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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.

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.

Blogging Filler

I really would like to blog about some pressing and important topic, but I’m tied up in other projects. So, rather than rave about some Bigfoot data I found, I’ll merely leave this picture I took of the night sky.

It’s amazing to me that four planes can pass over my house in the span of ten minutes.

Osaka Bookseller, Kenichi Sakamoto

Kenichi Sakamoto at Aozora Books

I’m slowly sifting through the 10,000 plus photographs that I took in my recent trip to Japan and was fortunate enough to find the photo to the left.

This is Kenichi Sakamoto, an 87 year old bookseller in the now fashionable Nakazaki-cho section of Northern Osaka.

I passed by the bookstore, “Aozora Shobo (青空書房)” (“Blue Sky Books”) on my way to meet a friend. It looked welcoming enough and I decided to kill some time inside. Mr. Sakamoto struck up a conversation, asking me where I was from, why I was in Japan, etc. so I drilled him with questions of my own. It turns out Mr. Sakamoto opened the store in 1947 and has been running it ever since. Amazingly, he is celebrating his 65th year in business.

Aozora Books

Sakamoto originally wanted to be a painter, but poverty forced him to start selling off his books to support his impoverished family after the war. After buying and selling books for some time, he opened his tiny store in a shopping area of Nakazaki-cho. Reflecting his artistic past and humble beginnings, Sakamoto stocks all kinds of book on art from all over the world, along with low-priced literary paperbacks.

I found out that Sakamoto is originally from Miyagi Prefecture, one of the areas hardest hit by the recent earthquake. A donation box for earthquake victims can be seen on the left side of his desk.

He wasted no time in expressing his sympathies for all affected and leveled his own harsh criticisms of the government’s slow response. He said he hoped that young people make the effort to be mindful when choosing their leaders, but that hope for Japan’s future rests on the proactive efforts on individuals. He believes that Japan’s people shouldn’t wait for the government to take care of things, but rather should do as he did and make use of whatever opportunities are in front of them.

Collection of Essays on Aozora Books

Bookstores in Japan range from massive chains to these incredible used stores which stock their shelves with care. I’ve included some pictures of a few below. Sakamoto’s store was particularly friendly and inviting.

I discovered while walking away from the store that someone published a collection of essays written by Aozora Shobo customers. Not many bookstores can claim such an incredible distinction.

Hans Rosling Presents World Mortality in 4 Minutes

My buddy Mark just sent me this excellent video of Hans Rosling presenting mortality trends over the past two hundred years. It’s mostly a rehash of what’s been available on GapMinder for several years, but his presentation of the data should be an example to all of us who have to communicate data results to an audience.

If only conference presentations were this entertaining. There’s nothing worse than watching presenter after presenter mumbling his results quietly in front of mike for hours on end. We are mostly talking about things that are worthy of getting excited about, particularly when it involves injustice or human suffering. No one will listen if we don’t show them why it’s worth getting pissed off about.

Note, the incredible drops and scrambling that happens during the major wars.


Cycling in Japan

A search on the internet for things to do during my 4 day layover in Japan turned up a 60km cycling road from Arashiyama (near Kyoto) to the edge of Nara Prefecture. Cycling in Japan is difficult due to the complex network of roads and inevitably impassible rail traffic, but the roads along the series of rivers make it much easier to travel through the boonies.You may not get anywhere you want to go in the major cities, but, as I’ve found, it’s a great way to see the countryside.

I don’t have a bike in Japan. However, a train ride to Kyoto and a few phone calls to some bike shops turned up a storehouse of used bikes near the JR Kyoto Station. I picked up a “mamachari” for $30 and I was ready to go. For those of you not in the know, a mamachari is a bike that mothers use to do their grocery shopping. “Mother Chariot” == “mamachari”. I lucked out and got a 3 speeder (most are fixies) without the SCREAMING brakes (mine had disk brakes!) that most residents seem immune to. Japanese bikes have the loudest brakes on the planet. It’s surprising that more Japanese people aren’t deaf.

The first night, I paid $20 to stay in a shared room at a gaijin (foreigner) hostel. It’s no wonder that Japanese people think so poorly of foreigners given the scum that seem to flock here and ruin the party for the rest of us. I awoke at 4:30 to a hand groping my ass trying to find mywallet. Never again. If there is an English sign and people at the desk who speak English, do yourself a favor and call it a day. I still don’t know what I was thinking.

The ride was incredible. Miles and miles of vegetable gardens and solitude. The beginning of the road at Arashiyama sports some fantastic scenery and I wish I would have had more time so that I could have gone to the Matsuo Taisya, but the abundance of tree covered mountains and greenery made the long trip to the cycling road worth it. Of course, I had to pick the hottest day of the year to ride and I stopped counting the number of cycles which passed me along the way, but, 8 hours later, I made it to Nara to see the massive Daibussan at the Toudaiji Temple in Nara Park. Fantastic. A 60 foot tall iron Bhudda house in the largest wooden structure in the world surrounded by flocks of mini-deer who will beg for cookies. Highly recommended. The Buddha is the largest Buddha statue in the world and the temple itself dates back to the 8th century.

When in Japan, one should always spend a day shopping and exploring Japanese consumer culture, but the history and architecture here are not to be missed and can take up several days. This country and its history, for all its problems, should never be underestimated. Tourists who spend days on end in Akihabara at the expense of the gorgeous countryside truly do themselves a disservice. Nara Koen not only sports the Giant Buddha, but also an incredible collection of other structures and temples including several log buildings. I am sure that there are miles of hiking trails that extend into the reaches of the mountains which surround the park.

When I lived here in the late 90’s, I had no appreciation for the immense amount of opportunites for cheap and incredible sightseeing. I remember being bored a lot of the time and now wonder exactly what I was thinking. Maybe it was the drinking. Or the TV. Or the lack of vegetables. Mostly, I think I was just stupid. Either way, next time, I will buy or bring a decent bike and do a longer, more planned journey, but now at least I’ve cracked the egg. Youth is truly wasted on the young.

Readers Digest version: In total, I rode nearly 80km that day and eventually was so tired and beat and covered in sweat and grime that the I dumped the bike at a convenience store in Tomio City and took a train into Osaka. I would have ridden all the way into Osaka, but a giant mountain stood in a the way and 3 speeds wouldn’t have been nearly enough to make it over the top before dark. I found a $15.00 a night hotel in the “bad” part of town that came with a 4.5 tatami room, futon, towels, hot water, tooth brush, internet, coffee and a TV/VCR along with a large selection of Yakuza movies and 4 porn channels. No English, just helpful people and a clean shower. More later.

Today in Malawi

Things I saw yesterday: 5 guys trying to load a delivery truck onto the back of a flatbead by hand without lowering the bed. 5 guys changing a transmission in a Toyota van in a grocery store parking lot without jacks. 5 guys in the middle of a round-…about trying to replace the rear axle on 6 wheel delivery truck in rush hour traffic.

Malawi update

Money in Malawi is bizarre. A street vendor sells what would cost $3.00 in the US for $.60. In a completely natural, kneejerk fashion, I declare that too much for 5 pounds of bananas and talk him down to $.20.

The old guy who makes $30.00 a month to sit on our porch holding a machete from 5pm to 5am, Sunday to Sunday just came up to me and asked me to give him $2.00 so that he could buy some food for his wife who has recently been hospitalized at the large (largest in Malawi) facility near the house I’m in. I was going to tip him anyway as he’s a really kind man and gave him the equivalent of $10.00, which is, of course, a full third of his monthly wage. He was holding a large bottle of water and I asked him what he was going to do with it. He proceeded to tell me that he was going to take it to his wife. Apparently, hospitals don’t give water to their patients. You have to bottle and bring your own.

These people do amazing things with very little. The health system is entirely rudimentary and care is, by our standards, medieval, but given that beds are filled to 200% capacity and the small staff is criminally underpaid and overworked, they do a fantastic job with very little. Some facilities don’t have running water. Some don’t have power. They teeter under the load of a sick population, providing treatment to who they can, however they can and don’t utter (to my ears) a word of complaint. I went to one facility and there was a nurse there who was in her 80’s. She had tried to retire but was immediately called back since there was noone to fill her position. The lines fill at close to 5 am, and the facility sees about 300 patients on a slow day with a staff I counted to be 6: One doctor, three nurses and two pharmacists. During peak malaria season, they can easily double or triple that.

The monthly wage of a nurse in Malawi is pretty good: $270 per month. A doctor gets about $400. No one appears to get a day off. Some doctors have research responsibilities that I’m sure provide a respite from seeing a million patients all day. I would wonder what these people could do with American resources. I have met some of the brightest and hardest working people that I’ve ever seen in my lifetime here in Malawi, all working under conditions that would make the average American drop.

And here I go, haggling some kid with bananas down to less than a quarter.

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