Tag Archives: Kenya

Roughing It In Africa

Our first two weeks in Kenya have been tough. Food is scarce, and we spend much of our time scavenging. Local food is barely palatable, and Western food is rare, even in the cities. Accomodations are basic, cramped, and noisy. We are keenly aware of the need to protect our valuables, and end up carrying most of our belongings everywhere. By the time we find food and a safe place to stay, we’re typically exhausted. NOT!

In fact, to-date, Kenya has been just the opposite. The time we’ve spend with Norma and Wayne has been rather luxurious.

When Patrick left for a quick side trip to Tanzania, Diane promptly spend all day at the spa with Norma. After her manicure, pedicure, facial, hour long full body massage, and hair wash with scalp massage, she was barely able to face another day.

In Kisumu, Diane had her hair coloured at a salon specializing in Asian and Western hair, which will allow her to face the next six weeks.

On Norma’s birthday, we went swimming at the Panari Hotel pool, followed by a light lunch in the café. Later that day, for dinner, we went to the Mediterranean restaurant, a terrific Italian restaurant in Nairobi.

We spent 2 days at the Lion Hill Lodge in Nakura National Park. We stayed in individual chalets, with floor to ceiling mosquito nets around king sized beds — very romantic.

Elaborate buffet meals are served three times a day, including fresh fruit juices like passion and mango, fresh baked breads, and several varieties of grilled meat. So much for our ‘African diet’. Tea is served every afternoon, and before dinner there is a performance of traditional African dancing and drumming.

Rondo Retreat in the Kakamega Forest Reserve is set in a beautiful park-like setting in the middle of a tropical rain forest. The grounds are ornamented with trees and flowers, cared for by a staff of gardeners. Birds sing constantly from the forest, and Blue and Colubus monkeys visit every afternoon around tea time. At sunset, the crickets and frogs sing in a riotous chorus. Lunch, tea, and supper are served at 1PM, 4PM, and 7PM respectively, in the British style.

Other than these hardships, things have been manageable in Kenya.

Observations about Kenya

Some of our observations about Kenya:

  • The temperature and humidity varies greatly based on elevation and proximity to the ocean.
  • Very few people smoke. Far fewer than in Canada.
  • The ‘matatu’, a shared mini-bus holding 16 people, is the most common form of transport. Accidents are common despite safety improvements.
  • The divide between rich and poor is vast. The rich protect what they have with walls (topped with spikes, broken bottles, razor wire, or electric fence) and with guards.
  • Life expectancy is only 45 years.
  • There are a quite a few tourists and expatriates, but few of them are British, the previous colonial overlords in Kenya.
  • Roads vary widely from acceptable to atrocious. The dust on the road can be a foot thick, making it impossible to see anything while driving. It runs in cascades down the car windows like water.
  • Men are legally allowed to have multiple wives, but not the other way around.
  • HIV/AIDS is widespread. There are a lot of orphans.
  • Men hold the positions of power in politics and big business. In most other areas, women run the economy, which revolves around very small agricultural businesses.
  • Speed bumps are used to control speeds on major roads that pass through towns, but they are not painted, resulting in the occasional “General Lee” flyover.
  • Most homes along roadways are also tiny shops. Sometimes they only have 10 bananas in inventory, but there is someone there selling them.
  • Most people speak 3 to 5 languages. In addition to the two national languages, Kiswahili and English, they also speak their tribal language, and perhaps one or two of the languages of their neighbouring tribes.
  • English is spoken with an African accent, which varies somewhat, and can make even English difficult to understand. People seem quite willing to clarify if we ask.
  • Almost everyone has a cell phone, even those living in slums. Most houses aren’t wired to the phone system anyhow, making a cell phone far more practical. All cell phones are ‘pay as you go’, and there are shops everywhere to buy more air time, and also to charge your phone. Why? Because many homes don’t have power.
  • There are more than 70 tribes in Kenya and 3 major religious groups (Christianity, Islam, traditional beliefs). Tribal allegiances are stronger than religious ones. When forced to choose, people will side first with members of their tribe over members of their religion. In many cases this is a matter of self-preservation. When violence erupts, as it does from time to time, it is usually along tribal lines.
  • Like in Asia, bicycles can carry just about anything. In some places, they are used as taxis (called ‘boda-bodas’), with the passenger sitting on the back.
  • The people are beautiful. They have smooth hairless skin and white smiles.
  • Hair extensions are the norm for women. Other than those with closely shaved heads and the occasional afro, almost all other hair-dos are constructed with extensions.
  • The people are friendly, and quite willing to assist us. They usually smile and wave, they like to shake hands, and often say ‘You’re welcome’ (‘Karibu’ in Swahili).

The Lost Boys

We went for lunch in Kisumu, the town where Norma and Wayne used to live, before they left Kenya temporarily to avoid the violence that followed the last national election. The guide book says that the fish restaurants at the foot of Kisumu’s main street, on the shores of Lake Victoria are considered one of the top five dining experiences in Kenya.

Just driving to the place is an experience. The dirt road that leads from the end of the pavement, over the railway tracks, and down to the shanties along the lake is lined with people trying to make a buck from the steady flow of people who come to eat fish. We parked on the grass between the lake and the tin roofs held aloft on poles that comprise the restaurants, despite the objections of the many people who tried to direct us elsewhere.

There is only one meal served at all of these restaurants, hence there is no need for menus. We walked up to a small table, which divides the cooking area from the eating area, selected our fish, then returned to the plastic patio furniture where patrons sit carefully balanced on the sloping dirt floor.

In a few minutes, a woman arrives with a plastic jug and a dish pan containing a small bar of soap. She pours warm water from the jug over our hands while we wash in the basin before eating. The dining experience is enhanced by a steady stream of hawkers who come to the table trying to sell just about anything that can be carried – CDs, belts, hats, sunglasses, locks, tools, etc.

The food arrives quickly. It includes a whole tilapia from Lake Victoria, complete with head and fins, covered with ‘skumawiki’, a green vegetable dish made with something approximating kale or spinach. Skumawiki means “push the weak” in Swahili, because it is cheap enough that the poor can get by eating it until they get some money. The skuma and fish are cooked together in a large curved pan over a fire, with oil, onions, a bit of tomato, and cilantro. Accompanying the main dish is ‘ugali’, a Kenyan staple made of maize flour and water.

The meal is consumed with the right hand by breaking off a piece of ugali, rolling it into a ball, then making a depression in it and flattening it with the thumb against the forefingers. This is then used as pincers and finger protectors to pick up the hot skuma and pull the even hotter fish meat from the bones. The meal was amazing. One of the best fish dishes we’ve ever tasted The next time you’re passing through Kisumu, I highly recommend it. And a bargain too, at about $7 Canadian for the two of us.

After washing our hands again, and paying the bill, we walked back to the car. We had decided against having it washed while we ate, which is common, but not environmentally friendly. The washers just back the vehicles, of all shapes and sizes, into the lake to clean them.

We had with us some leftover food from the previous day’s lunch in a white cardboard box. Wayne’s intention was to give it to the street boys who hang around the restaurants looking for handouts. These boys are homeless, and in most cases without parents due to HIV/AIDS. In other cases, after their father died, their mother became an additional wife of their father’s brother, who then cast out the boys to avoid any competition for inheritance with his own offspring. As a result, they wander the streets looking for food and begging for money, which they use to buy glue. The glue is squirted into small plastic bottles which they hold in their front teeth, so as to constantly inhale the fumes. They have glue residue caked on their noses. Their eyes never seem to focus.

Wayne handed the box, which contained a few cooked potatoes, boiled eggs, day old cheese sandwiches, and apples, to the oldest boy, with instructions for him to share it among them. He nodded affirmatively, holding the box high and stepping away from the car.

He was then set upon by the other boys, who forced the older boy and the box to the ground, and fought for the contents in a pile. Other boys appeared out of nowhere to join the scramble. Within thirty seconds, everything had disappeared, and the boys returned to our car seeking more.

We had since started the car, and were backing away, but became stuck in some soft ground. The boys surrounded the car. Wayne spun the tires, but we weren’t going anywhere. He tried rocking back further, but that didn’t work.

Diane and Patrick weren’t sure what was going to happen next, but then, all the boys started to push the car, and we were quickly underway.

Just another meal in paradise.

Head of the Class

Diane’s aunt arranged for us to visit a school yesterday in the nearby slum. The director of the school is a friend of hers, and the slum is called Soweto (no relation to the slum by the same name in South Africa). Soweto is home to about 25,000 people. The school is a ‘private school’ only in the sense that the government did not build the school, nor does it provide any funding for its operation. There are 160 students from ages 3 to 14, and six teachers.

The school is housed in the facilities of a church, which are indistinguishable from the surrounding homes. I would not have known that it was a church or a school if I had not been told. The classrooms for the senior grades are about 10 feet by 12 feet, each of which accommodates the teacher and more than 20 students crammed together on shared benches and plastic chairs. There are no desks.

We did not want to arrive empty handed, so we purchased a 20 kg bag of rice, to supplement the school lunch program, and we delivered 160 bananas on behalf of Diane’s aunt. By the time we’d walked the 15 minutes to the school with the director, carrying about 80 pounds of food, we’d already had a good workout. Each day, the school tries to provide a basic lunch for the students. In many cases, it is the only food they will receive that day. Lunch is usually ‘ugali’, a paste made from only corn flour and water, with some boiled vegetables. If they are lucky, they get rice instead of ugali, but there hasn’t been money for rice recently.

The headmaster, who has been in the role for five years, is a young man. Both he and the teachers attended two years of teacher college. Neither the headmaster nor the teachers have been paid in months, as the only school funds are used to provide food for the children.

The headmaster took us on a walking tour of Soweto, including his home, and the home of one of the school’s parents. The homes are made of rough bricks, covered with tin sheets. Each home is a single room of about 10 feet by 10 feet, with a curtain dividing the sleeping area from the remainder. The homes are clustered together in groups off shared narrow corridors, which are choked with hanging laundry. Each has a heavy steel door with a padlock, although there isn’t much of value inside. The people on the uneven dirt streets of Soweto seemed a bit surprised to see us, but they were friendly.

After our walk, we joined some of the senior students for physical education. About 25 kids stood in a circle on a small piece of vacant land, dancing and playing games. Everything they did was accompanied by a song. Yes, Diane and I both danced solos, but our singing was limited due to the fact it was mostly in Swahili.

We headed back to the school’s ‘dining hall’, which was an open-air lean-to off the side of one of the buildings. All 160 students plus teachers crammed into the small space with us. The headmaster called all the teachers to the front and introduced them. Patrick repeated their names as each one was introduced, but not one of them looked us in the eye. We learned later that doing so may not be considered polite.

The headmaster introduced the students, who then performed for us in the almost non-existent space left in the dining hall. Two groups of students presented poems to us that they had memorized. Three individual students presented a memorized verse from the Bible, with the length of each of their memorized introductions exceeding the length of their verses. A senior class sang us a song in English.

The Director introduced us. She spoke about how fortunate they were to have us as guests, and how we had brought rice and bananas. She spoke about how other businesses and guests had made donations, and pointed out the things they had donated. The cover we were standing under had been donated by a cell phone company, and one of the bathrooms by a Canadian woman. The whole slum of Soweto receives water only intermittently, and the water tank which stores water when it does come, was also donated.

Patrick spoke briefly. He started with few lines of carefully memorized Swahili, which drew blank stares. Perhaps he didn’t have the accent right. He then talked briefly about where we were from, and some of the differences between Kenya and Canada. The headmaster translated everything into Swahili, as many of the young ones don’t have sufficient English yet. Then Diane led everyone in a kids song with some actions, which seemed to go over well.

In preparation for lunch, the young children washed their hands in a large shared basin of water, without soap. Each student received their ugali, vegetables, and either one-half, one, or one and a half bananas based on their age. Diane assisted with serving the food, in a small dark kitchen where the food had been cooked over a charcoal fire. The school has no electricity or gas. Many of the children had not eaten since the previous day, yet every one of them waited until a simple grace was said before they touched their food.

We said our farewells to the students, and were accompanied by the headmaster and Director to the edge of the slum, where a broken bridge crosses a polluted stream.

Recurring visions of the students keep coming back into our heads…

Feeling the Spirit

We arrived in Nairobi twelve hours ago. Our flight from Amman, Jordan was uneventful, though the connection in Cairo was rushed. We were met at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport by Diane’s Aunt Norma and her husband Wayne at 4:00 AM. Norma and Wayne have lived in Kenya on and off for the last four years. Wayne works five weeks on and five weeks off in the oil fields of Kazakhstan, and returns to Kenya to be with Norma, and their children, six of whom are from Kenya. They drove us back to their house, where we had tea, a thirty minute nap, and a shower. Then we headed to church.

Norma and Wayne attend Miracle Restoration Center, a Pentecostal Church located in the Nairobi slum of Sinai known as Lunga Lunga. We drove down dusty dirt roads lined with tin roofed shacks, clogged with people going about their early morning activities. The church is an open concrete building with a tin roof, which opens onto a courtyard shared with children playing, men baking bread, and a stream of raw sewage that you have to step over to enter the church.

The church has bare concrete floors, and is outfitted with plastic patio chairs in neat rows. Everyone was dressed up, with the women in skirts or dresses, and the men in shirts and ties or jackets. We had on our best clothes, but once again, felt under dressed compared to the local people.

Services were in English, with translation to Swahili after each phrase. Bible study, led by Diane’s Aunt Norma, was to start at 9:00 AM, but got started later, as people started to slowly filter into the church on Africa time. Services got underway around 10:30, with the congregation singing, accompanied by a small band, with an excellent guitar player.

One of my favourite parts was when the children got up to dance. Norma and Wayne’s girls Lizzie (8) and Joyce (12), who are members of the church’s children’s dance squad, did African dancing to two songs. Joyce was a soloist dancer for most of the first song, performing with natural ability and charisma far beyond her years. Joyce has malaria. Lizzie and Joyce’s mother died one month ago after a lengthy illness. Their grandfather couldn’t care for them, asked the church to assist, and Norma and Wayne stepped up.

At one point during the service, the pastor’s wife announced Diane and I as special guests, and called us up to the front to speak. Patrick told the congregation that we’d been in Kenya for eight hours, and that we were very glad to be here. Each phrase with translated to Swahili, and people smiled and clapped. It was clear that Diane was expected to speak, but she was overcome with emotion, and just got out one sentence before breaking into tears.

Pastor Laz, a Kenyan, gave a heartfelt sermon, full of passion and conviction. Part way through, the electricity went out, but he and the translator kept right on, speaking louder and with even more conviction. It was a powerful and moving experience.

This was the longest church service we’ve ever attended – it didn’t end until after 2 PM. We were both moved to tears at various points. We have not been saved, but today, in an open-air church in a slum near Nairobi, we felt the Spirit.