Observations about Kenya

March 23, 2009

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).
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The Lost Boys

March 23, 2009

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.


Don’t Mess with the Mizungu

March 23, 2009

We stopped in the town of Nakuru the other day, on our drive to Lake Nakuru National Park. Norma and Wayne wanted to purchase some roadside reflectors, a first aid kit, and a flashlight, as these are required items in a private automobile in Kenya. The fine for not having them is apparently 5000 Kenyan Shillings (KSh), at least that is what the handsome, young, smiling policeman told them, before he extracted a bribe of 3000 KSh (about $50 Canadian) to avoid an all day court appearance. This was the policeman’s lucky day, as Wayne, who isn’t a Kenyan resident, was driving. An International Driving Permit is a giveaway that the white guy (‘mizungu’ in Swahili) is a tourist, and therefore eligible for the maximum fleecing. We went through five police checks on the way out of Nairobi, each enforced with spike belts laid across the highway, but luckily only got stopped at one. The police use these to augment their salaries.

Upon our arrival in Nukuru, Wayne went to the store, Norma stayed to watch the car, and we walked down the main street to find a bank machine. We were walking side-by-side on the busy sidewalk, when a young man coming from the opposite direction collided briefly with Patrick. Patrick felt the telltale pressure on his shirt pocket, and reacted immediately.

He let out a loud yell, spun around, and set out after the man who was running. He didn’t get far. Patrick grabbed him at the corner, spun him around, and threw him up against a wall. The man raised both hands into the air, feigning innocence. Holding him with one hand, only then did Patrick check to see if anything was missing from his pockets. The only thing in his shirt pocket, which was unbuttoned but shouldn’t have been, was the only thing that should have been there, a pair of glasses. He also checked the pockets of his shorts, and nothing seemed to be amiss.

A quick decision was required — what to do with the man? He had clearly tried to steal by pick pocketing, but he wasn’t successful, so there was no evidence to speak of. Holding him for the police seemed fruitless. Patrick briefly considered public embarrassment – dragging him out into the street to let the growing crowd know exactly what he had done. He decided against this though, which was wise, because vigilante justice is not uncommon in Kenya, and there was a small but real possibility that the crowd might take his punishment into their own hands right then and there. In the end, he pushed the man away, and returned to Diane, who was shaken up and still standing on the sidewalk.

Afterwards, Diane told Patrick that there was a second man also, who walked up from behind to split the two of us apart and leaned into Patrick to make it difficult for him to avoid the front man, and perhaps to try for his back or side pockets simultaneously. He had run away in the other direction from Patrick and the first guy, leaving Diane standing startled on the busy sidewalk. Luckily, everything turned out in the end, and we continued on to the bank machine with hearts racing.


Head of the Class

March 16, 2009

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

March 16, 2009

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.


Elvis is in the Building – by Diane

March 16, 2009

Petra is an ancient city of caves, carved into the sandstone by the Nabataean people about 2000 years ago. It covers a huge area, and is truly remarkable. It has the most amazing rock and rock sculptures I’ve ever seen.

After spending the first day walking around the site in awe and climbing two mountains, we decided to use our second day to try a new route which had been recommended to us by a couple we met in Egypt. We didn’t know what to expect, but Patrick was excited to check it out. We were hiking with a British couple that we met two days earlier. Martin is a retired fire fighter, and both he and Susan are rock climbers.

As we started out on our journey down a side canyon, a local person tried to tell us that we were going the wrong way. Then the tourist police yelled at us from the cliff above and advised us that the way was closed, was not safe, that there was a lot of water, and that other tourists had much difficulty going this way. After a lengthy debate, where it became apparent that we weren’t giving up, they let us proceed. A general rule of thumb in the third world is that if someone tells you that you can’t do something, keep trying and they’ll stop you only if it is truly forbidden. Many of the ‘rules’ are actually guidelines, or someone trying to cover their butts.

The entry to the route was through a large tunnel, carved through the rock by water over the millennia. The route is susceptible to flash flooding, but there hadn’t been any moisture for a few days. The four of us continued down the gradually narrowing canyon, which required route finding and negotiation of large and small rocks.


The first section of the canyon was not too tough, but as we traveled further along, the route became much more challenging. The walls narrowed to just a few feet apart, and the bottom of the canyon was filled with pools of ever increasing depth. The three rock climbers in the group found the journey quite exciting and even exhilarating, I questioned why on earth I was doing this. This was about the time when Patrick joked with Martin and Susan that it was a good thing that the two of them were with us, or Diane would be really giving him a hard time about the choice of route.


The narrowing of the canyon and the water in the floor of the canyon continued to increase. To avoid wading through the water, we used “foot back chimney” rock climbing moves on the canyon walls, and of course the climbers thought this was great.

After traveling down the canyon for about ninety minutes we came to the really “interesting” part of the journey. This was when the walls of the canyon were far enough apart that the chimney moves would only work for those of us in the group with long legs. Patrick went first, carrying both of our bags and cameras, to confirm the best approach, and to ensure the passage was viable. I went next. At the start all was well, however it was short lived as the canyon walls became farther apart. Verbal instruction from the group was plentiful.


I was suspended between the canyon walls, about four feet above water of unknown depth and questionable purity. This was when the climbing phenomenon known as the “Elvis leg” came into play, accompanied by a few choice words beginning with “F”, a scream and a splash into the water. Fortunately Martin quickly employed his fire fighter rescue moves and helped me out of the water. Patrick, on the other hand, captured the event on film for your viewing pleasure.


When I got out of the water, I found that we were in a small chamber carved into the canyon walls. This route was pioneered over 2000 years ago, and was a sacred placed for the Nabataeans.

I was relieved that it was only a short distance from the end of the slot canyon, and we were able to dry off in the warm sun before continuing our exploration of Petra.


Mount Sinai

March 14, 2009

Mount Sinai is in the center of the Sinai Peninsula, in eastern Egypt, which is located between Cairo and Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. It is a famous mountain for many historical reasons, and is where Moses received the Ten Commandments. Mt. Sinai is about 7000 feet high, similar to the tip of Blackcomb mountain.

We wanted to climb the mountain at night, to see the sunrise from the top. After spending the day wandering the beaches of Dahab, we left at 11 PM on a minibus with about ten other people who were crazy enough to do the same. They included a family of three from Mauritius, a couple of guys from Japan, one from Korea, two women from somewhere in Europe, and an Egyptian dentist.

We arrived at the trail head at about 1 AM. It was pitch black and bitterly cold. We brought every piece of clothing we had with us, each bringing two pairs of socks, two pairs of pants, two shirts, our fleece jackets, windbreakers, fleece hats, and gloves. Diane also brought a sweater. Collectively, they weren’t enough.

Our group had a Bedouin guide, who led us up the wide smooth trail in complete darkness. We were constantly adjusting layers as the group wound its way up into the darkness.

Some tourists choose to accept the offers of local Bedouins, and ride their camels up the trail. The temperature was close to freezing, and sitting still for any length of time seemed unimaginable. Camels have large soft padded feet, and are virtually silent in the darkness. Their approach is heralded only by their strong smell, and the occasional grunt or fart, at which point we hugged the cliff to give them passage.

The Egyptian dentist was in trouble almost from the beginning, having difficulty keeping up with the group. Within 30 minutes, the European girls had taken his pack and shared its contents between them. He spoke good English and Arabic, and was able to communicate with the guide, who spoke no English. As the incline steepened, he began to fall behind, In the darkness, we heard frequent cries of complaint in Arabic, imploring the guide to slow down. Diane and I had no trouble with the pace, and Diane’s sprained ankle was not a problem.

About half way up, the ground was covered with snow. Our trail runners held up well, but weren’t really the best footwear for the conditions. We hiked upwards through the snow, passing tea houses along the way.

The last twenty minutes to the summit are composed of 750 stone steps. These are the uppermost of 3700 stone steps making up an alternate trail, which comes up from the other side of the mountain. These Steps of Repentance were built by single monk as an act of redemption. We were the first party to reach this point. The steps were steep, and were covered with ice and snow. We still had about an hour before sunrise, and the guide recommended that we stop at the last tea house to wait, not only to try to stay warm, but perhaps to let another group break trail.

The tea house was built into the cliff face, consisting of rock walls and a wood and tarp roof, with stones on top. It was dark and cramped, lit by a single kerosene lamp. We squeeze in, and huddled together for warmth. Egyptian tea, for which Egyptians pay less than 1 Egyptian Pound in the cities, was available for 10 Egyptian Pounds (an exorbitant price, but more understandable given that both the water and fuel to heat it had to be carried up the mountain by the proprietor). Diane and I rented a blanket for 20 Egyptian Pounds (about $5 Canadian), which was highway robbery, but necessary given that we were no longer moving to stay warm.


After about thirty minutes, we climbed the last three minutes to the summit, as the sky was colouring. On the summit was an old church, made of rock on the exposed summit. We shared the sunrise with several other groups, who had each made the climb during the night. The majority were religious groups, making their pilgrimages to this holy site. The Russians sang as the sun rose.


After about an hour on the summit, we hiked down past St. Katherine’s monastery, probably the oldest continually operating Christian site.  The Roman empress Helena had a shrine built here in 330 AD, near the bush where they believed that God spoke to Moses.

The next day, on the bus to the departure point of the ferry for Aqaba, we met an Australian who had made the climb a couple of days before. Near the start of the steps, he pulled his calf, and was unsure if he would be able to complete the climb. Luckily there was also a doctor climbing near by, who diagnosed it was a calf pull, and not an Achilles tear. She gave him 2 pain killers, and said that he could continue if he could stand the pain. He made it to the top, and on the way down, he road a camel as soon as he reached the part of the trail that they could traverse. On the bus, he told us that both he and Moses had climbed Mt. Sinai, and that they both received 2 tablets!