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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.

Kenya Day 7: The long wait

I’m having a hard time keeping up with the days. We’ve moved on the Kwale, located on the coast of Kenya, not far from Mombasa. I’m warned that this area isn’t safe for white people, but there seem to be an abundance of German and Italian tourists. I’m wondering if they missed that particular State Department warning.

There is no doubt that this area is filled with Al Shabab leaning fundamentalists, or so I’m told. There was a terrorist training center near here back in the 90′s. This is no joke. Mombasa is famous for terrorist attacks and kidnappings, but they don’t seem to discourage the droves of Western tourist which play an important role in the local economy.

We are hungry. The field manager, Juma, takes us to a place to eat along the beach. Apparently, this is where the rich from Nairobi come to relax and drink beer, but there’s no one here at all. As soon as we place our order, I realize what’s to come.

In Africa, if there are no customers, you will have to assume that the kitchen staff hasn’t cooked anything at all. You might even assume that they have to find, purchase, kill and feather a chicken for you. The wait might get so long that you begin to think that they are tracking down and slaughtering a cow for you. At the two hour mark, you start wondering if they might be raising the animal from birth, waiting until it gets big enough for you to eat.

And this is exactly what happens. We wait… and wait…. while listening to the torturous sounds of every Disney soundtrack reinterpreted by famous American R&B artists, or maybe these are the originals, I wouldn’t know.

Juma hates music. Juma is Islamic and makes sure to tell you about all of the hard and important rules of Islam whenever he can, which seem to mostly be about having sex with his wife. No dancing. No music. He claims that Christians are crazy and don’t value their wives. I agree that Christians are crazy, but keep my opinions on the craziness of Islam to myself. In listening to his constant moralizing, which rivals the constant moralizing of African Christians,

“He lives by the forest that runs along the valley.” These are apparently the lyrics to a song which was corrupting Kenya’s youth. He says he is lucky that his daughters are too young to understand it.

We can’t really figure out what he’s talking about and he can’t figure out why we don’t get it. But then I strain and finally realize what it means.

“Ahhh…” Still, I’m the only one who gets it.

This is a place where old Italian and German women come to hook up with large, athletic young Kenyan men. The signs are even in German. The roads are in great shape, until we get to the places that normal people live, the places I assume the “beach boys” live with their families.

We’re talking and It turns out that Shimada and his wife were communists who met while taking lunches to jailed student protestors in the era of the resigning of the military treaty between Japan and the US. I’m pretty impressed. I’ve never met anyone who was directly involved in the Japanese student protests of the 1960’s.

We stop by a drug and rehabilitation center to see a computer programmer whose help is badly needed. His parents have committed him because he cut his own throat after a week’s long bender. We actually stop by two of them. The first one is in town. There’s a Pakistani kid and two Kenyans there watching TV (though the Pakistani kid might be Kenyan, too).

While we wait they invite me to sit down and they start rattling off the drugs that they’ve done. I listen, somewhat fascinated by the variety of drugs available here. In the west toward Lake Victoria, it’s just alcohol and weed. Here, given Mombasa’s status as a major port city with extensive connections to the Middle East and Asia, just about anything imaginable is available. If the local addicts can’t find something better, though, they’ll just huff glue like they do in Nairobi.

These guys look really bad. They repeat AA slogans and talk of addiction, but it’s painfully rehearsed. I’m wondering what kind of shit they’ve put their parents through to have them stuck in a $700 per month rehabilitation facility, and then wonder if some of them might not be addicts at all, but rather just a nuisance to their families. It’s hard to say. I really hope these guys make it.

The second facility we go to is a bit more upscale. Someone is reading Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.” I remember that I really don’t like addicts at all. I find the air of feigned sympathy distasteful, given the horrible wreckage they leave in their wake. Addicts can be emotional black holes, sucking the life out of everyone around them. They can’t be trusted, I remind myself. I want to get out of here as soon as possible.

Kenya Day 5/6: Kwani Press, Bookstores and Litchi Juice

I’ve now been here a week this time. The hectic travel schedule leave me disoriented and immune to the passage of time.

I finally got the Remmy Ongala CD’s for my friend The driver who delivered them to me is excited. “Do you like music?” he asks, not knowing the the CD’s aren’t for me. “Yeah, of course, who doesn’t?” I ask to which he starts beaming and listing off the names of a hundred enticing musicians and groups I’ve never heard of.

“I don’t like that white Christian music that the religious people are always listening to.” See, Kenya has an odd identity complex. While a lot of Kenyans are comfortable in their own skin, some breathe a mixture of white admiration and self-loathing, the worst of which is encapsulated in the saccharine white sounds of suburban Christian America. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs.

Can’t they at least check out some Al Green?

As evidenced by the marijuana leaves and the names of old-school reggae superstars embossed on the sides of the ubiquitous matatu, not everyone shares this love of the worst of American culture. Those missionaries from Iowa must be proud, though.

But I digress. I’ve become addicted to reading books from Kwani Press, a publisher devoted to present day Kenyan writers. It’s unfortunate that while rural poverty and warfare gets so much airtime in the Western Press, the dynamic and exciting arts scenes of Nairobi gets almost none. These are folks carving out a space in a complicated country which is sadly unaware of their mostly obscure output.

The efforts are mostly self-funded, with small doses of funds injected by well-meaning international donors. The language is as informed by the West as much as it rejects much of it, favoring a homegrown vocabulary plied from the multitude of modalities that a complicated country like Kenya has to offer.

It is exhilarating in every respect but I’m still trying to figure out how to connect with the Nairobi metal scene, which, happily, exists.

The airport bookstores consistently stock books from Kenyan writers, next to old copies of Marie Claire and US Weekly. I am looking for the latest copy of the Kwami Writers’ Anthology in the Kisumu airport bookstore. The store clerk excitedly taps me on the shoulder and pushes a giant, plastic wrapped tome in my hand. “This is the latest one.”

“Do you read?” I ask, quickly rephrasing the question which sounds horribly like I’m asking if she can read into “I mean, do you like reading a lot?”

“What do you recommend?”

“Ngugi Wa Thiong’O, you should read him.” She’s suggesting the great Kenyan academic who wrote “Decolonising the Mind: Literary Studies in African Universities,” which sounds either reactionary or overly academic, but is actually a fascinating and reasoned piece on constructing national literatures in formerly colonized states, no easy task.

I remark that I’m a great fan of Thiongo’O but don’t push her for anything else for fear of being annoying because I seem to be really good at being annoying.

I’m looking up and I’m noticing that someone has drawn swastikas on the foreheads of all the white people in the in-flight magazine for Air Kenya.

There’s Litchi juice included in the lunch the attendant just passed me. Who drinks Litchi juice? I’m thinking that no one does. After pulling all of the orange, apple and mango out, the remainders are then distributed to hapless air travelers.

Kenya Day 3/4

I’m going to try to write this in the 15 minutes I have before I go check out the sunrise on Lake Victoria, one of my favorite activities. Last night, the magic was unfortunately blocked by an annoying Dutch guy.

A few things happened before then.

First, we’re pulling out of a Nakumatt in Kisumu and are blocked by a truck attempting to perfectly line itself up between two yellow lines. We attempt to drive around it, taking advantage of a tiny amount of space which leaves us cockeyed between the rows of cars. The truck stupidly backs into us and our driver jumps out, annoyed. An argument begins.

Eventually, it gets worse. A large woman in the passenger seat jumps out, baby in hand, screaming at the top of her lungs in a furious mixture of Luo, Swahili and English. It turns out that if Kenyans really want to insult one another, they’ll use English, after all, tribal languages are for families, Swahili is for brotherhood, and English is the cold language of business and government.

“You are a stupid and useless man!” I’m laughing at the comedy of the flailing woman and a crowd of men is quickly forming. This could get back really quick. I’m thankful that the angry lady hasn’t brought me into this.

I’m half asleep on the way back. Returning to Lake Victoria and Luoland is always exhilarating. People are so incredibly friendly out here, despite the poverty and decades of political marginalization. I’m hearing that support for Odinga is slipping and the Orange Democratic Movement, which once claimed unified support from the Luo, is set to split. This could be disastrous for one of the poorest parts of Kenya.

Still, it’s great to hear the sing song tonal sounds of the Luo language and it’s odd fascination with sleep. It’s a great contrast to matter-of-fact and mechanical Swahili.

It’s hot as hell out here. The contrast in weather from Nairobi to Nyanza is staggering.

I have to get to all of those other things that happened, but time’s up and I have to go and see the sunset…

Kenya Day 2

It’s now 5:30 in the morning. Today I woke up and 2:30 rather than 2, a real feat. It’s hot, so I’m taking three showers a day.

I spent the day with the Japanese people, sitting at meetings and wondering why everything has to be so formalized, and why we have to endlessly repeat things that everyone knows. Can’t we just get to the point? Eventually, things relax and we start to talk about more interesting things.

I’m wondering where the tea lady is. In Kenya, there’s always a lady who brings tea. I’m feeling somewhat restless waiting for the tea lady, but this is Japan, not Kenya.

We discover that birth control works. The Luo in Nyanza are watching their fertility rates decline rapidly. This is a welcome change in one of the densest and poorest areas of the planet. My colleagues strangely believe that the respondents are lying because the health centers claim to be busier than ever. Fewer people are birthing at home, I say.

I run into my friend Kambe, a 67 year old graduate student and celebrity veterinarian. His father was the author of some famous Japanese children’s books. Kambe is great at self-promotion and appears regularly on Japanese TV as an ambassador of Kenya. We make plans for dinner at a cheap Ethiopian place across from his house.

I’m invited to go and see a presentation at the JICA headquarters. There’s about ten people there. I’m mostly ignorant of lab things, and hearing about it in Japanese makes me feel even more ignorant. Mostly, I find the lab sciences unnecessarily tedious. It’s a way of not having to do anything, while projecting the image of doing something.

This is all programmatic. I’m wondering what the conclusion is.

My friend Toda is presenting on a cell phone based reporting system. I’m interested, but curious about the anthropology of people who work in health facilities. From here, they are kind of faceless. They are looking for disease outbreaks. I’m wondering what defines an “outbreak” and who’s looking. I’m also realizing that Kenya’s devolved system of government is as problematic for public health and the US’ federalist system.

Kenyatta loved America. It’s why Kenya has a real economy, despite an ineffective government.

I go with a professor, another colleague and her son to eat Chinese food. We drive up and the gate to the restaurant looks more like a Chinese prison, miles of barbed wire and broken glass drape the 20 foot walls. Inside, it’s somewhat better. I hear a lady singing Chinese karaoke.

This used to be somebody’s house. The English wall paper betrays the house’s origins. Every group of customers gets their own room. I feel like I’m eating in an unfurnished Southern house.

I get up to go to the toilet, but really just want to check out the rest of the house. For some reason, the Chinese owners have decided to paint some of the walls blue. With the cheap fluorescent lights, it makes for a weird neon effect, like something out of a Wong Kar Wai movie.

There’s a beautiful young Chinese girl talking on the phone. She’s dressed fashionably, perfectly completing the Wong Kar Wai vibe. I’m wondering how people end up here, in Kenya. Where are these people from? What’s their story?

A Chinese kid with a mohawk keeps walking into our room. I’m betting he was born here.

We’re discussing JICA projects. The Japanese confirm all of my suspicions that people on the ground are vague on project goals, and often have to make it up as they go along. The rigid hierarchy prevents communication between teams, who often repeat each other’s work. JICA doesn’t engage other development groups enough. There are no Japanese NGOs because private industry refuses to fund them so JICA sits in its corner, alone.

Eventually, the conversation turns to film. Conversations with Japanese people can be frustrating. The conversation must be kept light, so I dodge the questions of favorite films and actors. Actually, I dodge nearly all the questions about nearly everything, something I’m good at.

Mostly, I’m not sure what to say.

Ruma National Park



I took a few hours off today and visited Ruma National Park, home of the last of the roan antelope, along with zebras, black and white rhinos, leopards and a number of other animal species.

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.

Pictures from Vanuatu

Been busy recently and just haven’t had the time to write.

In the meantime, here are some pictures from my recent trip to Vanuatu. I should be writing about Vanuatu, but the pictures will just have to speak for themselves.

For those unfamiliar, Vanuatu is a small set of islands in the South Pacific. It’s a poor struggling country that has just about anything a person could ask for: great people, great beaches, great weather and access to just about anything you could ever want to eat. Couldn’t ask for a better place to do research. Now that I’ve fallen back into a repetitive life of writing and work, I’ve forgotten when a great trip this was.

Climbing on Ominesan, Nara, Japan: “No Girls Allowed”

“No Women Admitted” as vandalized from some angry ladies

It’s been so long since I’ve posted that I forgot how to do it. To make up for lost time, and breathe some life back into this blog, I’m posting some pictures from a day hike on Mount Omine in Nara, Japan.

Omine is notable in that it is the last remaining mountain in Japan that’s men only. In the past, Shinto rules barred women from all mountains, though it’s worth recognizing that Ominesan houses a Buddhist temple, not a Shinto shrine. Signs at the entrance boldly emphasize in both Japanese and English that the mountain is strictly “No Girls Allowed.” That didn’t stop a gaijin lady to deface one of the signs and remove the “No” from “No Women Allowed.” In fact, the sign is new. We found the previous sign had been ripped down and thrown into the brush.

One of our team told us that he took his wife and daughter up the back side of the mountain once. They got so rained on that they had to leave.

In Japan, nearly 70% of hikers are older women. It was pretty odd to see only men on the mountain, but, despite the political problems, it was kind of a good and relaxed time with the old guys along the path. Buddhist groups make the pilgrimage to the top of the mountain yearly, where they say prayers along the way and enjoy the scenery with friends.

It’s not an easy hike (which could explain why women aren’t allowed). We suffered a twisted ankle and several cuts along the way. One of our group is still hobbling around.

Out of Kenya

20120521-220226.jpgWoke up at 6 to start my journey back home. I say goodbye to the house lady, Janet. Fortunately, she tends to Japanese people, who never picked up the absurd habit of tipping. Her kind goodbyes are genuine and I’m appreciative. She’s a wonderful cook.

Actually, I’m marveling (as I do every time) at the amount of weight I’ve gained. Malarone, in addition to making me dizzy, blind and nearly psychotically depressed, robs me of the ability to feel hunger, and the ability to tell when I’m full. A bad side effect when fried foods and meat are the only things available.

Takatou appears. He’s been my dinner partner for the past couple of weeks and politely puts up with my half garbled, nightly political rants. He kindly drives to the Mbita ferry port.

The Mbita ferry is full of surprises. Today, I sat next to a pile of goat hair. I take pictures of boats and enjoy the ride. It will be relaxing compared to the manic, 100 mph taxi ride to Kisumu airport. This area is pretty empty, but I’ll never get used to driving on African highways.

I arrive at Kisumu. The easy part is now over. From here on begins the harrowing adventure of African airports. Mostly, its a game of “hurry up and wait.” Today goes smoothly until Nairobi, where I discover that my flight has been delayed by six hours, at least if the sign is to be believed. Of course this means I’ll miss my flight home and will have to spend the night in Dar. I’m frantic.

The airport staff inform me that the signs are never to be believed. “Oh that? Those things are always wrong.” Never believe the digital signs with the Kenya Air logo.


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