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Kenyan Chronicles -- July 2006
This final submission covers the time span of late April to mid June.
Due to logistical problems, we were unable to conduct our conference call to Meredith as originally scheduled on Meredith’s Day of Celebrating Student Achievement, April 27; and instead we had to call a day earlier in order to conduct a conference call between a group of U.S. faculty and students from Meredith College and N.C. Wesleyan College, and three K.U. students. Only three K.U. students could attend because K.U. was in the middle of a semester break and most of the students were not on campus. Still, all in all, the students had a good conversation about various aspects of their lives and their perceptions regarding HIV/AIDS. Their faces expressed enjoyment and wonder at being able to converse with some of the students whom they had known only through the internet and the Meredith/Kenya website.
Most of the early days of May were spent doing our U.S. Embassy-for-internet/ Village Market-for-lunch/ Nakumatt-for-supplies ritual, making arrangements for our “guests” from the U.S. – Dr. Pearl Fernandez and Jason Reynolds from the University of South Carolina at Sumter (Pearl is a Professor and Jason is a graduating senior), and Jill Palchinsky, a student at Meredith College, who are scheduled to arrive the evening of May 9, and completing plans and protocols for our research visit to Rachael’s Development Programme. J and Polycarp managed to get back to the west coast, via matatu, for several days to visit Polycarp’s home near Karungu on Lake Victoria, and to tour the soapstone mines at Tabaka, while those of us remaining at K.U. found ways to enjoy ourselves and relax over the long Labor Day weekend.
Labor Day in Kenya is May 1 and is very much like Labor Day in the U.S. – family get-togethers, picnics at the park, cookouts, watching sports, or going for a ride in the country. During part of our weekend, Kitty, Polycarp, George as our driver (and guest), and I went to Carnivore and Simba to “jump up and down” = dancing. Unlike the U.S. club scene, Kenyan men like to dance as much as, or more than, women; and furthermore, it is ok for men to dance alone or in the company of another man.
As a footnote to the last statement, there is no stigma associated with Kenyan men (and women) holding hands. While members of the opposite sex are traditionally not supposed to display affection in public, it is quite alright for members of the same sex to show their friendship or camaraderie or even respect by holding hands – particularly to guide, lead, or support e.g. when crossing a street or entering a new place, or when two good friends are engaged in an intense conversation – usually while walking.
Likewise there is no stigma that accompanies one man telling another man that he loves him – although such sentiments are usually in writing, not spoken; additionally it is rare for a man or a woman to speak those words to their spouse or even to their children. While at first it made me feel a little uneasy to hear those expressions, as well as not to hear in the latter examples, I suppose Kenya is not unlike the United States during the early days of independence when it was acceptable for the founding fathers (and mothers) to speak in fond terms of their comrades and friends, and to be less generous with endearing words for family members.
On Labor Day, we went with Prof. Elizabeth to pick apples at the Riverside Nursery, and then to Mamba Crocodile Farm to have a leisurely lunch, watch the Nile Crocodiles, tour their art gallery, and take photos of Nancy who was the only one willing to go for a camel ride.
Apple trees in Kenya, such as those at Riverside, are very small – more like apple bushes – as are the apples that are semi-sweet like a Winesap apple. In order to get the apple trees to blossom, all of the leaves must be removed by hand and then the trees are not watered for about three weeks which causes the trees to become dormant – as if in winter conditions. The reapplication of water creates a “spring” to stimulate the tree to blossom and set apples. The following week, Kitty made a fantastic apple cobbler from those Kenyan apples, and Prof. Elizabeth made a special visit to our house to “take tea” and enjoy the fruits of our labor (pun intended).
After our visit to the Crocodile Farm, we drove into and up the Ngong Hills south of Nairobi to get yet another view of the Rift Valley – the same view enjoyed by Richard Leakey (son of Mary and Louis, and a renowned scientist in his own right), as this is where his home is located. The vistas make it is easy to understand why he would want to live here. Seems we can never get enough of looking at the Rift Valley, and there was yet to be one more visit to this site once the other U.S. citizens arrived. Driving back across Ngong Hills we could see, far to the north, Kilimambogo, a small solitary mountain that has been forever a part of the distant landscape of K.U.
Research and the scientific process comes with its own set of unique hurtles in Kenya. It is hard to say that the same search for knowledge in the U.S. is accomplished as a result of a better way of doing things – it is just different. As I learned from Kimani Njoru, the head of African Health and Development International in Nairobi whose main focus is HIV/AIDS education, culture must be factored into science, and the application of science which is technology. For example, at the urging by scientists, the Kenyan government has started an anti-malaria program by soliciting funds to buy mosquito nets and donating a net to each rural couple. Sounds good until you factor in a culture where husbands and wives do not typically sleep together – and it is usually the man who keeps the net.
The single greatest deterrent to scientific progress that I have found here is the need for a variety of documentation and the lack of transparency in obtaining the necessary documentation. Burgeoning bureaucracy is found everywhere; therefore its presence in the scientific method should come as no surprise.
I yet to have a library card because . . . well because I gave up, as did Kitty in trying to register to take a class. Both processes became overwhelming, or, at the very least, the energy required exceeded the foreseeable benefits. As of mid-May, I had yet to receive an appointment letter to K.U, and still didn’t know if the K.U. obligations as stated in my Fulbright contract would be honored – I was not even sure whom to ask, although I had been trying to find out for a long time. Prof. Otieno’s final plan was for the two of us to go directly to Prof. Mugenda to see what could be done. Additionally, my visa expired in early March and it was not until May that I received an extension. It took several visits to the K.U. person in charge of visas, Mr. Otwombe, as well as several trips by Mr. Otwombe to Nairobi, together with 200 ksh, to finally get the extension. J waited another two weeks before his visa was finally extended; and, for fear that Kitty’s and the kid’s visa would get lost in the bureaucratic shuffle, I took the calculated risk of holding their visas and was willing to take our chances at the airport when we departed. The risk was not without hazards, and passing through Immigration at the Jomo Kenyatta Airport on our way home, we, of course, were stopped, questioned extensively and chastised severely – wasn’t sure they were going to let us leave – for three of us being in Kenya illegally since March.
In early May, Prof. Otieno and I did make some inroads on our research project.
We were two weeks behind schedule but we remained optimistic that we would be able to conduct research at Rachael’s on Saturday the 13th. After three trips to the government offices in Nairobi, (takes about an hour to go each way from K.U., an hour to find a place to park and walk to the offices, and at least an hour - sometimes 2 or 3 hours - to wait and meet with the appropriate officer) we were able to obtain an official Research Permit and a documentation letter. To get the Research Permit, I had to complete a lengthy application form and submit our research proposal and protocol along with a fee of over 21,000 ksh. Prof. Otieno delivered the letter to the Minister of Public Health for the Thika District, and he met with the directors at Rachael’s to confirm our research plan. We conducted one dry run of our procedures with Lab Technicians Shem Ochieng, Tom Mbulo, David Samoe, and a medical practitioner, Nyawira Mwangi for whom I purchased various medical supplies that she required to treat orphan children whom are in need of medical attention at Rachael’s.
We completed one more rehearsal and the final assessment “team” included Kitty, and the three new folks – Pearl, Jill, and Justin for a total of 11. As a sign of good faith to the staff and children at Rachael’s, and to help facilitate follow-up and future research at Rachael’s, I purchased a load of supplies to contribute that included, rice, beans, maize meal, wheat flour, vegetable fat, sugar, blankets, and soap. We also purchased from Michael Odotte the first of three orders of the herbal drug known as Sungaprot.
Two ancillary projects that we were able to finalize before leaving Kenya was J’s completion and subsequent printing of several hundred copies of a travel brochure for Benson that will allow him to embark on an entrepreneurial concept that we outlined for him and encouraged him to start. The brochure can be found on the Meredith.edu/Kenya website. The second was to do a photographic expose of a site that Kitty and I identified as a place that was most representative to us of what might be defined as an economic middle-class in Kenya. Kenya’s small but dominant upper and very large lower economic classes are easily seen and frequently documented and contrasted. We wanted to depict the middle-class that is almost hidden by the extremes of the other two economic groups. Our site was Kahawa Wendani not far from the K.U. campus and next to Kahawa Sukari where many K.U. faculty and staff live. Kahawa means “coffee” in Kswahili and sukari means “sugar”. Assuming the two names have some logical reason for being combined, it is less evident how kahawa and wendani are connected. Wendani is difficult to define – it can mean “love” as in “love of place” or “love of a feeling in a place” or “love of a thing”. So I am not sure if it is coffee in general that is loved, or if it is the place named after coffee, or if it is the coffee in this place that is beloved. Nevertheless, it is an intriguing environment and society, and with Benson leading the way to ask permission and to explain what we were doing, we were able to photograph many of the people and shops in Kahawa Wendani. Kitty and I also wanted to contrast the colorful aspects of life in Kahawa Wendani with the more stark realities, and therefore we decided that she would shoot in color and I would use black and white film. The final product will have to wait until we return to the U.S.
Dr. Pearl Fernandes, Jill, and Justin arrived, somewhat travel weary, on the evening of May 9th and stayed until June 3rd – the day before we left. I think they all had an extremely worthwhile experience, and each had a rather different adventure because with nine of us staying at #10 Zambia Street (“the Waltons of Kenya”), it was primarily up to each individual to determine what they wanted to do most and to accomplish. There were few assignments or predetermined expectations, other than to see, to learn, to work, play, converse, and experience the people and the land that is Kenya. Some of their experiences, in which most of us participated, included trips to the various Masai markets (on one of the matatu trips to market, J and Kitty had their pockets picked of several thousand ksh by two men who were working in concert with the driver), Nairobi, Mt. Kenya (J, Jill, and Justin climbed to about 11,000 feet), Elizabeth’s home in Elburgon, the Institute of Primate Research and Dr. Pius Adoyo, the International Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology, the Giraffe Center, Kizuri, Nairobi National Park, Mombassa Town, Msambweni District Hospital near Kwali, Malindi Town, Bio-Ken Snake Park, Canini Health Trust, Carnivore Restaurant, K.U. Student’s AIDS Control Organization, and Rachael’s Development Programme – to mention a few. Jill and Justin have submitted essays about their experiences, and their statements can be found on the Meredith.edu/Kenya website.
The trip to Mombassa and Malindi:
Prof. Pearl and I were busy in the lab and could not leave before 2:00 pm on the 14th. We took two vehicles – one driven by Dr. Owino and the other by Alfred, one of our drivers when we went to Lake Victoria.
A truck accident on the Mombassa road near the town of Athi River left us waiting by the side of the road for several hours before we came to the conclusion that we should just turn around and go home and try again the next day. The road that runs from the port city of Mombassa on the east coast to Kisumu on Lake Victoria on the west coast is an extremely heavily traveled and dangerous highway. Most of the traffic consists of large trucks and buses because this is the landline, and in many ways it is the lifeline, for all of western Kenya and the land-locked countries of Sudan and Uganda.
We were able to get away early the next morning and the highlights of the trip included seeing a large bull elephant while we were crossing Tsavo East National Reserve, and innumerable butterflies representing about half a dozen species that appeared to be migrating from north to south across the highway - a passage that many did not survive. Also, as we made our way through Tsavo East, we noticed that many of the older baobab trees appeared to be stressed – dying or dead. There is evidence that the rain belt across Kenya and the rest of eastern Africa is moving south, possibly due to global warming. If this trend continues, the desertification of Kenya will be exacerbated and the dying baobab trees may be a foreshadowing of dryer times ahead.
The road trip lasted all day and we were welcomed in Mombassa by the stifling heat and humidity of the evening and spent the night at the Glory Hotel – where Kitty and I stayed in December 2003.
The following day we headed via ferry away from Mombassa, which is actually located on a coastal island, toward the town of Kwale and eventually arrive at the Msambweni District Hospital. One of the researchers at the hospital, Adams Omolo, of the Filariasis/Schistosomiasis Research Laboratory, gave us an extensive tour and allowed us to video an interview of his descriptions of their current research that is partially funded by Case Western Reserve University.
From the hospital we walked to the Indian Ocean side of the hospital compound and spent time exploring the wide beaches and multiple tidal pools as well as interacting with some of the beach-side residents who offered a wide variety of items for sale – everything from hand woven cloth, to shells, to palm wine. Since Pearl was somewhat of an expert on palm wine, having grown up in India where it was common, we purchased a bottle and most of us taste tested it through a native-fashioned type of filter and reed straw. Pearl and Kitty were impressed with the high quality of the wine but the odor was too much of a deterrent for me.
Our final destination was Malindi which is an old Swahili Moslem coastal town north of Mombassa. There were modern hotels to be found there, but we wanted something traditional and representative of the Swahili heritage; thus, with a little exploration, we found the perfect spot – a small hotel overlooking the Indian Ocean with original Swahili furnishings as well as mystique.
While on an evening walk through the old town and then to the beach, two Muslin men in traditional white galabias robes greeted us with “Shalom”. When they saw Clint, they became very fascinated, as did most Kenyan people upon seeing a small Caucasian boy. They asked his name, shook his hand while bowing, and kissed his forehead – it was a memorable moment for all of us. I couldn’t help but wonder what is wrong with the world at large – why can’t we humans just learn to get along.
It was a long drive from Malindi back to Nairobi – 12 hours on the road, but we had a weekend at Canini to look forward to. This time there were 14 of us that convened and “conferenced” at Canini – our gang of nine, Prof. Elizabeth, and Prof. Otieno, his wife Rose and their two college age children, Steve and Judy. Our stay at Canini included a side trip to a fascinating wood carving business, the Wamunyu Hand Craft Co-op Society, where we were impressed with the resident’s skill at carving various utilitarian and sculptural forms – some of which we added to our collection to bring home.
Our last couple of weeks in Kenya were very full. I thought that things would wind down as we came closer to leaving but it was just the opposite – so many sights left to see; so many dinners and departmental lunches and farewells, and people to meet and interview: Prof. Elizabeth and her intricately charming home in Kahawa Sukari and the trip and visit to her home in Elburgon – described later, Kitengella Glass Works, Nairobi National Gallery, Dr. Julie Moore of the University of Georgia’s Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases, Watatu Gallery, Rahimtulla Museum of Modern Art, P. S Alankar and his wife and children who are from India, Dr. Rose Odhiambo at Edgerton University, and Benard Barasa who is the Program Manager for the I Choose Life Program, an HIV/AIDS program, (not to mention Polycarp’s day-to-day adventures with the bureaucrats in trying to get the necessary documents for an I-20 form and eventually an F-1 visa that would allow him to return with us to the U.S. and begin his Master’s degree work at Meredith).
The trip to Elburgon and Lake Nakuru
On May 27th, Kitty, Pearl, Nancy, Clint, and I went with Prof. Elizabeth on a journey to the west over the rough roads towards Nakuru. Two miles east of Lake Elementeita, we stopped at the Kariandusi Prehistoric Site where from 1928 to 1931, the Leakeys found fossilized bones and hundreds of cutting tools, such as obsidian hand axes, most likely made by Homo erectus 0.7 to 1 million years ago. We made an unscheduled stop in Nakuru, a result of too many pot-holes in the roads, to have repaired a broken front-end tie rod that had to be removed from the steering system of the car, welded back together, and replaced – all for less than 500 ksh or about $7. We arrived at Prof. Elizabeth’s home in Elburgon after dark to enjoy a candlelit dinner – there is no electricity there – followed by the warm glow of a fireplace and an early bedtime. Elevations around Elburgon approach 8,000 feet which make for very cool nights; and, the accompanying abundant rainfall and sunny days creates dairy farmland that is reminiscent of springtime in Wisconsin.
Elizabeth purchased her country home in Elburgon about 7 years ago when she was teaching at Edgerton University, one of the six government universities, that is only about 10 miles away in Njoro. Elizabeth became enamored with the colonial style as a result of watching the renovation of Edgerton Castle; and, when she first saw the homestead in Elburgon, even though it was in an advanced state of disrepair, she felt a need to buy and restore it. Edgerton University is named after Lord Maurice Edgerton who built and lived in his massive colonial home from about 1938 until the 1950’s. Similar to the story of Lord Edgerton, Lord Delemare, who had been a provincial governor in India prior to coming to Kenya, had the Elburgon house built on a huge compound that included a 160,000 acre farm that he was granted after India gained independence from England. Both Lords lived at their respective homes until the Mau Mau Rebellion, that followed Kenyan independence, forced both of them to return to England. At the time, even though Kenya had been given political independence, in practice, Kenyans still lived in a colonial nation; and, it wasn’t until after the Mau Mau Emergency (1952-1959), during which British soldiers killed many thousands of Kenyan dissidents, that the land was redistributed to the people. Lord Delemare’s and Lord Edgerton’s homes were sparred the torch because both had been in favor of reacquisition of the land by Kenyans. Actually, Lord Delemare’s home – now Prof. Elizabeth’s – barely survived. The large carriage house/garage was burned and the house was next to be torched when the local resident farmers stepped in to argue with the Mau Mau troops that if it had not been for Delemare there would be no farm(s) for them to work.
Parenthetically, and according to legend, after the Mau Mau Rebellion and after Jomo Kenyatta was elected to be the first president of a free Kenya, he returned from exile in 1961 and landed first at what had been a large British military base outside of Nairobi. When he stepped off the plane his first words were that this place, that had been a place of death for many Kenyans, would be transformed into a place of learning. That place became Kenyatta University.
The following day we visited Edgerton University and Dr. Rose Odhiambo. It was a pleasure to meet again Prof. Rose who is director of the Institute of Women, Gender and Development Studies, that includes HIV/AIDS education, at Edgerton University. I first met her about four years ago in California at a SENCER Institute meeting. We had the opportunity to do a video interview of Prof. Rose and Corey Sobel, a Duke University student, who are doing research on the effects of HIV/AIDS on community life.
From Edgerton University, we continued back to Nakuru and Lake Nakuru National Park where we spent several hours touring Lake Nakuru, one of the Rift Valley lakes, and being awed by the vast numbers of Greater Flamingos and other birds living around the alkaline lake. It was here too that we had our only encounter with a white rhino – needless to say, we took more than a few photographs of her (or his) majesty. The entertainment for the day was provided by a band of vervet monkeys who were the park greeters. While we were inside the park office, the monkeys took advantage of our absence to immediately jump into our car and make short work of finding any food that was present – in this case a bag of chips that they proceeded to fight over and scatter chips everywhere. I am sure that the bandits were experts at rifling through tourist’s cars because we were amused at their efficiency and timing at pilfering each new vehicle that came into the parking lot, and we caught a few on digital with their hands in the “cookie jar”.
Rachael’s Development Programme and Rachael’s Children’s Home – HIV/AIDS Research
This visit to Rachael’s is a culmination of many weeks of preparation and anticipation. When the day for which we had been planning for so long finally arrived, it was a struggle to get our large troop of researchers all moving in one direction. It took most of the morning to collect us and to drive to the Gatundu district, and to finalize preparations for our time at Rachael’s. Our primary mission was to collect demographic and background information, conduct a series of clinical measurements, and distribute the Sungaprot with instructions on its use to 15 women who had been identified HIV positive at our initial visit. Upon our arrival, many local residents and the staff at Rachael’s greeted us; and the resident orphans, who filed into the compound yard, danced to and sang three songs that they had prepared for visitors.
At this point there were about 100 people in attendance, and there remained much to be organized: a station at which Jacqueline and Pearl would conduct a rather lengthy interview, a station where Tom Mbulo would take each subjects height and weight, a location where Kitty would take body temperature and blood pressure, a room where Shem Ochieng would make blood smears to be examined later for blood parasites such as malaria, and Tom Mbulo would take two samples of blood, one of which would be taken back to our lab for analysis and one sample would be taken to a hospital lab for further analysis. Kitty would then photographically document each of the 15 women (this could never have happened at our first visit but their trust had been earned and now they were very cooperative and willing photographic subjects). We also had a station operated by Justin and Jill for the collection and analysis of urine, and, if possible, collection of a fecal sample that Prof. Otieno would check for intestinal parasites back at his lab, and finally, a station at which any and all patients who requested care, including women and children not in our study, were seen by a licensed medical practitioner, Nyawira Mwangi, who would distribute, as needed, any of the drugs that we had brought with us. Prof. Otieno and I floated between sites to try to keep the process going as smoothly as possible and to answer questions. In the early afternoon, Rachael, accompanied by a driver and bodyguard, paid us a visit; and, going from station to station and interacting with the researchers, staff, and children like a dutiful overseer, she seemed very impressed and enthusiastic about the work that we were doing. Rachael is the wife of the Honorable Patrick Muiruri who is a Member of Parliament (MP), and Assistant Minister of Agriculture. And there is no shortage of opulence in the lifestyle of most Kenyan MP’s.
Data and sample collection lasted until about 3 pm whereupon lunch, that was prepared by the cooks at Rachael’s, was served to all 100+ people. We ate chicken, rice, and beans – and, of course Coke and Fanta, but the children and staff were served only the beans and rice. During lunch, Rachael’s husband appeared in an entourage of vehicles, some carrying bags of rice that were to be rationed at the end of the day to the many local residents of Gatundu who had come to see the day’s activities. Some of the vehicles transported workers and guards, and the largest SUV carried the Honorable Muiruri himself. Word had gotten to him of our work and the large reception of residents, and he wanted to be part of the “celebration” and to lend his congratulations and support – and to be seen by his constituents.
After lunch, we convened the 15 women living with AIDS, and Michael Odotte and Prof. Otieno distributed the Sungaprot followed by a demonstration by Michael Odotte on the proper preparation and consumption of Sungaprot. Near the end of the day, all of us – now about 200 – gathered in the yard to listen to more songs by the children, to hear a few speeches of appreciation by both sides, and for Kitty and I to make a donation of mostly foodstuffs that we had brought with us.
As the sun was setting, our team began to pack up to leave, staff were reviewing the activities of the day, the Muiruri’s were politicking, residents were in line to receive their ration of rice while other residents were sitting on the ground and chatting or trying to determine how to get transport home, and here and there children were playing. It was then I saw a very old woman, hunched over with age and hunger, and in dirty tattered clothing. She was in line for rice with a battered tin can for a container, but her frailty created an easy target and she was soon displaced from the line by more vigorous and probably equally as hungry younger women. She tried to regain her position in line but was refused each time at which point she gave up, dropped her tin, and dejected, proceeded for the front gate of Rachael’s. As I had been watching her plight, I could not help but follow her, and when she exited through the gate and into the dirt road in front of Rachael’s I called softly to her, “Mama, Mama”. She stopped and turned somewhat confused – what did this mazungo want? I glanced up and down the road, and quickly shoved a folded ksh note into her wrinkled hand. I did not want anyone to see because she would have had the money taken from her as easily as she was displaced from the rice line. It was at this point that something happened that surely will be one of my most significant memories of my time in Kenya.
As it was twilight, she came very close, and with piercing eyes looking squarely into mine she gave back to me what made my gift seem inconsequential. Without speaking, she slowly raised her right hand and slower still made the sign of the cross – first on herself and then on me – and then turned and disappeared into the darkness. I cannot truly portray what I felt at this moment. After a busy tumultuous day (and for that matter – five months) it was now very quite as I stood in the middle of the road in the rapidly fading sunset – and I was overwhelmed by the events of the day and by this one culminating event. Not given by any President, Pope, or King, I had received a blessing beyond all blessings – surely not for the money, it would run out soon enough, but rather for a simple act of kindness. I will never see her again – no doubt her days are few – but I will never stop seeing her. Herein lies an eternal truth and I am impressed by the simplicity of it. You and I are not here to save the world – don’t even try, you will become frustrated and cynical. But, there is one thing you and I can do and that is help just one person. That’s all – that is why we are here – one person at a time helping another, and another, and . . . . .
To the 15 women from Gatundu living with AIDS who contributed of themselves, and to all of the people that have supported me and the other eight members of our Kenyan household, I say, “Asanti sana” – thank you so very much.
Now where is that rooster? He and I have dinner plans.
Across the Rift Valley from Nairobi to Lake Victoria:
As a college student in the mid 1960’s, I had the fortunate opportunity to hear several presentations by two of the most preeminent archeologists of all time, Mary and Louis Leakey. They had spent most of their adult lives - over 40 years - excavating and documenting the fossil and anthropological record at many sites in Tanzania and Kenya. They were looking for what they felt sure was evidence that the first human-like primates evolved in this part of Africa. As I remember Louis telling the story, Mary and Louis had been living and working out of a tent for many days in the Olduvai gorge of the Rift Valley and he was very tired – tired to the point that one morning he told Mary that he was “sleeping in”. She ventured out on her own for a few hours after breakfast and discovered a fossil specimen that was to change forever how we view and understand human evolution - a 3.9 million year old skull of what was later named Australopithecus afarensis. (There was a famous discovery in Ethiopia in the 1970’s of a 3.3 million year old partial skeleton of A. afarensis that was named “Lucy”.) During many of our days traveling west across the Rift Valley, Louis and Mary’s words and discoveries were in my mind, and were as much a part of the landscape as the geological formations.
Thursday, April 13 – we finally left toward the west and the Lake Victoria region, two vehicles with the six of our family and Philip and Alfred as drivers. We originally planned to leave on Monday but completing vehicle maintenance and registration created a delay of several days. On the road to Naivasha and not long out of Nairobi we ascended to about 8000 ft near Kijabe. (Nairobi has an altitude of over 5000 ft. – similar to Denver, Colorado.) It was here for the first time that I got to see the glory that is the Rift Valley. Photos could not really do it justice but I have included several. From our vantage point we could see over 80 miles to the west across the Rift Valley to the Mau Escarpment. Below, we could see the extinct volcano, Mt Longonot, and the surrounding Maasai plains. The only thing more magnificent than this panorama was the view looking east across the Valley, seen a week later on our return trip. The road that continued on to Naivasha was very bad, as was the weather; although, we did get to see Lake Naivasha from a distance and could see the numerous pink flamingo residents that help make the lake famous. By dinner time, we had only gone as far as Nakuru, where we had a good meal at the Midland Hotel; then on to Kericho, home town of the previous president, Moi, to spend the night at the Midwest Hotel. The next day we arrived in Kisumu, the major Kenyan port on Lake Victoria, and then on to Kakamega.
Kisumu is in the heart of Luo (tribe) country, while Kakamega is Luhya (tribe). On the way to Kakamega, we passed the famous “Crying Stone”. The Luo word for stone is kidi; the Crying Stone is called kitmikai which means “stone of first wife”. As a Luo, Polycarp told me that to write down their tribal stories, rather than to pass them verbally from one generation to another, somehow defames the legends; but he was willing to relate a couple versions of the legend of the Crying Stone so that I could make an attempt at recording them. There are obvious tribal tensions between the Luo and the Luhya but the details are sketchy. For one thing, the land where the Stone stands was originally claimed to be Luo, but, for whatever reason, the land was given to the Luhya by the British colonial government and to this day, the Stone is a visual and emotional demarcation of the separation of the two tribes.
Long ago, a poor Luo man, Nyamgondho Ombare, so extremely poor that he could not afford a wife, was visited in the dark of night by an old woman who pleaded for a place to stay and be protected from the stormy weather. Ombare obliged and gave her a room for the night. As a result of Ombare’s kindness and the woman’s magical powers, Ombare awoke the next morning to find great wealth in the form of cattle, goats, and chickens; and the old woman who had been transformed into someone young who would eventually become Ombare’s wife. Ombare was instantly a man of power, stature, and importance in his community, and he wanted to live and behave like his peers who dominated everyone around them, including their wives. Because the other elders beat their wives, Ombare thought he should do the same – and did. According to custom, the wife would wait up for her husband in the evening when he returned from carousing with other men, and that she should immediately open the door upon his return. One evening when Ombare was late coming home, his wife, who had fallen asleep, did not hear him to let him in and he subsequently beat her. In her sorrow and anger, the next day Ombare’s wife left with all of the cattle, goats, and chicken and they all marched into Lake Victoria and drowned whereupon the woman’s magical powers were released and used to turn the crying Ombare into a pillar of stone. In the days before Ombare emulated the bad behavior of the other forefathers, Ombare’s wife was the love of his life, his “mikai”, and on a special day in August he would invite her into his house. This day was a great and happy day of celebration in the community surrounding his house because it was a celebration of the union of a man and a woman. In deference to the father, none of the elder’s sons could be with their wives until after that August day. For that matter, the annual harvest of the cornfields could not begin until after the August evening of the “joy of marriage”.
To this day, Omabare continues to cry from within the stone for the loss of his ability to treat his wife with respect and her death as a result of his mistreatment. His tears flow continuously from the top of the Stone and can be seen as a watery stain that extends to the bottom of the stone.
Once in Kakamega town, we ate lunch at the Ambwere Alliance Hotel (“Your Local Joint with a Difference”) where we would also return to spend the night. After lunch we drove to the small community of Illesi to visit the Illesi Pottery House operated by Charles Musa, his wife Phelistres Shisundi, and their 26-year-old son, Wycliffe Shisundi. We spent several hours touring the shop and facilities and talking to the craftsmen/proprietors. Kitty conducted an interview of Charles to collect research for her African Art History course at K.U; and Wycliffe did a coil-built/throwing demonstration. We purchased several of their pots but are not sure how we will manage to get them home to the U.S. in one piece. A short distance from Illesi, we stopped in Murambi, a small community of about 5 stores, where we talked to a carpenter in his shop, shared a drink with Pastor Malenya of Faith Believers Church, and watched a small maize grinding operation (posho mill) where corn is finely ground to be used to make ugali.
Almost all of the next day was spent attending Misango Hill Cultural Festival near the town of Charakali. This large event, held annually on the Saturday before Easter, was organized by the Minister of Cultural and Social Services, and sponsored by the former Vice Chancellor of K.U., Prof. George Eshiwani. The festival consisted primarily of musical and dance performances presented to an appreciative and lively audience. About 30 K.U. students and performers came from Nairobi to participate in the event, and a small semi-professional group from K.U., that I will call the “K.U. Players” stayed in the area until the next day, Easter, to perform at Faith Believers Church. That evening, we returned to Kisumu to eat at the Kisumu Beach Resort (ok food, but not quite like it sounds), and stay at the New East View Hotel.
Philip, Kitty, Nancy, and I left Kisumu around 10 am Easter morning to arrive at 11:30 at the church of Philip’s mother, Faith Believers Church, to participate in a celebration of music. The church is near the rural community of Murambi where we met the pastor two days earlier. When we arrived, the church was full of music and people of all ages, but we were taken first to the church parsonage for introductions and then to the church where we were seated in the front as guests of honor. Nancy and I went outside alone to practice “Amazing Grace” and then with about ten of the “K.U. Players” who were also present to participate. After several more performances by choir groups from other churches, I was asked to say a few words to the congregation, then Nancy and I, with the K.U. Players as backup, did our recorder/singing performance followed by the K.U. group doing a vibrant song and dance presentation with Blasto Owuor playing the single stringed orutu and Malachi and Nicholas dancing. Liturgical dance is not common in U.S. church services, but here in Kenya it is an important, and frequently large, component of the vivid and rhythmic creativity that accompanies worship. (The visiting performances were judged and the K.U. Players won first place for their song and dance. If only there had been one, Nancy and I would have won the award for the best performance by mzungus.)
The K.U. Players also presented a short well acted, as well as humorous, skit on AIDS – a story about a housemaid who had an affair with the father and son in the house. The father gives the maid HIV who passes it to the son, and in addition, the maid becomes pregnant; moral: use condoms. It may sound incongruous to have a skit on such a topic presented at a rural conservative church on Easter, but the crisis message of HIV/AIDS in Kenya has been far reaching and people are becoming aware that control of this epidemic requires education and a frank confrontation with the causes and effects.
At about 3 pm, the clouds opened and it poured buckets of rain, and the sound on the tin roof of the church almost dampened out the singing, but not the spirit. The program finished around 5 pm, but not before Philip addressed the congregation and presented an electric generator and about 100 t-shirts, that I had contributed, to the church. We then went back to the parsonage where all of the K.U. folks were treated to a traditional meal of chicken, ugali, sukumu, chips, and rice, and the usual Coke and orange Fanta to drink. After many photos (like a wedding) and an equal number of “good-bys”, we returned to Kisumu and the New East View Hotel to spend a second night.
On Easter Monday we went back up the mountain to the north of Kisumu, but before reaching Kakamega town we turned onto a dirt road that in turn soon became a gully-washed washboard for about 10 miles before reaching Kakamega Forest, a virgin forest preserve. We knew we were getting close to Kakamega Forest once we began to encounter women and children walking towards the small town of Khayega with large loads of firewood balanced on their heads. We stopped to talk to one young carriers who had set down her load of wood by the road. She appeared to be about 7-8 years old and her name was Sylvia Isiepa. She explained that she was taking a rest, as this was her third load of the day – two for her mother and now this one to take to town to sell. The Forest still provides many resources such as firewood, game meat, and herbal medicine, although law supposedly protects the latter two.
With some directions from the gatekeeper at the entrance to the Forest, we found our way to the offices of the Kakamega Environmental Education Program (K.E.E.P.) where John Luseno explained the work of KEEP and introduced us to our guide Gabriel Musundi. Gabriel was extremely knowledgeable and stopped frequently, as we walked through the Forest, to explain the various ecosystems such as the forest, and the grassland glades that were at one time wetlands surrounded by forest; and, to point out plants and animals of interest such as Colobus, Blue Tailed, and Red Tailed Monkeys, Silvery Cheeked Hornbills, the Blue Headed Bee Eater, the seven species of Ficus (figs) – some of which provide tree holes that fill with rain water to quench the thirst of monkeys during the dry seasons, and some of which are epiphytic and completely envelope and eventually strangle the host tree on which they depended for support. We saw the single “mother” tree of Maesposis eminii that provided all of the seeds for the thousands of mutere trees that are planted far and wide across East Africa for timber, and Prunus africanis whose bark is used as a herbal drug to treat enlargement and cancer of the prostate.
Gabriel explained that the primary role of KEEP is to educate the local people about 1) energy i.e. firewood conservation with the construction and use of heat efficient mud stoves (that we photographed at the Ilesi Pottery house – see photos), 2) minimal-damage methods of harvesting herbal drugs such as tree barks, 3) protection of wildlife such as Colobus monkeys, and snakes such as the Giboon and Horned Viper, and the Black Mamba that control rodents that destroy grain reserves, and 4) butterfly farming. Over half of the species of butterflies in Kenya are found in Kakamega Forest, and, if managed properly, the culturing and harvesting of butterfly pupae to be shipped to Europe and North America represents a profitable as well as renewable resource.
Our first stop the next day after breakfast was the Pandipieri Catholic Center adjacent to the Nyalenda slum in Kisumu. Our primary interest was their work with children and specifically their Street Children Programme that was explained to us by Philip Nyangara, the leader of the Street Programme, and James Oakes, Department Head, Kisumu Urban Apostolate Program. Their main objective is to gain the trust of street children - mostly boys - by engaging the boys in sports, teaching survival skills, and providing at least two nutritious meals per day. Once the boys come into the program they are given counseling and training with the ultimate goal of reintegrating the children back into their local communities as productive citizens e.g. “capacity building”. The boys also are taught basic health care and nutrition (Pandipieri operates seven nutrition clinics.) and the boys are provided clinical services and medical referrals. Even though there is a very active Voluntary Counseling and Testing (VCT) Center for HIV/AIDS at Pandipieri, the children are not tested because of the lingering stigma associated with being HIV+. HIV+ children are frequently abandoned by their family and community, thus it is better not to know their HIV status. Also many of the street children are orphans as a result of AIDS but the orphans will not reveal this particular parental fate because of the stigma of AIDS. Nevertheless, one of the most fascinating things we learned at Pandipieri was the construction of “Memory Books”. Memory Books are usually written for a child by a parent, grandparent, or other relative to be a memoir/scrapbook of the life of a parent dying of AIDS – but unspoken. In some instances, the child is the author of the Memory Book or may be written by a counselor at the Center. In this way, the child does not lose all of his/her past upon becoming an orphan and has a tangible reflection of their individual personal experiences from the past. Frequently, young children orphaned by AIDS are angry with their parents and want to distance themselves from their parents, but the Memory Books provide an important familiar connection to the past when the children become older.
After our meeting at the Pandipieri Center, Philip Nyangara guided us to the Lake Victoria site where the street boys are taken to learn fishing skills and generally have a good time fishing and playing at the lake. When we arrived, we found about 30 boys and two counselors – most all having a successful day fishing and enjoying each other and entertaining us as we moved among them. We avoided contact with the lake water because the water at this location is a known to harbor the intermediate snail host of Schistosoma mansoni that causes Bilharzia in humans and other mammals. I asked Nyangara about his perception of the danger of Bilharzia to the boys fishing in the water and he responded that they were not susceptible whereas we would be. He is partially correct in that a low level infection may give some partial immunity to subsequent exposures but any level of infection can be ultimately debilitating.
After about an hour, the boys began their walk back to the Center for lunch while we engaged three local men to take us in their rowboat to try to find hippopotamus resting areas in Lake Victoria. The hippos move from land into the water to stay cool during the hottest part of the day. While mimicking hippo grunts and growls, the helmsman was able to attract the attention of four large hippos that emerged their heads and communicated back their acknowledgement of and/or displeasure with our presence.
The second stop of the day was at the home of Philip Owino’s brother Charles in Nyalenda slum in Kisumu. Charles showed us the way to his home where he lives with his wife Mary and their three children. Nyalenda has the highest percent of HIV+ people anywhere in Kenya. Two of Philip’s brothers, their wives and children all perished from contracting AIDS while living in this slum. Philip lived here for two years some time ago and has cautioned Charles as to the consequences that await the unprotected. Charles and Mary are poor – he works full-time, probably six days a week, as a waiter in a cyber café in Kisumu for about $10 a week or about $500 for an entire year – but they are justifiably proud of their accomplishments and we are there to enjoy their company and the good food for dinner that Mary has prepared for us.
After the usual family photo sessions, we departed to the south for the town of Kisii where we arrived at dusk and booked at the only reasonably good hotel in town, the Mash Park Hotel. The hotel had a restaurant where we had one of our “flashlight” dinners – something to which we are growing accustomed because power, if available, is erratic in most of Kenya. On the drive from Kisumu to Kisii, I was struck by the high dependency on roadside water catchments, even though muddy and unsanitary, as the primary source of available water for domestic use.
The next day was a day of limited successes. We left Kisii at 8:30 am to drive further west to Polycarp’s home in the town of Karungu that is about 40 km from Homa Bay and on Lake Victoria. On the way, we stopped and spent a little time in Asumbi at Asumbi Girls High School, a Catholic high school were Polycarp taught English for two years prior to coming to live with us in Nairobi. Other than a few orphans, there were no students present because most all schools in Kenya have a mid-semester break during the two weeks following Easter.
From Asumbi it was four more hours over extremely poor roads only to be thwarted by very muddy roads and the threat of rain less than 2 km from the home of Polycarp’s mother – so close. Polycarp was understandably disappointed that we could not proceed yet he rightly continued the rest of way on foot while we turned back to miss the worst of the rain and to try to find gas (petrol) as both cars were running low. Both Kitty and I drove (= maneuvered around massive potholes) back to Rongo which provided a much-needed break from driving for Philip and Alfred.
As dusk approached, we arrived at Tabaka where much of the Kenyan soapstone is mined, and where once again we were denied reaching our destination by poor roads. John was looking forward, as we all were, to visiting the mines but hopefully will have a chance to return with Polycarp sometime in May. We did find a few very good and reasonably priced soapstone carving “outlets” where we made several purchases from Seth Nyamao at the Bosinange Jua Kali Art Gallery Soap Stone Group. We returned to Kisii to spend another night at the Mash Park Hotel.
For better or for worse, the next morning we made the decision to try to make it to the Masai Mara National Reserve which turned out to be an eight hour drive from Kisii via Bomet to the east and then south over rocky and muddy roads to the Sekenani gate at the reserve. With the assistance of an armed guide we were able to spend the rest of the day in the Mara where we observed lions – up close and personal i.e. 2-3 feet from our vehicles, a family of elephants (and as is the case with most African elephants, they were rather bad tempered), and the regular assortment of reserve wildlife such as warthogs, giraffes, ostrich, wildebeests, zebra, impala, gazelles, dik-dik, as well as Secretary Birds and the spectacular Black Crowned Cranes. We left the Mara after dark and, since there was virtually no one on the road, we had the opportunity to see a number of nocturnal critters that most folks probably don’t get to see very often (people in their right mind should not be traveling these roads after dark – what’s wrong with this picture). We saw a honey badger, stripped hyena which are uncommon, bat-eared foxes, and several springhares that look like rabbits but are a type of rodent. We contemplated trying to make it back to Nairobi that evening but bad weather and bad roads combined with overall exhaustion caused us to stop at about 10:30 pm and spend the rest of the night in Narok at the Seasons Hotel. Not to alarm any family or friends but rather to paint a realistic picture, keep in mind that when traveling, or for that matter living, in a new continent such as Africa with a group as large as our “family”, you can almost bet on the fact that at any given time at least one person in the group will have a fever or diarrhea – just part of life.
It was, I think, fortuitous that we stopped in Narok; otherwise we would have been deprived of what we were able to see on the final day of our trip. We headed for home on April 21st over what must be the worst 90 km of road in all of Kenya. Many of the portions of the road were impassable and progress could be made only “off road”, and what was passable was somewhat dangerous. But here is the saving grace: about an hour outside of Narok, and heading east, we came upon the most spectacular views that I have seen in Kenya – looking east into the Rift Valley. (The roads were so bad that we could not find a place to stop and take a photograph – maybe just as well because there is no way to capture the magnitude of the scenery.) Then, dropping several thousand feet into the Valley; crossing the Valley with mountains or escarpments on all sides; passing Longonot (the extinct volcano mentioned at the onset of our trip); and then up again several thousand feet to the plateau on the eastern side of the Valley and back to Kijabe.
We arrived back to the “University of the Future”, as stated on the sign at the entrance to K.U., at roughly noon to unload, unpack, and repack because Prof. Elizabeth Orchardson-Mazrui was coming to get us at 3 pm to go to Canini for a weekend retreat. We arrived at Canini by 5 pm. Suffice it to say that Canini is medicine for the spirit and soul. Quiet, clean air, beautiful flowers, landscapes, and sunsets, great food, big soft beds and large comfortable rooms of a bygone era – we all needed this respite to recover from a grueling week on the road. After dinner and a Tuskers (beer) I fell asleep almost before my head reached the pillow. This was billed as a retreat for members of the Department of Fine Arts; and, our family was joined for the weekend by other folks from the Department of Fine Arts: Prof. Elizabeth, Prof. Anthony Ngondo, and Chris Omedo. We all got along like old friends and they were great company - sharing interesting stories, and with a wonderful sense of humor. The weekend was filled with long mealtime conversations, good food (several of us tried “porridge” for the first time for breakfast – ok if taken with lots of sugar, a little salt, and milk), interacting with the permanent resident orphans who did not have any family to go to during Easter break, and hikes to the rock formations behind Canini to either take photographs, make drawings, or search for primitive rock and cave paintings that were rumored to be there and which we did discover a few.
Seeing those cave paintings renewed in me the sense of continuity that we as humans share with our ancestors – those discovered by Mary and Louis Leakey as well as the more recent original members of our species who, like Australopithecus, not only came out of Africa, and not only out of what we call East Africa, but out of THIS place – where I have recently stood. Upon seeing the Rift Valley and the Serengeti Plains, all of the textbook references about the origins and evolution of modern humans cannot help but come alive. When you stand on the massive ridges of the Rift Valley and look across the vast Maasai plains, you are looking into a hole in time, the whole of the origin of humans. Furthermore, you get the sense that we humans have only just arrived and that the cumulative “we”, with so recent a single common heritage, are all the same.
We, all of us, are the same. After Australopithecus, it took roughly another million years for our genus, Homo, to evolve in East Africa; but, our species, Homo sapiens, evolved in Africa as recently as 100,000 years ago, and it has only been in the past 10-15,000 years that humans migrated out of the Rift Valley and onto most of the rest of the continents. Consider this: if you assume that the generation time for humans is approximately 20 years, then there has been a total of only about 5000 generations of humans in all time; only 500 to 750 generations since humans left Africa; and only 100 generations since the time of Jesus! Before you awake tomorrow morning there are single-celled organisms growing on your skin that very likely would have completed more generations – and odds are, they would not have changed genetically. In other words, there has simply not been enough time, or generations of humans, for us to state that various groups of humans, whose identity is based on external appearances such as skin color, are genetically different enough to be sub-classified into a taxonomic unit as large as a race. Indeed, many expressions of genetic information that result in dramatic observable changes, such as skin color, may in fact be the result of an extremely small genetic change. As reported in Science 2005: (310) 1782-1786, nearly all Africans and East Asians have a guanine (G) allele on their SLC24A5 gene that codes for alanine in a key locus at amino acid 111 in the third exon of SLC24A5, whereas 98% of Europeans have the amino acid threonine due to an adenine (A) allele. Adenine and guanine are two of the four nucleotide bases in DNA; and, if there are about 3.2 billion base position arrangements in the typical human genome, then the percent genetic difference that plays this critical role in the skin color of my African colleagues as compared to my skin color is only about 3.1 x 10-8 %. (As a point of reference, 3.1 x 10-8 % or 0.000000031% is so infinitesimally small that the human mind has difficulty imagining how small it is.)
There are no races of humans; we are all the same. Cultural and ethnic origins and differences do exist, but the concept of race in humans in an artificial designation that was first applied several hundred years ago by ethnically Caucasian people from a European culture who wanted to justify what they considered to be their right to an advanced political and social status.
[Click] to view all the pictures submitted by Professor Mecham for this chronicle.
Correction: Mt. Kenya is over 17,000 ft in elevation, not 15,000 ft as I stated in the last posting. As I mentioned in the last “Chronicle”, Mt. Kenya, which is only about 100 km to the north of where we live, is virtually on the equator. This gave me food for thought this past Monday, March 20, because on this day the vernal equinox occurred. Since many of the sun’s rays are perpendicular to the earth’s equator on that day, it occurred to me that if I was standing in the thin air atop Mt. Kenya and the sky was cloudless around mid-daylight, that nowhere else on Earth on that day would the solar intensity be as great. (Dr. Hazard or Dr. Schmidt will correct me if I am wrong.)
Newsflash March 22 - Kenyatta University - Prof. Olive Mugenda has been named the first woman Vice-Chancellor of any public university in Kenya. The VC is equivalent to “President” and is the highest-ranking official on any given university campus. The newspaper banner on The Standard reads, “Finally Woman Named Public University V-C”. Personally, I have known Prof. Mugenda for the past five years and several of the Meredith College faculty met her at Science Education for New Civic Engagement and Responsibility (SENCER) meetings in California in 2003 and 2004. Upon addressing the press after the announcement, she declared, “I would like to dedicate this appointment to the Kenyan women who work hard and sometimes are not recognized. I advise young women professionals to stay focused and determined to get to their goal.” She said that she would strive to be a role model to many women academics and girls since they faced many challenges, including the lack of resources in their quest to reach the peak of society.
In early March, The Standard, one of the two major newspapers, and KTN, a popular TV station, were attacked by a police tactical squad at the direction of an outspoken government official who felt that the press was becoming to anti-government. His comment after the attacks, “If you pull a snakes tail, expect to be bitten”, has become a rallying cry for a free press by those who perceive the powers that resulted in the attack as truly a “snake” amidst the public. The damage at KTN resulted in the station going off the air for about 12 hours, and The Standard missed publishing a paper for a day after offices and presses were looted and damaged. Three reporters for The Standard were arrested and jailed for allegedly publishing stories that were unfavorable to the government. For several days after the raids, both The Nation and The Standard devoted a sizable portion of their editorial space to the raids and calls for investigations. Most of the larger cities and towns in Kenya were the sites of public demonstrations against the attack on a free press; and we are reminded that what we consider to be human rights are not rights at all, but are liberties that can be given or taken away.
We further experienced the fragility of our liberties on an evening in mid March while returning from a dinner for “Fulbrighters”at Aruna Amirthanayagam’s home. Aruna is the Cultural Attaché at the U.S. Embassy, and his home is not far from the Embassy in Nairobi. It was about 10 pm and George was driving us. Not long after we left for home, we came to a police roadblock, and since we typically pass unquestioned through two or three police checks per trip to Nairobi, we did not think much about this one. This time it was different. We were flagged to a stop, whereupon the office wanted to know why Kitty and I were not using seat belts in the back seat. The fact that there were none in this taxi might explain it; but, if it had not been the seat belt infraction, I am sure something else would have surfaced. At this point he demanded 3000 ksh from each of us (which we did not have and would not pay even if we had it) or we would be arrested, spend the night in jail, and go before a judge in the morning. He could have legally requested a fine of 100 ksh from each of us. This was extortion, a common police tactic with taxicabs and matatu, so we refused to move until we contacted Post One at the U.S. Embassy, which we did immediately via our cell phone. When he heard us call and speak to the Marine at the Embassy, the policeman said he was “forgiving us” and that we were free to go. While we were calling, George was coerced, with the help of the end of a police rifle, to pay 200 ksh. We were (are) extremely grateful for the presence of Post One, and are reminded that freedom from tyranny is a liberty that we seldom think twice about in the U.S.
On a more optimistic note, re Nairobi newspapers, both The Standard and The Nation continued this month the Kenyan tradition of publishing full front-page (and full 2nd and 3rd page) stories on the results of the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) Form Four Examination that is taken by all fourth-year secondary school children in public and private schools. Both the ranking of the schools and the names and ranking of the top 100 students in each district were the subjects of stories in both newspapers. In general, Kenyans place a very high value on education, and I can’t help but wonder what they could accomplish with just a smidgen of the educational wealth and resources that we experience, and frequently waste or try to avoid, in the United States. Would that every public school child in the U.S. could see the longing for knowledge in the faces of Kenyan children. One of the modes of operation at K.U. that I find worth emulating in the U.S. is the high level of leadership that students are expected to shoulder. Students are consulted (sometimes disingenuously) on all matters, except, as I noted previously, the act of student evaluation and grading – during which faculty can be downright brutal. In most all other aspects, student input is sought – sometimes laboriously and/or to the extreme. The outcome is that each class is a product of a great deal of cooperation and student-faculty give-and-take. The ultimate expectation is that the students will willingly help their faculty members in all educational endeavors; and, to insure student responsibility and accountability, each class has one or several – usually not more than three -“class leaders” who speak for the rest of the class and who are given assorted tasks to either delegate or do themselves.
The “short rains” started around March 1st, but lasted only about one week, and the “long rains” which should have started by now, are predicted to be less than normal. Even though not enough to alleviate the drought, the rain has changed the landscape to a dark green with the majority of trees and herbaceous plants putting forth a show of flowers. The insects take advantage of the moisture to reproduce, hatch, swarm, and generally make their presence known to each other and to us – particularly the mosquitoes and swarming termites and ants. Swarming termites are short lived and their accumulated bodies are scooped up by residents who consider the fried insects a delicacy and delicious protein supplement to their diet. John is the only one of us who gives them a try and reports that they have a bitter aftertaste.
Prof. Michael Otieno*, Chairman of the Department of Pre-Clinical Sciences, and I have formed a good research team that includes the herbalists Benson Njoroge and Israel Odongo, and Philip Owino; and we have begun working on the details of an experimental design that will attempt to determine the efficacy of the herbal drugs such as sunguprot, Tylosema fassoglensis, on people living with AIDS. We will incorporate the Dynabead CD4 test that I have developed to measure the level of CD4 lymphocytes prior to and after three months of treatment with sunguprot. CD (Cluster of Differentiation) 4 cells are helper T cells or lymphocytes that normally number about 1000 per cubic millimeter of blood. They are required for proper immune system function and AIDS is defined as a CD4 cell count of 200 or less per cubic millimeter of blood. CD4 Dynabeads are mircospheres coated with monoclonal antibodies that attach to the 56 KD CD molecules on the surface of CD4 cells, which distinguish them as the helper/inducer subset of T cells. The Dynabeads adhere to the surface of the CD4 cells and thus make them easily identifiable and quantifiable under the microscope.
As I am listed as a member of staff in the Department of Pre-Clinical Sciences, Prof. Otieno invited me to participate in the programme on March 24 for the first visit by the Medical Practitioners Board Inspection Team, headed by Prof. Kyiambi, of Nairobi Hospital. The morning session consisted of an address by Prof. Mugenda, the new VC, and introductions of staff, prior to getting down to the day’s agenda that was designed to inform the Board of the status and position of the new medical school program so that they could make a decision as to the approval of the program. Without appropriate approvals, graduates from the program could not legally practice medicine. The session went well except for some discord and a few awkward moments because, even though the school is not approved, medical students already exist. In their defense, I would say that these students (as well as the faculty) are some of the best I have ever encountered and, to a large extend, the students’ presence has been the driving force in the development and implementation of the medical school program and a quality curriculum. In the afternoon, the Board, with members of staff, toured the teaching facilities, and the construction site of the new medical labs. *The title “Professor” is achieved by very few of the faculty and generally reserved for administrative officials from the V.C. to Chairmen of departments. If not a “Prof”, the teaching faculty are addressed “Dr.” or “Madam” or “Mr.” or, contractually, “Lecturer”. I am referred to as “Prof John”.
Entertainment this past month included dinner at Carnivore, and dancing at Simba – owned by the same family and located in the same building. Carnivore is undoubtedly the most famous place to eat in Nairobi; their notoriety stemming from a menu of ranch raised game meats such as ostrich, crocodile, and giraffe. Additional entertainment was provided at home one evening by what sounded like a mouse playing basketball with a small wooden ball. After an extensive search behind cabinets and in drawers, we found the source. Nancy had been making decorations from hollowed out eggshells (blown eggs) and had left a couple on the floor in her room when she went to bed. Thinking it had found an egg on which to dine, a mouse brought it into our bedroom (it was easy to drag because Nancy had glued a string to the egg shell) and was repeatedly unsuccessful at attempting to maneuver the egg through a too-small-space behind our chest of drawers. We are not sure if the mouse was thinking of food or decoration for its home.
The past couple of weekends included Saturday events involving HIV/AIDS education. Two weekends ago, Dr. Owino and I held a daylong retreat at Roasters, a nearby hotel and restaurant, for the HIV/AIDS Seminar students. After breakfast, four groups of students gave PowerPoint presentations on various topics such as the development of anti-HIV vaccines, AIDS and nutrition, anti-retroviral therapy, and the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS; and, after lunch, Dr. Owino, Eric Masinde Aseka, Professor of Political Science, and I gave presentations. Most of the students remained at the hotel to enjoy the swimming pool, and music in the club that evening. (The drinking age in Kenya is 18.) The hot breakfast for 12 people and catered lunch/drinks for 16, together with the use of a meeting room for the day, cost less than $100 – I am getting spoiled. This past Saturday, Benson, his wife Alice, and I spent the day visiting the government run Coffee Research Station in Ruiru, and planning for a Sensitization Workshop on HIV/AIDS to be repeated each day next week for employees at the station. We are expecting a total of about 200 participants over five days.
Since last submitting a Chronicle, I visited three orphanages. What follows is extremely difficult for me to portray. To paint an accurate image and description with words is hard enough, but human emotions are so much an indescribable yet connected part of the experience that I find myself unable to begin to say in words what I feel. I cannot say that I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then; still, I have not come to terms with the reality of what I have seen and heard.
The first site we (all six of our “family”) visited was the Canini Health Trust near the town of Athi River. Professor Elizabeth Mazarui, the only full Professor in the Department of Fine Arts at K.U., and member of the Board of Directors at Canini, drove us to Canini the morning of March 12; a trip that include an impromptu stop for tea at the home of Allen Donovan. Allen is an art collector and designer as well as Kenya’s foremost expert on artistic works and artifacts; and he lives in a beautiful home, the “most photographed home in Kenya”, overlooking Nairobi National Park. Canini is also positioned with spectacular views of the ranchland plains that are continuous with the Nairobi National Park; domineering rock formations are situated above and behind Canini. Gillian Lawrence-Brown who died in July 2003 founded Canini in 1994. Canini is an acronym for Care, Advice, Nursing, Immunization, Nutrition, and Inspiration. The original institution was a geriatric unit but has been converted to a bed-and-breakfast to support the orphanage and school called Beehive Children’s Center. Beehive, started in 1997, stands for Bravery, Endurance, Etiquette, Hindrance, Innovative, Versatile, and Education. There are 15 orphans housed on the premises and another 35 orphans, who live with their grandmothers in the Athi River slum, attend the school. Kenya has many thousands of orphans whose parents died of AIDS and now depend on their grandmothers for their survival. The phenomenon of entire villages where the primary caregiver to children is a grandmother, or at least the magnitude of the phenomenon, is new to me, and a consequence of AIDS that is changing the social structure of much of Kenyan village life.
We spend all day at Canini – a very special and likable place with equally special and likable staff and students. We have a family style dinner, and then tour the facilities with Rose Njeri Muttie, Head Administrator, as our guide. Most of the student residents, Kitty, John, Polycarp, Nancy, and Clint go for a hike up the rocks behind Canini while I stay to conduct a video interview of Rose Njeri and two students, Andrew Amigo and Elizabeth Njeri both age 16. Andrew and his brother were the first orphans at Beehive; Elizabeth is an orphan whose parents died of AIDS. Both Andrew and Elizabeth are very articulate, albeit shy. It is my conclusion that the resident and day students at Canini are far more fortunate than the majority of orphans in Kenya. Thanks to location and a devoted and caring staff, the orphans at Canini have open spaces to explore and to be children, they have food to eat, clear air to breath, and clean water to drink – they appear to be happy.
The second site I visited, Rachael’s Children’s Home, is so much the opposite of Canini. I say this not as a judgment but as an observation. Furthermore, I am indebted to the staff at Rachael’s Development Programme because they are making it possible for our AIDS research team to have a base of operations from which to make contact and work with people living with AIDS. Rachael’s Children’s Home, which I will refer to as “Rachael’s”, is part of Rachael’s Development Programme that has its main office in Thika where Ann Chege is Director. Ann has been our main contact person to help us develop a research site.
Rachael’s is an orphanage and school of about 30 young children - most appear to be under 8 years old – in Gatukuyu, a small rural community near Thika. A stunning fact is that all of the orphans at Rachael’s are the children of parents who have died of AIDS. Rachael’s is the face of poverty. The children live in very poor conditions and many are in need of medical attention. The borehole at Rachael’s has gone dry which means that water, of dubious quality, has to be brought in by truck. Food resources are limited. While there, I observed the cook, whose stove is an iron kettle on a bed of coals on the ground, making lunch that consisted of the water broth from a few cooked beans. Children sleep six to a bunk bed (neatly made) in rooms with makeshift doors and no windows. Newly orphaned infants add to the burden of the caregivers. The single corrugated metal classroom that is the school is virtually void of teaching materials and the children’s uniforms are tattered and dirty. All of these conditions could be singly trumped with children that were happy – but I cannot say this was the case. The faces of the children told of hunger, sorrow, weakness, and lethargy. Witnessing a child who projects hopelessness creates a new kind of sad for me – I wish it was not so. Witnessing and interviewing the mothers of future orphans is almost beyond comprehension – but this is why we are here, why we have come to Rachael’s.
Benson, Prof. Otieno, Israel, and I met first with the Director of Rachael’s Children’s Home, Tabitha Nbanga, in order to discuss our plan which was to use a predetermined set of questions to interview** approximately 10 HIV+ adults for possible inclusion in our test group. When we started the interviews, only a few people living with AIDS were present and we were worried that our test population would be too small. However, the word spread quickly that there was a group of researchers at Rachael’s that were planning to distribute free drugs, and, before long, we had a long line at our door. Several came with a variety of ailments other than AIDS. Unfortunately, we were unable to provide them with drugs and we had to limit our interviews to a more-than-adequate number (23) of HIV+ individuals. All of them were women. The reason we heard from the women was that either their husbands had already died, or had run away then they were diagnosed with HIV. Almost a third of them had their CD4 cell counts determined last year when they tested positive and the CD4 values ranged from 600 down to 140 CD4 cells per micro liter of blood. As stated earlier, 200 or less is the definition of AIDS, and approximately 1000 is normal. Almost none of them were taking an anti-retroviral (ARV) drug even though the drugs, as well as the HIV test, is heavily subsidized by the Kenyan government i.e. the test costs only 50 ksh or about $0.70. To a person, they all told us that if they were given 50 cents for an HIV drug treatment that they would spend the money for food because food was an immediate remedy to their most pressing problem, hunger. We were not allowed to pay the participants, but we did leave a 3000 ksh donation to Rachael’s. Sue Cochrane, a young volunteer from London who had been at Rachael’s for about six months, was particularly happy to receive the contribution because it meant that she could continue her work in the development of small plot of land for a vegetable garden. We plan to begin our experimental drug therapy tests in about two weeks after we have received approvals from K.U., the local Ministry of Health, and the local Member of Parliament (MP) and community elders.
** During the interviews, I was asked not to take videos or photographs of the women living with AIDS because they didnot want their identity revealed in any way. They are particularly wary of the media. The stigma of HIV/AIDS has waned considerably since I was here two years ago, but is still a real threat, especially to people in the rural communities. There are many many times that I wish that my eyes were attached to a camera because there is so much that I see that I cannot photograph either because the people are opposed or the environment is not safe enough to brandish a camera. The last interviewee did agree to a still photograph of herself and her infant child who is HIV-, even though children born to and nursing HIV+ mothers have about a 30% chance of becoming HIV+. She does have a 7 year old HIV+ child at home.
The third site I visited, along with my HIV/AIDS Seminar class, was an orphanage and school in Nairobi’s Kibera slum, where some 800,000 people live. Kicoshep, the organization that oversees the orphanage and school, also operates a clinic at the same site in Kiberia. Kicoshep is one of the largest community self-help programmes in Kenya with about 2000 recipients of their services. We spent one morning in Nairobi interviewing Rev. Mrs. Anne Owiti, who is the CEO of Kicoshep, and then on to the Kiberia site for the afternoon. Kiberia Kicoshep (KK) is about a 30 minute walk into the slum (I am not even going to attempt to describe what I saw here – maybe another time) and the facility itself somehow seemed miniaturized as all of the walkways and rooms are extremely space efficient and small. We are given a tour of the clinic and then the school and its kitchen – similar in fashion to the one at Rachael’s. The big difference is that KK is much larger with a primary school for 430 students, over 200 of which are orphans of AIDS parents – most of whom are being raised by grandmothers. One would think that the shear number of orphans involved would be emotionally overwhelming, but in spite of the abject poverty and potential for despair, these children appear to be oblivious to their plight. They are running, playing, laughing – generally healthy because of the clinic, nourished because of the school kitchen, comparatively well educated because of a very professional and dedicated core staff of teachers. In their eyes resides hope, and since the vast majority of 5-8 year olds are AIDS free, Kenya’s, and maybe much of sub-Saharan Africa’s future resides in these eyes also.
Before George was involved in an accident that made his taxi “rightoff” = unable to be driven, we saw a lot of the inside of his taxi as George was our main line to shopping and the U.S. Embassy. We could monopolize him for almost an entire day for about $25, which makes me think that I made the correct decision not to buy or rent a car while we are here, even though we did get our International Drivers Permit. The round-abouts (traffic circles), British side of the road traffic, and the almost complete absence of traffic regulations would have done us in for sure. (I also find myself getting to know all too well the moneychangers at Shepherds Forex Bureau Ltd. because we are finding it difficult to stay within our weekly budget.) George just called to say that if we need him, he could borrow another taxi.
On one of our trips to Nairobi, we go to the Village Market, an upscale shopping center in Grigiri. Normally, we prefer to stay away from such western replicas but I need to use their internet café. The internet café at K.U. has been down for over six weeks and additionally, I cannot send attachments from the U.S. Embassy because we are not allowed to enter with any software. We have lunch at the food court with its high percentage of Westerners and Europeans, and we make in interesting observation: After just a couple on months of seeing only Africans (a couple of weeks ago one of our group reported a single sighting of a white person on the K.U. campus), one might think that we would have a natural proclivity toward white folks, but instead we unanimously comment that mzungu = white people are rather odd looking – out of place; as we too must appear. It may sound strange, or obvious to some, but something none of us thought about previously but all of us observe now is the phenomenal grandeur of the Kenyan people. Photographs do not accurately portray their physicality. The closest art comes to capturing their stature is through sculpture – some of which we hope to return with to the U.S.
The other day while Polycarp, John and I were walking across campus, we were met by a group of first or second grade school girls (there is a primary school on campus) all dressed in their gray and red uniforms. Giggling and laughing as they approached, we could hear the girls in the front announce to the others, “Mzungu!” Whereupon John turns quickly to the right and then left saying, “Wapi? Wapi?” (“Where? Where?) – which exaggerates their giggles and leaves us smiling. With “ginglies” (a made-up word for Kenyan coins) in our pockets, the three of us were on our way to the front gate of K.U. to catch a matatu to Nairobi – my first matatu ride – not bad, but definitely a different perspective. Once in Nairobi, the scene is mostly one of very crowded matatu and exhaust filled streets, equally crowded and broken walkways, street vendors and cookers, kiosk store fronts, innumerable odors, street people huddled en mass or sleeping on the sidewalks, and beggars – most disabled. We spend most of the day in Nairobi shopping at a variety of stores, primarily for clothes. At the Tusker Mattress Company store on Tom Mboya Street, an excellent pair of Italian made trousers cost about $6; DVD movies cost $1 each. We eat lunch in the walk-up restaurant of the Accura Road Hotel. Circa the 1930’s and filled with what has become shabby elegance, I fully expect to see Humphrey Bogart or possibly Ernest Hemingway seated at one of the tables.
John has made a friend, Jayne Nyawira Muriithi, whom he has seen several times and has been on a few “dates”; and, after a rousing game of basketball with John, Polycarp, and a few pick-up players, Polycarp and I head for home leaving John to meet Jayne for lunch. Even though I have not met Jayne, who is Kikuyu (her tribe), I leave because custom dictates that friends of the opposite sex do not meet a parent until after a considerable length of time – sometimes years; and, while they are not “boyfriend/girlfriend”, Jayne would still be very nervous in my presence. Later in the week, John and Jayne go into Nairobi to do some shopping, and since mzungu are rare – particularly rare in the company of “resident” females – Jayne and John are on the receiving end of many racial slurs and epithets, mostly directed toward Jayne.
The Kikuyu tribe is the largest tribe in Kenya, and the most financially and politically successful i.e. President Kibaki is Kikuyu. There are forty-two main tribes and many sub-tribes in Kenya, and while the “selfish soul” is understandably a high priority in this land, the “selfish tribe” results in a pervasive atmosphere of status and favoritism that, in my opinion, must be overcome if Kenya is to make substantial progress in the future. Culture, like history, is a valuable commodity; but, tribalism is counter-productive; and furthermore, since many Kenyans are devout Christians, tribalism that leads to bigotry and cultural bias is fundamentally unchristian. Polycarp, who is a member of the Luo tribe and a devout Catholic, also has Kikuyu friends, but he tells us that when they visit his home, his relatives ignore - won’t even acknowledge, his Kikuyu friends. Over the next several days we revisit this issue at many meal times with Polycarp, and I think we eventually get him to recognize the negative consequences of tribalism and bigotry. Of course, it took the United States over 200 years to make substantial gains in attempting to rectify racial bigotry and provincialism. Hopefully, Kenya will act more expeditiously.
Sunday, February 12 – The hadada ibis (Bostrychia hagedash) had some company in our yard this morning. Two slender (common name) mongooses (Galerella sanguinea), recognizable by their black tipped tails, spent some time exploring the perimeter before silently disappearing. Later that day, a dead hedgehog – the first one I had ever seen – in the road in front of our house becomes lunch for the resident pied crows, looking rather like a cadre of priests with their collar of white feathers, before the carcass is stolen away by a large kite. Valentine’s Day is a relatively new day in Kenyan lives; but, driven by commercialism, the day has gained a significant foothold. For Kitty, I have a text on art history of Africa that I bought at the Bookmark Bookstore, a sweater, and long sleeved blouse for when it turns cooler that I bought when I was in Nairobi. I purchased her a card from the K.U. campus bookshop that had about three card selections, and were all sealed in plastic which I did not remove because, in an environment where everything is covered with red dust, the plastic covering was as much a part of the card as was the paper on which was printed a scattering of disjointed phrases about love, and a design right out of the late 1940’s (not that I would remember that far back).
Even though the K.U., as well as the U.S. Embassy, administrators would not approve, all of us walk to Thika Road to catch a matatu to Westlands Market that consists of several hundred cardboard and corrugated tin shanties that are individual store fronts for the sale of a vast variety of African heritage crafts – some new, some very old. Haggling over prices is expected as is simply walking away from an unacceptable negotiation only to be pursued by overzealous sellers who may eventually drop their price to an agreeable level. About the only rule is if merchants match your best offer, you are obliged to buy the object. We bought two old pieces, a mask from the Congo, and a Maasai leather bag, and a new soapstone plate, many of which are manufactured at the Market. We purchased the mask from Bernard Gictiorno who also allowed us to take his photo. The next day, Kitty and I returned to Nairobi with Philip to discover many small curio and art galleries along side streets such as Biashara, Muindi Mbingu, and Standard Street off of Kenyatta Avenue. We plan to return because we found the best prices, so far, for mud cloth and raffia cloth. Mud cloth is woven in strips on a small loom; the strips are sewn together and then dyed with different batches of iron oxide to produce different patterns, intensities and shades of brown.
Except for one small sprinkle, we have not seen rain since we arrived – over two months. Many maura pastorialists = herdsmen in the Sambura (tribe name) region have lost their entire cattle herds, some over 200 cattle, to the drought. There are posters around campus announcing a day of prayer for rain – maybe the “short rains” will start soon. Many people, Christians included, also pray to ngai (pronounced “n-guy” with a very soft “n”), the god of Kenya that is the mountain – Mt. Kenya – and, this past weekend we went to see ngai. So, for the first time since we arrived, we turned left on the Thika Road upon leaving campus (Nairobi is to the right) and headed toward the town of Thika. Thika, of Flame Trees of Thika fame, is only about 35 km up the road, and is in pineapple growing country. Our first stop was about 100 km north of K.U. at the Africana Curio Shop outside of Sagana. Benson Njoroge drove his car and took John and Polycarp while Philip drove his van with Kitty, Clint, Nancy, and me. The curio shop had a massive collection of crafts – mostly carvings – and a sizable display of artifacts – mostly masks – for sale. John bought another Congo fetish to add to his collection. We are now in Kikuyu territory, and from Sagana, we continue north to the small town of Karatina where we turn off the main road and drive upward along a single-lane dirt road to arrive at the site of the previously existing Kenya Country Herbs Supply Company and Mathinde Hospital. The compound, with Mt. Kenya as a backdrop, once consisted of about 20 buildings, most now deteriorated to a state of uselessness, spread over several acres. We were greeted by most of the local residents who still maintain a remnant of the original herbal clinic and work the local tea farm. This is Benson’s home.
Based on the number and size of buildings, the herbal medicine hospital must have had, at one time, an extensive clientele. The hospital was founded and run by Benson’s father Onesmus Njoroge Thika Mathinde who was the first registered herbalist in Kenya. Six years ago, when Onesmus died at the age of 100, the hospital was in decline because, as I was told, too many patients left without paying their fees. Also, Onesmus invested too heavily in a water transport system that pumped water up from a local stream that was several hundred feet below the community. In the long run, his foresight and innovation helped the farming community, but produced insufficient initial gains to keep his facility operating.
Benson’s 85 year-old mother, Cicily Nyawira Njoroge, still lives in a small two-room home where, at the end of the day in near total darkness, we enjoy her hospitality while having a cold drink and passion fruit. (I couldn’t really see the inside of her home until later when I saw the flash photographs we took.) Benson and his siblings were all born in the room adjacent to where eight of us are seated and where an equal number of local children and adults are standing in the entranceway. Later, Benson showed us the single-room building where he was forced to move when he reached the age of puberty. As is the custom, male children are not allowed to live in the same house with their mother once they come of age. Mrs. Njoroge is genuinely happy for us to be in her home; and, even though her English is limited, her face glows with warmth – a face lined with years of hard work and hardships that tells a story that defies words and is priceless. Something that she does offer for a price are the kiondas = handbags that she weaves and sells at the local market. They are artistically and beautifully made – a remembrance for which we are more than happy to purchase. (A recent story in the news told of a patent that has been awarded to a Japanese firm for a machine that can mass-produce the kiondas. What will this do to the kiondas weavers of Kenya?) Then there is the mountain, which can be seen easily from the compound, and the steeply rolling tea fields. It is difficult to justly describe the majesty of the snow capped peaks at over 15,000 ft., and it certainly makes sense that the ancients as well as current residents refer to Mt. Kenya as ngai.
We spent that night at the Central Hotel in Nyeri. Five rooms for the nine of us (Benson’s sister, Lucy Wambui Njoroge, joined us in Karatina) for only $70, but with few, very few amenities i.e. a toilet seat would have been a nice addition. Earlier in the day, Philip started not to feel well and by late evening he, with Benson accompanying him, goes to the local hospital where he is diagnosed and treated for malaria – probably a consequence of spending two weeks in western Kenya for his mother’s funeral. The next day, Philip is feeling much improved, and after a three-course breakfast that was included in the hotel cost, we travel a short distance in Nyeri to visit the burial site of Lord Baden-Powell. Lord Baden-Powell, whose home was in Nyeri, was the founder of the Boy Scouts and his wife, Olave Bladen-Powell, founded the Girl Scouts. When Lord Baden-Powell died in 1941, his wife moved back to England but both are now buried in the cemetery behind St. Peter’s Church in Nyeri. Clint is wearing his Boy Scout shirt (also, as coincidence would have it, this is Clint’s birthday) and as we are arriving, a bus load of Kenyan Boy and Girl Scouts proceed to the gravesite for a ceremony marking the anniversary, a week prior, of the birth of Robert and Olave Bladen-Powell – they were both born on the same day in February. The caretaker and director of the site tells us that over 6000 Scouts were here the previous weekend for the same ceremony, and that next year they are expecting to host many more because 2007 will be the 150th anniversary of the birth of Lord Robert. On the tombstone is a symbol, a circle with a dot in the center that is the Scout’s and camper’s symbol which means, “We have left to return home.”
Most of the rest of the day is spent traveling with the Aberdare Mountain Range to one side and Mt. Kenya to the other. We have lunch in Nanyuki, literally on the equator, and then traverse winding dirt roads to find the Rural Training Centre, the Catholic Church sponsored Ceramic Project for Disabled. In addition to ceramic arts, carpentry is taught and practiced here. We purchased a number of their ceramic pieces from the lame shopkeeper, Joseph Wahome, who, when we are ready to depart, assigns a resident to travel with us as a guide to direct our way to Sirimon Track (road). Based on the grass growing in the tracks, this is a seldom-traveled road upward toward Mt. Kenya that leads to the Sirimon Gate on the north rim of Mt. Kenya National Park. The air is brisk and chilly at the Gate, yet John is ready to hike and spend the night on the mountain; but, without proper preparation in the form of food and warm clothing, it would be too dangerous. He may have a chance to return before we leave in June. I never thought I would say this but I was happy to return to our own hard bed – even though light sleepers like me hear a variety of things that go bump in the night such as a family of mice that has decided to join us and plays peek-a-boo around our bedroom curtains (since there are no window screens, most any critter can find a way in), the 4 am Moslem call to prayers, the army troops adjacent to the K.U. campus who begin drills around 5 am, and our personal security guard. Kenyatta University takes many precautions for our safety including a private guard stationed outside of our house who, in the middle of the night, closes our windows from the outside, even though there are bars on the inside. Also, every evening he has delivered to him a German Shepherd guard dog (who also barks frequently) from the Securcor Company, for whom he works. ……..And then there is that rooster.
Classes for the “new” semester have finally started! – in a manner of speaking. Students and faculty have a polar set of powers that do not appear to be beneficial to either. The students have a great deal of power at the beginning of the semester by voting with their feet and negotiating with faculty as to what, if, when (hour and day), and where a course will be taught. Depending on the department, the “what” may have been predetermined to some degree. As can be imagined, with no prior formalized schedule or timetable, literally days are spent signing students into a particular class, and in configuring and reconfiguring student as well as faculty schedules. In my own case, the issue is further convoluted because the medical students that I teach are on a different semester schedule than most of the rest of campus. One advantage I see for the faculty in all of this shuffling is that the faculty are “players” too and will do their best to realize a schedule for themselves that allows them to travel or otherwise be away from classes when need be, and to limit their time on campus to a few days per week. (My observation is that many faculty have a second career – car dealer, baker, accountant, shop owner, etc.) The power shift occurs at the end of the semester when the instructors take control via final exams that usually count at least 70% of the final grade, the assignment of grades (keep in mind that there are typically no published course objectives or grading criteria), and an administration that frequently is extremely slow – e.g. sometimes months – to notify the students of their final grades.
Kitty is teaching two courses in the Department of Fine Arts, Mechanical Drawing and Life Drawing, and she is just beginning to find out who will be in her classes and when, and it seems to change daily. She is supplying many of the materials for the courses – try to appreciate her legitimate concern when tears form in a student’s eyes because the student cannot afford even a single sheet of paper.
I am teaching an HIV/AIDS seminar with ten students from a wide variety of major fields of study, and an advanced Human Physiology class for the second year medical students, and, it appears, for some of the medical school faculty. Neither of these courses existed two weeks ago, and both of my courses were constructed as a result of supply and demand and thus all of the students are very eager to participate – maybe this is one of the advantages of “supply side” scheduling. I am sending photos of the class members. Note their refined dress and grooming, which is typical. Kenyan college students dress many times better than U.S. college students, and at considerable relative expense. Dressing well is a sign of respect for the person(s) you are meeting that day.
The main editorial in last Monday’s newspaper, Daily Nation, was entitled, “Training of Doctors Noble”. To quote just a portion of it, “Kenyatta University’s announcement last week that it plans to start training doctors is a welcome idea. Consultations are at an advanced stage, says Vice-Chancellor Everret Standa, to ensure the course admits it first batch of students using the Machakos district hospital as the teaching institution. For public universities that have been accused of failing to respond to needs of the job market, the latest plan gives hope that they could finally be awakening up from their slumber. The job market for doctors is expansive, ranging from the public and private doctors’ exodus to foreign countries. This largely explains why our public health institutions are served by an inadequate number of doctors. Our continued reliance on only Nairobi and Moi Universities for the training of doctors does not make much sense.” (There are only six public universities in Kenya including Nairobi, Moi, and Kenyatta.)
To be able to contribute in some small way to the development of the medical school at Kenyatta University is extremely gratifying. Over the past couple of weeks, Dr. Otieno, Chair of Pre-Clinical Sciences, and I have been working on a plan of action to review the medical school curriculum and Step One testing of second year medical students. Dr. Otieno pays Meredith College a compliment when he says, “The medical school curriculum at Kenyatta is being reviewed by Harvard University, Emory University, Meredith College, and the University of Pittsburgh”. He is also keenly interested in our working together on a research project, and we have begun the first phase of designing an experiment on the concomitant effects of HIV and parasitic infections, and the efficacy of various herbal drugs for the treatment of AIDS and Bilharzia. (It doesn’t hurt that, in graduate school, we both studied the organism that causes Biharzia or schistosomiasis.) Dr. Otieno has worked closely with both Benson Njoroge and Israel Odongo who are herbalist at K.U., and it is Benson with whom I have formed an association to learn more about the application of phytotherapies. We plan to take a trip to Mt. Kenya and his deceased father’s herbal hospital in the very near future.
What we do here will not be memorialized; but if you ever doubt the power of the individual to make a difference, consider making a contribution of goods or services - money is not the solution - or volunteering/working in a developing country; you will make a difference. Although, on a subtly humorous note, in a country where labor is cheap, to work without at least some pay (volunteerism) is generally considered to be a novel concept – at least for residents; and as I overheard the other day, “If you are going to waste your time volunteering, then at least you should waste your time volunteering for something worthwhile”.
In meetings with my seminar students, I am made painfully aware of the gap in mutual understanding that exists between some of the U.S. and Kenyan populations. Since what I write here is open to anyone to read, including my students, I want to preface by stating that I highly respect the openness and candor of all Kenyans, and realize that the only road to true understanding passes through honest communication. Serious-minded university students asked me the following questions:
“Is it true that the U.S. has had drugs to cure AIDS for over 20 years and refuses to share them with African nations?”
“Many Kenyans believe that the HIV was produced in the U.S. and purposely spread to Africa in order to kill Africans – is this true?”
“It is common knowledge that diseases such as SARS and the bird flu are created and planted by the Americans. This is logical because all of these emerging diseases originate outside of the U.S.” (Actually, the response to the second part is multifaceted and I wonder how many Meredith students, science majors included, could give multiple plausible answers to the “logical” observation of her Kenyan peer.)
“Likewise, it is rumored that the tsunami that struck last year in Indonesia, India, etc. was caused by the U.S.”
Having done my best to give scientific explanations to these and other questions (not the least of which is that history is replete with examples of these kinds of events long before there was a United States) I wavered slightly at this point and said, “Yes, we created the tsunami – right after we put the Moon into orbit.” (The students knew me well enough to appreciate my sarcasm.) I followed, “From a purely technical point of view, that kind of technology does not exist – anywhere!” I continued, “Furthermore, if the U.S. government had undertaken such an unimaginable endeavor, the citizens of the U.S. would have been outraged (an obvious understatement), and finally, WHY would we want to do that?” …….And so it goes.
Philip asked us, all of us, to help him write and produce a funeral programme (understandably, many words here have a British spelling) for his mother’s funeral; and indeed it took all of our various skills: computer, design, and copy, to get the job done in just one day. After John and I contributed as much as we could, we decided that in the final hours of the business day we would check with Ms. Pauli at the Moi Library to see if our library cards were ready. John waits outside with our backpacks while I query the attendant at the Circulation Desk whereupon she searches the stacks of paperwork for our cards, that we assume are ready, then goes to the back to return with our “Letters of Introduction” and “Application Cards”, with official seal, only to be told that we will now need a “Letter of Commitment” from the ACU office – with official seal. Once outside, John and I can’t help but find humor in the whole experience. I think we have stumbled upon a premise for a new Nintendo video game. (Having made it this far, I hope we have accumulated enough “lives” to stay in the game.)
The next day, I meet with Prof. Otieno and Kitty has a 2-5pm faculty meeting to attend at the Department of Fine Arts, and the rest of the family – the four of them – spend the afternoon at a street market in Nairobi. John and Polycarp wanted to take Clint and Nancy to town on a matatus but unacceptable without Kitty or me. While not as much a thrill ride, George and his taxi will have to do. I am anxious enough knowing their vulnerability and lack of “street smarts” by most U.S. adolescents, and knowing the crowded market conditions – crowded with people and sidewalk drivers – literally. It is not that Kenya, and Nairobi in particular, is a terribly dangerous place, but like most developing countries and virtually all large cities everywhere, the rules of common sense must prevail: there are some places you never go, the rest you go to only in daylight, you never travel alone, and you try not to expose your status or anything you cannot afford to loose. And, if you should encounter people who would try to treat you badly, always carry with you the philosophy that the people are NOT your enemy – the enemy is the lack of education and poverty.
We all wish that the leaders of this and many other developing countries would somehow get out of the graft and corruption rut. Exemplary leadership of a fundamentally good populous that is starving for positive role models would go a long way to ameliorate the disabling effects of the lack of financial trust bestowed on countries like Kenya by the international banking community. Just this past week, the World Bank froze sh15b (15 billion shillings) in development aid because of what is known as the Anglo Leasing scandal, involving federal contracts, over which the Minister of Finance resigned, and may lead to the resignation of more cabinet members and possibly the Vice President. Another example making headlines this week was the disclosure that many government departments have spent vast sums on the purchase of luxury cars for high-ranking administrators. Leading the way was the High Court (Judiciary) and the Department of Roads and Public Works. According to one newspaper reporter, what just these two departments spent on luxury cars could have bought one additional classroom for each of 220 school districts. As the saying goes here, “When the elephants play, the grass suffers.”
Saturday, two drivers, George and a friend arrive at 6:45am to take us to the closest national park, Nairobi National Park. Neither the drivers nor Polycarp have ever been to Nairobi National Park, which creates a steep learning curve on all our parts as to the entry process. Turns out that drivers and guides need a Fast Pass Card for which they register at no charge.
Tourists are charged $20 each – expensive by most standards but our first mini-safari is well worth the fee. We see giraffes, wildebeest, hartebeest (an antelope), impala, eland (Africa’s largest antelope), African buffalo, zebra, olive baboons, and, about half-way through our journey we are stopped by Kenyan Wildlife Service officers who notified us that just ahead there are three simbas = lions resting under a tree about 50 meters from the road. We were also warned not to get out of our vehicles. Seeing lions in the wild is memorable; the first time - unforgettable. They were too far away to get good photos but, to our enchantment, their heads filled the field of view of our binoculars. We had hoped to see a rhino, but about mid-afternoon, one of our vehicles broke down – neither was particularly road worthy to begin with. We tried to tow the disabled car but the rope we had was not strong enough. Fortunately, Kenyans are usually willing to assist stranded motorists and within an hour, Kenyan Wildlife Service officers were tying a stronger rope to the front of the car to tow it back to the main gate.
Kitty and I received, via courier, a formal invitation to the U.S. Ambassador’s residence – along with about 100 other guests – to hear Suzanna Owiyo, a young Kenyan singer. In attendance, were several other Fulbrighters whom we had met last April. It was good to touch base with them again now that we are all in the field. The entertainment event was held on the back lawn of the residence – complete with hot food and open bars. The highlight of the evening was definitely Owiyo. In 2003 she won “Most Promising Female Artist in Kenya” and in 2004 she was selected to be the only female African artist to perform at the Nobel Peace Concert. Suzanna’s music is “traditional western Kenyan together with contemporary rhythms”. A beautiful sounding instrument, the single-stringed orutu, which sounds like a small violin, was featured in several pieces.
We conducted and videoed our first major interview this past week with Benson M. Njuroae who is a herbologist with the Complementary Medicine Section at K.U. The taped interview lasted about 45 minutes and we used three sites: his small (about 10ft x 12ft kiosk) clinic – The Word Herbal Clinic with one employee, Mary, the contracted herbal clinic on the K.U. campus, and the Herbal Medicine Garden on campus. John and I took turns operating the camera, and asking questions (we are in need of a tripod which I hope to find soon in Nairobi). We could have taped for several hours as Benson is full of stories ranging from how his father was the first licensed herb doctor in Kenya to some of the forty medical uses of the Neem tree (Azadirachta indica). Our main focus was on the use of herbal drugs to treat HIV/AIDS and schistosomiasis or Bilharzia. I purchased several pouches of herbal drugs that are used to treat Bilharzia hoping to bring them back to Meredith College to continue some of the research that Kristin Kahdy and I started last year.
Visual arts, especially those that can endure the weather such as carvings, mosaics and sculpture of clay or cement, and weavings; and performing arts – theatre and music - are an important part of university life and the utilitarian life of most Kenyans. Harmonious voices frequently seem to come out of nowhere to accompany the cool breezes of morning or evening – the combination will give you those “good feeling” shivers. The arts should be the soul of any university, and here they are.
One morning when not much was brewing in the office (except for the tea), and my efforts to meet with Prof. Otieno, Chairman of Pre-Clinical Sciences went for naught, I headed off to meet Kitty at the clay studio – a premeditated action because I went equipped with a change of clothes in my backpack. We practiced throwing on the potter’s wheels and I struggled to make a pot. Most of the struggle was due to my rusty techniques - and ineptitude - and part of the struggle was due to the foot and treadle operated wheel. Mr. Oloo, the overseer of the facility, was extremely gracious – helping us wedge clay and coach us on our methods. And as soon as we were finished, Peter - a diminutive, elderly man - suddenly appeared to clean up the mess we had made.
What Kenyan teachers and professionals of any status may lack in the every day amenities and labor saving devices that we so much take for granted in the U.S., they make up for with laborers that are ever present to offer their services – a perk that is probably also taken for granted by Kenyans because our work ethic and the high cost of labor, together with a certain amount of Puritan guilt, tends to say to us, “Clean up your own mess.” Those of us in education in western cultures know how difficult it is to get paid assistants, whereas even the chairs of small departments here have a staff of several office assistants and several others that are general helpers in each classroom – for students as well as faculty. To give some perspective, new teachers can expect to make about 8000 ksh (Kenyan schillings) or about $115 per month; secretaries earn about $85/month; young physicians can expect only $45 a week.
Sunday morning, January 21, we saw a little rain for the first, and what was to be the only, time this month. At 7:30 that evening, a car and Edward as driver, along with Philip, arrived to take me to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (NBO to travel agents) to meet my son Johnathan. He prefers to be called John – or as I call him, “J”. He has taken a leave of absence from his job in Florida to come stay with us for the duration, and he is a week late arriving as FedEx delivered his passport and visa to the wrong address. His foreign travel experience as a Peace Corps volunteer for two years in Dominican Republic has hardened him to the difficulties of international travel, and he arrives unruffled by the week delay as well as the almost 40 hour trip. The snake tongs protruding from his carry-on stimulate more than a few questions from customs officials, as well as fellow travelers.
The next day Philip, John, Kitty and I had a morning appointment to formally introduce John to the Chairman of the Department of Biological Sciences, Prof. Aloo-Obudho – whom we had met two years prior and who was the first woman department chair at Kenyatta University. Prof. Aloo-Obudho is extremely welcoming and encourages John to contribute to the Biological Sciences in any way that he can. As his true love is herpetology, she offers to let him identify their collection of snakes – most of which have gone unidentified for many years.
Our conversation eventually lands on the nature of Meredith College as an institution, and I explain to her that it is a woman’s college at which point she becomes very inquisitive and questions the existence of such a college. After a considerable exchange of ideas between the five of us, she is finally made aware that the full participation and equitable leadership by women is a just goal for any society and that women’s colleges have been shown to be successful at helping to meet that goal. We all had lunch at the Cultural Village kitchen = restaurant or cafeteria on campus; the Nile perch was excellent.
While there we encountered and renewed acquaintances with Gilbert whom some of you may remember as the key player in the puppet group Talenta that came to Meredith to give several performances on HIV/AIDS prevention a year and a half ago. Later that afternoon, Kitty and I have an impromptu visit with Lucas Karimi, Pathology Technician with the Center for Complementary Medicine that was previously headed by Dr. Orago (recently elected to the parliament) whom we met in California several years ago and who supplied me with medicinal plant material that we are currently using to conduct research on their efficacy in treating schistosomiasis, and HIV/AIDS. Lucas was in the process of planting Artemisia annua seeds and replanting seedlings. Artemisia annua has potential to be used as a medicinal drug for malaria – still the most important insect (Anopheles mosquito) borne disease in the world – killing over 1,000,000 people per year, mostly children. The entire family is participating in the collection of mosquitoes to bring back to Dr. Grimes. Most we catch in the morning inside of our mosquito nets, and they are usually easy to catch because they are slow to fly after being fed well – a pleasant thought.
With John here, there are now six of us in our “family”. John is a great “big brother” for Clint – both have way too much energy – as well as for Nancy who has finally met her match for who can talk the most. John and Polycarp spend many hours sharing experiences from two different worlds, and the two of them took the matatus = public bus to spend a day at the Maasai Market in Nairobi. John is the first of us to ride the matatus – a highly notorious and not recommended form of transport for tourists in Kenya.
They return from the market with such treasures as a Congo fetish; and, after finding a bookstore in town, an excellent reference, Birds of Eastern Africa. Now we can begin to identify some of the members of the private aviary that is our back yard.
This past Wednesday, Kitty went with Prof. Elizabeth Ochardson-Mazuri, of the Department of Fine Arts, and two art students to visit two small weaving operations off the Mombassa Road: Woodley Weavers with three artisans and Trio Crafts with about 15 full-time weavers. The former is run by a K.U. graduate and specializes in fine woven material; the latter produces hand woven wool rugs. That morning, John and I went to see Philip at the ACU and while we were meeting with him to make travel plans for April and May, he received a phone message that confirmed our fears expressed a few minutes earlier - Philip’s mother, Rita Anyango Owino, had died from complications associated with lung cancer. Periods of mourning in Kenya are typically long drawn out affairs, lasting up to a month with the funeral many days after death; and where the family of the deceased is expected to feed the many visiting sympathizers – unlike our tradition of the immediate family being well supplied with a variety of covered dishes.
After we saw Philip off to his home village, John and I headed to the Moi (second president of Kenya) Library armed with our Letters of Introduction. Upon entering, a guard took us to the Head Librarian where we were given cards to fill out that then had to be returned to the ACU office for an official signature and seal – then back to the library to be told that we would be issued a library card sometime in the near future. Our difficulty in obtaining viewing rights (we will never obtain sufficient status to actually check out a library book) is testimony to the fact that books here are extremely valued and valuable.
The most recent chapter in our U.S. Embassy odyssey got off to an auspicious start because, once again, the taxi was seriously late. Were we doomed to miss yet another security briefing? --- With a very winding short-cut, George, our driver, managed to get us there on time – with five minutes to spare. “Terrorism Alert is ‘Critical’ (highest level) as is the Crime Alert”, seemed to be the resounding theme of the briefing but we derive comfort from some important information including the access number to Post #1 – a U.S. Marine dispatcher who has the ability to summon help in a crisis. As Fulbrighters we are not technically employees of the U.S. Department of State, but we do fall under some of their control and oversight since the federal government supports us.
When we returned home from the embassy, there was a written invitation from Prof. Ochardson-Mazrui waiting for John. It reads, “I am going to my ‘upcountry’ home for the weekend with a friend and a young Swedish man – leaving 8:15 am Friday and returning Sunday. I wonder if you would like to join us? The drive is very nice and I will stop at Lake Elmenteita to photograph the flamingos. Though I am still renovating my house, it has no electricity but is a lovely peaceful place to relax, sleep, or take walks in the spacious garden. In the evening there’s a roaring fire – it is cold after dark – and I use candles and lanterns. The drive to Nakura usually involves zebras and baboons along the highway. Let me know if you are interested.”
Needless to say, at 8:15 on Friday, John is up and ready to go – snake tongs in hand. (Those of us left behind are, equally needless to say, jealous.) Polycarp left a day earlier to make the 12-hour bus ride to his hometown on Lake Victoria – both John and Polycarp will return on Sunday.
We seem to be taking turns coping with unfamiliar bacteria and viruses. My home diagnosis is that I have a touch (slap) of food poisoning from some chicken I ate (no, not the rooster next door) in Nairobi. Kitty has been hit the hardest so far - now fully recovered - with an eye infection.
At about noon on Friday, Dr. Ogweno, a physician on the teaching staff at K.U., called to say that he was picking me up to take me to meet and give a presentation to the second-year medical students. Not much time to prepare. Once we arrive at the School of Health Sciences, we discuss some of the options for the afternoon and then head to the seminar room at 2:00pm. There are less than 20 second-year medical students (they are the first class of medical students at K.U. – part of the reason I am here), and since I have not the slightest idea of their level of knowledge and communication, I want to spend our initial time together learning “who” we are and “where” we are. Most, if not all, are older than traditional age students – late 20’s to mid 30’s. I find out later that they already had careers in various health fields and were recruited to medical school at K.U. The barriers of formality and unfamiliarity were quickly broken and soon we were engaged in a lively discussion on a wide variety of physiology related topics. This was one of my most gratifying experience since arriving – their knowledge and understanding was extensive, their enthusiasm and intellectual curiosity would brightened the day of any professor in the U. S. – a fellowship of learners. I asked them what they would like to see or discuss in future meetings. One young man spoke for the group, “Anything and everything that you can bring to us”. We made arrangements to meet again next week. I really did not want to leave; I look forward to my return.
On Saturday morning, George our taxi driver arrives to take us to the south of Nairobi to two sites: The Giraffe Centre, managed by the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife, and then to the Kazuri Bead Centre – very different experiences, equally fascinating. The Giraffe Centre, located in Langata, is the only center for the preservation of the Rothschild giraffe whose numbers dropped to 130 in 1973. There are now about 300 – most returned to the wild in Nakura. To the north in the Samburu (tribe name) region, the reticulated giraffe is found; and, to the south are the Masai giraffes. Its “long white socks” up to its knees and comparatively light spots identify the Rothschild giraffe. We take advantage of being allowed by the giraffes to get up close and personal – allowed in the sense that giraffes in the wild are normally shy creatures, but the residents at the Centre are conditioned to welcome the occasional visitors and accept food pellets with extremely long and mucous-coated tongues. Still, they do not like to be touched but will accept an affectionate scratch if bribed with food. Their tongues are long and narrow to harvest leaves from Acacia tree heights without touching the plant’s many thorns – the mucous adds an extra layer of protection.
Not far away in Karen (named after the coffee plantation owner, Karen Bixen portrayed in Out of Africa), we visited the Kazuri Bead Centre. Kazuri is Swahili for “small and beautiful” – Clint’s new Swahili name. 130 employees, mostly women, produce thousands of clay beads and pottery pieces every day. On the way home, we passed by Kibera slum – a sea of tin roofs and poverty of over 800,000 people drawn by the lure of a potentially better life – free from drought and war. “Street boys”, some of the many orphaned boys in Nairobi, are a common street component as they rummage through mounds of trash, or beg to survive another day. If caught picking = pick pocketing or stealing, it is not unusual for bystanders to enact swift justice by beating or stoning to death the accused street boy.
In the evening we play cards (Uno and Rook are popular favorites) by candlelight; electricity has taken a break most every evening this past week. Our cell phone* lights up the room as we receive a text message from John – they are enjoying the fire, wine, and listening to the guitar players in the group. He returns around noon on Sunday to confirm the scenario as outlined in the invitation. (We were tempted not to allow him in the house.)
*Cell phones did not exist here five years ago, and were not common just two years ago. Now, they are the primary means of communication for people who live about 50 miles north and south of the road that connects Kisumu on Lake Victoria to Mombassa on the coast. There are only two cell phone providers, the cell phones do not connect to land lines, and the cost is relatively high – about 35 ksh = 50 cents per minute; text messages are only about 5 ksh each.
The educational process at most Kenyan universities such as Kenyatta University (K.U.) would seem alien to most Americans, this one included –- I am still trying to understand the nuances. Very much alive is the “when the student is ready, the teacher will arrive,” Socratic, and old European style of higher education; mixed in with authoritarian professorial domination, frequent strikes, weakly defined schedules of any kind, grading by committee -- some of whom do not know the student -– frequently based on arbitrary, obscure, and capricious objectives (it is not unusual for 100% of a class to fail, and the “A” grade is almost never given), textbooks that are unavailable or unaffordable, and students who may not have eaten for two days. Nevertheless, because education is highly valued, they come in droves –- about 15,000 are here now, most living in crowded hostels (= dorms), and class sizes range up to 2,000 e.g. one of the drawing classes that Kitty will teach will have 200 and my physiology class will have over 80; I am told, it's “a small class.”
The north and particularly the northeast of Kenya is being plagued by draught. Famine in that area is affecting about 3.5 million. We too feel the effects of the water shortage as this past week we have gone from water rationing to no water at all. By the fourth day of no water, while of little consequence to a 12 year old boy like Clint who avoids bath water at all costs, the toilets are foul everywhere –- I can only imagine what it is like in the hostels -– and the concomitant inconveniences (and some body odor) are starting to fray people’s nerves. Many of the large black plastic storage tanks –- the only source of bucketed water -- scattered about campus were approaching empty by Thursday, which may explain why that night when the electricity went off unexpectedly around 8 p.m., we could hear student unrest in the distance. Polycarp Omolllo (a member of the Luo tribe, K.U. graduate and former teacher at Asumbi Girls High School near Lake Victoria who is staying with us and on whom we depend as tutor for Clint and Nancy, translator, traveling companion, and all around helper) seemed a little uneasy as he locked all the windows, even though all the windows and doors have bars, and closed the curtains. When the night watchman passed by making his rounds, he told Polycarp that things were under control. Fortunately, the power returned around 11 p.m. –- time to get under our mosquito nets and get some sleep. On Friday, it was a relief to see the return of water, and a good shower.
Most mornings are cool, clear, and refreshing. To read the morning paper, The Nation over a cup of the best tea in the world, Kenyan tea (made with boiled milk –-no water-– as is the custom), with fellow colleagues, makes for a great way to start the day.
Around noon on Wednesday, Dr. Philip Owino gave Kitty and me a ride to the Main Administration Building to meet with Vice Chancellor Standa and Prof. Christian Borgemeister, Director General of the International Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE). I was enthusiastic about meeting Dr. Borgemeister as I have been familiar with ICIPE’s work on controlling tsetse fly, the vector of African sleeping sickness, for many years. Some of their on-going projects were described to us – particularly interesting was what they called “push-pull” control of striga weed that competitively competes with maize (= corn). The “pull” comes from planting a grass that attracts striga weed and cereal stemborers around the perimeter of the corn and planting a repellant plant –- the “push”-– with the corn.
Dr. Borgemeister presented the ICIPE’s collection of Chemical Abstracts from the past 40 years to Prof. Standa to add to K.U.’s library. Standa referred to the collection as a “chicken” presented by a visitor to the tribal chief; but later in a private meeting, Prof. Standa told me that sometimes a present of a piece of meet is preferable to being presented with the whole cow --the Chem Abstracts filled the back of a lorri (= large truck) and would require a significant space in an already crowded K.U. library. We returned to the Aids Control Unit, where my office is located, around 4 p.m. and were able to get an internet line to work in the office. The cyber-café on campus has been closed for almost two weeks now. Checking email is extremely arduous, taking about and hour to turn around just three emails, not including composition time –- thus my constant apology to all my friends and colleagues in the States that I am unable to communicate via e-mail with any frequency or regularity, and that hopefully they will use this web site for updates. We headed home around 7 p.m. --a little late because this close to the equator the sun goes down, and comes up, rather quickly-- (and at approximately the same time throughout the year), and, as we were walking, we did not want to be out after dark for safety sake. It is dark by 7:30 p.m.
Security, or lack of, is an important issue with most urban Kenyans, and a seemingly important source of insecurity comes from those most trusted with providing it – the military and the police. For example, on Tuesday, Dr. Owino took me into Nairobi (K.U. is actually located just outside of Nairobi on the road to Thika) to go to the bank and store for supplies. While there, Philip wanted to go see his mother who is in Kenyatta National Hospital but his brother called to warn him that the police were setting up road blocks (we passed one on the other side of Thika Rd. while going into town) and non-registered vehicles were being impounded and the occupants jailed. Philip was noticeably agitated on the way back, stopping occasionally to check to see what was down the road. Spending even a few hours in a Nairobi jail is understandably something to be avoided. Philip’s concern was not unfounded as the vehicle in which we were riding was recently imported through Mombassa and Philip had yet to receive the registration from the importer. As I read in The Nation this week, harassment and extortion by police is an all too common practice.
On Thursday, we tried again to go to the U.S. Embassy to attend the required security briefing. I say, tried again, because last Thursday morning we were up and dressed in our “finest”, ready to go, only to have the embassy call to say that they could not send a driver. We arranged for a K.U. driver this time but she arrived over an hour late which put us at the embassy at 9:30 a.m. for a 9:00 a.m. meeting. The U.S. Embassy compound is large and new with high security walls no closer than about 200 feet because of the tragic bombing by al Qaeda in 1997 that destroyed the embassy and killed scores or embassy employees. Security at the embassy was exceptionally high –- our passports were checked against an approved list no less than three times at three different locations -– all with x-ray scanners and metal detectors. At the final check point, a polite but serious Marine retained our passports, gave us clearance, and called for Mr. Justice Mbae, Cultural Affairs Specialist, to come meet us. He took us to the 3rd floor to the Office of Security -- through many coded locks and gates -– where a security agent abruptly informed us that we were too late. With the help of a kind receptionist we rescheduled the meeting for next week; however, the trip to the embassy was not all for naught because we did get to meet with Mr. Aruna Amirthanayagam, Cultural Attache, whom we had also met in Washington D.C. He gave us a short briefing on the work of his office, and then we were able to visit the embassy library and take advantage of their internet facilities.
While I am extremely grateful for their presence and service, it is my observation that U.S. Embassy personnel attitudes have not changed much in the 50 years since I was last in a U.S. Embassy in an African country. The prevailing atmosphere in the embassy is one of separation – a “little America” in a hostile environment. But we are not here to live like we are in the states -- while at the embassy we were invited to a wine and jazz event at the embassy –- I would have preferred an invitation to a camel race. We want to experience life here; to receive and give knowledge; knowledge that leads to understanding; understanding that leads toward peace.
Kenyan Chronicles: 12 January 2006
It is a great adventure to be here, the days are gloriously bright, ibis wander our yard, hibiscus and bougainvillea blossoms are everywhere and there isn't a moment spent in the company of Kenyans that does not result in furthering understanding between us.
The food is a treat - yesterday for lunch, the most important meal of the day, we had sour milk with deep fried cassava, matoke (green banana) with stewed chicken in groundnut sauce, coconut rice and steamed kunde leaves (tasted like kale) and kuimati (like donut holes) with lemon sauce for dessert.
There are a few inconveniences- I walk two miles to my site and to the cyber cafe to send emails (too frequently to find it down), our house has no hot water which results in very short cold showers that will definitely wake you up, water is rationed e.g. turned off periodically, we have run out of gas for the cook stove, there are no screens resulting in many mosquitoes and an occasional lizard visitor in the house, our beds are foam on a piece of board, and we have a rooster with a very poor sense of time that is outside of our bedroom window - he may end up as food.
Because of a strike back in October, the first semester is still in progress and the new semester will not start until mid-February. I have met with most of the department chairs in the School of Health Sciences and I will probably teach Physiology in the Department of Public Health and conduct research and give selected topic seminars in the Department of Medicine. Kitty, my wife, has already met with the members of the Department of Art and they have asked her to teach a Life Drawing course and assist with other courses in the new semester.