Sunday, March 27, 2011

Reflections, Flexibility, and Grant Writing

Yep, that's my catch-all title for this week's blog post (after four hours of grant writing, my head's a bit fuzzy). As you can probably tell from the fact that I've been bad about updating again, life's gotten busy once more, and I've also gotten sucked into the routine of Nairobi life. My internship is now in full swing, and I'm really loving it, despite the challenges. I also really love that so many of the guys I work with are all around my own age, because it gives me this whole other set of friends to hang out with on the weekends, something most of the other people in my program don't really have.

I really can't believe I'm only here for another four weeks (actually, a bit less than that). I have, it's safe to say, completely fallen in love with Nairobi life, and I can't imagine how its going to feel to leave. There are absolutely things I miss about home (mostly food and friends!), but life here is exciting and adventurous and, despite my routine, there's never a dull moment. I've been trying really hard not to get too complacent as I get familiar with Nairobi, to continue to force myself to go out and do new things, try new foods, go new places. One day at work this week we went out for lunch and I finally got up the courage to try fish brains (actually much better than eyeballs; brains actually just taste a lot like regular fish meat), and this Friday some friends and I went to a concert which featured a band one of my friend's internship works with. It was definitely a Kenyan concert, with lots of Luo and Luhya music, and believe me when I tell you Kenyans like to do. With everybody swinging their hips and shaking their butts (Kenyans, no exaggeration, are the best dancers in the world) it's hard to resist, so my friends and I headed out on the dance floor and had ourselves a great Friday night. Going back to DC is going to be weird in that respect, too - white guys just aren't as good dancers as Kenyans, nor are they as enthusiastic!

I've also been keeping super busy working on the grant I'm currently writing for ICA. I've discovered after our grant writing workshop last Saturday that I actually really like grant writing - it's really technical and nit-picky, but the editor side of me actually kind of loves it. I feel like I haven't really found my "niche" here in Kenya (women, economic development, refugees, that sort of thing), so knowing that I can always fall back on being a freelance grant writer if I have to is sort of a huge relief. Of course, it doesn't hurt that I really love the organization I'm writing the grant for, and I really, really, really want to get them this money (the grant is for a civic responsibility/patriotism/clean up your community-type project). That also makes it kind of stressful, though, as I feel like every word has to be perfect, since only about 10 percent of proposals actually end up being accepted. It's kind of like applying to college all over again!

Finally, I wanted to talk a bit  about my "personal growth" over the course of this semester. It's definitely hard to see it as you're going through the daily routine of classes and commuting and getting homework done, but there was a moment last weekend when I really saw just how much I've changed. It was Sunday afternoon, and I was just settling in to spend the day being really productive. Just then, the power went out. I spent out two minutes freaking out, worrying about how I was going to get my work done (since my computer battery only lasts about 20 minutes when it isn't plugged in) and when I was going to find the time to do everything that needed to get done. Then, I calmed myself down and realized that it was a gorgeous afternoon - why not enjoy it? I spent two hours outside on the balcony reading, just listening to the birds and taking in the fresh air. I really surprised myself - back home, I would have a major break down if something like that happened. That sort of letting go, of taking life throws at you and realizing that, somehow, everything will get done and it will all be just fine, is a really fantastic feeling, and one that I don't think I've experienced very many times in my life. In my head I've sort of divided myself into a "Kenya Emily" and a "back home Emily," and I'm hoping this flexible, "Zen" acceptance will stay with me as I cross back over the Atlantic.

So that's all for now. Back to grant writing in a bit, then off to enjoy my last month in Kenya!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Interning at ICA Kibera

Hey all - Since I've been so bad about updates in the past couple of weeks, I figured I'd make up for it by posting again this week. After we got back from rural week, we started our internship full-time (plus still going to USIU classes Mondays and Wednesdays), although I had already visited ICA several times.

I was pretty much thrown into work from my first day, because ICA is in the middle of writing a new strategic plan for the next three years, and to celebrate this they're "relaunching" the organization in about two weeks. (Hence the name change - from ISSA to ICA, the Initiative for Community Action). Basically, the idea behind the re-launch is to streamline ICA's current programs and re-iterate their mission and goals to the community. Part of ICA's problem, in all honesty, is funding - because they have so little money (some months they even struggle to pay rent for their office in Mashimoni Village, Kibera), the end up doing programs donors are interested in rather than programs they actually want to run. This isn't to say their old programs weren't good, just not as sustainable as the should be.

So my life for the next two weeks will be crazy busy fundraising for the re-launch and planning a party to represent the best of ICA to the movers and shakers of Kibera. As much as its stressful - especially because we have very little money for a re-launch that's supposed to occur in two weeks! - it's also really fun, and I love that I'm right in the middle of this. I truly do admire all of the guys I work with; their passion, energy, and dedication to ICA is awesome to see, and I consider myself lucky to be working with them.

At the same time, there are also frustrations. While the guys are passionate, they're also easily distracted, so I feel like half of my day is spent chasing after them, trying to force them to sit down and get work done. There are aspects of working within Kibera that also present challenges - like not having Internet and having somewhat sporadic electricity. I'm trying to keep all of this in perspective, though, and overall I'm having a great time getting to know Kibera, and I'm almost to the point where I can my own way to the office via various different routes, although I don't walk by myself.

There are also frustrations that have nothing to do with ICA and everything to do with the fact that I'm white. I can't tell you how many people have asked me for money (not just in Kibera, although it tends to be worse there). I was out to lunch with some of the guys I work with the other day, and as we were leaving the hotel to head back to work, some random person just stood up and asked me to pay for his lunch, assuming that because I'm white I must have money. Those sort of assumptions can work their way into personal relationships, as well, and become really disillusioning. When someone you're friends with asks you for money, as recently happened to me, it leaves you feeling really jaded and used, like the only reason that person was friends with you was to ask you, eventually, for money. While I'm trying to treat these experiences as the exception rather than the norm, it is disappointing, and can really bring you down if you're already having a bad day. Overall, though, I try to look at things like these as just one more aspect of the challenge of living in Kenya, realizing that I'm incredibly lucky to be having these experiences, whether good or bad. Life in Nairobi presents both intellectual and emotional challenges in a way that DC can't possibly match, and going back (in about six weeks!) is going to be really hard.

There are absolutely things I miss about home, though, and as much as part of me is longing to stay here, another part of me is looking forward to spending the summer back home with my friends and family. It isn't even so much the luxuries of living in a developed, industrialized country - like air conditioning and regular, consistent mail system! - but little, familiar things like your favorite restaurants and hang-out spots. More and more over the past few weeks, I've found myself missing those little things (like - laugh if you will - flavored, loose-leaf tea and real cheeseburgers at Red Robin). Like so much of the past two and a half months, every day here I feel about a million different emotions - sadness to be leaving a place and a culture I feel I'm just getting to know, happiness and comfort to be returning to home, and a sense of loss to be leaving the fantastic friends I've made here. Luckily - and perhaps most importantly - a feeling of regret isn't in that mix. Though I maybe haven't traveled as much as I thought I would, I feel I've done a good job of taking advantage of all the  opportunities which have presented themselves to me over the past two and a half months, and for that I consider myself very lucky.

Friday, March 11, 2011

A Kenyan Spring Break

As you can probably tell, life has gotten pretty busy here in Nairobi. Last weekend we got back from our spring break - a week spent in rural Kenya (Ukambani, to be precise, which is about two hours east of Nairobi). In a nutshell, the entire week was great, although it was most definitely a challenge, as well.

We left Nairobi early Saturday morning, and the bus ride to Machakos (where we then caught a matatu) was an adventure in and of itself. The bus was packed with people getting on and off, and the constant stream of hawkers selling everything from juice and fruit to bracelets and nail polish made it even busier. We actually ended up changing buses and sitting in the terminal before we took off, and I definitely sympathized with all the seasonal workers who use this means of transport to shuttle back and forth between Nairobi and their up-country homes. To spice up the trip even further, about halfway to Machakos we picked up some more passengers (although the bus was already full by this point), including an itinerant preacher who treated us to shouted Bible verses and loud "Amens!" for the rest of the trip.

On the way to Nyumbani Village, where the spent the night, we stopped at a very pretty little wood-working workshop which specialized in the carved rosewood and soapstone face masks Kambas are famous for making. We got to see some artists at work, which was cool. We then arrived at Nyumbani Village, an experimental village started by (I think) a Catholic bishop; the village pairs AIDS orphans with grandparents who have few or no children so that the orphans can be raised in a family setting rather than an orphanage. The village is also striving to be both self-sustainable and organic, so they have all sorts of cool initiatives going, including eco-toilets (waste is separated, processed, and used as fertilizer and to irrigate trees Nyumbani grows for a couple years then harvests and sells as a source of income). We only spent a night there, but I can tell you that the starts were amazing - I have never seen such a clear sky in my life! Chris, the American volunteer who was working in the village, took us out to a viewing platform, where we spent about an hour just gazing at the stars and enjoying being out of Nairobi.

Monday afternoon, after touring more of Nyumbani's projects, we were off to meet our homestay families. I and 5 other students were in the village of Kyua (CHOO-ah), and I'll admit that I was absolutely terrified waiting to meet my host family! When the father, Benson (who teaches at one of the village's primary schools) finally arrived, I found to my dismay that he didn't speak much English and had a hard time understanding my nasalized version of Swahili. He took me home to meet his family, which includes his wife Anne and sons Paul and John.

I spent most of the week with Anne, doing my best to help her around the house with the multitude of chores she does each day. I quickly found, though, that for the most part I was pretty useless, knowing how to do very few of the things it takes to run a rural Kenyan household, so I spent a lot of my time that week reading, enjoying the scenery, and just thinking. Some of the highlights of the week: Helping Anne on the shamba (farm) pull up dead corn husks to make room for the new planting they were about to do (I have never been more dirty or sweaty in my life!); using a choo (bathroom) infested with literally dozens of cockroaches; bathing every night in a bucket; using a flashlight because there was no electricity; praying over every evening meal (Benson and Anna are devout Catholics); traveling via motorbike (in a skirt, no less!) to the market on Wednesday; attending a prayer meeting with some of Anna's friends; and touring one of Kyua's primary schools Friday during their field day, being surrounded by massive crowds of little kids staring, half in fear and half in wonder, at us, the wazungu, who they had never seen before. We were mostly terrified of the way they closed in on us, unsmiling, so my friend Julia and I tried to lighten the tension (and our own discomfort!) by starting a game of volleyball with the kids, which ended well.

Overall my family was great. We had a difficult time communicating sometimes, given my limited Kiswahili, but Anna and I made ourselves understood for the most part, and when we didn't understand one another, a laugh or a shared smile sufficed. Living in such isolation was definitely a challenge, and it really made me re-think my dreams of joining the Peace Corps and withdrawing from the world for two years. Aside from the monotony of the days, the food, too, was super repetitive, and it will be a long, long time before I eat chapati (well, maybe not that long) or mbuzi (goat). I did really enjoy the traditional Kamba dish gatheri (rice and beans), though, and I can't complain about all the fresh fruits (so many mangoes!) and vegetables.

Saturday morning we all said good-bye to our families and started getting ready for the final party, at which we exchanged gifts and thanked our families one last time for welcoming us into their homes. Because I got there early, I got to watch some of the men slaughter the goats for the stew we ate later that day - definitely a traumatic experience, and one that made me consider (albeit only for a few hours) being a vegetarian. The local MP even showed up for the party, and between his rambling speeches, Tusker, and the traditional tribal dances the older women performed to entertain us (I even joined in with them for a bit!), the party was overall a good time, and I was sad to say good-bye to my family, who had been so patient and generous with me.

We spent Saturday night in a hotel in Kitui, a bit east of Ukambani, and I cannot even begin to describe just how nice having (hot!) running water was. If nothing else, rural week taught me that I will always, always, always prioritize running water over electricity.

Sunday morning, we took a small side trip to Nyambazi Rock (really more of a small mountain!); apparently if you walk around the rock 7 times, you switch genders. The rock is really too big to walk around 7 times, so instead we climbed to the top of it and were rewarded with some truly breathtaking views of the hills surrounding Kitui. It was a great spot to sit and reflect on all that had happened during rural week. After a picnic of good, old-fashioned PB and J sandwiches, we hopped into our rented matatu and headed back into the noise, congestion, and utter chaos of Nairobi. Though rural week was a great break from the hustle and bustle of city life, to be honest I was happy to be back in my apartment and sleeping in my own bed.

This past week I've also started my internship full-time (except for USIU classes Mondays and Wednesdays), but I think I'll save those stories for a later post - this one is probably running impossibly long already. Below are some pictures from rural week; my advice is to take in the beauty and serenity from afar, and enjoy your running water!

One of the grandmothers at Nyumbani Village. This woman was like 90, but she could still shake it!

My room in Kyua.

My homestay house! I love the paint.

All of their animals - mostly cows and sheep, and tons of chickens.

Tusker, their puppy. So adorable!

My homestay mama, Anna, and her mom and dad - and some random baby.

My homestay brother Paul, mom Anna, and dad Benson.

Me gettin' my tribal dance on.

At the top of Nyambazi Rock - the view was spectacular!

Seriously, more a mountain than a rock. But the view made the climb worth it.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

In Search of the Big Five

As much as my life here in Kenya is about studying development issues, it's also, let's admit, about being just the teeniest bit touristy. And what's Kenya without a safari? My parents have been in town for about a week, and we spent the past weekend in a truly gorgeous spot in the Masai Mara, Kenya's largest game reserve, taking in the sights and enjoying a much slower pace of life than Nairobi.

Friday afternoon we took a teeny tiny plane (as most of you can probably imagine, my dad was not very happy with this!) into the Mara - it was about an hour flight. When we got in to the very swanky Governor's Camp (one of the few camps actually in the Mara), we were greeted with hot towels and iced passion juice. What a great welcome! We had a bit of time to relax and get settled into our tent, then we went out on our first game drive of the weekend. Being novice safari-ers, we were totally excited to see all the elephants, hyenas, and zebras, and the highlight of the drive was getting to see a few members of the Marsh Pride on our way back in. Gideon, our driver, was great the entire weekend - he was so good at spotting animals way off in the distance and took great pleasure in explaining to us all of what we were seeing. For most of the weekend we were paired with a really sweet British couple, Shirley and Ian. Ian owns a factory just outside Nairobi which prints shillings and passports. This wasn't their first safari, so they were also really helpful in explaining to us about all of the animals we were seeing.

We got back and had about an hour before dinner, which we spent chilling at the bar. Dinner was fancy and very good, and we were all in bed soon - it had been a long day. The next morning, we were woken up at six by our tent steward, bearing a much-needed tray of hot tea and coffee. Our first game drive of the day was at 6:30 (since it's cooler, the animals are more active), and we got to see Marsh Pride coming back from a night of hunting! It was awesome - Romeo, the dominant male of the pride, even "marked" our Jeep! After some riding around, we headed back for a full English breakfast before our 10:30 game drive. For our second tour we took it a bit slower, lazing by the Mara River and watching the hippos and crocs. As we drove through the forest, we were greeted by a very cute giraffe and one not very happy elephant who tried to charge our Jeep - scary!

After lunch, we took a much-needed nap, then headed out for our final game drive of the day. Gideon had heard rumors about some cheetahs about a half-hour drive away, so we went off in search of them. It took a lot of driving and a good deal of frustration, but we finally found three cheetahs (a mom and two sons) just as the sky opened up and it started to pour. The cheetahs obviously weren't enjoying the rain, but it made the weather a bit cooler, so it was really fun to watch them frolic.

Sunday Shirley and Ian suggested we combine our two morning game drives and take our breakfast out by the river, which we thought was a great idea. We stopped at a really pretty spot and got to eat as we watched hippos laze in the river - definitely a cool experience. We had hoped to try to find a leopard that day, but no luck. Instead, we spent most of the drive taking in some truly amazing vistas of the Mara (surprisingly, it isn't all flat, but rather has a few scattered hills, and the land kind of undulates). We saw a lone wildabeast (not very pretty animals!) and a lot of things we had come to think of as "standard" - a giraffe, lots of elephants, hyenas, tons of zebras and different kinds of antelope and gazelles.

All in all, it was a fantastic trip. Governor's Camp was truly luxurious, and it was really nice being in the Mara rather than having to drive in from an off-site location every day. Plus, the camp isn't fenced it, so at night we fell asleep to (or were waken up by!) the sounds of elephants and hippos wandering through the camp. Our first night there, a few elephants literally walked right past our tent! Though the camp was definitely touristy (and rich!) it was a great experience, and it was very cool to see such a different side of Kenya than the crazy, smoky, chaotic scene that is Nairobi.

Below are some pictures (out of the like 300 that I took over the course of the weekend!)

PS - I almost forgot! For those who are wondering, the "big five" are lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants, and buffalos. We saw three of the five - not bad for a weekend!

These elephants literally walked right past our camp!

This guy peed on our Jeep on the way back from his nightly hunting excursion.

Our tent was surprisingly luxurious - and big!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Hell's Gate, Kitengala, and Updates

Hey all! Sorry I've been so bad with updates in the past two weeks, but I'll try to make up for it here.

I've been pretty busy working on a page research paper we have due in about two and a half weeks. For my topic (models of water provision in Kibera and which are most effective/sustainable/able to be implemented on a large scale), I've been going around doing lots of interviews with Kibera residents, NGOs working to provide water in Kibera, and more official sources - I even had an interview with UN-Habitat today! It was intimidating but a cool experience to be inside Nairobi's UN Compound. I even got a very fancy-looking day pass : )

Last weekend, some friends and I took out a day trip out to Naivasha (the lakeside town where we spent a few days for orientation) to Hell's Gate National Park, known for its crazy rock formations and animals. Most tourists just ride their cars through, but my friends and I decided to tough it out and walk - and it was A LOT of walking! The park is about 15 km long, with a picnic area situated in the middle of the park (it's sort of shaped like a long rectangle). Our plan was to walk to the picnic area, have lunch, and head back so we could catch a matatu into town before it got dark. The walk there was pretty leisurely (albeit dusty!), and we had a great time watching the animals. There was even one giraffe who followed us for a good kilometer or two; he would stop whenever we stopped, turning his head to stare at us, then keep walking when we started up again. It was great. Overall it was a fun day, although lots of walking (about 10 miles total). We were exhausted and dirty but happy when we got home.

This weekend we had a group field trip to Kitengala, a small town about 45 minutes outside of Nairobi known for its recycled glass factory. We drove to Masai Lodge and embarked on a nature walk with a tour guide. 'Walk' is a bit of a euphemism - it was more like a trek over slippery, lichen-coated rocks and rough scrub, but we had a great time. We even crossed an Indiana Jones-esque suspension bridge (see below - it was terrifying!) to get to the factory. Once we were there, they gave us a demonstration of how they blow and shape the glass, then we spent some time shopping and just hanging out. The shop and its little courtyard had a very cute, quiet atmosphere that we all enjoyed after the hike. We headed back to Masai Lodge for lunch and some swimming in their pool. The pool deck was like a resort, and we all had a great day.

So now you're all caught up on my weekends. In other news, as some of you may have seen I was recently placed in my internship, which officially starts the first week of March. I'll be working with the Initiative for Sports and Social Arts (ISSA) a really grassroots-level Kibera community-based organization (CBO - you all are learning so much development-speak!) that focuses on youth mobilization and civic engagement. Luckily for me, 'youth' in Kenya is defined as people between the ages of 18 and 35, so no dealing with screaming school kids for me. I've been to visit ISSA's office a couple times now, and I'm super excited to start doing some hands-on work for them. The organization is pretty small but filled with really energetic, passionate, and dynamic guys with great ideas who are sometimes in need of a little push to get organized - this should work perfectly for me! I'm not entirely sure what kinds of projects I'll be working on yet, but I'm really excited to start, and I'm psyched I get to work right in Kibera rather than in a more formal office setting. The time I've spent with the ISSA guys so far has been great, so it should be a fantastic two months.

Finally, Nairobi is amazing. Now that the initial "oh my gosh I'm in Africa!" shock has worn off, I'm really learning to love the city. I haven't really found the right words to describe it yet, but the city really is an entity unto itself. It has this amazing energy and vibrancy (some might call it chaos) that is quickly becoming addicting. The traffic is a nightmare, people walk everywhere without thought for oncoming cars, and the drivers are the craziest I have ever seen, but there's just something so ... alive about this place that you can't help but fall for. I can already tell that going back to the "tame" streets of DC is going to be a major adjustment - you mean I can't just cross the street whenever I feel like it or drive into oncoming traffic to avoid a traffic jam? No sarcasm intended, it's great. I'm starting to come to terms with things like my two-hour (one way!) commute to USIU every Monday and Wednesday, and now that I've started to sit back and enjoy what's in front of me, I'm really loving the city. Every day I find something new that makes me laugh or smile or gasp in outright astonishment, and I couldn't be happier to be here.

Below are some pictures from my last two weekend trips - enjoy! : )

One of the cool rock formations Hell's Gate is known for.

This is the giraffe who kept following us as we walked - so cute!

Oh, hey, zebras. : )

Starting out on our "nature walk" (read: hike). We had to literally cling to this tree to cross the water.

The terrifying suspension bridge we crossed!

The glass factory's very pretty, quaint courtyard.

Masai Lodge, aka paradise!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Field trip!

Today we had a great field trip to Olorgesailie (an pre-historic excavation site where the Mary and Louis Leakey found ... some important fossils) and a Maasai Village. The scenery was breathtaking, and it was great to get out of Nairobi for the day into the clean, quiet air of the Rift Valley.

Olorgesailie was pretty cool. Apparently the entire area used to be a lake (a long, long time ago!), and after it dried up the sand and silt that were left over were great for preserving fossils, so tons of animal bones, human fossils, and early stone hand axes have been found over the years. (I can't figure out yet how to post pictures in the middle of the blog, so they're all just going to come at the end, with captions). There are even million-year-old elephant and rhino bones. For comparison, the elephant bone they found - it's actually a different, much bigger species than today's Indian and African elephants - was placed next to a normal elephant bone to show how much bigger the older species was. Crazy!

After Olorgesailie, we went to a Maasai Village run by Chief Joseph. I was truly amazed by the hospitality we were shown there. We spent some time in the "bush" (that's what they call it!) and saw about a gazillion giraffes. The giraffe centre was cool, but to see that many in the wild was great. After trekking around for what seemed like a long time, we headed back to the village for lunch and some cold Cokes. After, the women of the village did a traditional dance for us (very cool!) and Joseph modeled his warrior headdress. We spent the next hour or so chilling and talking - about the villages, Joseph's hopes for it (he's attempting to build a school, since the nearest primary school is currently a 45-minute walk away), and the traditional Maasai lifestyle. All in all, it was a fantastic day.

Stone hand axes at Olorgesailie.

Elephant bones - the top one is a bone from a modern elephant; the bottom one is from a pre-historica elephant (so big!) The bottom bone is about a million years old, according to our tour guide.

Giraffes in Maasailand!

Chief Joseph in his traditional warrior headdress ...

... and me in Chief Joseph's traditional warrior headdress.

The women of the village did a traditional dance for us. Such colorful clothing!
In other news, I've continued expanding the list of things I can say I've done while in Kenya. Friday night we had a dinner party, and Sabina brought some fish to add to the meal. As I think I've mentioned, Kenyans eat fish whole (and I do mean whole - you literally have to pick the meat off the bones), and the head is considered the best part. While I couldn't bring myself to eat fish brains, I did eat an eyeball - another delicacy. I wish I could say I embraced the experience, but it was truly disgusting. It didn't really taste like anything, but the fact that I was eating the eyeball of a fish made me gag repeatedly. And today at the Maasai Village, I had my first experience with pit toilets; basically, they're holes in the ground which you squat over to do your business. Again, I wasn't thrilled about using it, but it was the only option available, and I really had to go. It actually wasn't as bad as I was expecting - to put it nicely, everything went were it was supposed to, and luckily I had thought to bring some toilet paper in my bag (if you don't have something as basic as a toilet seat, you generally don't have any TP, either).

So that's all. The culture shock is starting to get a bit better, and I'm still livin' it up here in Kenya. Today was great, and I'm going to try to continue embracing new experiences and pushing myself out of my comfort zone. That's what the next 3 and a half months are all about, right?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Culture Shock

The past week has been a bit less crazy then our first week here; we've basically just been settling in and getting into a bit of a routine. Won't bore you all again with descriptions of USIU : )

Friday we had our last orientation activity, a scavenger hunt throughout the city that involved running all around town (literally) to find different buildings, landmarks, and that sort of thing. It actually worked out well, because it forced us to navigate our way around without anyone who actually knew where they were going. We ended up at the National Museum (actually not that far from the AU Abroad center), which was pretty cool to walk around. They also have a snake park where you can, technically for free (read: for a bribe), hold a non-poisonous snake. That was one activity in which I did not partake.

Today my friend Megan and I trekked to the Giraffe Centre in Karen; it took us about 2 hours, via various buses and matatus, to get there. It was totally worth it, though - we got to KISS giraffes! (You put a piece of food in between your lips, and some of the giraffes will eat it right from your mouth). We got there at a really good time, right before it started to get busy, so we had the giraffes almost entirely to ourselves. The people who worked there really seemed to love them too, which was pretty cool. I had never been that up close to a giraffe before, but they honestly seemed a lot like really tall, spotted horses. Apparently, their tongues have a sunscreen and are about a foot and a half long - crazy! Their saliva also apparently contains an antiseptic ... who knew?

It was interesting to see, though, how people got there. About 95 percent of the visitors to the center were white, and I'd say Megan and I were the only two who actually took matatus to get there; everyone else either had their own private cars or buses from the safari companies they were with. It kind of relates back to the wealth disparity I was talking about with USIU and Kibera; life in Nairobi can be really cheap, or it can be really expensive. It's interesting to see just how different those lifestyles can be.

It was also really nice to get out of Nairobi for the day. Karen was so gorgeous and, though it was pretty wealthy, also had a really great small-town feel, a lot like Naivasha. Nairobi is great, but it was so nice to get away from the bustle and traffic. The dirt roads and mamas selling veggies and crafts were exactly what you probably envision when you think of Africa. All in all, a great day trip!

On a totally different note, culture shock has definitely started to set in. The exhilaration of being in Africa (which, admittedly, was definitely re-kindled today) has faded a bit, and right now I'm just yearning for something familiar. It's really hard, and also sort of mentally exhausting, to be constantly surrounded by things that are all so different. It's also difficult to always be the one who stands out - no matter what we wear or how we act, we'll always be "wazungu" (white people), and people will always stare. It gets a bit tiring, and it really makes you long for something comfortable and familiar. Oh well - just another step along the path!

I've also gotten a few questions about what I'm eating over here, so I thought I'd answer some of them. For the most part, Kenyan food isn't bad. Almost all of the meat is goat, which is ok - sort of gamey like venison, but really fatty. I don't prefer it, but when it's all that's offered, I'll eat it. They also eat ugali, a mixture of maize and water which tastes like nothing and has a thick, gluey texture; it's sole purpose is to fill up your stomach. One food I actually do like is chapati, which is a lot like a thin pita bread. They serve it with a lot of dishes here (usually you get a choice of rice, ugali, or chapati), and it's good to dip in sauces or juices from meat. It's also taking some work to get used to the warm drink thing; Kenyans believe that ice cubes can make you sick, so they drink almost everyone at room temperature, if not hotter. When you go to a restaurant, if you want cold water you explicitly have to ask for it (since tap water isn't always safe, you almost always end up paying for bottled water).

Believe me when I tell you, the idea of "Africa time" is also very real, and sort of frustrating. Everyone just sort of moves slower here - walking, talking, shopping, etc. While part of me really wishes I could cultivate that sort of laid-back attitude, the undeniably Western part of me just wishes people would hurry up sometimes! Life is definitely slower here, even in Nairobi, which is taking some getting used to, as is so much about my life here. But every day is an adventure, and I'm learning so much, which is all I can really ask for. : )

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Nairobi in a Nutshell: USIU and Kibera

The past few days have been super busy, and it feels like I have about a million different thoughts whizzing around my brain right now. I'll try to make some sense of them, but sorry if I seem a bit rambling or disjointed.

Saturday was the last official day of orientation, so we had Sunday to ourselves. My room mates and I took advantage of the free time to find the nearest grocery store in Westlands. What an experience! We went to a Nakumatt, which seems like a Kenyan Wal-Mart, and it was incredibly busy. It was also pretty overwhelming - I recognized maybe one out of every ten brands, and shopping for everything I needed was a challenge. I think that was when culture shock first set in; what's (supposed to be) more familiar than grocery shopping? I think it finally hit me just what a different environment I was living in, and the lack of familiarity made me a bit homesick for the rest of the day.

Monday was our first day at USIU (the US Int'l University), the oldest private university in Kenya and one which prides itself on its American-style education. We had sort of guessed at our USIU orientation on Friday that this was going to be our least favorite part of the program, and unfortunately it turned out to be true. While the campus is gorgeous, the professors are interesting, to say the least. My Sustainable Resource Management professor didn't show up to class (which actually worked out sort of well, since I had to navigate the USIU bureaucracy to get my student ID), and my 20th-century East Africa professor is not only more than a bit anti-American, which I can deal with, but also pretty boring. But oh well - past students had told us that USIU wasn't the best, so most of us were prepared for it. I also have other AU students in both my classes, which definitely helps. So USIU probably won't be my favorite part of the program, but we'll all muddle through it together.

USIU is also an incredibly rich school, as are almost all the students who go there. While some took the USIU bus from town, like we did, a good portion of the others were dropped off at the gate by their private drivers - yep, it's that sort of school. I had already seen a bit of Nairobi's massive wealth disparity before Monday, but my experience at USIU just served to reinforce it; more about that in a bit.

Today, we visited Kibera, Nairobi's biggest slum. It was a truly amazing experience. I'm not sure what exactly I was expecting, but the settlement wasn't at all like anything I had in mind. We broke into small groups and were shown around by people who lived there and were engaged in community development work. My guide was Ken, a really sweet and funny guy who had moved to Kibera when he came to Nairobi for school and couldn't afford any other housing. While my first impression of Kibera was the smell - it's kind of inescapable - it was an incredibly vibrant, active, and friendly community, at least the parts of it that I saw. Though we got tons of stares, I actually felt really comfortable walking the dirt-path roads. Everyone we met was really friendly and welcoming (all the little kids greeted us with "How are you?" and "mzungu!", and lots wanted to touch our hands and my hair). We got to see where Ken lived, as well as his landlord. While it's really hard to imagine how people (especially 6- or 7-person families) spend their entire lives in two tiny rooms, Ken also emphasized a lot what a simple (and not unpleasant) lifestyle it was. I don't know what sort of abject outpouring of misery I was expecting, but everyone seemed pretty happy, for the most part. Interestingly, the people we talked to had vastly different opinions on Kenya's slum upgrading project, which has been going on for almost a decade. I was also really surprised about the rows upon rows of small shops and kiosks we walked past - Kibera really is a city within a city; according to Ken, you can get everything you need (except sunscreen, I jokingly told him) right in Kibera, without ever having to go into downtown Nairobi.

While the people in Kibera didn't seem miserable, having such a different experience at USIU just the day before really helped highlight the wealth gap Nairobi, and lots of cities in low-income countries, is known for. It really was amazing to me that some people have private drivers for their BMWs, while others in the same city often live on less than 200/- (about $2.50) a day. It's just astonishing to see those types of lifestyles juxtaposed. Even though I've spent the past year or so reading about just such problems, it really is incredible - and sort of indescribable - to see it for yourself. Right now, for me, it's not even an issue of injustice; it just sort of takes your breath away to see some of the richest of the rich living about a 20-minute drive away from the poorest of the poor. I can tell this is going to be an issue I come back to again and again throughout the semester, and right now I doubt I'll find any answers or make much sense of it, but I will try.

Another thing that's been on my mind a bit lately is the crime Nairobi is also, unfortunately, known for. Almost all of the crime that occurs in Nairobi is theft (most of it isn't violent), and most of the crimes are ones of opportunity. Sort of related to that is the "highway robbery" I experienced at Masai Market the other day; haggling is a necessity, and sellers know that most wazungu don't know the real prices of items, so they jack them way, way up (I had someone ask me for 19,000/- for a picture that was probably worth about 100/-). I got a bit angry about this at first, seeing it as blatant dishonesty and wondering why an entire society would chose to lie like that. This "stealing" that occurs so often, both on the streets and in the markets, at first made me a question the morality of Kenyan culture. How could all forms of stealing be so rampant? Gradually, though, I'm starting to see that's it not any sort of moral failing but, rather, the idea that most people here just don't have as much, and it you don't protect the stuff you have, you sort of deserve to have it stolen from you. (Of course, one could also argue that Kenya's overwhelming government corruption is also a form of theft, so a precedent has already been set). I'm learning to see that it's just different, and I'm trying really hard not to judge Kenyans for the differences I'm starting to experience more and more. This sort of open-mindedness is definitely hard for me, but I'm working on it. Just one more way this program will help with my personal growth : )

Sunday, January 9, 2011


Hey all! As promised, the internet is being a bit better behaved, so I've posted some pictures from the first week in Nairobi - it was a whirlwind!

The view from our balcony!

Oh, you know, UNHCR is across from our apartment - no big deal.

On our way to Naivasha for orientation, our bus got a flat tire and we had to wait by the side of the road while it was fixed.

Overlook at the Great Rift Valley, on our way to Naivasha - amazing! The road there was built by Italian POWs during WWII.

Fisherman's Camp, where we spent a day during orientation. Look at all the sheep!

Don't know which animals those skulls used to belong to, but they're huge.

Where I ended up after our drop-off, just chilling with some Kenyan shopkeepers for about an hour.

This was overlooking the spot where we stopped for our lunch on our way back to Nairobi. So pretty!

Sabina (one of our orientation assistants and a totally cool person) and me at the top of the Kenyatta International Conference Center, the tallest building in Nairobi.

Masai Market as seen from the KICC. Such a crazy place!

Thursday, January 6, 2011


Welcome to Kenya! We just got back from our orientation in the Great Rift Valley (which was unbelievably gorgeous) - it was amazing. Here are some updates about what I've been doing:

Monday late morning/afternoon we got into our apartments; our balcony has such a great view (I was going to try to post pictures, but our internet's being a bit touchy today). We didn't have electricity for most of the afternoon, but fortunately it came back on right  before it got dark. We had dinner at this adorable corner bistro (totally ex-pat; Westlands, where my apartment is, is know for that) and walked back after it had gotten dark - it's amazing how dark a road can seem when there aren't any streetlights!

Tuesday morning we left for Naivasha, where we would have orientation for the next two days. We got a flat tire and had to wait on the side of the road for a while the big, strong Kenyan men fixed it. After that we were good to go, and on our way into Naivasha we stopped at an overlook of the Great Rift Valley, which was just breathtaking. We spent the rest of the day in Naivasha doing orientation stuff and walking around exploring the town a little bit. Naivasha's a lot smaller (and more conservative) than Nairobi, so we got a lot of cat-calls and "tsssssks" as we walked down the street. Being a "mzungu" in Kenya (white person) is definitely going to take some getting used to. Later that night we talked with our tour guide, Sabina - who grew up in Kibera, Nairobi's massive slum, and is an absolutely fascinating person - for about an hour about all sorts of things: development, the role of whites in Kenya's development, cultural differences, etc.

The next day we headed out to this really pretty spot on Lake Naivasha called Fisherman's Camp for some team-building and general relaxation. There were so many goats! We played some really silly games, and the little boy watching the goats kept sneaking glances at us and giggling, although I think he was laughing with us rather than at us. We all took our first matatu (14-seater van) to the camp - that was an interesting experience. African drivers are, hands down, the craziest in the world. DC drivers have nothing on them.

This morning was the dreaded "drop-off" - Lynsey, our program director, and her assistants drove us to remote areas around town, dropped us off, and told us we had 2 1/2 hours to find our way to a certain location. We were all pretty scared, but within 2 minutes of getting off the bus I found a really nice kid named John, who was about 8 or 9, who guided me to where I needed to be. Me and a bunch of other girls arrived really early, so we spent the next hour and a half talking to these three older shopkeepers, who laughed at our accents and had a great time teaching us all sorts of Swahili words. Everyone tries to teach you Swahili here! By the time we had to leave to meet the rest of our group, my head was so filled with Swahili vocab I thought it was going to explode.

We spent the afternoon on the bus back to Nairobi. It's been a really crazy three days, and it's hard to process all the stuff that's happened - the sights, sounds, and experiences. Sometimes it still seems a bit surreal that I'm really in Africa after all the time I spent thinking about it. The weather is gorgeous, and almost everyone we've met, especially in Naivasha, has been incredibly nice. Culture shock hasn't really set in yet, although there are some things - like the fact that Kenyans almost never drink anything, even water, cold - that are taking some getting used to. Other things are great - Kenyan tea is amazing! This probably hasn't been a very profound post, and I promise I'll try to post pictures when our internet is a bit less touchy. Until then, I hope everyone back home in the states in doing well. Appreciate your internet, electricity, and cold drinks for me!

Love to you all!