Archive | May 2012

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.

Vendors in the Mbita Market, Downtown Mbita

A couple of days ago, I wrote about prices in the local market. In that post there were some pictures of some local sellers. To be fair, I printed them out and took copies to the people in the pictures as a way of saying thanks. Prints are cheap, and people get excited about having pictures of themselves around. It’s a small price to pay for invading someone’s space for a while.

Someone saw me giving out copies and pretty soon nearly the entire market was asking to have their picture taken. In Malawi, taking pictures in a market is a big no-no. Here it’s entirely ok.

Photographing people in a crowded market in the middle of the day is kind of a challenge and, to be honest, I don’t like having my camera out in the open. It draws attention and attracts young thieves. I’m consoled, though, by newspaper reports of market thieves being burned alive (whatever you do, don’t Google it).

Upon first looking at the pictures, I was fairly underwhelmed. Shots of people I’ve had the chance to speak to are always far better than just shots of people I don’t know at all; the story is everything. I must have shot nearly 50 people in a span of 3 minutes so there really wasn’t much time for conversation. To me, these were just some rushed shots of some random people in the market.

However, looking at them again, I discovered something interesting. I realized that every single one of the people in the pictures made a point of demonstrating their trade, or wanted themselves to be featured at their stand clearly identifying themselves as the owners.

All of them took the time to make themselves look good before having their picture taken. Some put on their “uniform,” which was usually an apron. A few even went out of their way to look like they were passing goods to customers, emphasizing that they are merchants who believe in what they sell.

Nearly all of the vendors in the market are women. Some are in their 80’s. Some are just kids. Some have small children with them. All of them appear to know each other well. Almost none of them speak English, indicating that few have been to school.

It’s clear from the pictures that every one of the market vendors is immensely proud of what they do, even if its just selling a few tomatoes, having a small cooking oil stand or dealing in kitchen goods. I’m certainly not denigrating market sellers, but the level of pride evident in this small, out of the way market in this isolated corner of the planet was pretty inspiring.

Sucru Island, Lake Victoria, Kenya

Today I went with one of the survey teams to Sucru, a tiny island of about 200 people on Lake Victoria.

Like other islands, the people make their living almost entirely through fishing. Small scale fisherman capture Nile Perch, Tilapia and catfish, bring them back to community fishing boards, which then sell them to larger brokers, which then take them to the notorious (and mysterious) “factory.” The “factory” then filets the fish and sells them to European and American dealers. The welfare of this tiny island depends entirely on the whims of hungry Europeans. The global economy starts on islands like Sucru.

In contrast with the other islands, however, the locals appear to eat some of what they catch. In fact, I assume that the majority of what they eat comes straight from the water. I could see absolutely no evidence of agriculture of any kind on this tiny island. The result is that the residents of the island appear quite well fed, some are even fat, but clearly lack essential vitamins due to their monotonous diet.

Housing conditions are miserable, and, like many islands here, sanitation is quite poor. About twenty years ago, a group came and installed a septic and well system to try to keep the locals from openly defecating and drinking their own sewage, but the system appears to have never been used. Like most areas around Lake Victoria, people prefer to crap in the bushes over a formal toilet. The result is that diarrheal disease is constant, and children live in states of vastly poor health.

As far as I could tell, school age children have to stay with relatives on the mainland in order to get an education. Healthwise, they might fare better in school.

Though only having a handful of residents, malaria is endemic to the island. Black mambas (considered the most dangerous snake in the world) are also native and live in plentiful numbers. We found a freshly killed one on a rock.

Safari ants are also plentiful. A few crawled up my pant leg and drew blood. I can be seen in one of the pictures picking them off myself. I think everyone had their pants off at some point picking off ants.

Despite all the challenges, the locals are incredibly kind (like many people around the lake), appear quite happy and don’t mind being photographed. They laugh hysterically at my rudimentary (though improving) command of the Luo language.

Rising Commodity Prices Starve Kenyan Children

Mbita Market

Yesterday, I was walking through the local market here in Mbita, Kenya and was struck with a (very overdue) revelation. Prices for basic goods here in Kenya are really not much more or less than prices for the same goods in the United States.

Kenya is certainly not cheap for foreigners and one may be under the impression that we pay some extra surcharge on just about everything. In some countries, this is very true. In Kenya, everyone pays the same price for everything.

Take a liter of milk. In the US, a liter of milk (at the time of this writing) is going for approximately $1.13. In Kenya, despite local production, a gallon of milk costs $.87. Turning that milk into cheese will set back an American $9.30 a pound, a Kenyan, a whopping $10.38.

It is worth mentioning that the newspaper here has reported that the price of milk in Kenya has shot up by 40% since the beginning of the year to nearly $1.05.

Shopping in a local hardware revealed that prices for steel nails and roofing is almost the same as the U.S. A kilogram of penny nails here costs about $5.00, just about the same as what I would pay in the states. 2×4’s will run approximately $.30 per foot, again, entirely comparable to what I pay in the States. A gallon of gas here is about $5, still cheaper than Malawi’s $10 but more expensive than the States.

Jimmy sells sugar in the market with his mother to support his 6 children. Each of these sugar cane blocks goes for about $7. The price that Jimmy pays the wholesaler is pegged to worldwide sugar prices.

To put this in perspective, an average American family pulls more than $44,000 yearly, where a typical Kenya is unemployed and may eek by through farming and informal market activities on a mere $800 a year (assuming GNI as a proxy).

Thus, to a Kenyan, food and housing are both incredible expenses. A Kenyan family likely spends nearly 80% of every penny they earn on food. The remaining 20% goes to school fees, cell phone minutes and transportation.

The trouble, and what may don’t realize, is that all of these things, food, steel and gasoline are commodities that are readily traded on the world market. Thus, prices are pegged to worldwide prices set by larger economies such as the United States and Europe. A Kenyan has to pay the same amount of money for the same products as an American, a Brit or a citizen of Japan.

All manner of beans are available at the Mbita Market.

One may argue that this situation may be an unavoidable consequence of a truly global economy, an unfortunate side effect of the free market. Competition on world markets, however, is only part of the equation. The situation is made worse, for example, by US policy which rewards speculation in commodities on Wall Street, a practice that was illegal before 2000. The global market, far from being free, is actually controlled by large global financial players betting on rising prices, prices which they themselves are setting.

Rising food prices barely make a dent in US home budgets, and even if they do, most families can cut things like eating out to adjust. A Kenyan, on the other hand, has nothing to cut when milk goes up an extra dime. People will simply just eat less.

More Pictures from Mbita, Kenya

Here are some more pictures. I mostly took these on a morning walk.

Of note was the picture of an amorous male donkey terrorizing the females in a local market. The incident stopped traffic, left a fruit stand in ruins, and knocked at least three people down into the dust. Even the furious beatings of the locals couldn’t stop the donkey, which is notorious for causing chaos on this end of town.

Mbita, Kenya

I’m too busy writing other things to actually write anything for this blog, so my two readers will have to suffice with pictures.

Right now, I’m in Mbita, Kenya, located in Nyanza Province. The area is known to be one of the least developed places in all of Kenya, but has to be one of the friendliest. It’s not hard to find someone to talk to, and even easier to get their picture. Most times, they ask you to take one.


I’m having good luck this hour with the internet connection here, though that is always subject to change. To make up for lost time, I’m going to post some pictures from my recent visit to Zanzibar.

Zanzibar has to be one of the strangest places I’ve ever been. In addition to its intensely long history and deep cultural flavor (or flavors, one of its main exports is spice), it is notably the birthplace of Queen’s Freddy Mercury. Freddy lived here until the Zanzibar Revolution of 1964, when his Iranian parents had to flee what turned into a bloody genocide of Arabs and Asians. Without that violent chapter in Zanzibar’s history, Queen would have never come to be.

Regardless, it’s an amazing place and potentially the only place in all of Africa where women and children are free to walk around unaccompanied at all hours of the night. It’s certainly the first time I’ve ever seen families in African out on the town, enjoying great food by the water.

Tanzania Day 6: The Road

It takes more than 20 hours to get from the eastern coast to the western end of Tanzania. Though the road is largely paved between Dar es Salaam and Mbeya in Rukwa Region, areas in more remote sections of Tanzania are what one would expect: hills, rain swept crags and valleys, and treacherous mountain paths. Compounding this distance is the multitude of police stops along the way.

So far, we’ve had to pay fines for “speeding” and not having a sticker that no one seems to have heard of-though I suspect that it’s a permit for carrying white people in the country of Tanzania. As I’m writing this, we’ve just been stopped for doing 40 in a 30 zone, which set the driver back about $10. In total, we’ve been stopped more than 10 times and I don’t expect it to end anytime soon. I’m reminiscing about driving through Tennessee, where cops will pull over anyone with an out of state tag and concoct any number of fine-able “offenses.” No one asks specifically for a bribe, but it’s pretty clear that the police are pocketing the “fines.”

This is the main artery that connects the ports of Dar with Malawi, Zambia and the DRC. Back to back trucks take goods in and out of Tanzania all day long. Gasoline and diesel appear to be the most transported items, followed by Coke and Pepsi bottles both empty and full. Trucks carrying farming and construction equipment are not rare. It’s reassuring to see flatbeds carrying brand new Massey tractors toward Malawi and Zambia.

It’s the harvest right now, so farmers are busy bagging rice and loading them on to large trucks for consumption in other areas of Tanzania, and presumably for export to other countries. This area is famous for rice, and I can attest to the quality. Wood is also in plentiful supply. Trucks full of African mahogany that would bring hundreds of thousands of dollars in the US are to be seen everywhere.

We pass through Tunduma, on the Zambia/Malawi/Tanzania border. The air here in this border town is thick and black with exhaust. Its remnants coat everything in sight, even the humans, leaving it a dull and dirty brown. If I were to spend any more time here, I’m sure my lungs would begin to hurt. Looking around at all the auto parts shops, it’s probably the best place in this region to go if you’re looking for parts for your Scania truck, presumable scavenged from the series of metal husks that adorn the sides of the road. Most are half buried from the rains.

Just got pulled over again, this time for a hanging cooling belt. This time, we don’t have to pay. While we’re all thankful to know that the cooling belt needs to be replaced, the driver remarks that this road is notorious. What should be an 8-hour trip from Mbeya to Dar turns into twelve due to all of the pointless police stops.

The drive on the way back is a harrowing series of mountain paths and thin highways. Cows, goats, baboons and children present constant hazards. By far, though, the most dangerous parts of the road here are the vehicles. Even the largest of trucks run long past their date of expiration. It isn’t at all reassuring to remember that the number one reason that people decommission their vehicles is the expense of repairing worn brake lines. Engines can be replaced. Safety is another matter entirely.

We see the remains of not one, but several horrific truck accidents. Even if the drivers survived the crash, it’s unlikely that any hospital in Tanzania would be equipped to provide adequate care to manage massive blood loss and trauma. Honestly, I wouldn’t want a transfusion here anyway. It is notable that as we approach Dar and the road widens, the number of accidents appears to dwindle. I become more and more at ease the closer we get. I have to admit, though, my worries are likely overblown and unwarranted, but it never hurts to be careful.

Tanzania – Sumbwanga Rural

20120501-202942.jpgWe’ve started our visits to drug shops in this region of Tanzania, which mostly entails sitting alongside interviews in Swahili and waiting long hours for customers to show up. It’s a national holiday so everyone must be busy attending to children at home, cause noone seems to be interested in buying pharmaceuticals today.

This village sits on the outskirts of Sumbwanga town in Rukwa Region. The local economy is based on agricultural trade and local buying and selling of goods available anywhere in Sub Saharan Africa. The market consists of the usual fare, soap, haircuts, soft drinks and beer, but sports a variety of dried fishes and local fruits. I pass on the dried fish as delectable as it looks. The omelet with French fries is also out, sad to say. The oranges, no problem.

Like most places in Africa, people are very kind and will repeatedly thank you making the long journey to their very small and mostly unknown village. Here, so close to friendly and peaceful hotspots like Malawi and Zambia, extreme kindness is a given.

The only business here is small business. Like everywhere in Africa, businesses are informal, sole proprietorships. The drug shops are no exception. I spoke with two shop owners today, both were trained as nurses, but left public service to open or work at small drug shops.

The relationship of drug shops with the public system is worth noting. As the public system in Tanzania relies completely on government revenue and donor aid to function, drugs are often unavailable. In theory, this opens a market opportunity for private shops but in reality it appears that public employees are funneling drugs to shops they have a stake in, as a recent scandal has unveiled.

I spoke with a gentleman today who may be considered exceptional, but likely isn’t. 20 year old Charles, living in an extremely remote town worked burning charcoal for pennies, saved his earnings and opened a small shop, debt free. Now he sells soap, cooking oil and single cigarettes from a small storefront adjacent to one of the drug shops we visited. He would like to save his money and open a shop which sells lights, generators and electrical goods aimed at other shops.

One common misconception about Africa is that Africans lack an entrepreneurial spirit. Far from it, what they actually lack is capital.

All Africans are entrepreneurs. Americans on the other hand mostly just draw paychecks.

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