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Singing in the Flames

Date: 2006-09-21 13:01
Subject: Show Me the Impact, I'll Show You the Money
Security: Public
Location:Nairobi, Kenya

Program Evaluation is the Obsession du Jour at CDC-Kenya.

This litte ditty has been circulating around the office, courtesy of friends at the World Bank - "The Output, Outcome Downstream Impact Blues" written by Terry Smutylo.  It's an entertaining look at a thorny problem.  http://www.idrc.ca/uploads/user-S/10960530301karaoke.swf

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Date: 2006-09-17 22:52
Subject: small pleasures
Security: Public
Location:Nairobi, Kenya
Yesterday my flatmate Gehmelle and I went out to Karen, a small town outside of Nairobi. We visited the Karen Blixen Museum - the house used in the filming of Out of Africa. At one time, the estate included a large coffee plantation that stretched to the base of the Ngong Hills and employed, at its peak of operation, 700 people. The town is named after her. It's very much an ex-pat and white Kenyan haven, with big gated housing estates, a golf course, and upscale shops, as well as several schools favored by ex-pats and wealthy Kenyans. It's also much quieter than my Nairobi neighborhood - you can hear an amazing variety of bird calls.

The Blixen house itself is interesting, and you can also view the remains of the coffee factory a short distance away. The museum exhibits include much of the original furniture, as well as some artifacts from the film; particularly intriguing are Blixen's paintings of local people, and the stories attached to them. One is a striking painting of a young Kikuyu woman, who is reputed to have warranted the highest bride price of any woman on the estate.  An edition of Zipporah, Wife of Moses that I saw at a local bookshop features cover art that strongly resembles the painting.  Another painting depicts a young Somali boy, the nephew of the house steward; Blixen saw to his schooling and he became the first Somali judge in Kenya.

From the museum we went to the Kazuri Beads and Pottery Workshop, built on land that was once part of the coffee plantation. "Kazuri" means small and beautiful in Swahili - an apt description for both the beads and the business. About 120 women, most of them single mothers, are employed in the workshop, where they make ceramic beads by hand. It's fascinating to walk through the factory and talk to the women; they are proud of the beautiful work they do, and are generous in explaining how they make the different designs. They seem happily employed; the factory is filled with ther chatter and laughter. I'll post photos when I can; I also promised I'd send copies to the shop steward. (Kenyans seem to love it when you use digital cameras and then show them the resulting photograph on the display; these women were no different, and many asked if they could have copies.)

Kazuri Beads was established by Lady Susan Wood, whose jewelry-making hobby morphed in 1975 into a workshop when she became aware of the great need for employment among women. Most of the women here are single mothers, although some have been here so long that they are now grandmothers. (I met one of the early employees, a Luo woman who spoke little English, but was clearly the matriarch of her working circle. ) Because unemployment is so high, a single worker at the factory may be the only wage earner in an extended family of a dozen or more individuals.

Of course I bought some of their work. (It's fabulous! Check out some sample designs here, from an American outlet: http://www.kazuriwest.com/kwcat/#) I tend to do early holiday shopping when I travel, and my female relatives at home are more likely to wear Kazuri beads than Maasai bangles. Kazuri beads are sold all over the world, often at about $60 for an 18-inch necklace; the same necklace sells here for about half that price.

(Hmmn, maybe I should consider becoming a licensed dealer.)

So we came, we saw, we did a little shopping, we learned a few more words in Ki-Swahili...not a bad way to spend a Saturday.
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Date: 2006-09-12 01:10
Subject: hakuna matatu?
Security: Public
In my last post I mentioned the ongoing matatu crisis.

For the uninitiated, a matatu is the most common form of public transport in Kenya. Minibuses as alternative mass transit are common in many developing countries; bus routes run limited routes and schedules, and taxis (when available) are too expensive for most people. Minibuses offer both alternative transport and economic opportunity for their owner-operators. In Kenya, however, matatus became more than simple transport; they entered into folklore.

I saw many of them on my last visit to Kenya, twelve years ago. They were rolling street art: painted in bright colors, with lettering and designs reminiscent of the most exuberant subway graffiti.  Dozens would gather at matatu stands, each blaring out a different type of music, while touts vied for customers, shoving as many as 30 people into a 14-passenger vehicle. They were also the most dangerous thing in Kenya; matatu accidents killed thousands every year. No wonder many bore names like "Sudden Death" and "Fast Track to Heaven."
We would see them up-country, stuffed full of passengers, roof-top tarps covering a pile of bundles three feet high, madly careening at 100 KPH along rutted dirt roads. We saw more than one wreck, and the newspapers in Nairobi featured daily headlines along the lines of "Matatu Horror at Langata: 4 dead, 15 in hospital."

Fast forward a bit to 2003, when the Kenyan government banned matatus outright unless they submitted to regulation. Matatus could carry no more than 14 passengers, were required to bear a yellow stripe clearly identifying the route, and had to be equipped with seat belts and speed governors; the latter are designed to prevent acceleration beyond 80 KPH. Matatu owners swiftly complied, and the death toll on Kenyan roads dropped significantly.  Many of the more flamboyant matatus disappeared from the roads around Nairobi, replaced by white Nissan minibuses; while most still bear names (MAnU passes my apartment building at 7:30, followed shortly by Amazing Grace), they have lost their distinctive character. (I'm told that old-style matatus still flourish in Mombasa.)

Unfortunately, in the last few years, it's become apparent that the matatu drivers aren't quite playing by the rules. Many disable the speed governors; since a driver's income depends on the number of trips he can make ina day, there's an economic incentive to speed, and to drive even when exhausted. Passengers are lax about seat belt use, and drivers only demand passengers buckle up when approaching a police checkpoint. The vehicles are also generally poorly maintained, and are driven erratically. As a Kenyan friend pointed out, it's usually easier and cheaper to pay the police bribes than to spend money on maintenance. 

(This isn't entirely a problem for some of the police, who frankly rely on bribes to make ends meet.  I've been stopped at a few checkpoints myself; the officers seemed quite disappointed to find us all wearing seat belts.)

A few weeks ago, just before the start of school, the government began a systemic inspection of all matatus in Nairobi, impounding any they deemed unroadworthy. (This is to extend nation-wide.)  As a result, many matatu drivers stopped driving into the city, leaving their passengers stranded at the city limits. The papers were full of complaints about the unfair tactics of the government, the greed and carelessness of matatu drivers, and so on. There's still service in Nairobi, but I have seen fewer of the older matatus on the road; the local wisdom is that the government wants to put all matatus out of business, in order to force people to use the city bus system. The government of course is insisting that this is about public safety. 

This is likely to be a long battle...
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Date: 2006-09-11 23:13
Subject: Of distance and memory
Security: Public
Location:Nairobi, Kenya
Here in Kenya, it's just another Monday; the big news stories are the continuing matatu crisis and the emergence of a new political party.   Unless I turn on CNN or the BBC news, I am very far away from what I gather has been a veritable onslaught of press coverage, commemorations, documentaries, dramatizations, interviews, analyses and Reflections on What We Lost. 

That's just as well - the few moments of BBC coverage that I stumbled across on Sunday were enough to stir memories that are all too painful.  And I wouldn't expect Kenyans to be absorbed with our tragedy..

Nevertheless, it has seemed odd to move through this day with the anniversary unmentioned.  It's probaby the time when I've felt most acutely alone in a strange land.   

No matter the distance,  I remember...
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Date: 2006-09-10 21:50
Subject: a belated entry
Security: Public
Location:Nairobi, Kenya
I should say this at the beginning, and get it out of the way: I am generally so shy that on bad days I can barely manage to ring a stranger on the telephone. (Perhaps some readers can relate.) As I begin this journal, I find myself struggling with that shyness; it feels a bit like speaking into a darkened room, unsure if I am addressing friends, strangers, or the empty air. Add in the power I ascribe to the written word - passing thoughts captured, for good or for ill - and my hands nearly freeze on the keyboard.

Despite the cajoling of friends and partner, it has taken me a long time to enter this community; entering a space full of invisible participants, for some exhilarating, was terrifying to me.

So what's changed? Why would I decide, after so many months, to begin this journal after all?

For the last month, I have been living and working in Nairobi, Kenya. During these weeks, I have been reminded of what I had learned years before as a solo traveler: talking to strangers is an absolute requirement if the journey is to be fully experienced. Those we meet along the way help open the world to us, and us to the world; each encounter offers an opportunity to discover a friend, learn something new, understand just a bit more deeply...

Half a world away from home, I am learning to speak to strangers: the drivers who explain tribal customs and local politics, and teach me bits of Ki-Swahili; the white Kenyans who talk of politics and change and their love of this land; the relief workers from Sudan who share stories of lives far more dangerous than mine, which they wouldn't give up for a minute; the young women from a local church who describe how women's lives are changing - and how they're not changing fast enough; the young Maasai warrior who waited for a plane with me and described local marriage customs, and how the lure of urbanization is changing his culture; the Kiwi entomologist here studying mosquito-eating spiders; the medical anthropologist met by chance in the waiting area of a local restaurant...

It's not always been easy, but I find that stepping outside of my comfort zone has made for a richer experience. And it's getting easier. (In fact, I shocked a friend visiting from Atlanta when I walked up to a perfect stranger in the airport and asked about the book he was reading - that was my introduction to the Kiwi professor.)

All of this is a round-about way of saying that, if it works in Kenya - if I can walk up to perfect strangers and start a conversation - perhaps it can work here.

I won't promise Great Insights; perhaps random musings will do for a start?
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my journal
January 2010