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Dancing in the Gambia

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Since I’ve arrived here in the Gambia, I’ve been searching for music. Unfortunately, I’ve come up dry every night. Last Thursday, I heard music from behind the research compound, but was too tired to pursue it and, really, you can never be sure. Sometimes things sound cool through the echoes, but you might follow the sounds only to find Kenny Rogers being played for tourists.

Last night, I heard it again, and decided to chance it. It was so loud and chaotic, it sound like it might be a live band. I leave tomorrow, so this is my only chance.

I followed the sounds out to the back of the compound and found a group of old ladies gathered on plastic chairs around a giant stack of speakers, blaring out some kind of ultra hard beats. A kid with a laptop was DJing but it looked like people were just arriving. The scene was bizarre. Old ladies and grandkids politely chilling out to heavy beats through a wall of speakers.

I decided to go back later. I was wary. It could be some religious thing. It’s Islam here, but still…

When I went back, it was total chaos. This is definitely NOT a religious event (in the Abrahamic sense) and most certainly NOT a tourist event.

More people had arrived and were standing in a circle watching young dude do impossibly athletic dances while an old man MC egged them on and called other people to join. I had heard stories of dancing in West Africa and I have to say the stories are absolutely true. The young guys were the craziest, but kids, old ladies, women in fancy dresses and old men all got in the circle and showed their moves off and every time, people would go nuts with approval.

All to an energetic soundtrack that would get the cops out in a second in the US. I had never seen anything like it.

At one point, a blindfolded guy dressed as a woman comes out hold a dead chicken in one hand and money in the other. He does his chicken dance over a money pot and starts handing out notes to whomever is brave enough to get close to him. After the money runs out, he starts doing this thing where he leans over just barely touching the ground, seemingly suspended in air. Eventually, he disappears and returns out with a giant cinder block balanced on his back and does the same thing again. I have no idea what it was about but it’s clear that there’s order to this chaos.

After people start showing their moves again, a guy tries to get me to go into the circle. I’m like “no way.” I’m not going to be that bad dancing white guy. Some kids are egging me on trying to show me moves and cheering and laughing when ever I try. I should have tried harder. Music is a wonderfully great thing.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have a camera on me, but I did get an audio recording and a couple of pictures with my cell phone. I’m am most certainly coming back to West Africa.

Pictures from the Gambia

Not much else to post, so I’ll add a few pictures of a bird watching trip in the Gambia. Turns out the Gambia has an incredible bird diversity. Unfortunately, my camera couldn’t capture it but we play with the cards we are dealt with…

Pigs and jiggers: could wild swine be spreading the awful foot burrowing flea?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI wanted to go and see what this jigger thing was really about so I had my guys rent a car and we drove into Mtsangatamu town. Mtsangatamu (I still can’t pronounce it properly) lies along the edge of the Shimba Hills Wildlife Reserve and, according to my data, is a hot spot for tungiasis, or infections from the so called “jigger flea.”

It is a beautiful area. Filled with tropical trees and overgrowth, the landscape looks almost uncontrollable, despite the soil being so sandy that not a drop of water stands anywhere. The air is blistering hot.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPeople don’t get out here much, though the packed buses that pass by every few minutes indicate that the area isn’t entirely isolated. We drop off some gas for one of our drivers, who has to slowly fill his tank, drop by drop, with the tiniest of plastic funnels. Some development project should provide proper plastic funnels to these guys.

For some reason, we drive into the bush along a foot path, until we find ourselves wedged between a number of small pine trees. “We have to walk now,” I am told while I wonder why we drove this far anyway. Walking would have been easier.

We exit the car, walk through what a patch of neatly arranged trees. A tiny tree farm. I never see this in Western, ever. Coming out, we walk into a compound laid out in a manner wholly uncharacteristic of Kenya. A two story building sporting an upstairs patio complete with a winding staircase to the top, the place looked like the type of patchwork architecture that you associate with off-gridders in the US rather than Kenyan peasants.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“The Mighty Paraffee: If in need call XXXXXXXXXXX”

The Mighty Paraffee turns out to be a kid of about 24, chilling out in the shade. He built this place himself, installed power, has a guest room and an upstairs shower and toilet. His room is decorated with reggae stars and pictures of the saints. Indian music is blaring out of the building. I’ve seen creative interiors from reggae fans in Kenya, but this is something else. This kid should be in architectural school. He even made sure to place the building under a giant tree to keep it cool.

I never figure out what the family does for money and no one can tell me, but the mother is exceedingly proud.

No jiggers here. We walk on. After about a kilometer, we find a poor family sitting outside their house. Children aren’t in school and no one speaks any English indicating that none of them go.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHassan (one or our workers) brings over a little girl and tells me to look at her feet. Fatuma is 10 years old and her feet are infested with jiggers. She says the don’t hurt much in the day, but they itch at night. Her brother apparently has them, too. Her mother and her aunt do not.

Everyone is barefoot and they all sleep in the same house. I’m wondering if there might be something about the skin which makes kids susceptible while adults are spared.

I notice a group of goats in a pen and start asking questions about animals.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATungiasis is a zoonotic disease. It is passed from wildlife to domesticated animals to people who bring it into the household and infect their other family members. Or so it is though. Not many people have really explored the question sufficiently. Of course, this is why I’m here.

They have about 15 goats, a few chickens and I notice a young dog and a cat walking around. I ask if they ever notice whether the dog ever has jiggers. They say no.

“What kinds of wildlife do you see around here?” One of the kids was killed by an elephant last year. There are wild dogs and hyenas which come and try to get the goats. Wild pigs dig up the cassava at night.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPigs. That has to be it. A big mystery has been why there is such a tight relationship between distance to the park and jiggers infections. Wild pigs come out of the forest, raid the fields of the locals and get water from the river, and then recede back into the darkness before morning. 5km is approximately the distance that a pig could feasibly travel and return home in one night.

Pigs travel through and around the compound, dropping eggs, they mature and are probably picked up by dogs, but are most likely picked up by kids walking in the bush. They then bring them back home and pass them on to their family members.

Hassan associates jiggers with mango flowers, but I probe him further and find that the flowers coincide with the very dry season, which could explain why pigs are making the trek to the river and why they prefer the fields since both water and food are probably scarce in the forest.

I have to send a student out to investigate this further.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAn old man comes out. He looks nearly 90, but is mostly likely on 60 at most. He has arthritis in his back. He shows me his feet which are moderately infected, mostly only between the toes. He asks for medicine. I tell him I’ll send some along. He offers me some boiled cassava which I graciously take. My colleague refuses because there are no cashew nuts with it, but I suspect that he’s worried about getting sick. I become concerned.

We take some pictures and go.

On the way back, we run into an elderly lady. She’s sitting next to her husband, who is busy getting lit on homemade beer at 11 in the morning. She shows me her feet. The spaces around her feet are infested with jiggers. It must be horribly painful.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAShe points out that she doesn’t have a whole lot of feeling in her left foot. I notice that her skin in this area is clear; the bone is visible through her skin. I ask what happened. She says that she got bitten by a snake 40 years ago. She was pregnant. I ask her if the baby was ok. “The baby is standing there!”

I consider making a joke about a snake baby, but think better of it. I’m just amazed that both of them survived. The wound was horrible looking.

Somehow, we manage to pull ourselves out of the trees and move on. There are some baboons removing mites from one another on the road on the way back, and I take some pictures. My colleague is about to pass out from the heat. I offer to drive.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

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