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!