Happy 2010!

Readers of thatcrazycajun's LJ already know that a dental flare-up kept me suite-bound tonight.  (And from sleeping more than a few hours.) But as my sweetie also noted, transient pain aside, we are facing the New Year with a lot of blessings in hand. 
  • I have a loving partner whose presence in my life has been a gift beyond measure
  • We're both reasonably healthy
  • I'm recovering my balance, and my illness at least gave us three months we'd otherwise have spent apart
  • We have friends and family who surround us with love and care
  • Our families are well, and weathering the economic crisis
  • We're both employed, with comfortable homes and material lives
The coming year will no doubt bring changes and challenges, and there are still many uncertainties about where we will be living and working a few months from now, but all that will come as it will - for now, I am content.

May 2010 bring you all increased joy, love and peace.  Happy New Year!

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    sleepy sleepy

The warmest of birthday greetings...

thatcrazycajun, beloved companion, loving partner and dear friend, with deep affection, across too many miles.   Today, especially, I miss you.  I wish I could deliver birthday hugs in person...

Be happy, mo chara.  Celebrate yourself and the unique gift you are, and know that you are - always - loved. 


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    good good

And now for something...odd

Lilith (one of my two calico cats) has developed a peculiar method for getting my attention.

She "hunts" my shoes and carries them upstairs to me, calling in a particularly strident tone.  This continues until she finds me (in either office or bedroom) and drops the shoe at my feet.  Delivery accomplished, she leaps up onto my lap, the loudness of her purr clear evidence of how pleased she is with herself.   

A variation of the game gets played at about 3am, when any shoes I have been unwise enough to leave accessible will be dragged to my bedroom door, accompanied by the same insistent call.  If shoes are unavailable, towels from the hall bath will do; once she dragged the kitchen rug upstairs.

Apparently, since both my mother and partner are 8,000+ miles away, Lily has decided it's her job to nag me about putting things away....
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    amused amused

(no subject)

Opposition MP Mugabe Were was shot and killed at the gate of his home in Nairobi late Monday night.  The police "aren't ruling anything out", and there's widespread belief among opposition supporters that this was an assassination. 

In response, violence flared again across the country; police report that 22 more people were killed today.  

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This afternoon Kofi Annan formally opened negotiations between President Mwai Kibaki and the opposition leader, Raila Odinga.  The two leaders observed a moment of silence for those killed in the post-election violence, and issued calls for peace that were broadcast live, nation-wide.

"Unless we here resolve to act quickly to save our nation, we will have no nation to save," said Odinga.
"I urge all our leaders to go to their regions and urge wananchi (citizens) to pursue peace," Kibaki said.

However, their positions regarding the outcome of the election remain far apart .  Kibaki has made it clear that he will not step down.  Odinga insists that only a re-run election will be acceptable.  

Annan has stated that he thinks the "immediate political issues" can be resolved in 4 weeks, and that it will probably take a year to address the damage done in this past month.  Sadly, this seems overly optimistic to me...I hope I'm wrong.

  • Current Music
    "In the Greenwood"

happy birthdays!

Happy birthday hugs and scritches to autographedcat, dear friend and all-around great guy.  Your friendship was one of the best things to come out of my time in Atlanta. I miss you.  

And a belated happy birthday to starmalachitewhose decision to get married on her birthday offers her sweetie future opportunities to forget two important occasions simultaneously.  (Not that he would...)  A bouquet of hugs to you, my dear; you were my first friend in filk, and the kindest of guides. 



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    mellow mellow

Belated blessing

Hugs and the very warmest of wedding congratulations to starmalachiteand stevemb! (I'm so sorry that I couldn't be there.  I tried to delay my transfer, but you know how the USG can be...)

I hope it was wonderful - and that some kind soul will be posting pictures.

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    happy happy

apparent suicide bombing in Nairobi

Some of you may have heard the reports of an explosion in downtown Nairobi, caused by what may have been a suicide bomber.  Here's one of the many news stories:

It could have been worse, but it's still pretty shocking to have this happen here.  Understandably, people are concerned, although it's too soon to be sure what really happened; the Kenyan police are investigating, and our Regional Security Office is keeping a close eye on developments.  The incident has not as yet been tied to any organization.

This happened miles away from my home and office - I'm perfectly safe.  Tomorrow I leave for 9 days in Kigali, Rwanda, and the PEPFAR HIV/AIDS Implementers' Meeting, where I expect to have little to no internet access.  By the time I return, the dust should have settled and the security issues will be clearer.

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    shocked shocked

another carjacking

Another Embassy employee was the victim of a carjacking Saturday evening, but was not injured.  He was driving alone when an oncoming vehicle blocked his path; four men, at least one of who had a gun, robbed him of cell phon, cash and other items.  They then drove him around for a while before releasing him and his vehicle, unharmed.  While driving around, they saw hos creit cards and asked for the PINS; he was able to persuade them that because he did all his banking at the Embassy, the cards had no PINs.  He also successfully talked them out of going to his home.

This was relatively early in the evening, in what would generally be considered a safe neighborhood.  Fortunately, the driver was not injured, but once again the community is disturbed by how random these events are. 

more insecurity

I'm glad I'm not dependent on local transport...

We've had some ugly incidents in Kenya recently, involving a violent gang (the Mungiki) that has been shaking down matatu drivers in a mafia-style protection racket.   Drivers are charged a fee to travel their routes; those who refused to pay have been abducted and beaten.  A few have disappeared and are feared dead. 

On Tuesday and Wednesday, matatu operators on several major routes went on strike, in protest of these extortionate practices and the ineffective action of authorities. Hundreds of passengers were stranded.  There were outbreaks of violence, as groups of matatu drivers burned several homes belonging to suspected gang members.  The police went in and established order, with over 53 arrests made, and matatu service resumed Thursday.  However, tensions remain.

On Thursday, the government has announced the formation of an elite police unit tasked with tracking down the Mungiki and ending their predatory activities.  They also have the difficult task of identifying police officers who, it is believed, have colluded with the gang.  Matatu drivers have been advised not to take matters into their own hands, but many are skeptical of the ability of the police to protect them.  An association of matatu drivers and operators has reaffirmed their determination to go after the gang in order to protect themselves and their livelihoods.

Sadly, more violence seems likely, especially if the new task force fails to deliver...
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    pensive pensive

a question of justice?

How are we to respond to the poor?  Assuming that we do not simply look away, what response do justice and mercy demand?

These are not academic questions.

Just a few kilometers from where I am writing this, about 1.5 million people live in the notorious Kibera and Mathare slums.  Half of them are under the age of 20.

Kibera, one of Africa's largest slums, sprawls across the valley below my office.  From that vantage point, one sees a patchwork of rusting corrugated metal roofs, clustered so closely together that the lanes between buildings are barely visible.  Each roof shelters a 10 x 10 foot shack made of corrugated metal, which may house up to a dozen people.  There are no services: no electricity, no streetlights, no running water, no sanitary facilities, no waste disposal.  When you go down into Kibera, the first thing you see is heaps of trash. The smell, an indescribable mix of rotting garbage and raw sewage,  makes your eyes water.

The slum filling Mathare Valley is similar, but suffers even more environmental degradation due to its proximity to the Industrial Area, as industrial waste is dumped in or near the river.  Higher up the valley, overcrowded and crumbling concrete apartment blocks look out over the the metal shacks.  Near the river, the most desperate construct shacks of cardboard and tar paper. 

There are markets, lively with street vendors and little kiosks selling food, clothing, shoes, and dance bursting forth in unexpected places...energetic children playing in open spaces...but the fierce vitality doesn't hide the reality of dying infants, abused women, and exhausted and despairing parents.

Both Kibera and Mathare, like similar slums worldwide, are places where human dignity is constantly under assault.  Due to the lack of toilets, residents relieve themselves in black plastic sacks and then toss them onto their neighbors' rooftops.  (Locals call these "flying toilets.") There are a few blocks of pit toilets scattered around the community, but many are unusable due to overflowing filth.  They may also be dangerous.  Mathare girls tell horror stories about the "mambo kotto toilets " - a block of toilets behind a local primary school.  The name comes from the gang that hangs around the toilets; a girl who doesn't run fast enough risks being dragged into a stinking toilet, stripped and repeatedly raped.  "Flying toilets" become the only safe option, although you can imagine the public health implications of their disposal.

Many residents live in what the UN calls extreme poverty, subsisting on less than a dollar (about 72 shillings) a day. While few have formal sector employment (what you and I think of as jobs), nearly everyone engages in informal employment.  They carry water from the water-sellers, pick through trash for recyclable metal or glass, sell cooked or uncooked food...even young children work, coming home from school to fetch water or serve as house-girls.  Some residents earn money selling drugs or illegally brewed liquor, or themselves.  Earning a dollar a day is hard, and it's not enough to meet basic needs: it costs 21 dollars a month to rent a metal shack, and over 10 dollars a month for five liters of clean water a day.  Add to that the cost of food, firewood or kerosene for cooking, clothing, shoes, medical care (when available)...

Their poverty is compounded by crime, domestic violence, addiction, gender inequality, inadequate education, and disease.  In Mathare, 27% of the population is HIV+, the highest seropositivity rate in all of Kenya.  One in seven children born in a Kenyan slum will die before reaching his or her fifth birthday.  (Among rural children, the death rate is one in nine.)  Most die of diarrheal disease or influenza.  Schools are unbelievably crowded, with as many as 120 children crowding into classrooms built for 30.   Young girls often bring younger siblings to school, because there is no one else to care for them.  Out of school, they may be forced into prostitution to raise money for their families.  Children of both sexes who don't bring home enough money to their parents may be beaten, or thrown out of the house.  Street children, many orphaned by HIV, prowl the streets at night, forming associations that later mature into gangs.

All of this is sobering.  Add to it the knowledge that what I see in these two settlements is a tiny fraction of the problem.  Nearly  a billion people across the world struggle to survive under similar - or even worse - conditions.  A billion.  I can't seem to get my mind around it.  That's about three times the entire US population.

What does one do in response to such knowledge?

In my mind's eye I look out over Kibera and see my brothers and sisters struggling just to survive.  I don't want to forget, to fly back to Atlanta and my comfortable life, to shrug and say "what can I do after all?" 

Once, living in blighted East Germantown, Philadelphia, I thought I had come to understand something about poverty.  For over twenty-four years I worshiped and worked with a faith community that followed St. Vincent de Paul's dedication to the poor, not as charity , but as the work of justice.  It was that charism that led me into public health, and, eventually here. 

Now, I wrestle anew with the question: what does it mean to stand in solidarity with the poor? 

I'm no saint.  I like my creature comforts as much as anyone.  I doubt I'd be willing, as once I was in Germantown, to live side by side with my poorer neighbors in Kibera.  And I never know how to respond when someone says "I couldn't do what you do", when I feel that I don't do much at all, measured against the enormity of the world's need.   I'm here for such a short time; even if I get the two-year posting I'm considering, this place could absorb all I could do for several lifetimes.  I do what I can, but I will always wish it were more. 

So, my friends...

If I were a gifted enough writer, I would bring the slums of Nairobi to life for you, in all their mingled vitality and anguish, but I fear my words are hopelessly inadequate.  All I can do is tell you some of what I have come to know, and ask you again the questions with which I opened:

How are we to respond to the poor?  Assuming that we do not simply look away, what response do justice and mercy demand?


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    thoughtful thoughtful