Thursday, June 08, 2006

another day, another shilling.

Another day, another shilling. The rainy season has ended. I had grown accustomed to and quite fond of the sound of rain pattering on my tin roof; it put me in a state of perpetual lassitude, but it reminded me of home so I enjoyed it. Since the well pump in my compound broke last week, this also means that I am out of water. The daily thunderstorms kept me in good supply – I would drag my 100L tank under the drain spout during a downpour, and it would fill within minutes. Now I’m wishing that I had a bigger tank. Yesterday a neighbor took me to another plot with a well, where I paid the houseboy 10 shillings for the two 20L jerry cans he filled, then I carried them the 200m back to my house for cooking and drinking. The water had a brownish tinge, so I’m hoping that the WaterGuard I added took care of any parasites.

I released Jomo back into the wild. I don’t think he was very happy in his yellow plastic bucket with his rock and his tree branch and his bulbous swiveling omniscient eyes. I was planning to get him a tree to lord over but after doing some research I decided that I didn’t have the patience or dedication to care for him the way the internet gods wanted me to. One of the two plants that I bought for my trellised doorway was trying to kill himself for a couple of weeks, but I think I coaxed him out of his death spiral with a dose of commercial fertilizer. Maybe he was on a hunger strike in protest of Jomo’s captivity. Either way, he’s starting to sprout again.

Last week I went to a PC regional cross-sector meeting in Meru, a small city in the highlands of Mt Kenya, and the national hub for the miraa trade (qat in Arabic, I believe). Miraa is a popular plant among matatu drivers, who chew the leaves and stems for its stimulant effect. Long-term users are easily identified by their chronically bloodshot eyes, green-stained and rotting teeth, and green streaks of saliva plastered to their mouths like shore-strewn seaweed in the midday sun. It is arguably the number one cause of auto accidents in Kenya, since it keeps delirious drivers up for days on end, pushing their 80kph speed governors to the limit and often over.

Meru is one of the most beautiful areas of the country, surrounded by rolling hills clothed in dark forest green foliage, and pierced by the granite-capped granite dagger of Mt. Kenya. While we were there the shoulders of the hills were continually draped in a shawl of mist, seeming to steal into the wardrobe of the Scottish pasture, forgetting they were lying almost directly on the equator. On Thursday of that week the volunteers who lived in Meru led us on a hike to a local waterfall. I wasn’t too excited about the hike initially, since I have seen plenty of cascades in my lifetime, and the trip was stealing into valuable time zoning in front of the DVD playing on a fellow volunteer’s computer. The experience turned out to be wonderful, and I’m glad that in this instance I played the sheep and not the shepherd. The culmination of the 30-minute hike brought us to the edge of a farmer’s shamba at what seemed to be a drop-off into the valley surrounding the waterfall below. We scrambled and slid and fell our way down the hill as best we could. Once at the bottom it was an easy clamber over a few boulders and we could creep up into the cranny directly behind the 40-foot shower.

We did do some actual ‘training’ during the week, lest my wordiness distract you. Since the volunteers in attendance were all from the Eastern region of Kenya, we were employed in different PC programs: small enterprise development, public health, education, and information communications technology. This week gave me an opportunity to learn things I never knew, like how HIV/AIDS transmission risk through breast milk is greatly reduced if the baby doesn’t ingest any solid foods during the breastfeeding period. Small tears in the throat caused by solids give the virus a direct path into the bloodstream. On the penultimate day we were assigned in clusters to different groups that the local volunteers had been working with. I visited a group that had just broken ground on a VCT (Voluntary Counseling and Testing center), and gave them training on farming as a business (the VCT is more of a side-venture; virtually every rural Kenyan is first a farmer by trade), while others instructed them on VCT management and computer use. At the end of the session they said that farming as a business was one of the main points they would take away from the day, which made me feel important and self-righteous and…hey, even volunteers have an ego.

In the afternoon we visited a secondary school, where we gave gender-specific group talks on HIV/AIDS awareness, prevention and treatment. They already knew most of the statistics, though, so I was somewhat disappointed by the session. Not because we didn’t have a chance to share our knowledge with them, but because we wasted the opportunity to speak with them about real behavior change. One of the issues in Kenya today is just that – most people have the information about how HIV is prevented, but they are still having unprotected sex. Perhaps it’s just human nature, the desires of the present self v. the future self – a similar case could be made for millions of Americans who don’t want to get lung cancer but who still inhale three packs of cigarettes a day. Yet I felt that they could have benefited from an attempt; since I was following the lead of the Public Health volunteer (the expert), I didn’t want to interrupt his flow. It’s also a delicate subject to breach, since condom use inevitably arises – a lot of schools don’t want condom use advocated, sometimes even mentioned. Christianity strikes again! Thanks, Pope.

The week before I had taken a couple of girls from a secondary school in my village to camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) in Nairobi, a PC-sponsored camp run by the Gender and Development committee. The camp was held on the outskirts of Kibera slums, one of the largest slums in the world and the star of ‘The Constant Gardener.’ I guess that sounds more dangerous than it was – we were in a heavily wooded Scout Camp surrounded by an electric fence (which was turned off during the day…but they didn’t mention that). I’ve heard estimates that between 800,000 and 1.5 million people live in the slums, most of whom are trapped with their families in one-room tin shacks without electricity or plumbing, even nearby. Visitors are warned to watch out for the ‘flying choo (pronounced cho),’ a plastic baggie filled with poo and launched in the air. Quick cleanup, I suppose.

The camp was fun, and for many of the girls their first trip into the capital city. All of the sessions had to do with gender equality or women’s health or rights or something geared towards empowerment of the girls involved. They responded well, considering that a majority of Kenyans (men and women) believe that it’s not rape if a man forces his wife to have sex – it’s his marital right. One of days was reserved for Take Our Daughters to Work, during which the girls were paired up with a professional woman in Nairobi (doctor, lawyer, accountant, etc), whose career matched the interests of her ‘daughter.’ One of my girls, Susan, who aspires to be an actress, was paired with a popular pop radio DJ on KissFM, and giddily related her five seconds of radio fame the next day to the rest of girls at camp. My other girl, Winfred, a short, overweight, shy Form 2 student, accompanied an accountant, although she was interested in being a doctor (“because they make a lot of money”). When we got back to Thika she told me she wants to be an accountant now, and directly bought a calculator.

The last time that I visited a slum around Nairobi, I returned to Mabanda and mentioned the trip to a friend’s family. They smiled sadly and said, “So now you’ve seen real Africa.” It was as if they truly believed that the majority of Africans were living in abject destitution, crowded together into shantytowns on the outskirts of decadent Westernized cities. I’ve heard this same comment a million times in different forms, usually after someone learns that I’ve been in Kenya for several months. “So…you’ve seen the poverty,” they say as they shake their heads slowly. The ‘poverty’ to which they usually refer is not their own, but the poverty they’ve seen in NGO ads asking for aid, the poverty reflected in the faces of wealthy tourists driving by in their Land Rovers who have never met a farmer in their life, the poverty spouted by presidents and prime ministers who are eager to capitalize on another sympathetic vote. When I look around my village, I don’t see poverty, but they do. Why? Because people like Bono and Alicia Keys and Sally Struthers come to Africa for a week and a video shoot and decide that Africans are starving and need help. ‘They can’t do it on their own,’ Bono tells the UN with completely innocent and altruistic intentions. How do you think that makes Africans feel? Or do you think they don’t get the news while living in their ‘poverty’?

Don’t get me wrong. I can’t speak for all of Africa – I’ve only seen the situation in a couple of countries here. And Kenyans ARE poor, when compared with the opulence of the US. But they are not as hopeless, or as destitute, as many might have you believe. Poverty is subjective, and relative, and not easily defined. It pisses me off when people like Jeffrey Sachs visit Kenya for a couple of weeks and feel like they are experienced enough to make blanket statements about Africa. I’m not saying that I am – I freely and openly admit that I don’t know much of anything about Africans after being here for 9 months. I can only speak for myself, which is the most that anyone can truly say.


  1. Anonymous9:31 PM

    Awesome stuff Jonny - especially the last two paragraphs. Sounds like Kenya is rubbing off on you in a significant way, and in the process some of you rubbing off on Kenya. Good stuff!

    Love Always,


  2. Anonymous9:20 AM

    After sitting down to read the past couple of posts, I am amazed by how descriptive your writing is. I can't possibly imagine all of the new things you are seeing and all of the new experiences that you haven't had the time to share with us, but the ones that you have shared have been enlightening and informative. I miss you Jonny and can't wait til you get back to the ole states.

    Fraternally yours,


  3. .

    We work like a horse.
    We eat like a pig.
    We like to play chicken.
    You can get someone's goat.
    We can be as slippery as a snake.
    We get dog tired.
    We can be as quiet as a mouse.
    We can be as quick as a cat.
    Some of us are as strong as an ox.
    People try to buffalo others.
    Some are as ugly as a toad.
    We can be as gentle as a lamb.
    Sometimes we are as happy as a lark.
    Some of us drink like a fish.
    We can be as proud as a peacock.
    A few of us are as hairy as a gorilla.
    You can get a frog in your throat.
    We can be a lone wolf.
    But I'm having a whale of a time!

    You have a riveting web log
    and undoubtedly must have
    atypical & quiescent potential
    for your intended readership.
    May I suggest that you do
    everything in your power to
    honor your encyclopedic/omniscient
    Designer/Architect as well
    as your revering audience.
    As soon as we acknowledge
    this Supreme Designer/Architect,
    Who has erected the beauteous
    fabric of the universe, our minds
    must necessarily be ravished with
    wonder at this infinate goodness,
    wisdom and power.

    Please remember to never
    restrict anyone's opportunities
    for ascertaining uninterrupted
    existence for their quintessence.

    There is a time for everything,
    a season for every activity
    under heaven. A time to be
    born and a time to die. A
    time to plant and a time to
    harvest. A time to kill and
    a time to heal. A time to
    tear down and a time to
    rebuild. A time to cry and
    a time to laugh. A time to
    grieve and a time to dance.
    A time to scatter stones
    and a time to gather stones.
    A time to embrace and a
    time to turn away. A time to
    search and a time to lose.
    A time to keep and a time to
    throw away. A time to tear
    and a time to mend. A time
    to be quiet and a time to
    speak up. A time to love
    and a time to hate. A time
    for war and a time for peace.

    Best wishes for continued ascendancy,
    Dr. Whoami

    P.S. One thing of which I am sure is
    that the common culture of my youth
    is gone for good. It was hollowed out
    by the rise of ethnic "identity politics,"
    then splintered beyond hope of repair
    by the emergence of the web-based
    technologies that so maximized and
    facilitated cultural choice as to make
    the broad-based offerings of the old
    mass media look bland and unchallenging
    by comparison."


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