thank you, get in the car and drive on.

On the way back, I have to keep making sure that the chicken doesn’t get crushed by a rolling melon. After we get home, we put the chicken in a box and set it in the food pantry with some corn and rice.

We’ve resolved to have the house lady transform the chicken into dinner tomorrow, which gets me off the hook, because I have no idea how to do such things.

Mfangano (and missionaries in Kenya)

White lady comes to save African children from themselves by having her photo taken with them.

White lady comes to save African children from themselves by having her photo taken with them.

I went and checked out Mfangano, an island close to here that’s home to about 25,000 people (or 16,000 depending on who you ask). It is famous for some 2,000 year old rock paintings done by the Twa people, a group of hunter gatherers whose range historically extends all the way over to Western Africa.

Unfortunately, the Twa are long gone from the island, which is now occupied by Suba and Luo people, though the Suba are quickly being assimilated into the Luo through marriage.

It’s an odd place. They’ve got a small tourism industry, are currently installing new power lines and have recently gotten true ferry service from the mainland, but the roads are still terrible.

We ran into a group of missionaries on the way back. I always feel somewhat violated after talking with missionaries in Africa. What are they doing here? This looked like some polygamous group of Mormons but it turned out they were from Alberta and Kansas.

One of them asked us what we were “lonesome for.” I didn’t know how to respond so we asked them what they were lonesome for, to which they said “Wal Mart.”

While I hate to judge, it was telling that they all introduced themselves to us, but not Victor, an employee of the Kenyan Medical Research Institute who was standing right next to us. I’m convinced that they don’t see the locals as people.

What developmental role do missionaries play? They make no demands on politicians to solve pressing problems of political dysfunction, infrastructural weakness, employment, a lack of access to capital, crippling bureaucracy, corruption, graft, nepotism and terrorism. None of these problems can be solved through missionary activities which emphasize odd moral codes more fitting to white, rural Kansas than complicated and chaotic Kenya.

Back to Mbita, Kenya

DSC_0562I’m kind of thrown off by what a relief it is to be out here again after being in Nairobi. I really like Nairobi and all it has to offer, but the stress of crowded roads, crime, terrorism, politics, bad air and the constant hemorrhaging of money wears at the soul in ways that aren’t all that obvious until you get away from it.

Just arriving in Kisumu alone allows you to breath a sigh of relief. The traffic moves slower, people don’t push you around and anything you buy is half or even a quarter what it costs in Nairobi. There’s probably not as much to do, but it’s a good getaway.

Plus, Luo-land, despite it’s odd politics, is just a great place to be. I ran into one of the security guards at the place I usually stay on Lake Vic on the ferry. It was great to talk to him outside of work.

I took this picture off the boat as I was breathing in non-polluted air for a while. The moment was kind of sad, though, when I started thinking about how fresh all this was back when I first started coming here. Now, it’s kind of a routine experience, a bit less exciting, maybe, but perhaps special nonetheless.

Now it’s time for bed, until the church bells start going off at 6 a.m.

Kenya Day 9

We visited another rehabilitation facility in Nairobi. We found out that the guy we are looking for has been telling his counselors about his employers, but they thought he was just making it all up. His story was so implausible that his employers were a figment of his troubled imagination.

They are surprised to find these fictional characters standing in the sitting room of their facility. One of them has the same name as a good friend of mine, Justin Farrar. I’m somewhat taken aback by his business card.

Capitalism is the cause of drug problems in Kenya, apparently. The market economy has robbed Kenyans of their culture and they are now turning to drugs for comfort and solace. I’m interested in this. I ask where most of the patients of this $500 a month facility come from. They are mostly children of the wealthy Kenyans, half of which probably have real problems, and the other half of which are sent here to get them out of their parents’ hair.

I’m wondering if all those with brains pickled (or eyes blinded) from changaa (an awful homebrewed alcoholic beverage common in the villages) are the victims of capitalism as well. While it’s important to discuss the causes and roots of social problems, it was an odd aside.

We stop by a new Ethiopian restaurant. The owner is excited because we are the first foreigners at his place, which opened up three days ago. He takes numerous pictures.

I’m told that much of the real estate boom in Nairobi has been funded through proceeds from Somali piracy. I look and find that it’s probably true.

In fact, I reflecting on how Nairobi is in the middle of a real estate bubble. Rents are absurdly high in Nairobi, but then one will pay a premium for security, particularly after Westgate. I keep thinking about what an awful strategy this is. Investors are looking to make a quick buck, building and turning over real estate prices for ever higher prices. I remark that Kenyans are wholly uninterested in developing their country, preferring risky, short term assets like real estate to investment in new manufacturing sectors.

The Kenyan government, of course, is uninterested in encouraging growth through enterprises which create jobs, preferring to skim off the top of real estate in the form of bribes and taxation for imported supplies. It’s all sad, really. I’m wondering when the bubble is going to finally burst.

It turns out the Nairobi Java House that got bombed was the one outside, not the one inside the terminal. I’m looking at it and noticing how dangerous the location is. Anyone could drive by, lob a bomb here and kill five or ten foreigners in a split second.

It’s time to go, though I’m sad. Nairobi is an exciting place, far more exciting than my own boring, though pleasant, Ann Arbor.

Kenya Day 8: Full of complaints

We went and visited Kwale, a relatively small community of Duruma and Digo in Eastern Kenya. I’ve been to so many of these African towns that I’m honestly somewhat bored. Five years ago, I might have been more excited. Perhaps I’m just tired.

People speak Swahili here. For real. In the rest of Kenya, Swahili is a language to connect disparate tribes, Kenyans happily mangle and make a mess of Swahili, but it does its job well enough. Here, I’m struck that even the kids speak Swahili, something you never see in other parts of Kenya.

I keep running into people who don’t speak anything but Swahili forcing me to communicate as best I can with my limited vocabulary. Fortunately, it’s all easy to understand out here.

But, to be honest, it’s quite boring out here. Life is fairly content, it lacks all of the huge and obvious problems of economics and health that persist in the rest of Kenya, and the ubiquity of Islam makes is a safe and tranquil place, if one is willing to ignore the oppressive patriarchy.

We spend the day at the hospital, meeting person after person. I’m growing agitated. Lunch is being pushed back later and later. I’m so bad at this, but its necessary and everyone is well meaning and kind.

Why are we doing this? All of Kenya’s problems are a failure of government. It’s not fashionable to say, but you can’t help but be annoyed when people spin the tired old narratives of colonialism and corruption. You guys voted these assholes in.

We finally get to lunch. I order pilau (mixed rice and beef) and some fried goat, knowing that it will be quick and we can be back on the road. Since he’s not paying, our Kenyan host orders to most expensive thing on the menu, the thing they never have prepared, the thing you have to wait an hour for. It’s hard not to be annoyed, but you just let it slide.

People are telling me what a great President Moi was, claiming that everything was ok during his reign. It was at the beginning, thanks to his predecessors, but his awful policies pushed Kenya to a horribly repressive one party state and spurred a complete collapse of the Kenyan economy, leaving the mess for his successors to clean up. In politics, timing is everything.

Now the entire health system has been devolved to the provincial governments. I’m thinking this is going to become a disaster of epic proportions. While the devolution of powers to local governments makes some sense in diverse and fractured Kenya, health problems usually don’t recognize political boundaries. A failure of health policy in HIV and malaria infested Nyanza could have devastating effects for Nairobi.

We’ve stopped in a tiny market center in the middle of nowhere. I say “shikamoo” to an old man, a respectful greeting reserved for elderly people. He asks me for 20 schillings. I’m having fun saying “shikamoo” to people younger than I am. It confuses the hell out of them.

The area is partially semi-arid and partially forested. Elephants come out of the national park and wander through the streets, I’m told. Baboons rifle through the trash. The areas close to the forest are doing better than the other areas, but there’s no real economy out here and the wildlife and igneous terrain prevent people from doing any substantial agriculture out here. The houses are in great shape, some even have power, but there’s malnutrition everywhere. The markets are mostly devoid of decent food outside of bags of rice trucked in from other areas. There are signs of American food aid and a World Food Program truck passes us.

A Japanese group is doing a survey on diet and malnutrition. It’s explained to me, but I think it’s pretty stupid. We already know that a lack of food causes malnutrition. They say they want to help. While I’m listening, though, I’m thinking that it’s a colossal waste of time and money. Perhaps it might be more helpful to come up with a better plan.

I realizing that this post is full of complaints, but here not every day is full of wonder and excitement.

We get dinner. It’s nyama choma (BBQ) again. I’m not disappointed but the conversation turns to Japanese academics. I can’t help but remark that I find a lot of it horribly uninteresting. I’m not sure why many of these groups do projects here, and even less sure what the tangible results will be, outside of raising the domestic status of ineffective Japanese researchers. Public health research really has to do one of two things. Either it should push science forward, or provide meaningful public health services to developing countries. The projects that are being described to me fail on both points. My anxiety level is high.

It’s time for me to stop complaining, though complaining is healthy and sometimes leads to substantive change. I’m getting ready to go to get some Ethiopian food at one of my favorite spots in Nairobi, Queen Sheba, which is run by Ethiopian refugees who fled the war there some years ago. Fortunately, it’s not expensive, unlike other places in Nairobi. See, the complaints never stop.

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