A Travellerspoint blog

Tea Country

We wake up in the dark, chinks of brilliant sunlight thru the gaps on the steel shutters over the windows. My back hurts from yet another night squeezed on the air mattress. The shared single gradually deflates every night so that my center of weight sinks lower and lower, kinking my back and neck. Rachel's mom calls with her morning update, right on schedule. Apparently Red Cross is sending out calls for aid as over a thousand people, displaced by riots and fires, have surrounded the Kericho Police Station. Thats about a 20 minute walk from us. Last night in El Doret (about two hours from my home outside Kabarnet) 50 people taking refuge in a church were killed when it was set on fire.
The opposition leader, Raila Odinga, has built a sucessful multi-ethnic coalition which now finds itself at odds with Kibaki and his supporters(the dominant Kikuyu minority that has controlled much of the government for the last 40 years). The violence and destruction which began between party supporters has dissolved, as it always does, into tribalism. The only difference is that this time, the other tribes have unified against Kibaki and his Kikuyu base. The church burning and the attacks against a formerly dominant minority can't help but remind me of Rwanda. The fire was a rather shocking end to a fairly quiet day and precipitated a large number of phone calls from family and friends at home. They came throughout the night as we sat up in turn to repeat the same reassurances and explanations to our constituent bases in Colorado, California, Illinois, Alabama, Texas and Minnesota.
Today however - for the first time in almost a week - there is a real reason to get up. Today contains more than card playing, reading and the terrifying domesticity of going out for groceries without getting tear-gassed or shot. Each Peace Corps country has an Emergency Action Plan (EAP): a manual for what to do when things get like they are now. The most basic part of it is consolidation: volunteers move together to a secure central locations. This makes security - and when necessary, extraction - easier to manage. What is obvious now that was not before is that consolidation only works when we can a) travel and b) have somewhere safe to travel too. There is no gas in Kericho and anyway the roads are blocked by informal and sometimes violent roadblocks. Beyond that, the majority of the originally planned consolidation points are in larger cities like Kisumu, Nairobi, Mombasa, El Doret, and Nakuru. Essentially, in all the places where the worst violence is already occurring.
The new consolidation plan as developed by our Country Director Ken Puvak (who has been extraordinarily available, helpful and encouraging over the last week) is for us to go to the Walter Reed Project's guesthouse in the tea fields outside Kericho. They want us out of the city; somewhere with more security than Marcus' steel shutters and concrete walls can afford. We are mostly just excited to leave the two rooms we have been in for the past five days. We pack all the food and spices, our clothes and sleeping bags. Dan has a massive 45 pound trail backpack full of two weeks worth of clothes, books, batteries and - as we discovered last night - candles. In any other travel circumstances I would mock him, but given that I have already been away from site for a week and will be gone at least one more, my choice for space efficiency over comfort was a mistake. Should we have to run from a crowd while carrying our luggage (a distinct possibility) I will certainly win. But if in so doing, I get my pants dirty, and I only have one other set of bottoms to change into. Should we be evacuated to Tanzania or Uganda for a significant length of time, there is always a chance that the country will be closed to Peace Corps service by the US government. In that case, it questionable whether we will be allowed to retrieve anything from our homes here. Four or five notebooks of story ideas, journal entries, notes on the economics of development will be lost to me, along with my cowboy hat, my guitar, all my clothes and my laptop (newly smuggled from Tanzania). Small things in the face of the larger issues occuring around us, but regrets I can't help but consider watching Marcus indulge the luxury none of us have had: packing with the knowledge he may not come back.
The car arrives. Another in the endless chain of white Land Rovers that make up the mobile fleet of Western aid here. The Walter Reed Project is the medical research branch of the American Army and their office in Kericho does a lot of work on vaccines. The guest house is used for visiting VIPs or academics. We meet Doug, the Walter Reed director in Kericho. Within two minutes of driving we are further from Marcus' house than we have been in the last week. Charles' mom calls. It seems Kenya has successfully passed Pakistan in the international news queue; the first headline on CNN.com, Yahoo News and others is now election violence here in Kenya. Apparently fifty refuge seekers burned to death in a church is too dramatic to ignore. It's unfortunate that the odd 200 other people killed in the past few days didn't manage to die in such a unified and tragic way. If their deaths had been coordinated and more symbolic, maybe the would have made the news ticker during "Campaign 2008" coverage. We stop at the Barclay's near town center to empty out our bank accounts. Cash is a necessity at this point: the two loaves of bread we found yesterday were four times their normal price.
The roads are blocked once or twice every mile with makeshift barricades of stones or tires. There are massive scorch marks on the tarmac from fires the night before. The innumerable tiny road side stands are overturned and burned in the street. There are few cars. Looking down the main road in the center of Kericho, we can see the slums that sit just outside of town. Mile upon mile of steel shacks lacking running water or reliable electricity. At the Stagematt closest to the slums rioters broke through the steel bars over the windows. In the ensuing looting the police shot and killed 14 people. Among the sooty stains on the sidewalk, I can imagine their blood pooling in the street.
We head out of town, past the empty matatu stage and abandoned city park, up into the tea fields. The landscape is the same verdant green it always is. The tea fields stretching to the horizon have a quiet, meticulous order heedless of the chaos just a few minutes away. In the colonial era the tea estates were operated as countries of their own.They are gated and posess their own chains of supply to dry goods, vegetables and petrol. We pass rows and rows of worker's houses built in 30k gallon water tanks with windows; concentric circles arranged into towns.
The guest house lies deep in the body of the tea estate. Doug's house is just before ours off to the right. Small clusters of monkeys sit atop the tall wood fence. He tells us about the two Kikuyu families he is sheltering in the wake of the election. Our house is surrounded by meticulously maintained gardens and lawns. Our personal askari, Nelson, greets us, waving to the cars with his night stick tucked under his left arm.
Coming from the two rooms and all corn diet we have enjoyed for the last week, the house here is shocking: five bedrooms, two full baths with hot showers, a large kitchen, fully equipped dining room and den, satellite TV, a veranda with covered couches and chairs, a freezer full of meat, a 50lb bag of rice and a fireplace with a fully stocked wood shed. We are exhausted and overwhelmed by the opulence in which we suddenly find ourselves enveloped. There is a large finely clipped lawn and two friendly and playful dogs. We have gone from bomb shelter rationing to a vacation.
There is no way - even pooling resources - that the seven of us could afford such a beautiful and fully equipped house. We enjoy luxury, comfort and safety today expressly and explicitly because other people in Kericho are experiencing misery, destruction and death. The giddy pleasure of this safe, bright and comfortable place sits like a stone in my stomach as I consider Marcus' neighbors and co-workers back in their own homes. This compound is only the first of the dozen safety nets that await us with further violence and unrest. Those we have lived next door to for the last week do not have a safe-house to escape to, much less a whole other country. On any other random day I would be at site, in my own house, combatting lonliness and boredom, trying to build a life out of half understood interactions and good intentions. Instead, the tremendous death toll and hunger experienced by the citizens of Kericho has created for me a vacation in this place: a paradise in comparison to anything we have become accustomed to in the last seven months. I wonder, for the hundreth time, what it will be like to return to site after all this. Combined with that is the question of whether I will return at all; whether, after this is all over, I can see myself going back to site and picking up where I left off.

Posted by Natyb25 00:22 Comments (2)


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)

Books! Again! and Again!

The Road to Hell: Michael Marren
Africa Betrayed
Africa In Chaos: George B.N. Ayittey.

I have also updated some photos and may be password protecting my blog in the near future as I am edging closer and closer to posting some fairly negative things about my work and the aid industry.

The password is intended only to keep the blog out of google searches.
The login and pw will be: "Natyb25"
Exactly as typed.

Computer arrives in T minus 4 weeks. Should be an avalanche of stuff, once I don't have to pay money for time to type.

Posted by Natyb25 01:43 Comments (2)

Received books

My mother loves me very much.

I have received
Borges Non-Fiction and the new translation of Proust.
I post this cause people have wanted to know what I have already received.
As a side note, anything sent in a padded envelope avoids the customs process that takes an extra month and costs me lots of money.

Posted by Natyb25 02:43 Comments (1)


The powers been out for two days now. I read that during New York's last extended blackout millions in food spoiled: torrents of water rushing out the door of the walk in freezers of posh hot spots. The only refridgerator in Talai is the coke cooler and I've never seen that plugged in.
At home, a lack of internet, TV, cell service, microwave oven and electric stove would mean a dinner of tuna fish sandwiches and carrot sticks, a half hour of staring at one another over old Christmas candles and then early bedtime.
In rural Africa, life continues pretty much as usual.
Electricity has yet to gain the daily currency of necessity here. The radios and TVs, the electric lights, they are conveniences whose absence tonight reveals a still vibrant life.
The guys next door are talking and laughing together, the family two doors down is singing songs. In the next compound I can hear kids playing hide and seek in the garden.
In short, they are doing all the things that people used to do before the effort required for imagination and conversation became greater than we cared to expend.
Of course, they already have early symptoms of our illness: the silent stare of the TV dinner. The non-improvisible evening built around scheduled reruns of "Walker: Texas Ranger." And they've only had a taste of the effortless and seamless distraction possible from that plug on the wall.
You can see the stars tonight. You can see them every night, actually. When I stop in the middle of the road to stare up at them or sit out on my front porch, chair tipped back head on the window sill, Kenyans ask me what I see. Whats so interesting?
How can I explain?
No one here can conceive that someday they'll be gone, dimmed behind the amber orange of street lights over empty parking lots. No one here enjoys blackouts.
Except me.

Posted by Natyb25 02:28 Comments (0)

Rumble in the Jungle

This piece is left over from training in Kitui and I have only just completed it.

The WWF is not popular with Peace Corps Kenya Volunteers. It's appearance every night on the black and white TV's of our home stay families is embarrassing. It's improper. The uniquely American intersection of commercialized violence, distorted body image and overblown gender roles is just too much for us to bear. It's exactly the kind of stereotyping we should be working against. (Or so I've been told)
At my house, the car battery responsible for all electrical activities emerges from Baba's room at 9p for the news. That is except on Tuesday's nights, when it emerges an hour earlier. Michael, the youngest, staggers out under its weight, rushing to push it on the cabinet before his strength fails. We turn down the gas lanterns and over the next 10 minutes the room silently and anonymously fills with neighboring boys and girls. They sit in uncharacteristic focus and silence.
It's been said that high culture digests and dissects, low culture manipulates. Wrestling is ‘low’ culture because its derivative. It pushes preprogrammed buttons; using cultural objects and social roles in the simplest way, by exaggerating them. But for the dozen odd Kenyan kids I'm sitting with in the dark, there's no self-righteous heterosexual masculinity at work. And there's not enough variation in skin color for racial typing to even be a comprehensible concept.
The crass commercialism and consequence free violence are all too American. And watching their enthusiastic reception its easy to forget that these kids live totally separate from the waste and objectification of a consumer culture or the cold and clean inhumanity of a remote control war. What can be viewed as pumped up, loud, machismo is - for this room of barefoot, wide eyed kids - remarkably earnest entertainment. For them too, wrestling is manifestly American.
It doesn’t matter that they don’t understand English. Heroes, villians and clowns are all apparent prior to their words and the drama they unfold is so manifestly physical that the combatant's grunts and groans speak volumes. The room is silent except for the hiss of a sudden breath as a flying kick off the ropes connects or the quiet background muttering of rotely memorized catch phrases.
Wrestling is larger than life; it's full of pageantry and drama. It's a struggle under bright lights on an epic scale. It's rich and big and exciting. In short, its very much the way these kids see America.
You can say it’s fake. It’s steroids and choreagraphed action. But it doesn't matter that the picture's incomplete - that America is infinitely more complex than they can know - because their excitement is genuine. Wrestling has a physicality that catches their breath. It has heroes and villians that live for them.
America is bigger and brighter in their minds than any other place and the image they possess is tidy, simplistic and miraculous. But sitting with them, soaking in their open mouthed wonder, I'm reminded how many things I take for granted. 400 channels, endless hot water, the pharmacy just down the street; small assumptions of daily life that pass unnoticed.
So, yes, the picture's incomplete and, no, the glitz and glamour aren't always real, but that doesn't mean there's something wrong with them enjoying the show. That doesn't mean that I wouldn't do well to cultivate a little wonder of my own.

Posted by Natyb25 03:53 Comments (0)

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