Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Heifer International Brochure

Hi, All!

I'm doing well, taking classes at UCLA Extension and looking for a job. I think about Kenya almost daily, but haven't taken the time to write. Even though I should be packing right now (I'm going home for a week tomorrow to help with Katrina & Kier's wedding), I'm compelled to write.

Will got the Heifer International holiday catalog in the mail today, and I read it with great interest. I think everyone's pretty familiar with H.I.'s model: Donations go toward providing area-appropriate livestock to very poor families all over the world. I was surprised to see that H.I. also gives to families in the US, in Arizona and Arkansas.

The brochure has very inspiring pictures of folks, especially children, with their new livestock. There are even a couple of testimonials from Western Kenya--my old hood. The people in the 'snaps'--as Kenyans say--look just like friends I made in the rural areas there. I miss it!

In reading the stories and looking at the pictures though, I can't stop thinking of nitty-gritty questions about the program, especially about its sustainability...

The first that came to mind were:
  1. How do families qualify for a cow, goat, etc.? Do they proactively seek H.I. out or does a H.I. rep approach them? Is there a waiting list?

  2. What do the recipient families do to earn the cow, goat, llama, donkey, chickens, etc? Does H.I. give them out for free? Do participants have to attend training on animal husbandry before they get the animal(s)?

  3. Do the participants' neighbors get jealous? How do they deal with that? What if one family gets a cow, and another gets a goat which is only worth a third or fourth of the cow?

  4. There's a "Pass It On" requirement--the family has to give a female offspring from its animal to another family in the area. How is the other family chosen? If it's not H.I. choosing them, I'll bet you two chickens that there's bribing going on! But I guess that's not the end of the world, is it?

  5. And most importantly, what sort of long-term studies are done to determine whether participating families' quality of life improved temporarily or more permanently?
I don't mean to sound cynical, it sounds like H.I. is doing a lot of good. But you know how skeptical I am about straight-up aid these days... I still don't know how you tell when something like this provides the exactly the leg up someone needs or if it's a temporary band-aid on a systemic problem.

Katy in LA

P.S. Just went to their site and found this page. Encouraging! Love the video about gender equality training!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


I'm back! And awake at four in the morning (love the jet lag.) I got in at about 3 yesterday and made it all the way til 8 pm without falling asleep. :) Will brought me a pastrami sandwich at LAX, which is amongst the most amazing things I've eaten in recent memory, as well as fresh fruit I couldn't get in Kenya: cherries, strawberries and peaches. Tomorrow I'm going to see if we can get sushi at Katsuya in the valley.

I'm happy to be home and not nearly as culture shocked as I thought I would be. I think backpacking for three weeks and spending my last couple of days in Nairobi helped a lot with that. Nairobi is rife with shopping malls, coffee shops, European retail stores, big buildings and lots of traffic. And the suburb I was stayin in, Karen--after Karen Blixen of Out of Africa--was mzungu central. it might as well have been Pasadena. If I'd left straight from Kakamega, I think I'd be in major shock.

My first impression of LA flying in today was, "Jesus, look at all that smog." Driving home, I was overwhelmed by all the concrete. Everywhere. Not a fan. Los Feliz still seems lovely, but not nearly as green as I remember. I guess anywhere pales in comparison to the green of the Kakamega Rainforest and Western Province tea plantations directly after the Long Rainy season. LA really feels like a legitimate desert.

And so many cars!! The 10:1 car to pedestrian ratio here is the inverse of Kakamega's. I'm used to sharing the sidewalk/dirt road/bicycle path with loads of people: seeing their faces, greeting them, getting solicited to get in this or that minibus, buy vegetables, give 5 shillings, etc. Here it's just machines! Cars talking to each other with their turn signals.

I'll only in LA for two days: On Friday, Will and I are going to Sacramento for Cousin Kristine's wedding, then we'll be in Oregon for a week visiting Lizzie, then to Orinda for a few days (the 18th or 19th to 23). So I'll have to wait until then to see most of you LA folks. Sacto and Bay Area peeps, I'll see you soon!

Love and thanks,

P.S. Even though I'm back, I have a lot of old posts that I started writing in Kakamega, but never finished due time constraints or bad internet connections. So don't be surprised if you see a few posts/e-mails back-dated from the Spring.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Guest Houses and Street Food

It’s amazing to me the range of price options there are when travelling. You can spend as much or as little money as you want. There is always someone who will cater to your desire to drop more dough and usually someone who will sell something to you for less if you try hard enough. Although I look forward to the day when I can take luxury vacations (maybe when I’m retired?) I’m enjoying being a dirty backpacker again.

The best way to travel in Africa on a budget is to camp—a lot of backpacker guest houses, a.k.a., hostels, have camping areas for $2 per person per night. Since I don’t have tent or sleeping bag, I’ve been going the hostel dormitory route, which usually runs me about seven to 10 bucks a night. Dorm rooms sleep anywhere from four to12 people, all in bunk beds. So far, they’ve all been co-ed, which means you get to change in the bathroom. The lighting décor ranges from an exposed florescent bulb to an incandescent with a basket-cum-light shade over it. If a hostel doesn't have a dorm room, I'll get a single or even try to find someone else to share a doube with! Even in these, there are usually shared bathrooms.

The showers typically consist of the shower head mounted somewhere in the bathroom, and most places have hot water. The bathrooms generally feel like something between a public beach bathroom and Motel 6. You provide your own towel and soap, and it’s always a good idea to bring a roll of TP just in case there isn’t any. ;-)

Flamingo Guest House in Zanzibar, where I stayed last night, didn’t have hot water in the shower, but made up for it by having fine-mesh screens on the windows and an overhead fan that ran like a jet engine. I had my first night unmolested by mosquitoes in months. Mosquitoes are bad flyers, and if any of them did get through the screens, they were overpowered by the fan. I don’t know how, but with non-screened windows, some mozzie invariably finds its way inside my net and bites unmercifully on any exposed part: hands, face or feet. My face looks like a hormonal teenager’s right now.

The only downside of staying in dormitories is sharing your room with a bunch of other dirty backpackers, whom you are also trusting not to steal your stuff. But they're generally a trusty bunch through an unspoken backpacker's code. And for me, being in close contact with other travellers is actually a plus, since I’m on my own. It’s a great way to learn about what to see, what to watch out for and where to get good, cheap food.

I learned about a Ugandan delicacy called the Rolex this way. Outside the gates of the Nile River Explorers Backpacker’s compound in Jinja, a fellow travler informed me that you can get a chapati (fatty flour tortilla) with a fried egg and veggies for 1,000 Ugandan shillings (85 cents). The vendor chops up some tomato, onion and green pepper and fries it on an iron skillet over coals. He breaks an egg over the mixture. Once that’s cooked, sliced avocado is added and the whole thing is rolled up in a chapati. It’s basically a breakfast burrito and fills you up for hours. I met a broke primatology student from Nairobi and Rotary-funded sociologist interviewing gay sex workers in Mombasa who were able to stay a whole extra day at in Jinja after discovering the Rolex, because it was so cheap. They ate one with bananas and Nutella for breakfast, a veggie/avocado combo for dinner and meat Rolex for dinner.

So, if you eat at street vendors like this, you’ll hardly spend any money and will get to eat fresh and like a local. If you go to the tourist lodges, you’ll spend more than you do at home. I know eating street food can be a little risky, but my rule is if I watch it being cooked, it should be okay. So far, so good… plus, you know what Dad says: you'd be surprised what the human body is capable of handling! ;-)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


Well, I wrote a lovely long post in Jinja about kayaking on the Nile, but the computer at the hostel ate it without any remorse what-so-ever... if I have time I'll try to rewrite it...

I'm in Zanzibar now, fresh off the plane from Nairobi this morning. After taking the biggest rattle-trap bus in the world across the the worst road in the world (Kakamega to Kapsabet) and getting launched a good foot in the air out of my seat at 20-second intervals for an hour straight, then just mildly slammed around for another eight, I decided I was done with bus travel in East Africa. Especially the seven-to-nine-hour trip variety. Of which this was the fourth. No mas!

Just because I had had pretty good luck with the Akamba buses in Uganda did not mean I would get another newish bus with good shocks empty enough to allow me to lounge across the whole back row. Like we said at CG, Past perforane is no guarantee of future results! My bus on Sunday was full and stinky. AND in Kenya there are no hawkers who sell you meat on a stick and bananas through the windows. I was really getting used to that in Uganda. Back in Kenya, I had to actually get off the bus to buy my drinking yogurt and meat pie lunch at the rest stop. Though the pastry part of the meat pie was top-notch—I haven't had better anywhere.

Flying here felt so civilized. Getting a cold drink (even if there was no ice in it)and even my first sandwich in months. Chicken with some spicy Indian-tasting sauce. Though it tasted great, my stomach was a little unsure what to do with the sandwich. Ironically, Western food now makes me feel weird; I haven't had any trouble with African food for months.

All but a handful of the people flying were wazungu, which was a little weird. One mzungu was super-blond, super-tan and super skinny. She was wearing heels, low and tight jeans, a black tank top and carrying a Diesel denim purse slung over one shoulder. I thought for sure she was from the O.C. and felt a little embarrassed to be from the same state. However, when we were climbing up the stairs to the plane, I saw her passport: Italia. Of course!! Suddenly, I didn't mind her look which I previously found obnoxious -- in fact it endeared her to me. She's from Italy! Of course she's allowed to look like a young Donatella Versace! Suddenly, I felt ashamed to look like such a grubby backpacker.

Anyway, on to Zanzibar... some observations.

  1. Stone Town feels like a cross between the little island of Hydra, Greece that Katrina and I visited in 1993 (fishing port and lots of stone—surprise surprise) and the old town slum of New Delhi (lots of wires suspended over narrow alleyways and people cooking outside by their doorsteps.)
  2. I am only hearing Swahili and English, which feels strange because in Kakamega people speak English, Swahili (of which I understand a wee bit) and their mother tongue -- Luhya (the local tribe's language of which I understand one word -- Hello.) Zanzibar is a Swahili island so Swhahili IS their mother tongue. It's nice that I can always understand a little bit of what's going on, whereas when coworkers/friends/people in the villages spoke Luhya I would zone out completely and wait for bits of Swahili or English.
  3. All the women wear long black robes and head scarves pinned under their chins as Zanzibar's 85% Muslim. The call to prayer is rather lovely.
  4. Things are expensive! The tourist stuff (carvings, jewelry, bags, etc.) is a good 50% more pricey, after I work REALLY hard to bargain it down. This is really going to curb my thank-you present buying, which has been going full-force up until now... I'll have to hold off until back in Nairobi, which has the Masai Crafts Market, which I'm assuming has good prices. It's too bad, because there's a lot of cool stuff here.
  5. Per everyone I've talked to, it's actually safe to walk around after dark. I won't be doing it if I don't have to, of course, but how nice that I don't have to go scrambling for cover at 6:45, sunset on the equator.
  6. The carved doors really are fantastic.

Tomorrow I'm taking a ten dollar spice tour to see where saffron, vanilla, and cloves come from (this is the Spice Island after all!) Thursday, I'm heading to the other side of the island to chill out on the beach. I've cut Mombasa from my itinerary all together for two reasons: One, it saved me $75 on flights, and that's a lot. Two, I've had a nasty head cold (non-stop snot) for the past three days from all the early mornings, bus travel and low-level stress associated with being on the road, and the last thing I want to deal with is getting in and out of another city. I am very happy to stay in one place a whole five and a half days.

Speaking of staying in one place, I won't be doing a lot of it in the next month or so... Here's my itinerary from now until August:

Now til Sunday - Zanzibar (hostel and beach hut)

July 29 - July 3: Masai Mara (camping)

July 3 - 5: Nairobi (@ Tara & Alan's gorgeous rental estate in Karen)

July 6: Fly from Nairobi to London (any one know a friend near heathrow I can crash with for a night?)

July 7: Fly from London to LAX

July 8-9: U.S.A.!!!! Home sweet Los Feliz

July 10: Drive to Sacramento

Jul 11: Cousin Kristine & Eduardo's wedding in Grass Valley

July 12: Fly to Portland to hang with Lizzie

July 17 or so: Fly from Portland to Sacramento, drive to Orinda

July 17 - 22: Bay Area

July 22 or so: Drive from Orinda back to LA

IN LA!! Start looking for job.

Some time in Aug: NYC & Boston with Will to see his fam

August 22 - ??: Possibly, hopefully be a camp councilor in Catalina with Will.

September: Back to normal life, full-time job search, avoid planes, buses and any sort of travel at all costs.

Another call to prayer! I'll try to write more tomorrow.


Monday, June 15, 2009

Jinja, Uganda

11/21/09: I found this unpublished in my entry list and so am posting it now. After I wrote it five months ago, the computer I was using crashed, and I thought it was gone forever, but lo and behold, I guess it was saved. So here you are! Reading this now, it seems like another lifetime!

Each time I think I've found the slowest internet connection in East Africa, I am again proven wrong. The Red Chili Hideaway hostel connection in Kampala, Uganda is the new winner. I'm dying to read all your Facebook comments on my last entry, but alas, I've given up on e-mail as it keeps crashing, and am going to just post this to let everyone know that I'm safe and what I'm up to.

I spent today tandem whitewater kayaking on the White Nile in Jinja. I was originally going to take a kayaking lesson, because I've always wanted to learn, and a lesson is much cheaper here than at home, but Daniel pointed out that if I went that route, I would be paddling in circles in calm water vs getting to run the class five rapids. Which I know for a fact are great, from our trip here over Easter weekend. So I went for the tandem and was not disappointed. It was incredible, and we only rolled over in one rapid-- I think it was "Silverback."

But it rained again after lunch. Ugh. What's up with me and getting drenched by cold rain on the river? At least it wasn't a torrential downpour like last time. It was so bad that all ten rafts (it was a holiday weekend) had to paddle to an island in the middle of the river, turn the boats upside down, and crouch in the shallow water under them. The water was warmer than the air. It was goosebump city for me, and I couldn't talk my teeth were chattering so much! Hah! It was still a great trip once the rain let up somewhat.

My tandem kayak guide was Peter, a sweet 21-year-old (if that!) Ugandan, who was full of bad jokes (reused, no doubt). He said if I got cold, he would be happy to warm up the kayak (by peeing in it) and that the missing chunk of his lucky paddle had been eaten by a crocodile. Actually I don't if that was a joke -- there are parts of the Nile rife with crocodiles. Some of the guides had actually kayaked those sections and said beating off the hippos and crocadiles each time they were out of the whitewater got tiresome pretty quickly. They said they wouldn't do that trip again, no matter how good the rafting was.

Peter was a fantastic kayaker and great guide; I felt like I was in good hands. And the trip reminded me of how much I love being on the river--any river-- in a kayak, raft or just floating in my life vest. I ate my lunch of half a pineapple and some crackers that tasted like animal cookies that way: floating on my back down the river in my life vest, like an otter.

Tomorrow, I'm going to take a six hour plus bus ride (joy!) to Kibale National Park on the western side of Uganda to go chimp tracking. It's a haul, but Corey, my primatologist friend from Kakamega recommended it highly, so I'm going to make the trip out and back to do it.

There is also good gorilla tracking in Uganda and Rwanda. The British and Aussie girls who used this computer before me did that yesterday. For five hundred smack-a-roos to the Rwandan or Ugandan Wildlife Authority, you get to sit with a troupe for an hour. Are you kidding me??!! For an hour?! However, they swore the experience was priceless. Of of the two girls even showed me a video on her camera of an young-adult male taking a swipe at her. Hah! Their guide said that was pretty typical for that gorilla thought.

I was a little sad to leave Bugagali Falls this afternoon as it's a beautiful, beautiful place. There was even a fancy restaurant next to the hostel and campsite that served BREWED coffee and had CHEESE in their omelets. Yes, I succumbed and splurged for a $9 breakfast and it was WORTH it. :-) Mark my words, I am never having instant coffee or a cheeseless omelet again once I'm home!!

I think some people never leave Bujagali Falls; they just convert to the camping/river lifestyle.

One thing that would keep me from joining their ranks was the fact that there was no glass in my bunk room window -- just wire mesh to (sort of) keep out the mosquitoes. And 100 yards away, at the camp bar, drunk American, European, Australian backpackers--and a few locals--party late into the night, every night. I am getting too old for that. Fortunately I'm a champion sleeper, and can deal with it. One of my talents.

More soon. Lots of love,


The fancy restaurant next to the hostel where I had an omlette WITH cheese for the first time in five months, and real brewed coffee vs. instant!!! There are monkeys that hang out on the railings and will grab your toast if you turn around. Cheeky monkeys!!

A picture from the restaurant's website. It's faster to link to theirs then to try to upload my own. The hostel wasn't as fancy obviously, but the view was just as incredible.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Katy Goes to Uganda

Written on a bus going from Busia (Kenya-Uganda border) to Jinja, Uganda...

It's such a rush to start a trip, especially when you're doing it alone and on public transportation. I was sitting in my first matatu of the day in Kakamega, waiting for it to fill up with enough people to leave, when the thought struck me: I can go anywhere right now. I don't have to go to Jinja, I can get off and get on any other matatu at the stage, and not even ask where it's going. I have $100 in shillings in my money belt and a backpack with everything I need. I am not due to be anywhere for six days. I am completely self-contained and completely free. I can go wherever the spirit moves me.

Of course I stayed put, because I really did want to go to Jinja, but the feeling was elating.

I also felt good because I felt like I vaguely knew what I was doing: that the ride Mumias should cost about 100 shillings, that "I'm getting off here" in Swahili is "Nashuka hapa", that to get a tout selling stuff through the minibus window to go away, you stare at him blankly, and of course, that I should scootch to the edge of my seat to allow a little room for the butt of the woman sitting in the aisle "non-seat".

I didn't think twice when said woman got up to make room for someone to pass, and had her entire posterior pressed up against my cheek. No sweat!! We are all sisters!!

I have become culturally competent!!! (At least enough to get by!)

In addition to being satisfied with my new freedom of movement and basic ability to get around, I feel liberated not being an FSD intern/ACCES volunteer any longer. From the day I got here in January to my last day at work on Friday, I've been trying to fit in as much as is possible: to dress, talk and behave like everyone else in Kakamega. To be culturally aware and respectful, conservative in my dress and to act more like a "local" than a loud American. I've been trying to be a good representative of FSD, ACCES and the U.S.!

Now that I'm on the road, I'm only represent myself and am not expected to fit in: I really am a mzungu (foreigner/white person). It's nice not to have to think constantly about how my appearance and actions are being perceived. Right now, I'm wearing a t-shirt and cargo capris vs. my usual long skirt and shirt. Happiness!

I'm also pleased for having found a matatu WITH an airbag and seatbelt earlier today (although I know you're not supposed to sit in the front seat because most accidents are head-on) and for buying myself a nice little 20 shilling "wedding" ring from a guy selling cheap jewelry and biscuits (cookies) at the Mumais matatu stage. It's nice to have evidence to back up my "Sorry, Bwana*, I'm married" line.

The fact that I'm now on vacation doesn't hurt my mood either. Yesterday, when packing up my room, both impressed by and frustrated with how much crap I'd accumulated in 5 months, I almost didn't want to travel. I just wanted to jump on a plane to Nairobi and high-tail it back home. I was worried I'd be lonely, that my rough itinerary would prove to be a little too rough, and lastly, that I would go nuts with all the time I'm planning to spend on buses, ferries, matatus, piki pikis (motorbike taxis), boda bodas (bicycle taxis) and planes. But I'm actually very happy at the moment: I've got two seats to myself and more leg room than you'll find on business class. I'm writing in my journal and watching miles and miles of lush African countryside go by. It's the usual mix of banana trees, fields of corn and sugar cane, huts with thatch or tin roofs, cows being herded by little boys in ragged t-shirts and women carrying firewood and plastic shopping bags on their heads: all familiar and yet somehow different. I think the trip is going to work out alright.

*Bwana = Mister.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

When aid is appropriate...

My cousin Kristine sent the following response to my last entry about development vs. aid:

This is really cool. I would argue that you are not a hypocrite, you are learning. You set out to do some good in the world, help people, and you are refining your definition of what it means to help people. Personal independence and interdependence are skills that are often overlooked. Initiative and collaboration as well.

I would say that Aid has it's place. Sometimes, as it seems to be the case with this school, people need a handout to get them on their feet. If you were to come across a man who is having a heart attack, you would not lecture him about the benefits of reducing his stress, eating fewer animal fats and more vegetables- you would give him CPR, and maybe a triple bypass. After that, you work on the root of the problem, and bring in preventative (sustainable) medicine.

The question would then be: when is it a time for aid, and when is it a time for sustainable development? And perhaps not one versus the other. Each one in its own time and place.

I was hoping someone would ask this, so that I could answer! When I was telling Will about my new philosophy he asked the same thing, which promoted me to consult my colleague Liz on the subject. She's doing post-graduate studies in Community Development and Project Management and is planning on a Master's in Public Health.

Basically, she said the exact same thing as Kristine:

"It's fine to arrest an emergency through aid, but you have to make sure that you take steps to prevent the situation from reocurring. Otherwise, people will just need the aid again. You don't come up to a hungry man and start telling him about farming; you have to feed him first so that he has the energy to learn and practice what you've taught him."

I also asked about a project a CARE friend of mine did: donating500 mosquito nets. Liz said that it's fine to donate them, but that unless the donor does a good job of educating the recipents on the benefits of using them (less sickness and substantial savings on malaria treatment) the recipents won't save money to get a new one when the originals wear out.

Me, I would argue that they shouldn't be given out free at all—maybe just an educational seminar and a discount on a net... but it's a fine line.. I'd be curious as to the psychology of getting gifts and donations... When do you really value gifts and when do you take them for granted and come to feel entitled? I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on that..

In other news, the last day of my internship is Friday, and I start my travels on Sunday. It's bittersweet! I'm excited to be on the road, and closer to getting home to my beloved Los Feliz, but I will miss so much here!

Also, I've been posting a lot of pictures on Facebook, but it struck me that you don't all use Facebook, so here are some links.

Chelsea's Soy Bean Training Project (can't remember if I've sent this):

A friend's house party:

Catering Committe Shopping for Joseph (a co-worker)'s Wedding:

I'll post the actual wedding pix ASAP, too! It was a blast!!


P.S. C.G. Peeps, I'm thinking of you. I hope none of you have to join me in the unemployed boat, unless you want to.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Aid vs. Sustainable Development

After being here a few months, and reading a fair amount of literature about various projects implemented by foreign NGOs, I am starting to have somewhat strong feelings against aid. What is aid? Aid is giving out something for nothing, with the recipient having no way of obtaining that resource again independently. For example, donating clothes, a building, a shipping container of medical equipment, etc.

What’s wrong with that?

The problem is that outright aid creates dependence, instead of independence. It makes the recipient reliant on the donor. As one of my co-worker Elizabeth’s development professors writes, "a social welfare paradigm...leads to the creation of dependency syndrome among the recipients of handouts…people get hooked to assistentialism, a state of helplessness waiting for rescue missions. In the case of handouts-for-work, people usually don’t see the need to sustain the projects they [have] started once the source of such handouts is exhausted or depleted. They will sit and wait for the donor to come back, no mater how long it takes.”

True, it feels really good to give someone food or shoes or clothes or a new pit latrine—“Look! The orphan has shoes now! Because of me!”—but doing so just fixes the superficial problem, rather than getting to the root cause of the issue. Why doesn’t the kid have shoes? What caused that? In my mind, aid is selfish: It makes us, the donors, feel good about ourselves. But what happens after we’re gone and the shoes wear out? How will the child get new shoes? She’ll have to find another donor. Giving that pair of shoes fixed the immediate issue at hand, but doesn’t get at the root of the problem.

The alternative to aid, which I do believe in, is participatory community development (PCD). PCD is going into a community, finding out what the community's goals are, and supporting them initially to accomplish these goals themselves. Teaching people how to fish instead of giving out fish. Participatory community development is more involved, expensive, and certainly less gratifying in the short-run, but in the long run, it’s more sustainable and breaks the cycle of aid dependence.

No doubt, right about now you’re saying, “Waaaaait a minute, Norris, wasn’t your FSD project to donate a rainwater harvesting system to a school for orphans and low-income kids?” Yup, it was. And I’ll b the first to admit that my project was part aid. FSD and you, my donors, gave the school the tank, pipes, etc. outright. So for that, I’m a hypocrite—it would have been more sustainable if I’d helped the school management committee, parents and even orphans establish income generating projects, through which they could earn their own money to buy a tank themselves… In retrospect I probably should have done that, even though they wouldn’t have had that tank for years to come.

I think that when I read all the needs assessment surveys done by previous volunteers, and visited the school, I was overwhelmed by the fact that this school had no water, and wanted more than anything to help them get it. I guess I was blinded by emotion.

But as Kelly, the centre principal, has reminded me, the project will help the kids stay healthy and reduce the amount of time they spend fetching water, therefore keeping them from missing school, and hence getting an education. And as we know, education key factor in getting out of poverty and becoming independent and able to support one’s self. And the lifetime of this thing is a gopod 50 years...

And there were some participatory development aspects to the project it as well, in the form of capacity building and training:

  • Our plumber Patrick trained members of the volunteer Centre Management Committee (CMC) on how rainwater harvesting systems work.

  • I made sure the CMC, Kelly and my co-workers were involved every step of the way, from submitting the proposal, to planning the system, to hiring tradesmen, to purchasing the materials to helping with the digging, painting and mason work. They now know all the steps involved and if they want to implement a similar system elsewhere, will know how to. Even the kids who live around the center pitched in during their April holiday and learned a lot.

  • In writing the proposal together, Kelly, my coworkers and the CMC learned a lot about the grant writing process.

  • I reiterated again and again and again to the CMC that they have ownership of the tank and are in charge of all repairs and maintenance going forward. Due to the massive amount of volunteer time they invested in it, I’m optimistic that they will actually take care of it.

  • The last element of the project was a brief lecture by Maggy, our community nurse, to teach/remind the kids about healthy sanitation and hygiene.
So, the project wasn’t a perfect model of development, but at least I didn’t just descend with my own work crew and install the system. It really was a community effort. And going forward, I’ll make sure the organizations and initiatives I support focus on development over aid. I would requet you do the same. When making a donation, ask yourself: "Is this money going toward sustainable development—training and capacity building with the goal of self-sufficiency? Or is it going towards aid—giving something for nothing and creating a system of dependence?"

The book I quoted above is Demystifying Participatory Community Development, by Francis W. Mulwa, PhD of Development Studies. I would encourage anyone volunteering in Africa, or anywhere for that matter, to try to get their hands on a copy.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Micro-Credit Day

Hello, Friends!

Hope everyone is doing well. I'm tired from staying up late last night to watch the Manchester United vs. Barcelona game with the ex-pat (motley) crew last night. David, my co-worker, told me to root for Barcelona, and they won two-nill. Coincidence? My host dad is a Man U fan though, as well as a lot of other Kakamegans, so he was disappointed with a capital D this morning. Hah! It's funny how much Kenyans follow UK footie. It was like the Superbowl for them.

It's unfortunate that I'm exhausted because Steve, the IGTS (Income Generation Training and Support) Coordinator and I have a full agenda today. We're going to visit existing loan clients in to see what they're up to (and hopefully collect some payments), do a needs assessment for a new women's group that wants to apply for a loan, and lastly, Steve is going to teach his weekly small business management class to about 15 'community learners'. After they finish the course, they'll have the opportunity to write a business plan and apply for a loan. Since funding is so limited this year, not many of them will get one.

Our loans are a little bit strange though—they're more grants than loans. Here's how it works for individual clients. We have four groups too, which I'll write about another time:

  1. Applicants attend a once-a-week small business management class at one of our four community learning centres (CLCs) for 10 weeks. We use the classrooms after the regular students have gone home for the day. Steve covers topics like risk & reward, competition, bookkeeping and customer care.
  2. At the end of the course, interested applicants fill out a business plan and loan request form. If the student doesn't speak English or can't write (yikes!), Steve translates and fills it out for them in English (All official business in Kenya is conducted in English).
  3. An ACCES panel reviews the applications and short-lists the best ones. I think I'm going to be leaving Kenya right before this happens. Boo!! I’d really love to be part of it…
  4. Steve visits the short-listed applicants' proposed business sites to check them out. For example, if someone wants to set up a kiosk to sell used shoes, he'll check out the site to see how much foot traffic it gets, if the people around seem like they have money to buy shoes, if there's secure storage, etc.
  5. With the additional info from Steve's site visits, the panel decides whom to give the loan-grants to.
  6. The recipient gets the money, and sets up their business. They have a one month grace period before they start paying it back.
  7. The first repayment goes to ACCES to cover admin costs and the nine subsequent payments are made to KES, Kakamega Entrepreneurs Society. KES is a savings and credit co-op (SACCO) which we partner with. We are not licensed to make actual loans, so basically the client is putting money into a savings account (as far as I understand things.)
  8. Steve visits each client every few months to see how they're doing: if they're making a profit, having problems and maybe reconcile their deposit receipts with the amount KES has down as them having deposited. KES keeps track of account balances on an Excel spreadsheet, so I’m sure mistakes are made.
  9. In theory, the client "pays back" the rest of the balance over nine more months.
  10. Once the client deposits 10,000 shillings (about $120) in their KES account, he or she gets to keep the money, and, in theory, use it to expand their business.

So I guess the point of giving our entrepreneurs "loans," then having them pay them back, then turning the money over to them at the end, is to (1) get them in the habit of saving/paying off a loan and (2) to establish a relationship with a SACCO to be able to take out real, bigger loans in the future.

It seemed pretty strange to me at first, because when you think about it, we’re basically giving out money. However, in light of the reduced funding at ACCES, as well as the dismal individual repayment rate of our clients, I think the IGTS program is headed toward providing loans vs. loan-grants for groups (since they do better repaying), and agricultural support for individuals. We’d subsidize individuals buying goats, chickens, banana plants, corn seeds and the like.

Switching from grants to loans will help a lot in terms of general program sustainability too. But it will mean we'll have to be a lot stricter on payment collection. (We're anything but strict right now.) And "real" loans will mean we'll have to introduce all sorts of complicated things like guarantors, collateral and default collections. Not fun. Or maybe we'll just do the small business training and support part and let an actual MFI handle the loan part.


P.S. Will has been home for a week now and is doing very well. Though his mom just left today to go back to NYC. ;-( Though it was so wonderful of her to stay as long as she did to provide moral support and home cooking. Anyway, drop by to say hello to Will if you're in the Los Feliz area.

P.P.S. I guess I should tell you how the teachers are doing on their reduced salaries — they're hanging in there. No one has quit yet. Many of them are taking loans from the teacher welfare group they're all members of to make ends meet for now. If you're the praying type, pray that our CIDA grant gets renewed!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Good News/Bad News

The Good News (there's a lot of it!!)


Will's surgery last Friday went very well. The surgeon and laser surgeon guy (that's his technical title, by the way) were in and out in three hours. Since they warned us that if they ran into complications, it could take as many as 1o hours, three was great. So, Will is sore, and understandably not excited about still being in the hospital (it's been almost a month now), but is relieved that everything went OK. He has one more surgery, on Monday, and hopefully will be back home in Los Feliz on Tuesday.

After I got this great news on Saturday morning, I felt comfortable enough with Will's situation to head to the Kakamega Forest for the rest of the weekend. Along with Chelsea, a fellow FSD intern (who's going home on Saturday, sniff sniff!) and Carolyn, who is working for another scholarship organization in Kakamega, we stayed in Corey's little forest house. Corey is a primatologist friend of ours collecting data on two troops of monkeys for a Columbia study. So, the four of us had a lovely girls' weekend and Chelsea, Carolyn and I learned what it's like to be a biology researcher in the field. In a word, glamorous. Here are the pictures—we saw dozens of Blue and Colubus monkeys. The Village Troop was completely comfortable with humans and if we stayed in one place, would run all around us.


The rains came back on Sunday night—Mother's Day. It's been raining every day since, and sometimes all night, too: maybe Mother Nature is playing catch-up for the week she missed. So, I'm glad the farmers are out of the woods for now. Still, don't forget when you're driving your SUV and running your AC all night that you're not just changing the climate at home, your changing it EVERYWHERE. And here, people don't have the ability to adapt to climate change as easily as we do... If it stops raining here, rest assured that people will starve. I would say just a small percentage actually has the money to think about irrigation...


Danielle & Phil had their baby on Tuesday!!! I am so excited and can't wait to meet him. Everyone seems to be doing well. Bummed that I have to be so far away at a special time. Can't believe Danielle didn't schedule her offspring around MY travel itinerary! :-)

The Bad News: The budget for the rest of 2009

At work, we got our final budget numbers from Canada on Monday and they're pretty rough. I guess our grant from CIDA ran out in March, and it's unclear whether we're going to have a new one... We'll find out in June or July. The part that was the hardest for me was the fact that we're cutting teacher's salaries from about half of what they were to 150 shillings ($1.20) a day. That's how much I paid the mason's assistant for the rainwater project. The mason himself got 300. But the teachers are college-educated, trained professionals. Here's about how far 150 shillings will take them (keep in mind they are not paid for holidays or vacations.)

Soda - 25 shillings on the street, 40 at a midrange restaurant
Beer in Kakamega - 100 shillings (cheaper in the villages)
Brunch at Golf Hotel, nicest place in town - 500 shillings
Roundtrip matatu ride to Kakamega from the schools - 100 to 160 shillings
1 kilo of ugali flour - 40 shillings
Firewood for a day - 35 shillings
Glass of fresh juice in Kakamege - 30 shillings
Malaria test - 75 shillings
Medicine to treat malaria - 800 shillings

I am deeply disturbed by the whole thing, knowing how hard these teachers work. True, some of them only stay in our non-formal schools for a year, until they can get job at a public or private school (better salary, benefits, and a longer contract,) but some of them do it for the love of the kids. I can only hope that most of them have spouses who are also working. I've been stressing out all week over what I can do, but feel pretty helpless. I figured it would take about $1,500 per month to keep the 40 teachers at their current salaries. Should I give them some of my savings? Or at least curtial my Tusker lager intake and donate the money instead? As much as my first instinct is to throw money at the problem, would making a donation to ACCES to help with teachers salaries be a sustainable solution? What would be a sustainable solution?

The teachers get the news late today at the annual teacher meeting at the offices. We'll see how they take it.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Rain, The Recession and Reagan Med Center

Today is a strange day.

First of all, the sky was hazy this morning on the way to work. Normally its clear and bright; I've not seen it like this before and it seems unnatural. It also hasn't rained in five days. The maize is starting to look a little lackluster. The word on the street is that it should rain EVERY day in the rainy season, with a break of one, or two days at the most. So this is irregular. Elizabeth's theory is that the rain patterns are changing because people have cut down so much of the Kakamega forest for firewood and settlements. My hunch is global warming may have a hand in it, too: the rains were pretty late this year. I've never paid so much attention to rainfall, but I've never lived in a agricultural community that doesn't use irrigation, either.

Second, the office is feeling very sedate today. We got word a few weeks ago that we'll have to cut our program budgets by 50%, and the reality of our new situation is sinking in. My understanding is that private donations from Canadians are down 30%, we will not be getting any of the usual grants (Rotary Club Canada, Wild Rose Foundation, etc.) that have been part of our annual budget for years, and CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency) may cut our funding for this year entirely, or if our grant is renewed, it will be for a reduced amount.The recession has caught up with Kenya.

Thus, no new scholarships for 2009 for orphaned or extremely needy students (normally we do two rounds of scholarship applications per year), no personal effects or school supplies this trimester (toilet paper, soap, toothpaste, maxi pads, pencil, 3 pens and some binder paper) for the the existing high school and technical school students we sponsor (we may even have to drop some of the students entirely), no medical camps, no staff training or development, some elementary teachers may be fired (which is crazy, because they're stretched thin as is), no 10 o'clock tea, no mandazi (fried dough) on Fridays and no new mirco-loans. Additionally, two vacant positions will not be filled and we are considering moving to smaller offices.

Also, we are all grounded from doing local travel to the Centres until the final, revised, halved budget is approved in Canada. So I haven't been able to go out with Steve to continue teaching English to the adult learners or to start meeting our five loan groups. I want to pay for Steve's transportation with my own money (a trip to the field on a matatu is only about 2 dollars), but that wouldn't be fair to everyone else who's had to stay put. So I'll wait. I guess I could also try to go out alone, but I need Steve's help in translating in Luhya and Swahili a lot..

So even though this is all pretty devastating (to the kids the most), Kenyans are generally an upbeat bunch, and my coworkers are making the best of it -- joking when they can and rolling with the punches. We'll come through it. We're looking for additional grant funding possibilities on-line and I'm even checking out Kiva which Audrey at CG turned me onto, to see if we can partner with them. I'm excited about the Kiva possibility and would be thrilled if it works out. When I get a job and have an income, I'll look forward to sponsoring an orphan's school fees.

And lastly, as a lot of you know, my boyfriend is at UCLA Reagan hospital right now undergoing a series of pretty involved surgeries for a bacterial infection (long story—he blogs about it here). Today, I am coming to understand the meaning of the phrase "worried sick": My thinking is foggy (more so than usual!), my stomach is in a knot, I feel warm, my temples are tight and I feel exhausted, even though I got an (almost) full night of sleep. Everyone's been really supportive of both me and him, but I sucks being half way across the world when you wish you were home. Don't worry though: I'll be OK, and more importantly, he'll be OK, but I will be happy, relieved, and grateful when this is over and he doesn't have to deal with being sick or in pain, constantly having blood drawn and tests done, having to decipher various medical opinions, being stuck in the hospital, having to deal with insurance crap, etc, etc!

And actually, in writing this post, I'm feeling better already... therapeutic blogging.

Love from Africa and thanks for your support,


Monday, May 4, 2009

Rainwater Harvesting Project photo album

I finished my FSD project! Though in the spirit of participatory community development, I should say, "The community finished its project, which I supported them in executing!" Which is the truth.

Here are the pictures. Hooray!

I originally scheduled two days of construction and it took seven. Typical. You should see my lessons learned document. If I wrote a "What I knew about rainwater harvesting systems going into this" doc, no doubt the lessons learned would be twice as long.

And yes, I know I didn't come here to do a water project, I came to do micro-credit and women's empowerment, but once I got here, I found that the greatest need in the community is water for our learning center school kids. Clean water will keep them healthy and able to avoid typhoid, diarrhea, cholera, etc. etc. If you want to see the grant proposal I wrote to FSD for the project (which took me a good week to put together!) I'd be happy to send it. I'm quite proud of it, and feel like I have a decent handle on grant writing now. When I get back and need a break from job searching day in and day out, I'd like to continue to try to write grants for ACCES.

Now to work on the micro-credit program, which will basically entail working with Steve (the micro-credit coordinator) on how to make the program viable, since our funding from Canada has been cut more than 50% in the last month. Oy.

Big hugs,

Monday, April 6, 2009

Life and Death in Kakamega

Last night while having dinner, my host mom, who is an instructor at a teacher training college, announced that one of her students had died—he had drowned while swimming in a local river. He went under in a part of the river that was especially deep from old gold mining drilling. I'm guessing there was some sort of undertow or current as it seemed like he knew how to swim. It wasn’t clear to me from the story.

A friend tried to save him, but realized that he was getting pulled under too, and swam back. Some brave villagers by the river also tried to help, to no avail. Unfortunately, one was drunk, and ended up drowning too.

I was surprised to hear it, but not nearly as so as I would have been two months ago when I got to Kenya. Since I’ve been here, I’ve heard about someone dying or having something awful befall them about every fortnight. It seems like death is more a part of life here.

For example, in February, my boss informed us at a staff meeting that her brother had just died of HIV. She is my age, and is one of the sweetest, smartest and most honest people I’ve met in Kenya. However, it sounds like her older brother was not so good-hearted: after he was infected, he neglected to inform his wife, because he was too cowardly to tell her he had been unfaithful. She became infected and also died a few years ago.

Kate, another intern, works in a Catholic orphanage called “Divine Providence” two days a week, and in a local hospital lab the other three. I ran into her while walking home the other day and inquired about her day. She responded: “It was fine, but we lost one of the babies. When I came in this morning, it wasn’t there. Sister Pamela was vague about how it died; I wouldn’t be surprised if it was some sort of accident. There was already another baby in its crib though—some street boys found it brought it in.” Despite the dark subject, Kate reported this all in the relatively matter-of-fact way she has, which always amuses me.

In Early March, Stellah, a college student interning here, told me that her uncle had stepped on a sharp stick while barefoot, and three days later had died from tetanus. By the time he realized he had an infection, it was too late. She would be away for a few days for the funeral.

Again, Kate, upon joining me for drinks in late March: “Sorry I’m late – something always happens at the hospital right before 5 and I can’t leave. These guys brought in a friend of theirs in because he couldn’t see or hear. He was just convulsing on the ground. They said he drank a bad batch of the local brew [which I’ve heard can contain awful things like embalming fluid.] I had to stay because they wanted to run a malaria test. Hah! It’s definitely not malaria. He’s probably going to be blind and have nerve damage the rest of his life, if he makes it at all.”

I communicate all this not to be depressing, but just because it stuck me how infrequently I come across death at home, and how commonplace and a part of daily life it’s become for me here.

The only person who’s died recently from something unavoidable is my FSD Program Coordinator’s father, who just passed away from prostate cancer at 93. Which is pretty impressive considering that the life expectancy here is something like 49. Hundreds of people came to the funeral. Neighbors, friends and family from out-of-town camped out under the stars on the family compound and mourned for a whole week. Luhyas, the main ethnic group/tribe in Kakamega, bury their loved ones on the family's compound, so that’s where Peter’s dad was laid to rest—at home where he’d lived for decades. His grave was behind his mud hut and in between his two wives’ huts, decorated with metallic streamers.

If you want to hear more about African funerals, my friend Emily wrote a pretty fascinating account of one when she was in Zambia. Scroll to the entry marked 10th May, 2005.

Cheers, be grateful, and watch out for those rusty nails,

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Practically a native...

After two months here, feel like I’m assimilating pretty well, and can almost qualify as an honorary Kenyan. The evidence:

  • I wear a skirt-sarong around the house.

  • I've had malaria.

  • I've hoed and planted the family shamba (field).

  • I consider doing dishes with running water a luxury.

  • My commute to work is on the back of a bicycle.

  • Sharing a 14-person passenger van or pickup truck, a.k.a, matatu, with 20 other people and a few chickens doesn't seem abnormal.

  • I buy my produce from wooden stalls by the road or off of sheets of plastic laid on the ground.

  • I buy clothes second-hand, from wooden stalls by the road or off sheets of plastic laid on the ground.

  • I don’t expect the electricity or water to work for 24 hours straight, and if it does, I’m surprised.

  • I expect the Internet at the office to work during the morning, and that’s about it.

  • I share one stapler with eight coworkers.

  • I don’t tip.

  • I don’t expect mixed drinks to have ice.

  • The family rooster is my alarm clock.

  • I'm not in the least surprised when a new government corruption story breaks.

  • I can use a squat toilet like a pro.

  • I pray before and after meetings, even though I don’t really understand when it’s in Swahili.

  • It’s not time to go to sleep until the mosquito net is up.

  • I say “Ei!” when surprised by something, as other interns have pointed out.

  • Excessive use of “By the way…” no longer seems excessive.

  • I’m starting to forget what lettuce, celery, broccoli, asparagus, spinach, radicchio, peaches, plums, berries, blue cheese, Parmesan cheese, string cheese, actually any decent cheese, soup, drip coffee, espresso, sandwiches, tuna, salmon, etc. etc. etc. taste like. Actually that’s a lie, I think about it all the time. I hear there’s sushi in Nairobi. It may be worth the 10 hour bus trip.

  • Speaking of which, nobody I know here has a car, save Julius and George my go-to taxi drivers whom I call for a ride after dark.

  • I boil or UV treat all drinking water.

  • I compost or burn my trash (aerosol cans are fun!)

  • When I go into a restaurant, the first thing I look for is the sink to wash my hands before eating.

  • I’m on a wedding planning committee for a co-worker.

  • I don’t necessarily think someone is necessarily well off if the have house help.

  • I eat dinner at 8:30 or 9:00 p.m.

  • I don’t expect toilets to actually flush properly.

  • I lock my windows shut after dark even though it’s 85 degrees in my bedroom.

  • I agree that soccer, rugby and cross-country are really the only sports worth watching.

  • I lock the front door using padlock.

  • I call corn "maize," the trunk the "boot" and use U.K. spelling (colour, centre, etc.)

  • If someone says that some is "black," I know that it means they have really dark skin, as opposed to being "brown." (My host mom is brown, my host dad is black.)

  • I know that the first ingredient in any good Kenyan meal is cooking fat.

  • I am pretty sure that reggae, regatone, hip-hop, church music, and African music (which sounds a lot like Latin music) are the only musical genres that exist. Oh, and Daniel’s Kenny Loggins on his Blackberry. My iPod was stolen the third week I was here, still working on getting it back… hah!

Why I’m clearly still a mzungu, besides the obvious difference of being a different color than everyone else:
  • I prefer the office's Western toilet to the pit latrine (I swear to God, some of my coworkers, who seem completely Western otherwise, use the outdoor office outhouse instead of using the toilet inside).
  • I don’t go to church every Sunday.
  • I am dying to open my window after dark.
  • I don’t love with sukuma wiki, the bitter greens that are the staple vegetable here.
  • I am of the opinion that the chocolate here sucks--Cadbury’s is to blame there.
  • My Swahili is not the best and I can only say Hello in Luhya – Mrembe.
  • I cannot walk in heels on the dirt roads like all the women do.
  • I will never understand this country’s infatuation with dubbed Mexican soap operas or World Wide Wrestling Federation Smackdown.
Though, I am starting to like Storm Over Paradise and Pasión more and more...

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Long Rains

It's rained during the afternoon for three days in a row, so I think it's official that the season of the Long Rains has begun. Which I am very happy about, for the following reasons:

1. The rain cools everything down. Normally at this time in the afternoon it would be about 89 degrees in my little partitioned office. But it's refreshingly brisk. Seeing that I basically missed Winter this year, it feels great.

2. Our maize (corn) will grow. I spent Saturday with my host dad hoeing, fertilizing and planting the field next to our house (a.k.a., "shamba") and he said that as long as we got rain within a week, the maize would start sprouting and the seeds wouldn't die. After the rain Sunday afternoon, he proclaimed, "God loves us!" I told him I'd gone out to a village and had done a rain dance with the witchdoctor. ;-) Planting was hard, hard work, but a lot of fun. I've got some nice blisters on my hands and I think the soles of my feet may be permanently stained the color of the orange dirt.

3. The people will eat. A large number of people out here in the sticks of Western Province are subsistence farmers. So if it doesn't rain, and their crops don't grow, they are in big trouble.

So, it's a good thing all around. With the exception of women's hairdos: weaves, braids and extensions do not like getting wet. No good at all. Fortunately, most women have a shower cap or cloth to protect their hair, or in a pinch, a plastic bag. My hair just turns into a frizz bomb, which is nothing new..

To answer my questions from a few weeks ago:

What about everyone on the streets trying to get home, etc?

If you're inside and it starts pouring, you stay where you are and wait it out. If you're on the street, you duck under an overhang for however long it takes. If people see you running around and getting soaked, they will invite you to come under their thatch vegetable stall or whatnot. It's understood that meetings, etc. will be delayed accordingly.

What about all the mud-dung/ structures out in the villages? Do the walls hold up?

I think so... apparently these huts can last for forty years. You just re-dung the floors and walls once a year (it doesn't smell or anything) and re-thatch every couple of years.

What about the puppies at my fellow intern’s host family’s house? Dogs are NOT let inside here, so I guess they’ll just find a shed or barn to camp out in?

Awww, how sweet and American of me worrying about the dogs. I'm sure they're fine.

What about the all the women who line the road and sell used clothing and random kitchen supplies on my way home? Will they have to stop selling all of rainy season? Or is it so predictable that they know when to pack up?

Predictable. You can kind of tell when the clouds are gathering and it's about to rain -- it reminds me of the South West. The produce market operates if its a light rain, but everyone covers their goods or packs up if it starts pouring. Kids will continue to have recess and play soccer, hangout outside, etc. unless it really starts coming down.

What about the gang of street boys? Are the trash piles going to get too wet to sort through? Where do they sleep anyways? There’s another intern who just got here who is going to join an org that works with street kids, so I’ll find out soon.

Oy. Don't know about that one. Though everything dries pretty quickly in the sun, I can't imagine that getting soggy helps the garbage any. Yikes.

I've pledged to myself to keep these pretty short, so I'll sign off.


P.S. Mom & Dad: I got malaria last week but am fine now. It was like a getting food poisoning with a headache and joint aches. The great part was that my doctor's visit only cost 300 shillings ($4), my lab test was 50 shillings ($.65) and my malaria-and-pain killing medicine was only 8 bucks. Doctor Odongo was both the doctor and the cashier. Love it! And no insurance paperwork! Even better!

You can thank Will for making me go to the doctor, when I thought it was just an upset stomach and that I would be fine in a day. Hah! And yes, I was taking my Doxycycline (anti-malarial) but I guess it's not 100% effective, eh? :)

Friday, March 20, 2009

Lake Nakuru midterm retreat

Hi All,

Sorry I've been slow about posting and thank you Hanwen for bugging me to.

So, I did try again to get to Imbale last Tuesday, and was able to make it out to the school, though Joseph had to come with me to the matatu stage (stop) and put me on the right one. Imbale is quite lovely -- the teachers lounge where they correct papers and such is outside at a picnic table under a thatch canopy and a lot of the school yard (a.k.a., the area behind the church which donated the land) is shaded by large eucalypti.

The site coordinator and teachers were very helpful and got all the older girls names and signatures for me quickly. I told them that Canada had approved our request to recommence the uji (porridge) program which had been cut from the 2009 budget. Thus, the kids had not been getting any porridge for two months. The site coordinators said that that was wonderful because the kids are pretty lethargic from being hungry. Keep in mind, the children at these schools are mostly orphans and from destitute homes -- most school kids in Kakamega are fine and seem to have plenty to eat--even if it is just beans and rice. Which is quite delicious.

When I got back to the office late in the afternoon, Liz was pissed off because she found out that we were only going to get four pads per girl, plus booklets on puberty and menstruation. Sigh. Oh well, better than nothing I guess. And the booklets will be good, because I don't think they have anything like that currently.

In other news, our midterm retreat to Lake Nakuru last weekend was fantastic. Angie and Damaris (our two site coordinators) hired a matatu which felt extremely roomy and luxurious with only the seven of us, plus driver and companion, as opposed to the normal 20 or so. It was a pimped out with a DVD PLAYER (I kid you not) on which we watched music videos the whole five hours there-- the selection included Sean Paul, Mariah Carrey, the Pussycat Dolls, and of course, lots of our favorite Nigerian hip-hop artists, P-Square. About one third of the trip there was on unpaved roads which did cause some skipping.

We stayed at a guest house in the park which we thought was quite nice, but that is according to our new Kenyan standards. In the U.S., I'm not sure if it would even get one star. It had a shower, much to the excitement of all the other interns who take bucket baths at home. At these times I keep my mouth shut, getting a hot shower every day.

I knew there would be flamingos at Lake Nakuru, but had no idea at the rest of the wildlife we'd see-- water buffaloes, storks, water bucks, baboons, vervet monkeys (who stole the bananas out of our van -- stupid monkeys) zebras, gazelles, wart hogs, impalas, three giraffes, three white rhinos, one black rhino and even a female lion! Here are my safari pictures.

The day after the safari we went to the Simba Wildlife Lodge in the park to have a snack and drinks. It was sooooooo nice -- 400 bucks a night I think. I think the way to go is to stay in a cheap guest house/hostel (ours was 500 shillings pp per night, which is about 6 bucks) and self-cater, but then have drinks or use the pool at one of the really swanky places.

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Saturday night, we moved out of the park since it's a $60 fee for every 24 hours you're there (for Kenyans it's $4) to nearby Nakuru and stayed in another guest house. Again, we thought it was great, but if it had been the first place we'd seen getting off the plane in January, we'd have thought it was a dump. There was no stove in the kitchen, so the owners fired up some jikos for us to cook on (charcoal burning stoves).


After dinner, Daniel wanted to dance (quel suprise), and our driver/host really wanted to see this Kenyan rapper who was playing in town, Jina Kali, or something like that. So we piled into the safari van again (now party van) and went back out around 10 pm -- at night! Going anywhere after dark is an event, considering I'm usually at home with the windows shut and locked by sunset. The venue was like any decent partially outdoor club in L.A., and it was fun to see all the young vibrant Kenyans in their sexy, "smart" club attire: a good reminder that not all of Kenya is impoverished. Personally, I had to swallow my pride and go in trainers and clam diggers. Sexy.

The concert was good except for Jina Kali didn't come on until 1:30 or 2:00 in the morning. Oy. I didn't think he was anything special but the Kenyans loved him. I got to see Damaris, our Kenyan site coordinator, dance up a storm and sing the words to every song. Very cute. On the downside, every time we walked through the crowd to get to a place to dance, the two guys would have to extract several prospecting hands from their wallet pockets, and the girls would have to cover each others' behinds, else they be grabbed. I was on patrol for Damaris.

And I hate to say it, but I didn't see a bad dancer out of the thousand or so people who were there. Kenyans have got rhythm, I tell you! I tried to blend in--ha ha hah. Speaking of blending in, we saw a few other mzsugus in the crowd; I am always amused by how immediately suspicious I become-- what are they doing here? Traveling? Working? Volunteering? Studying abroad?

The other interns say that they react similarly. We joke that most of the rules from thingswhitepeoplelike.com (which should really be called "what upper-middle class yuppies like") apply to us, including #71 Being the only white person around. Anyway, I know I'm going to get heat from you guys about being racially insensitive and unPC, but isn't it allowed if you're making fun of yourself?

Back in Kakamega, I saw some mzungu backpackers yesterday and thought they looked hilarious. It would be like seeing a bunch of random tourists tromping around Orinda or something -- what are they here to see? Maybe the Kakamega Forest? Dunno. I felt a little bit protective of Kakamega-- Are Kakamegans like wildlife that you want to watch? Hm. It's one thing if you're proud of your community and want to show it off, it's another if you feel like you're being objectified or observed out of curiosity by someone who you know--despite their grubby clothes--is several times wealthier than you.

On a similar note, I can never be mad at all the kids, teenagers, mamas, etc. who giggle at me in the street, because in a way it gives them power over me. Which is fine, because I'm the one invading their town, knowing that 99.9% of them will not be able to be a tourist in my town. As much as I try to fit in and LIVE here, in many ways, I'm still a cultural tourist. Not sure if what I'm saying makes sense or not: I guess it's just different dynamic touring a place that is economically similar to the U.S., like Western Europe, vs. visiting a country that is much poorer.

Anyway, off to have my favorite meal at Dona Caf for lunch: beef, cabbage/carrots and rice. (Kenyans like to abbreviate "cafeteria" or Cafe to Caf, Computer to Comp, etc. Hah!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Maxipad Mission

Maxipad mission

Written Monday afternoon 3/9/09

This morning, Clara (office administrator) and Elizabeth (Gender & Health Coordinator) announced that Always (of maxipad fame) is donating supplies to local girls who can’t afford their products. This is great news because at the nine primary schools ACCES runs, the older girls in 6th, 7th and 8th grade will often stay home and miss class when they have their periods, because they can’t afford pads. (Though come to think of it, what did women do before pads? I’ll have to ask…)

The Always people are coming through Kakamega tomorrow, and to get the supplies, we have to give them school rosters with the girls’ names and signatures, signed and stamped by the school nurse.

Given this mission, Clarah, Liz and Maggy and I all dropped our plans for the day and divvied up which schools each of us would go to. I’d never gone out to the field on my own before, but it was now or never. The girls need pads!!! Liz didn’t know how many they would actually get, but I was hoping for a year’s supply each.

I grabbed my blank rosters and walked from the office to the gas station where the matatus (passenger vans) pick up passengers. Once they fill up (i.e., smoosh 20 or so people in the 15 seats) they can leave for their destination.

I think I’ve mentioned before that it’s to one’s advantage to find a van that’s almost full to avoid having to sit around. The downside of this system is that the touts will fight over passengers, and it’s impossible to walk by matatus without being asked “Madame, where are you going? Where are you going?” I’ve even seen the touts take old mamas by the arm and physically lead them to their vans. Hah!

Normally, someone from ACCES finds the right matatu, haggles over how much we’ll pay and I just stand back and watch the show. But when I got to the station alone, I was swarmed by matatu touts, harassing me to get in their van. I didn’t see the minibus we’d taken the last time, so went with a tout whose matau who said he was going to Imbale. A few people in the matatu even motioned for me to come join them – Kuja! Kuja!

Though I’ve been to five out of the nine ACCES schools, I couldn’t necessarily tell you which road each is on. I haven’t actually seen a map of the greater Kakamega area, except for the very general one in my Kenya Lonley Planet. All I remember about the Imbale school was that it was a really rough dirt road, and it was further out than the other schools – it took maybe an hour or 45 minutes to get there.

Once happily situated in my van, feeling proud of my new independence, I decide the next order of business was to get some food, as I’d be gone all day and only had tea and bread for breakfast. Vendors will walk from matatu to matatu selling snacks, so I bought some bananas from a woman selling them from a basket.
Shortly after, some street boys, probably about 9 or 10 years old, came up to my window and started asking for pesa (money). I’m sure their ripped t-shirt and trousers had once been different colors, but they’d long since become a light brown/grey color that is the uniform of street boys. I instead gave them a banana each and told them to stop sniffing the super-smelling glue from a small, plastic much-refilled container one had.

I was surprised when they gave me back the bananas through the window. Ingrates!
However, a young bespeckled guy sitting behind me, wearing a button down and slacks, informed me that I had bought Cooking Bananas, not Sweet Bananas. Right.

So I waited for another vendor to come to the window and bought some peanuts (ground nuts here) and cookies (biscuits) and shared with the two urchin boys. After that I shut my window to try to get them to leave me in peace but they loitered.

Meanwhile, the guy behind me had gotten out of the matatu in search of a Sweet Banana vendor for me. He came back a few minutes later, followed by a cart banana vendor. Hah. So I got my sweet bananas after all.

When the matatu finally filled up, we pulled out of the gas station/matatu stop and headed off at around 10 am – only an hour or so wait! Great. A nice woman next to me, in a smart (sharp) grey skirt suit, looked at my instructions from Maggy: first I was to go to Imbale, then Shivagala school. She looked at the paper a little quizzically. Not a good sign.

After bumping along for 45 minutes in the rickety matatu, picking up and dropping off passengers every 200 meters, we hadn’t turned onto the dirt road that I remembered. I asked the tout again – “Are we going to Imble?” “Ndyio, tunaenda” (Yes, we’re going.) Hmm… I was starting to think that maybe he’d lied to me just to get me on the matatu and take my fare (not unheard of, especially with mzungus (foreigners).

After another 10 minutes, I started seeing signs for a town called Mbale and assumed that When we pulled up to the Mbale market, I alighted (got off), hoping that Imbale was a nickname for Mbale or something. I was immediately swarmed with boda boda (bicycle taxi) and piki piki (motorbike taxi) guys looking to supply me with transport on the next leg of my journey. I showed them my paper and they passed it around, all looking at each other and grabbing it from one another and asking questions about my destination.

I told them I was going to a shoole kidogo, a small school where the kids were orphans and didn’t wear uniforms like most school kids. Finally one said he knew it, so we agreed on a price and I got on the boda boda. We pedaled through the market and started heading to the “interior”. He pedaled slowly and pretty soon I realized he had no idea where he was going. I told him to turn around and

Long story short, Mbale and Imbale are definitely NOT the same place, and after asking more people all over town if they knew Imbale, I had to go back to the office, defeated, because it was too late in the day to try to get to Imbale (my little jaunt started at 8:30, and I didn’t get back until 2:30). Mbale is probably only 20 miles away, but such is transportation in Kenya. I thought it was all quite hilarious and would have been a fun adventure and a great story, if it had not been for my failed mission. I was pissed off at the possibility of these girls not getting their pads because of my ineptitude. I swore that if I couldn’t get those names again on Tuesday, I would take the money for the pads out of my seed grant money or my own pocket.

When I got back to the office those who had not gone out to the field were apologetic but also agreed with me that it was pretty funny. I plan to try again Tuesday with a home-made map and a little help from a co-worker in getting on the right matatu.

More soon...

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Chopped Liver

I had liver last night for the first time I as long as I can remember. But what am I here for, if not to try new things? I didn’t like the smell at first, but got used to it and finished all but one of the little chopped pieces I took. That’s right, chopped liver.

The hub of culinary innovation and diversity Kakamega is not. Food options are pretty straight-forward and it seems to me that every meal is composed of a starch, a protein (if you can afford it), and some shredded greens.

The starch options are: white rice, fries, ugali (a stiff porridge made from corn flour) or chipati (like naan).

For protein you’ve got chopped beef, chopped liver, oxtail, chicken, kidney beans, lentils or fish, including the head. Oh, and goat and lamb!

About the only "side dish" I've seen is stewed cabbage and carrot.

And that’s it! I have yet to encounter a meal which disproves this theory.

Except for the predictability of it all, I’ve been very happy with the food, because there’s nothing I like better than beef stew, rice and naan. The fish, liver and tough chicken have taken more adjustment, but can also be good. I’ve also gotten used to the ugali, which reminds me of Cream of Rice, a.k.a. “mush” we would have for breakfast growing up. It’s served in a giant mound the width of a small pizza pan and four or five inches high, then cut into slices. You take a hunk/slice, then break off pieces of with your fingers, roll the piece into a little ball, make a divot in the middle of the ball with your thumb, then load it up with meat, soup (meat juice) or greens. It’s the same idea as Indian naan or chipati—it acts as a scooper.

Fortunately for me, the beef stew is really good at our house. My host mom makes it with tomatoes, onions, garlic, maybe some green pepper, curry powder and some packaged spice mix which no doubt contains MSG.

When we had fish, also stewed with the above-mentioned ingredients, she asked if I wanted the head. Ehhhhhrrrr... Apparently if you serve fish to a Luo (Obama’s dad’s tribe) without the head, he or she will refuse to eat it. “How do I know it’s fish?” Mama Susan says they’ll ask. How indeed.

When we had chicken, the whole thing save the feet and head, went in the pot (I’m sure you didn’t see that one coming). I stuck to eating the drumsticks and avoided the neck and carcass--I couldn't tell where the breasts were. I remember reading somewhere that because Americans eat so many chicken breasts, the dark meat is often frozen and sold to Eastern Europe and the feet go to China. Imagine different parts of the same chicken being consumed tens of thousands of miles away from each other.

Besides breakfast, I eat about 1/3 of my meals with my hands. Anytime you have ugali, you won't see silverware. To facilitate all of this, there are sinks to wash your hands before eating in restaurants and dining rooms. If you don’t have running water, you take turns pouring a pitcher of water over each other’s hands over a plastic basin.

Dessert is a slice of mango, pineapple or watermelon, all of which are the best I’ve had anywhere. There are oranges too, but they're nothing special. I didn’t like mango before I came to Kenya, and now I have it every chance I get.

(Fruit salad at the Golf Hotel, the fanciest place in town.)

In general, the fruits and vegetables here are smaller than back home – 1/3 to ½ the size we’re used to, but have about twice the flavor. I may have to start buying organic and seasonally when I get home, after being spoiled by the produce here…


Update: I wrote this on Feb. 18th and it is now the 25th, and currently I am tired of the monotony of the food and want a sandwich in the worst way. With lettuce. Which I've not seen once in Kakamega.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

From dust to mud

2-23-09 6:30 pm

You haven’t heard it rain until you’ve heard it rain on a tin roof. It sounds like a continuously crashing wave at the beach…

I’ve been going out to the nine elementary schools ACCES runs the past few weeks, and out in the countryside, everyone’s got their fields ploughed and ready to plant corn. I wonder if this downpour signals the start of the rainy season… I think it usually starts in mid-March. It also could just be a late afternoon shower, like the ones we had everyday the first week I was here. I welcome the rain as it’s so hot in the ACCES office in the afternoon, I can hardly work. It’s also been really dusty.

However, as I sit here inside my host family’s house, having my Cadbury’s “drinking chocolate” for Tea, I have to wonder how Kakamega deals with the Long Rains, since so much of life here is carried out on the streets and in the open…

What happens to our three chickens when it pours like this? Where will they go?

What about my host parents, who aren’t home from work yet? My host mom takes a motorbike-taxi a half hour to and from work every day – is she getting soaked? I think my host dad walks. What about everyone who takes boda bodas? Are you supposed to carry an umbrella? Just get soaked?

What about all the mud-dung/ structures everywhere? Do the walls hold up?
What about the puppies at my fellow intern’s host family’s house? Dogs are NOT let inside here, so I guess they’ll just find a shed or barn to camp out in?

What about the all the women who line the road and sell used clothing and random kitchen supplies on my way home? Will they have to stop selling all of rainy season? Or is it so predictable that they know when to pack up?

What about the gang of street boys? Are the trash piles going to get too wet to sort through? Where do they sleep anyways? There’s another intern who just got here who is going to join an org that works with street kids, so I’ll find out soon.

Oh, just figured out what the chickens are up to – I can see them out the window and they’re having a field day in the grass, getting soaked, looking at the sky. Go figure.