A Travellerspoint blog

December 2007


Sitting here, inside the house, there's not much to do. Seven of us, Peace Corps volunteers together for the holidays, ate dinner in more silence than accompanied our other meals today and yesterday. Outside there is the sound of muffled voices on loud speakers and radios. There are houses on fire a little ways down the street in both directions. Young men walk up and down the roads, dragging their machetes along the concrete. It's designed to scare people. It's working.
This afternoon, before the vegetable stand near the house was tear-gassed while we bought tomatoes, we saw people, presumably Kikuyus, walking towards the tea fields carrying large rice sacks stuffed with their valuables.They went to sleep in the woods, away from crowds and rioters. They were preparing for the worst. They were preparing for this.
President Kibaki is a Kikuyu - most people here are not. He was sworn in for his second term along with a dozen or so subordinates within a half hour of the results being announced this evening. Many of appointees are the same ones that were voted out of their Parliamentary seats in the elections three days ago; removals that seemed to indicate the broader disatisfaction with Kibaki's government. This, combined with some constituencies who reported for Kibaki with more votes than there were voters in the district, has led to wide-spread allegations and popular sentiment that, in the face of a narrow margin of victory, Kibaki's Party for National Unity has cheated.The fact that they swore him in a half hour after results were announced doesn't help.
They changed the location for the swearing-in and the space looked half empty, full of people applauding with the quiet and restrained enthusiasm of a gallows crowd. Rachel watched upstairs with neighbors who waved their finger at the man on the screen. Some sobbed. Some swore. Contrasting the violence that we can hear on the streets is this deep sadness. This feeling of loss. If an election has been stolen - as people here strongly believe is the case - then that's not the only thing and maybe not the most important one.
Samuel Huntington suggested that a Democracy cannot be said be legitimate until there have been two party changes. Until power has been effectively handed over to two different groups; to two sets of people each distinct in their relationships and allegiances. Kenya did it for the first time in 2002. At the end of his 22 years of consolidated power, Daniel Arap Moi fled the stage at his concession speech in Uhuru Park after the crowd began throwing mud. And though Kibaki's party was called NARC then and PNU now, power has not changed hands. The most basic defining attribute of democracy - choice - has not been exercised in a discernable way.
Raila Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement has declared - and at this moment maintains - that they will not concede to what they consider fraudelent results.
This leaves us...nowhere.
Even if the allegations of fraud are true, the difference they made is only the few hundred thousand needed to push Kibaki over the top. Regardless the country is almost evenly divided between the two candidates which means that no matter what happens, half the people will find a leader they did not choose.
Where I come from elections can be disapointing, even sad, but they do not merit the tremendous sadness that I have seen in people tonight. We do not place quite so much hope in the individiuals who are chosen. We do not believe that the process of choosing will lead to an outcome that 'means something' in a larger historical way. And indeed, the systems - the bureacracy and ingrained rights afforded by our institutions - that compose our government merit such an indifferent viewpoint. Their complexity and our assumptions in relating to them ensure that any fundamental change will be hard fought and long coming. In a youthful Democracy like this one, such assumptions have not had the time or the experience to become ingrained, nor can they be so easily taken for granted. If results stand as they are now, Kibaki's continuued consolidation of power - and an even deeper resentment of the Kikuyu tribe that has dominated Kenyan government since independence - mean that the next set of elections will only be more turbulent, more tribalistic and more violent than these.
The harder cost to gauge is the spiritual one. It is easy to talk about the structures of power and their alteration under a president in his second term (people in the states are re-learning this lesson even now). Conflicts in Rwanda and many other places in Africa tell what happens when a dominant minority is finally thrown out of power and the oppressed majority finds themselves with an open mandate to redress grievances or seek revenge. These are matters of political and philosophical calculation and prediction.
What cannot be tallied or forcasted is what this perception of theft will do to people for whom Democracy is a new and untested method. Our elections in the states stand astride a massive and silent assumption, one so quietly and tacitly agreed upon that it never emerges as an issue. Democracy isn't as tragic at home because we don't invest miraculous hope in it, because we don't expect tremendous things. Our disapointment is a matter of degrees; our certain and unquestioned faith in choosing our leaders means that the failure is never systematic, only circumstantial. But such faith doesn't exist here. And that miraculous hope that comes with systemic change has been lost. The cost of that is unknowable and will mean much more to the future of this place than anything else.
In the meantime, we wait like everyone else. All the larger stores have been closed for a few days. After the tear-gassing today, it's questionable whether the mommas will return to sell fruits and vegetables by the road. We have enough rice and flour to last us a few days and we have been filling up cans and tubs in case the water stops running. We play cards. We read books. We turn on the radio at the top of every hour for news. Like I said, there's not much else for us to do.

Posted by Natyb25 11:01 Comments (2)


The primary thing that I try to keep in mind while traveling in Africa is that there is no system. Which is why – in a backwards sort of way – it makes sense that in Nakuru there is. The matatu stage is a sprawling, living space; its dimensions and supports measured and built out of the crowds of people that compose it. Throngs of hawkers, food stalls, vans and trucks, cobblers, beggars and touts fill it to overflowing. It engulfs the major indoor vegetable market and bleeds over into the used clothing and housewares market. Located north of Nairobi, Nakuru is a hub for embarking east towards Meru and Mt. Kenya, north to Lake Baringo and the Upper Rift, and west – over what is arguably the worst road I have ever traveled – to Kisumu and Lake Victoria. You can also head southwest, to tea country, which is where I am headed today.
I try to enter a matatu bound for Kericho and am rebuffed. It seems in Nakuru, tucked between shallow storefronts selling plastic basins and overprinted 50 Cent T-shirts, there are actually ticket windows. I am even more shocked to be informed that my ticket is not for this current matatu; I’m on the next one.
I have read that, in the aggregate, humans are getting taller, a result of improved nutrition. This leads me to believe that the Nissan and Toyota minibuses that compose the informal transportation sector here in Kenya were designed at some point in the 1880’s when the largest people were five feet tall and had perfectly symmetrical shoulders and waists. No doubt someone of my freakish 6’1’’ stature, carrying broad shoulders and large flat feet would have been forced to ride in a separate transport away from respectable, normal folk.
As my matatu pulls up I am shooed towards the front seat. Quite often on the road, matatus pass in segregated symmetry: whites in the front, Africans in the back. I am typically shown the front seat, even at the expense of Africans already seated there. You can argue it’s a hold-over from colonial era racism, but it probably has more to do with the learned habit of ferrying a generation of Westerners who grew up yelling: “Shotgun!” It works out fine regardless. Typically tourists in matatus are there because they want a chance to try out their Lonely Planet Swahili Phrasebook; they want to “mix with locals!” For every white person actually needing to go somewhere, there are two out ‘slumming’; the matatu as another taste of ‘authentic’ African culture. Riding in the front also means they can watch their bags and avoid having a baby or a sack of maize shoved on their lap. They can “mix with the locals!” with the certainty of reasonable limits.
Those of us in the back don’t particularly mind because: a) they are guests and b) they have just volunteered to be our crumple zone. No doubt when Nissan Minibuses were first designed back in the 19th century, they were pulled by horses and the risk of a high-speed head-on collision was minimal. But at some point, someone decided to install an engine behind the front row of seats making the first serious barrier to the powerful crushing force of an impact the bodies of those in the first row. You only have to pass so many matatus, rolled over and burned out in the median - their front ends exploded like a kernel of popcorn - to start to really enjoy the claustrophobic squeeze as you make your way to the back. In general, I try to sit as much in the middle as possible. When I travel alone this involves timing similar to double-dutch as I try to jump in after the person taking the window seat.
My matatu today, in compliance with Kenyan law, has a seatbelt. Moreover, someone has taken the additional step of jamming it in the closed position, helpfully ensuring that it cannot be tampered with or removed. I consider pulling up my legs and sliding under it, like slipping under the covers of a freshly made bed, but then imagine attempting the reverse of this maneuver as the matatu lies upside down in the median and the Aussies in the front seat scream: “ME LEGS!” I switch seats.
At home in Kabarnet, there is a police checkpoint on the way out of town to ensure that everyone has a seatbelt and that the bus is only carrying fourteen souls. Typically everyone sighs collective relief as we pull away, unclicking their belts just as we pull up to the police free pickup point (within visible distance of the officer we have just departed) and pack in eight extra people.
The sky today has the thick and clustered clouds that only reveal their beauty freed from the tunnel vision of building lined streets. Seen all at once, they are a heard of grey, fleecy buffalo calmly moving towards the horizon. We pass slow moving petrol tankers, each with a bicyclist or two - leaned over their handlebars - gripping the back of the trailer, like lampreys on sharks. Ahead, the clouds periodically part, momentarily releasing a golden shaft of light the size of a house enveloping this shamba or that intersection with a seemingly divine glow.
I’m dropped off on the side of the road outside Kericho. Marcus works at the Walter Reed Project Office there. They are doing clinical trials of an AIDS vaccine among other things. His house is a twenty minute walk from the Kericho-town center. Marcus and James greet me on the road, drinks already in hand. As it will turn out these are the only two cups in Marcus’ house. The options presented to me are a shallow bowl or an old Coke bottle. Preferring to make a tremendous mess each time I make a drink, as opposed to each time I drink one, I choose the bottle.
I would suggest that Marcus lacks a nesting instinct. Granted he has a very real and structured job that takes up time that a typical volunteer would use to obsess about their domestic state, but there is something distinctly Spartan about his home. It has the feeling of a very large closet: a place where Marcus stores his things (along with himself) when he’s not at work.
As it turns out, this is not entirely his influence. Prior to his occupation it was, in fact, a storeroom. A ¾ height plywood wall has been installed creating a bedroom that lies, awkwardly, directly in from the front door. Marcus is one of those few and fortunate volunteers who have a working indoor choo: a porcelain bowl installed in the slab. Moreover, the fact that the shower is installed directly over it means that cleaning up accidents is a breeze. You just have to be careful not to step down while soaping up. It is a shower of the kind that you elect to stand adjacent to and splash yourself with in order to avoid hypothermia. The water knob has been cleverly placed so that opening the door carelessly bangs it and provides a punitive spray of the vividly frigid water. The house is concrete construction with high ceilings and powerful looking steel bars and shutters over long windows. Essentially, Marcus lives in an armoire with blast doors.
I am glad to see my friends. Marcus is here as the final component of his Masters. He’s a stoic, or pretends to be. He wants to work in development and his time here is not for cultural exchange or character growth. He has little patience for people who whine about their comfort. At least within his work and his reasons for being here, he is quietly self assured and relaxed. I tend to think there are other parts of him that sit farther beneath the surface; emotions and aspirations that he shares with a limited number of people.
James, on the other hand, seems to keep everything on the surface. This is not to say that he lacks depth, only that what he has to give is immediately and continuously present. He is one of those rare, effortlessly social beings; constructing relationships, being likeable and affable is second nature to him. He’s so good at it, in fact, that he resorts to pushing people’s buttons for fun: enraging them until they scream at him and then patching things up. This is in fact precisely the process by which he and I became friends. I believe I told him to stop acting like a child.
We walk to dinner at the nearby Continental Hotel. The hotel was actually built expressly for President Moi to stay at when he visited Kericho. The road we walk is muddy and riddled with holes. The joke is that driving in Kenya nowadays consists of trying to avoid the leftover chunks of road. Across from the covered drive and landscaped lawns of the hotel are a line of sheet-metal dukas with houses and small gardens behind them. The dim glow of gas lamps in their windows contrasts the electric lights that pile six stories above us as we pass through the glass doors. I am once again astonished that in a country where I’ve seen someone stripped and beaten in the streets for stealing an orange, and edifice like this could be built for one man without any feeling of inconsistency.
We order nyama choma and millet ugali. We drink beers. Getting together with volunteers is like comparing trading cards. It’s visceral and vital and cathartic, but it’s mostly derivative. Everyone tells the same stories from dimly contrasted perspectives. I got asked for this or I thought I could do that. I didn’t understand and went here or there or any of the innumerable smaller events that occur in tandem for strangers in a strange land. We tell stories to each other, but to ourselves most of all. We justify our judgements or decisions by narrating to eachother and searching for confirmation of the wisdom of this lesson, the rationality of that choice. After that we drop back to the things we miss. Giving ourselves a chance to re-experience foods or routines that weigh heavy - though infrequent - on our unconscious recollection. I never remember things half as well as when I recollect them for other people. A dynamic that makes the private things I miss all the more poignant.
Two times over the course of dinner I encounter men at the urinal who are not peeing but rather counting money. Fairly intoxicated on my final bathroom trip before facing the bill, I wash my hands and step back up to the urinal to count out cash. I extend this gesture in the hopes someone will enter and see me. No one does.
I seldom walk in the dark here. The first reason is the often over-imagined danger of crime. The second is that here – when it is dark – it is very dark. There are no streetlights or porch lights, garden lamps or lit billboards. Aside from the brilliant headlights of passing cars -which succeed in destroying any night vision you can build up in the intervening time – it is simply pitch black. We stagger home in and out of puddles through cow shit and mud to Marcus’ front door.
In the morning we begin the first of our numerous trips to the overpriced, second rate tourists traps that Marcus has neglected to visit because he wanted to share them with guests. The Kericho Tea Hotel is an excellent example of a common sight in Kenya: the colonial era institution not quite successful enough to update but not dead enough to close. Everything from the black and white TV to the pleather armchairs looks much the way it did when colonialism ended. This may be a cunning bit of marketing on the part of the owners since a chance to imagine what life was like during colonialism is the only reason you would come and pay eighty shillings for a pot of tea (which, I might add, is weak and luke-warm). This is particularly irksome because, as we sit on the cracked and faded veranda in plastic 60s bubble chairs, all we can see is tea, stretching in tidily bordered fields to the horizon.
There is a gift shop, for tourists who have come this far and – for some inexplicable reason – wish to go no further. Like most gift shops here it saves you the trouble of bargaining by simply charging a price higher than any roadside vendor or craftmaker would dream of asking. There is a selection of English books by Western authors on African subjects. Assumedly for people who, prior to coming to Africa, hadn’t heard of Nelson Mandela or feel that – now that they have been here – they should learn what folks back home think of here.
There is a knobbed stick the length of my arm covered from top to bottom with beads, tassels, small hanging masks, cut pieces of a bronze looking metal. As though a half dozen tribal craftsmen were locked in a room and told to bedazzle this object until there was no more space to bedazzle. I confirm with the cashier that this Manhattan Project of souvenirs is in fact what it appears to be: a stick for beating cattle. It is.
I suppose there is something profound and ironic here: the object made symbol. Sold and bought as an embodiment of an entire culture because of its resemblance to a tool used for a job that its spangles and ornament would prevent it from doing. So that when people pick it up off your front hall table you can say “Ah yes. Picked that up in Tea Country. Used in cattle rituals. Fantastic tea there. Hot and cheap.”
I try to imagine my neighbors going about their daily tasks in a Western constructed image of traditional dress. Doing laundry in an ornate beaded chestplate. Carrying water in giant copper earrings and neck loops. Checking your spear at the Stagematt. As we leave I see that years of overweight tourists have slowly bent the diving board down until its end sits just under the surface of the swimming pool.
Walking in Nakuru with friends I saw a man fall into a five foot deep, six foot long trench the width of the sidewalk: he hadn’t been paying attention to where he was going. From this, I guessed that there were much fewer accidents on African sidewalks and streets. Since, I reasoned, you couldn’t take for granted the presence of pavement or steps or that you wouldn’t encounter an open grave in the middle of the thoroughfare, people had to be more conscientious travelers. This is, of course, wrong. There are many more accidents and they are typically much worse. Still I fantasize about filling a town like Kericho with native New Yorkers and watching them trip into light poles, fall down uneven stairs, and catch their hand bags on barbed-wire park fences. All of this as barefoot Kenyans step agilely over them.
As we walk into town taxis, drunks and hawkers hiss at us. This is normal. It’s a socially neutral way to attract attention in Kenya. Regardless, we ignore it, knowing full well that protesting that you are not interested, don’t want anything, were looking at something else, have a lazy eye, are all considered the first step of a shrewd negotiating ploy. Foreigners who know the sound ignore it for this reason. Ironically, foreigners who don’t know it also ignore it (though they wonder whose tyres are leaking) which means that it principally attracts innocent bypassing Kenyans. This pleases neither them, nor the hawkers.
Entering the Stagematt is always calming. The Kenyan equivalent of Walmart, the wide aisles and quietly overflowing order of its shelves is a sharp contrast from the disorder of the streets outside. Everything I know to buy in Kenya is in the Stagematt. The low cost of labor and high occurrence of theft mean each aisle has one or two employees quietly surveying. As so often occurs when faced with so many things you hadn’t realized you wanted all along, we immediately split up and wander off alone. I come to staring at a battery powered bug killer you swing like a tennis racket. I see Marcus an aisle over comparing five gallon buckets of cooking fat. James alone has kept his focus (or at least stuck with his instincts). We find him in the liquor section a pack of cigarettes in his hand. We gather ingredients for a Mexican dinner of guacamole, spicy lime beef and chapatti. I buy Marcus a special gift glass so I can stop pouring vodka on the floor. Having observed a troupe of scavenging monkeys on the way in, James buys a loaf of bread.
On the way back James and I cross the garbage trench that borders the road and he begins tossing out bread. James has a bit of a preoccupation with monkeys; a few years ago a visit to the Lomburi monkey temples - two hours north of Bangkok - enflamed an enthusiasm into something a bit more. The experience ended badly; suffice to say that there comes a point where there are simply too many monkeys on you and you want all of them off you, now. It is perhaps the memory of this - as well as the increasing numbers of monkeys dropping around us like a gang of ambushing thieves - that inspires in James a degree of moderation and restraint I have seldom seen in him. “That’s enough,” he announces in a voice that clearly does not believe this is to be true.
Dinner is excellent, though protracted owning to the presence of only two spoons. James and Marcus share the bed, and I take the couch.
The tea fields in Kericho run from the paved road to the horizon in ordered terraced plots, interspersed with copses of slender, high trees. In one of those pieces of local wisdom repeated so many times that its irrationality is overwhelmed by its repetition, we have accepted that the trees actually create the rain that arrives with clockwork-like regularity every afternoon. The constant moisture leaves the ground muddy and wears deeper the pitted holes in the road. It also leaves the landscape a perennially verdant and vibrant green.
Entering the fields shortly after 10am – as the majority of people are on their way to church – we walk down paths that part the lush green sea of thick hedge-like tea plants. The flat and even tops of the bushes rise and fall from our waists to our shoulders like passing waves as the rut of the muddy path deepens and shallows. Our goal, unsurprisingly, is monkeys. We had planned to walk through the fields anyhow and with most of a loaf of bread still remaining, we have a half baked hope that the thicker trees that top the hillsides of the visible horizon are packed with playful primates.
There is something peaceful and fulfilling about encountering such neatly ordered nature: the arrow straight paths T-boning into one another, the trees planted in geometric rows so that a perfect transect of vertical trunks is visible from each and every angle: they are calming and quiet in the damp morning air. It seems to me a space out of Abbott’s Flatland, every line continuing in unerring straightness until its perspectival terminus at the horizon. Only the river, flushed from the constant rains, refuses to submit to ordering; its rushing din hidden by dense, wild undergrowth.
We cross an old bridge constructed and reconstructed, strengthened and patched with decades of leftover wood and come to plantation housing for the pickers. We see clothes drying and smoke from cooking fires, but there are no people. The sense of seamless order begins to feel slightly eery, like wandering through an abandoned house and finding a fire still burning, cups of tea steaming on the table. The forest at the top of the fields is older, but just as ordered. The covering canopy creates a dim greenish light. The forest floor is almost bare.
We reach a fallen tree; an element of disorder novel enough for pause. We sit and listen to the slow creak of the thin trunks swaying together in the wind. The narrow trunks and thick leaf cover leave the space contained but bare, like an immense empty warehouse. There are no monkeys. James scatters the remains of the bread around us on the forest floor. I imagine that we probably appear like terribly ineffective poachers: lacking proper equipment for catching or subduing our prey and clearly possessing only the barest knowledge of where our quarry is to be found.
We tramp back to Marcus’ and throw our mud splattered pants into a bucket to soak. I also throw in my cell phone, forgotten in a side pocket. Another dinner, another movie. In the morning, Marcus prepares to go to work and James and I pack up. We split off to different stages. Marcus goes to work. I buy some vegetables so I won’t have to rush to the market when I get home.
In Kericho there are no ticket windows and I find a seat in the back corner of a matatu. It’s stifling inside but I close my window to avoid having objects shoved between my face and my newspaper; pens clicked, flashlights flashed, candies rolled in their crinkly wrappers between dark fingers. Hawkers of every age and tribe swarm like a school of fish around each arriving and departing bus. There is tea, peanuts, bottled water, orange drink, milk, yogurt, perfume, newspapers, magazines, spelling charts, prayer books, coloring books, school work books, musical greeting cards, wood spoons, metal spoons, pocket knives, kitchen knives, butter knives, sufuriahs, CDs, DVDs, sunglasses, cell phone points and cases, calculators, tape measures, belts, wallets, bandanas, dish towels, curtain lace, watches, socks, undershirts, ties, hats, mechanical springs, rope, string, cookies, lollipops, bubble gum, hard candy, and steaming hot chai, served in the same cups over and over. All of it hoisted up on shoulders, draped over arms and around necks, held to sheets of plywood with rubber straps; it is Capitalism at its simplest and least gratifying level. On their feet, breathing engine fumes, carrying basins and boards over-loaded with sundries, the hawkers scramble in the morning sun. Ten tries for every sale. I get tired just watching them.
In the two seats next to me sit a husband and wife, each with a preschool age daughter on their lap. The one closest to me stares with that mouth open wonder bordering on fear. Throughout the ride she attempts to covertly stroke the hair on my arm. It’s between four and seven hours back to Kabarnet depending on traffic, road conditions, cattle movement. My knees already hurt from pressing against the tubular steel of the seat ahead of me.
As we drive out of Kericho the air in the window is moist and cool and the driver has a “Learn English” tape playing. The pickers are out in the fields. They ignore the precut paths, moving in tandem lines across the broad flat green, their bags floating atop the bushes beside them. Behind them, the thick vegetation retains the space of their passing, like wakes behind boats.

Posted by Natyb25 23:26 Comments (1)

Why I Hate International Newsweek

Given the monumental scale of graft that is salient to aid work, it shouldn’t be a big deal that some-where some-one some-how convinced some-bureaucrat that International Newsweek would be the best way to keep Peace Corps volunteers informed on world events. I surmise that Newsweek is reading-level, attention-span, interest-depth appropriate for the average American. Just because the average Peace Corps Volunteer has a higher level of interest in world events (given that, if you will recall, we have volunteered to go out into said world) doesn’t mean that Newsweek couldn’t be an important source of news and entertainment. No, what bothers me - what drives me to end each reading with a promise to throw it away as soon as it next appears in the mail - is the tremendous and cruelly ironic intersection of the magazine’s target demographic and my own daily life.
Rolex, Jaquet Droz, Tudor, Breitling, Patek Phillippe, Longines, Breguet. Have you heard of all of these watch companies? Probably not.
Because you are too poor. Or at least I am. These are companies whose ads tacitly admit their astonishing prices by attempting to convince you that you aren’t purchasing a watch, but a ready-made, mass-produced family heirloom. My last issue came with a copy of “Perpetual Spirit Magazine,” the equivalent of Rolex’s sweeps week apparently intended to break down anyone who hasn’t been swayed by seeing Roger Federer with one photo-shopped to his wrist on the inside cover every single week for the last seven months. Made with heavier, glossier paper (and only 18 pages shorter than my Newsweek) it was full of hard hitting articles about “going to the limit” in golf, car racing, equestrian competition and (this is when you know you have a good agent) playing the sitar; tasks that are no doubt more satisfying (though certainly not easier) with a two pound chunk of gold strapped to your wrist.
In between ads for the Lexus Hybrid SUV, Toshiba Central A/C units and earnest encouragement to visit the Dubai Duty Free is the most viewed articles on Newsweek.com. #1 this week: “The 8 Most Fattening Foods of Fall.” (Quantified to assist those whose attention spans couldn’t handle last weeks #1: “Fall’s Most Fattening Foods.”) Towards the back, there’s a weekly profile on niche luxury goods (Blinging Fishing Lures! Ooo! Functional!) and the “Four Hours in…” travel section. The layout – down to the order of the ads – is the same for every issue, a smart time-saving logic given that it’s designed for travelers to pick up at the newsstand. After all, what kind of moron would get a subscription to International Newsweek?
Are you getting the picture? The idea that this is a magazine designed for international business travelers is not revolutionary. It’s probably very effective. Americans traveling abroad, waiting in the climate controlled executive lounge in Dubai for their Emirate’s flight to Brussels, a fifth of Absolut from the duty free packed into their rolling carryon. Thinking to themselves: “You know…we could kind of use another heirloom for the kids. That reminds me, I should be investing in the future of global energy, but what company is the world’s leader in innovative energy solut- Hey! Wow! Thanks Newsweek!” And so on.
No, the point I want to make is that this magazine is sent to me. I don’t wear a watch, not because I haven’t found one of heirloom quality, but because people here don’t use clocks. Most of us don’t even have electricity, much less internet to scan articles about how and why we are getting too fat (another issue which you will be shocked to here is low on our list of priorities). When (on occasion) I do actually end up in a city with paved roads and refrigerated beverages, even then, I am unlikely to actually enter into a building equipped with fans, much less one with central air conditioning. And the odds of my traveling to Rejivyak are slim. The chances that given the opportunity to go, I would choose to stay for four hours are non-existent.
Everything in International Newsweek seems specifically designed to point out the things I can’t do, the objects I don’t have and the services I can neither afford nor access. It is the anti-thesis of my life here.
Moreover, by the very nature of the isolation and scarcity that makes it so irritating to read, International Newsweek is the only regular source of news that we receive. When the happy occasion arises that we meet one another and desire to discuss world events our conversation immediately stalls as we realize that our knowledge of current events is: a) based on the exact same vaguely summaried articles and b) at a ninth grade reading level (I cite as evidence the recent headline: “Warlordistan”).
And worst - worst of all - is that no matter how frustrated I may be with the fact that the shilling value of each issue could buy me food for that week or how tired I am of the Breitling ad with John Travolta and the caption “Career: Actor. Profession: Pilot.” the most galling part of receiving International Newsweek is that I can’t stop reading it. It remains my most reliable and consistent source (primarily by being my only source) of information about the world. Promise though I might to stop rotting my brain with it, I know it will stay right were it always does: piled on the edge of my desk awaiting a third reading.

Posted by Natyb25 23:21 Comments (0)


We arrived yesterday, partially at my insistence. Thanksgiving is mostly about the preparations for me. The day spent in and out of the kitchen, the effortless and satisfying passage of time that comes with a list of low level tasks; a day of constant progress towards a real goal. Merely showing up for dinner – as we had originally planned - would have much the same feeling for me as going to a restaurant.
Charles slaughters the ducks and we pluck them. Their head lay on the ground near the pot, beaks moving up and down for a half hour. Rachel’s mom has sent fresh cranberries and stuffing mix. We spend the day cooking: sweet potatoes with coconut milk. garlic mashed potatoes. green beans with mushrooms. chocolate chip almond pumpkin bread and apple crisps. We drink wine. I start a small grease fire. The stove has one burner that never goes off and is constantly at maximum heat. The oven is broken and a significant part of our planning and discussions has to do with figuring out how to make everything when we have three less pots than we would like.
The table is four forklift pallets dragged over from next door and laid side by side to make a large square. It’s covered with lessos in brilliant blues and greens, yellows and reds. There are small sets of tea candles, and larger ones set into old brandy and wine bottles. The table gradually fills with people and food. When we finally sit down, Rachel and I are sweaty and tired. Our faces shine with grease from cooking. There is not enough space on my plate! I grab a leg of duck, a scoop of stuffing, green beans, garlic mashed potatoes and jellied cranberry sauce. I don’t need much. At Rachel’s insistence all kitchen staff were authorized to snack on ingredients as much as they like. I have violently abused this freedom.
There are ten of us. Darcy and Dan from the Coast. Two of the three Voi boys (Shane and Chris but no Jeff) and Tory from just outside town. Brad and Whitney from their home down near the Tanzanian border. Charles, Emily and myself from north of Nairobi. Today this is my family. We share what we are grateful for. We drink a little too much. Dinner morphs into that pleasantly casual space where picking directly from serving bowl with your hands is encouraged. I play guitar and sing on the porch. Gradually we drift off. Brad and Whitney are staying in town. The Voi Boys walk home carrying their pots and cushions.
Those remaining begin to fall asleep in their chairs; slouched down, their heads resting against chair backs. I try to remember what the end of Thanksgiving feels like at home. There’s no football to watch. No movies or Daily Show. No convenient non-participatory bookend to the evening. There’s only us.
I often wonder how many of us would end up friends if we all happened to meet in a bar together in the states. The family I have here today is in that respect much like my own. I did not choose them – I find it hard to say even what I would think of them where we to meet absent these extreme and binding circumstances – but I love them. Despite - probably because of - our differences, I feel blessed to sit among people for whom I have such an abiding respect and affection. It’s Thanksgiving and I am grateful for food, for friends, and for this miraculous and surprising life that I seem to be living.

Posted by Natyb25 05:23 Comments (0)


Chasing a side-scuttling crab down into its hole, Charles pushes his hand beneath the white sand. The endless tunnel confirms that the holes that litter this beach are not individual dwellings, but a network of passageways that criss-cross it like a subway system. Crabs shuttle in and out, moving between the cool dampness of the tunnels and the blazing white heat of the sun like Manhattan commuters in July. I put our cameras and phones inside the stuff sack that I brought and I half bury it. I’ve been told that batteries left out in this sun swell and distort, bubbly acid boiling out of the distended tops and bottoms.
Further up the beach there is a group of boys playing soccer with a bundle of plastic bags tied with string into a ball. Before they swim, they strip off their clothes, revealing the uniform darkness of their bodies; the result of a lifetime of swimming and living on a beach enough their own to make modesty unthinkable.
The beach empties as we get closer to midday; they retreat to shade and electric fans. Kenyans here say that only two things go out in midday: mad dogs and British. I can't deny that it’s true. The novelty of this heat remains precisely because it’s so intolerable. We compensate for the heat by running a slow paced relay between ocean and sand, never really drying off. Once the salt water has evaporated we find ourselves soaked in sweat, salty beads stinging our eyes as they drip down over eyebrows and lashes.
We sit on the bare sand and smoke cigarettes in silence. Charles is off the wagon. I sympathize. Being here installs a low level sort of hedonism that we both acknowledge as irrational. Part of it is being separated from comforts to which we are accustomed and consequently indulging whenever we can. But there is a sense too that the hardships we see magnify our own feelings of vitality and strength; as though the bad things around us indemnify us from the damage to our lungs and hearts that would so bother me at home. Whatever the reason, doing things I enjoy – even at higher risk – seems more important here.
We stare out ahead of us at the fishing boats moored just before the reef. The boats are mango tree trunks, cut inland and burned out to harden and seal the wood. Before dawn, they push out into the sea, furling tall black canvas sails that push them over the waves breaking on the reef. They dive and spear fish on the ocean, returning before midday with their catch. We watch as a group of men and boys come out from the trees that border the beach as the last boat comes in. They hand off the catch and it’s carried up the beach. The men wear shorts and threadbare shirts.
There will come a day when the boys swimming near us will realize that they can no longer swim naked in their ocean. When they can no longer play on the beach in just their skin, but must clothe and work in the deep water. Sitting here in the sun, the silence testament to how little we feel is required of us at this moment, I wonder whether this time, here, belongs to the child or the adult; naked swimming to cool the heat of play or pulling towards the depths, spear in hand. My hope is to build a life where it can be both; a life where I emerge from the dark, cool water with trophies in hand knowing all the while that I would dive regardless of reward. I would dive because the deep clear blue is the game I like the best and the greatest reward the playing itself.
Being here seems a good start.

Posted by Natyb25 05:19 Comments (0)

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