Sunday, July 5, 2009

What Just Happened?












In January of 2009, we traveled to Kenya to volunteer.  Our simple goal was to enlist our minds, our hands, and our hearts, however we could, in the fight against poverty and human suffering.  We gave ourselves 6 months.  Initially, we worked in an urban HIV/AIDS clinic outside of Nairobi, followed by a one-shot famine relief effort, delivering a ton of maize to one of the country’s rural pastoralist tribes.  A single month of relating to sick, starving, and dying people, dropped the full weight of Kenya’s – and Africa’s- worst problems squarely upon our consciences.  Dizzy at the crossroads, feeling angry, without a clear path to which we could apply ourselves, we decided to just be still amidst the whirlwind, watch and listen, right where we were- in a small, dusty frontier town called Isiolo.

There, under the calls of street merchants, the bleating of goats, and the rumble of cargo trucks bound for Ethiopia, we heard the voices of children. We stopped to look down towards our hands and were irretrievably captured by their eyes, having come out from their shady verandas and acacia trees, smiling and curious, but tattered like castaway princes and princesses. The path ahead became strikingly clear. We knew that our lives were about to change, and by our efforts, we vowed, so would theirs.

We spent the next four months in the streets, the slums, the bush, and the cities of Kenya trying to understand how there were so many children left alone to roam the streets and fend for themselves.  We took particular interest in their use of glue, as a drug, to escape their harsh street realities of perpetual hunger and fear, as well as quiet the memories of their haunting pasts of violent abuse, neglect and loss.  Our visceral response- a mixture of disgust and sadness- at the sight of children, even toddlers, inhaling a mixture of glue and gasoline from empty plastic whisky bottles, openly in public, while an indifferent community steps over and around them, signified that we were far from home.  We asked ourselves, “What forces could absolve us, as humans after all, from the responsibility to care for the young and vulnerable in our own communities?”

We wanted to find out how these children got to the streets in the first place, what they did to survive, and finally, what options they had to lead a better life.  Everyday, we were witnesses to some part of this riddle. Every night, back in our simple slum apartment, we would contemplate whether we were witnessing root causes, or merely symptoms of a larger social disease. Our search for reason and resolution led us to homes from which some children came, into bunk-rooms of orphanages, to toxic dumpsites on the fringes of humanity, into offices of local authorities and social workers, and finally into the air-conditioned Nairobi high-rise towers of the Kenyan government. We found that while many people shared in their understanding of the plight of street children, there were many more who lived comfortably in misconception, prejudice and detachment. Still, worst of all, no one would claim responsibility.

Our inquiry and experience culminates as a documentary film, with the core of our investigative footage and storytelling coming from relationships with specific street-child groups and individuals in 5 Kenyan towns, as well as a considerable number of aid groups, dedicated to a variety of strategies.  Our film will challenge those who accept the misery of children as a part of Kenyan life, and perhaps explain why 2% of Kenya’s 15 million children live alone, without a family, village or nation to care for them. 

-----We have arrived safely back in the U.S. and are establishing a home-base within lovely Santa Barbara and Los Angeles for creative venture and phase II of the Kenya experience: editing and post-production work on the film. Stay tuned to The Indestructible Beat for updates and please don't hesitate to contact us here or at BEATfilm@gmail.com. We will be scheduling presentations and lectures commencing August 2009. Please contact us if you are interested! Thank you all and keep BEATing your Indestructible Beat! 

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Nothing like a bottle of GLUE to wash down some HOOF











This adorable child is one of our friends from Barachi Field, a designated 'Safe Zone' for the many street children and families who live in Mombasa. Because these neglected humans present a negative face for the city and country, Kenya (the government? the police? the community?) has decided that it is 'okay' that they be rounded up and removed from the streets, and left alone at Barachi, a brick-walled, old football field where a community of homeless people numbering somewhere between 30-100, live, huff glue, sleep, and try to breathe. This way, these people really do not exist. Out of sight, out of mind. No need to alleviate the problem or tackle the push-factors which leave these children alone in the streets of a bustling city, so long as you hide the problem from the community and tourists. Spend an hour here--if you're daring--and you leave high as a kite and heartbroken.

Cancer Sucks














Meet Morris. A 13-year-old living at Barachi Field. Here, he takes his daily vitamins, jams to Kenyan radio through broken headphones, and plays football with a flat volleyball. Although his circumstances are more than disparaging, he has a kindness and gentle nature that illuminates within his eyes. These children are incredibly powerful and tenacious. They just need some help.

Special Ops















The sky hook is scheduled for pick up of 2 persons from the top of the tallest building in Nairobi. The exact rendezvous time must remain confidential, but when it comes, we will fly like escaped POWs at the end of a movie as CCR bumps. One hand on the cable, the other on our tapes. Traffic in the streets will stop as the people who know us now will be paralyzed at the sight, matatu drivers will bang on their roofs and point, women in burkas will lift up their eye-flaps and gaze in awe and whisper to eachother, MPs will radio the air force to have us intercepted and the crew will be handing us fresh vegetables once on-board. Any minute now...

The Borderline

Perched atop the only 'green' area in and near Korogoccho slum, just outside Nairobi's City Center where businessmen tout their designer shoes and drive in consistent bumper-to-bumper, exhaust-laden traffic in their Land Rovers, I point my camera at Dandora. The capitol's mountainous dumpsite that extends for miles and is home to hundreds of street children and families. Some build shelters from the disposed materials...others use the site as a resource for recycling materials back into the market, earning some form of a living through sales of metal, glass, and anything anything else they can find (toys, used clothes, medical supplies!, machine parts, etc.) You can see them scavenging alongside giant 4-foot-tall birds, battling for food scraps and survival. We met a few of the children who have lived in the dump and will introduce them in the film. (Expected release Spring 2010!) This place may earn the gold winner for most tragic area in Kenya. We found ourselves after a long day at the dump, shedding tears back in the City Center market, unable to remove ourselves from the painful experience. Humans should not exist like this.

Rescue Me


A sign hangs above the door of this room that reads "Napenda Kuishi"- which means "I want to live". The place is basically a street kid stronghold, situated right in the middle of the Korogoccho slum, about 5 miles outside of Nairobi. Its modest aim is to keep them busy and out of trouble during the day, before letting them go back to the streets to find a place to sleep each night (shop fronts, video parlors, abandoned cars, etc). The ground floor is the meeting room for lessons and hanging out, decorated with bright cartoons of Jesus and "don't do glue" type scenes depicting kids passed out with X's over their eyes. Across Kenya though, the main medicine to chase away slum blues is booze-  dollar fifths of hair-raising whiskey in plastic bottles that later become glue-containers, or home-brewed chang'aa (known to cause instant, irreversible blindness) or a yellow-labeled  pint of Kenya's national beer, Tusker- which for now only provides those kids with checker pieces. Tusker Lager versus Tusker Pilsner. Outside is a guy offering to pay children to traffic drugs around the neighborhood hidden in ice cream buckets. These kids are surrounded like Crockett at the Alamo with no alternative but to hang on as long as they can.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

After















We cut hair. We purchased God-awful formal-wear. At a mall. We concocted resumes and delivered them to offices in high-rise buildings, wearing our ridiculous outfits. Talking the talk. Walking the hobbling walk in our ill-fitting and unforgiving shiny new pleather shoes.
Yet, the pay-off can be seen here, as we stand victorious, following an interview with the honorable Kalonzo Musyoka: Vice President of Kenya.

Before

















To illustrate the transition in our Kenyan experience that took place over the past month, we start with this moment- 7am in the village of Attir, machete in hand, soaked to the bone after a night of howling wind, rain, thunder'n'laaghtnin', a collapsed tent and a 5-way spooning session (for warmth) inside a manyata, that included the two of us, one large Turkana named Julius, a friend and evangelical pastor, Gregory, and a baby goat. Days later, we left for Nairobi.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Under the bridge...

The Talent Show

















"Ghetto Radio 89.5 FM" is a non-commercial station bumping throughout the streets and matatus (mini-buses) of Nairobi, helping to promote local talent: rappers, dancers, graffiti-writers, and slam-poets like this guy.
To get a sense of this place, without getting asthma, you can stream their shows here.

Kenya's Royal Family

This is Wafalme. (Kiswahili for "Kings & Queens.") They're an up-and-coming hip-hop act from the streets of Uhruma, another slum outside of Nairobi. These kids, ranging in age from 6-17, use the lyrical skills of artists much older to overcome hardships most will never know in a lifetime.

Home to 1 million?

To keep it red, I've heard the Golden Gate bridge is constantly being repainted. I imagine a census on Nairobi's Mathare slum would be a similar undertaking. Everything is in constant transition, yet at the same time, a feeling of stagnation heavily looms about. How long will this continue?

Friday, May 1, 2009

No Seats Inside? Quite Okay. I'll Ride on Top.


Safety is the number one priority for the citizens of Nairobi.

Here we are re-locating to our new digs in the city where our lungs have turned a deeper shade of black and we've become experts on death-defying forms of public transportation.

STUCK


The kids talk about something called "the steam," when the glue and gasoline mixture takes effect. They become successful internal escape-artists, replacing their hearts and heads with a softer, numbed version of the world where visions of lions leap toward them, or they find themselves piloting a jet fighter through the sky. The hunger pains are released and the mud and exhaust on their clothes seem to disappear. With a complacent community circling them and families unable to provide, what is there to lose?

PUSH!! TWENDE!!

Whhirrrrrr...rrrumble...choke.. Choke! Spit, burp-burp-chug-chug-chug-chug...
Twende! (We go).
We coaxed this wobbly, beat-up 14-seater minibus into taking us home from the crusty plains surrounding Attir by pushing it around and around in circles with the muscles and determination of a dozen Turkana men and one set of extra-duty California chicken legs (Austin's). Anneliese supplied strategic advice and optimism, which probably made the difference and saved us all a 6-hour walk under the mid-day sun back into Isiolo town.
Here she is, celebrating with the grateful passengers. (By the way, we crammed in 23 people!)

Lunch with Moose



















This was the typical view during lunch with our good friend Musyoka and the rest of the Mutilya family at their home in Bulapesa, Isiolo. We set sweat records in this place. The thing on the plate is a rolled chapati- a staple of the Kenyan diet. Simeon (left), father of Musyoka and 4 others laughs like a hyena whenever anyone comes in the door. The only time he was serious with us is when he would heap second, third, and fourth servings on our plates, offering no escape. This is the way of Kenyans: Stuff yourself while there is food, because you never know if there will be any tomorrow.
Then take a nap.
Leaving these folks and their hospitality brought us to the realization that we had made some good friends in Kenya who are already missed.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Karibu Kenya...


While Nairobi vacated for the Easter holiday, we found ourselves a bit under the weather but enjoying a few days of peace and restoration. No interviews, no taxi-buses, no backpack-saddled hoofing all over town. Predictably though, after about 2 hours of inactivity we began feeling restless and decided to take a peek at our footage. One thing led to another...
Here is a quick glimpse of Kenya through our eyes.

*Coming soon: so much more.

Act II: Karibu America

It's been quite awhile since our last update on this strange, new, popularized form of human communication. To briefly fill you in, we've set up camp in Nairobi (it's now already been one week) and we are staying at the luxurious Y.M.C.A., a hostel with considerably lovely grounds, a pool, a restaurant with a serene terrace, and shared bathrooms for every awkward European traveler and Kenyan alike to meet and greet each other through aquatic symphony. Ironically, although we're meters away from a cyber cafe (conveniently located within the Y), we've become less inclined to sneak away to the monster of technology, face illuminated, and promising absolute escapism. Escapism; must be exactly the point, as when two blonde, freckle-faced white kids find themselves waking up in the arid, windy, dust covertly lodging deep into ear canals, desolate, far, very far African desert, digging their nails into the rocky soil streets to maneuver around anthills of burning trash, poor, malnourished mothers begging blindly for money, strong, fervently religious men shooting daggered-glances from their eyes on prayer-day, herds of goat and cows and camels willing to trample, and our new friends (fortunately and unfortunately) climbing over us, sharing fleas and worms and coughs and colds and glue, sticky glue, and vapors, intoxicating vapors, and goo, the rarest, undefinable street crud available in a multitude of colors; won't wash off in the shower, but takes repeated scrub-downs and anti-bacterial prayers to fully remove. That is, when I'm fearless and willing to brave the cement-shower room which has become my personal petri-dish (more on this later if you don't know the joys of aquagenic pruritus).

No, Nairobi is a different scene. Act II: Karibu America. The city resembles a rip-off Prada purse sold on Canal St.: Perfectly labeled, necessary components present (material, stitching, handles, zippers, pocketbook included), yet absolutely funky. The pleather is beyond comparison to a well-beaten cow-hide, the stitching unravels before it leaves the manufacturer, and the pattern has mis-spelled words and branding. On paper, all bases covered. In person, one finds herself feeling like a veteran-bouncer, painfully wondering how the brunette, 5'8", 17-year-old chocolate-eyed girl could possibly assault his intelligence and present a license for an albino, 5'2", 30-year-old male.
Escapism here doesn't require autopilot preset for shiny, technological, 'modern', industrialized creature comforts. No. Escapism sings like wind howling through acacia families, ruminating too long on inherited constructs and past decisions, and digging my nose into Heart of Darkness for the third time.
xo

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Fursa












These rescued children illuminate Isiolo with their positivity, motivation, and growing open-hearts. Fifteen boys share two cozy rooms
at a new children’s home for street children, called Fursa (Kiswahili for "Opportunity"), located in the heart of Isiolo’s slum, Bulapesa. We’ve become great friends with the directors, Rosanna and Abdurahman, a married couple who have created the center on meager funds, yet provide the boys with love and all things necessary to push them forward with confidence. The boys break-dance, recite poetry, reenact Bruce Lee moves true to form, and arm-wrestle until their elbows are raw. The good news of the week is that following the recent round of primary school exams, all of their scores are up. Now that their bellies are full with ugali, they can instead be hungry for a future.

Oz.











Africa’s red-ribbon mountain looms high above the arid village of Isiolo like a mangle-toothed monster peering down at the little town while it sleeps. Its highest peak reaches a surprising 17,058ft., as it is an extinct volcano that last erupted somewhere between 2.6-3.1 million years ago. Rest assured, I think we’re quite safe from this potential hazard- despite testimony from folks around town that it blew its top a few years ago. On clear days, it is reminiscent of Oz and while overcast, you cannot differentiate the peaks from the clouds. We had high hopes to climb this ominous mountain that guards the edge of Kenya's Northern desert jewel, and beat our chests like gorillas overlooking our conquered territory, but the work has kept us nose down, in town huffing glue second-hand.

Got Tape.

Anyone know any editors? Over the past 4 months, we've amassed about 35 hours of footage that includes a 30th birthday, a canyon grand, neon lights over desert truck stops, moving Heathrow sidewalks, our arrival in Kenya, and all efforts, errors, heroics and antics to present, chronicled in high-definition digital video.
We've staked out the perilous nighttime streets of Isiolo (against all advice), had a poor goat and chicken slaughtered (after excessive encouragement), delved into the Quran with spirit-casting traditional doctors, and made friends with the "commando" glue kids. It's all here.
I recently heard a filmmaker liken his documentary process to taking off alone in a Cessna only to discover, once airborne, that he was flying a 747, unsure if any airports could accommodate a landing.
His analogy is spot on. The process becomes more complex every day and we become equally more invested.
With the clock racing, interview lists swelling and bank accounts dwindling, we are indeed airborne, but I think I see fuel spilling from the fuselage. How- and where- will it end...?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

No offense, I just don't like milk.

Dargaar


Clearing the path for our research on the recent explosion of albino killings across Tanzania, Kenya, and Burundi (an issue which Tanzania finally declared, late January 2009, as a human rights abuse—witchdoctors sending men to hunt albinos for their genitals, limbs, and hair for use in spells which supposedly bring their clients wealth) we ventured out to a Borana hotspot, an area in the mountains of Isiolo known as Dargaar where the tribe has recognized a significantly and magically spiritual zone.

We were invited by our friend ‘Coach,’ whom we had met in town. (His name coming from his reputation as being the best soccer coach in the area. The teams here play on dirt fields bedazzled by stones the size of softballs and the boys run barefoot, or wearing sandals at best!) Coach is the grandson of one of the most respected medicine men of the Muslim Boran culture. (Most Boranas here are Muslim.) Although granddaddy has passed away, Coach is well respected within the community and is close to the spiritual doctors who protect the area and visit it every Saturday for communication with the spirits and rituals in accordance to the Quran.

Although the Boranas are a pastoralist tribe, for generations Dargaar has been esteemed as a spiritual spot with a nearby semi-static village to protect it. Most doctors within the tribe make long journeys to the little acacia-covered hill alongside an oasis of a stream in effort to communicate more directly with Allah and ask the spirits to help them find the herbs and plants needed for medical practice.

We packed our newly purchased ‘tent’—an African construction of plastic poles and a thin tarp-covering—a couple bananas (ndizi in Kiswahili) and water (maji) and began our hour trek by foot into the hills. There was no convincing necessary about the sacredness of Dargaar. It was the first time in months we’ve inhaled and breathed air and the scent of trees and dirt and flowering shrubs. (Not years of accumulated human and animal feces, boiling milk, and the stench of burning trash!) We were immediately greeted by a group of teenage girls collecting water for a nearby village (see photo) and once the day began to fade, the doctors from all over the region began to trickle in one by one, carrying nothing but a walking stick and strong legs from a day’s journey.

The moon was high and the fire was roaring, emanating just enough light to look into the tribesmen’s eyes and see kind smiles rather than ferocity and mal-intentions that would have provoked our subconscious minds into thinking further into the possibility that we were here for some sacred killing of mzungus (whites) or for an FGM ceremony which the culture fervently believes in.

They separated Austin and I, as in Islam, women pray with women, and men with men. I shared a small grass-thatched rug with five 60+ year-old medicine women chanting and singing and sitting so incredibly awkwardly that I awoke the next morning with bruises on each side of my hips. I peeked over into Austin’s man-huddle and he was among ten medicine men and Coach, perched in a circle ranking from right to left most noble and well-respected down to Austin, the welcomed pale-faced newcomer. We were advised to bring a cornucopia of miraa (also known as chat: the direct derivative of epinephrine), coffee, sugar, tobacco, tobacco salt (what looks like, and may be, broken fragments of a cowlick), and kerosene. Initially perplexed by the grocery list, we later discovered we had supplied the group of doctors with a prescription to remain awake for the next 48 hours chewing miraa like rabid cattle and drinking enough coffee and hand-rolled cigarettes to keep our soldiers in Iraq awake long enough for their never-ending war.

We chanted various verses from the Quran as smoke plumes swirled about, hovering low and heavy like fog in a Louisiana marsh, initiating our departure from the earthly Dargaar and into the spirit-world where Allah banishes genies and the spirits whisper hidden truths to the doctors regarding their patient’s diseases. The two gender-separated circles seemed to collide together after two hours of collectively repeating ‘Amen’ over and over while looking up into the starry Kenyan night.

I’m not sure if it was specific to the doctors’ belief or if it is inherent in Islam, but the initial prayers that evening were to gather our independent identities, our individuality and come together as one whole. This ideology was reminiscent to my teachings of Hopi beliefs, where before humanity can join with the spirits and reach ‘god,’ humanity must first come together—accept each other as one—and then, and only then, will we be able to reach a higher consciousness (or in this case the spirits and Allah). I liked this prayer. The others, well, the doctors had great voices.

I’m not Muslim. I don’t eat meat. But this night, through the same romantic appeal that wooed me to sit for eight hours beside a mound of burning incense-stone that suffocated every pore and rendered breathing almost impossible, I found myself swallowing roasted goat meat from the night’s sacrificial killing.

The doctors believe their spirits come and linger in areas of blood and bone, so the sacrifice drew them near to us so we could be secure in knowing our prayers were to be communicated to Allah (and the group was able to mow down on fresh animal flesh).

We watched in curious horror as one of the doctors grabbed the goat by the throat, elongating his skinny neck like a hungry python reaching down from the trees in extended effort to snatch his prey. The doctor then drew his steel knife and sawed into the esophagus with one clean cut. The goat dropped to the ground and by reflex began violently slamming his adorable head into the ever-darkening red-dirt. After a good two-minute fight, the goat extended his limbs like Jesus on the cross and relaxed into death.

I’ve never eaten an animal I watched die. I suppose its better than ingesting hormone-pumped, antibiotic-laden meat that has lived the entirety of its life inside a metal factory stepping over and clobbering others, cannibal—not by choice—and rushing with adrenaline from fear and anxiety of a life within the industry of mass-meat production. Yeah, I suppose eating wild goat is better, although he granted me the misfortune of staring directly into my eyes the moments prior to his death, as though I could explain in one evening (or lifetime) to a pastoralist tribe that they shouldn’t eat meat. I didn’t appreciate that much.

The doctors draped his body over the fire, cleaned his insides and placed them in a pot for frying, and hung his head and testicles over a separate fire in medicinal ceremony. If one is ‘mad’, the doctors believe that he will be cured by placing his head in the smoke that is emitted from the roasting goat head. Had it been any other day, I would have gladly smoked goat-head, but after watching a violent death in sacrifice for a violent god, I wasn’t too sure who exactly was the mad one. The testicles—I’ll leave that up to your imagination.

The night continued in Muslim Boran song and dance and the doctors kindly spoke to Austin and I about their medical practices. Some declared themselves simply as herbalists: they collected indigenous plants and herbs for treatment of disease, believing that the plants possessed the spirit of Allah and cured by spirit rather than through the specific chemical structure of the organism (as most herbalists I’ve met believe). Others were called spiritual doctors, whereby they were hyper-sensitive in perception and could communicate with the spirits through actual conversation. The spiritual doctors could see a genie possessing an ill person and would then tell the spirits to remove the genie from the patient, thus healing them. All were of Muslim faith and all denied practicing ‘witchcraft’—magic that created negative effects—but they did admit that they could, if they wanted to.

We slept for a few hours in the early morning and were visited by some form of a living creature which we never saw, but defended from within the tent as it jumped upon it and aggressively poked it’s nose into the zipper. The doctors thought it was a dik-dik, an African antelope, but I’m placing bets that it was a genie.
xo

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Meru Crew


Over the past month, we have thrown ourselves headlong into making a film about Kenya's street children and their addiction to glue. It is a unwieldy beast of a problem that emotionally crushes and intellectually boggles anyone who stops to look at it. We're following the kids around, capturing their stories, seeing where they sleep, what they eat, and how they survive. We're ferreting out common root causes- abuse or no food at home, parents lost to AIDS, always poverty. We're examining the miserably incomplete patchwork of solutions- orphanages with limited capacity, brutal police round-ups, and mishandled foreign relief money. Meanwhile, the children drift around town all day and night, glue bottles literally stuck to their lips, calling out to a community that looks the other way, hushed by apathy, and a government so aloof that one might suspect a dark plan to just let these kids die off.
Clockwise from top left:
Musyoka: our best friend in Kenya, sidekick, translator, comic relief.
Austin: at this moment feeling generally exhausted.
Anneliese: just took the kids shopping for a lunch of bread and yogurt.
Veronica: 12, an incredibly tough and emotionally battered child who has survived the Meru streets for the past 5 years.
Tony: 10, brother of Veronica, baby-faced, usually quiet, holds my hand everywhere we go.
Gatao: 11, lies and says 14. Has the demeanor of a war veteran. Pictured here a few days before his involuntary haircut by razor.

Happy St. Patrick's Day friends and family! This is Julius- a Turkana we met while living in Isiolo. His aim is to set up an orphanage in the rural village of Attir that will help care for the Turkana children living alone and estranged on the streets of nearby Isiolo. He too lived on the street when he was young, having been forced out of his pastoralist village and into the bustling town simply by the need to eat. A pastor now, at the ripe old age of 31, this prodigal son has returned home to help his own.
Here, Julius is driving us home from our first visit to Attir, singing to us the first song we learned in Kenya. Earlier that day, we set out happily as 2 pair on 2 rented motorcyles. Here, we are 3 on the remaining motorcycle- after the tire on our moto went taco.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Grass is Always Greener on the Other Side


I can't seem to go anywhere without children petting me and ripping my hair out in adoration. It's 'so smart!' and feels like 'cow.' Umm, thanks! I'm encouraging afros, but everyone thinks I'm nuts.

Ahhh...Institutionalized religion.















A break from Kenya's fog of Christianity... Islam has flooded Isiolo. The mosque photographed here from our hotel window, serenades the tiny town five times a day, setting a mysterious yet comforting mood--even when its at 5:30 in the morning. I've been quite a sight, showing my neck, arms, and mouth in public!

Kulamawe: "Eating Stone"














"Move in day" at our Isiolo pad. If you find yourself daydreaming about us and what we're up to, picture us here, on our balcony, perched above the Bulapesa hamlet/slum, eating rice and veggies, hashing out the details of a new Kenyan constitution.
And for a laugh, you can also try and hear the amplified growls and miserably bad singing that blast directly at us every night from 6-8pm, courtesy of the local Pentacostal church.

Joytown

A school in Thika for Kenya's mentally and physically challenged children. Many of the disabilities were due either to abuse or neglect, for instance locking a child in a closet for 4 years. This photo was taken in the midst of playroom chaos. This kid picked up our camera and demonstrated for us the school slogan: "Disability Is Not Inability."
Despite their adherence to traditional lifestyle, 9 out of 10 of these women had Protestant names such as Regina, Josephine and Lucy. We were nowhere near a Denny's.

The Drop-Off


This was the scene at the Turkana village of Daaba, about 30 nearly-impassible kilometers north of Isiolo, as we divvied up the maize. 1 ton went scoop by scoop to ~40 families in less than 2 hrs.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Food! Glorious food!

As Kenya’s premiere newspaper, Daily Nation, reminded us in what seems like eight out of ten cover stories—that Africa’s new covergirl nation has declared a national disaster of famine, counting an estimate of roughly 10 million citizens starving—we couldn’t help but become obsessed with the issue, knowing that the family who presently hosted us ate every American family I know off the table.

Our month-long commitment volunteering at Thika District Hospital was soon up for re-negotiation and we were keeping our eyes and ears open for a new vein to prick and shoot our energy deeper into the Kenyan national body.

After two weeks of incessant research and calling every Prime Minister’s office that had any connection to food, agriculture, public health, and cultural affairs, we dropped our bloodied doctor’s costumes off at the door and hopped into a 2-ton lorry with 1-ton of maize flour and screamed our way (assisted by a hired driver named George) up the northern highway like a pack of rabid hyenas.

Isiolo. A lovely town of dehydrated dirt, midnight windstorms, and mountains that hover from all sides like monsters in a childhood dream. Isiolo. The town we chose after great debate to be the receivers of our independent, bloodless aid. We had decided the hungry warranted ample help as they are a conglomeration of pastoral tribes with new limitations to feeding grounds as the government has become more industrialized and developed, they can no longer defend diversity or sustainability. Those who want to earn money and have access to food, must move to the cities. Those who persist on a nomadic path, are well, left to roam, that is, on one path: to the city.

We connected with an enthusiastic coordinator for the Kenyan Red Cross, Isiolo and Eastern Province Branch, Jimiya. A young woman of the Nubians who had recently finished her undergraduate degree in Political Science and Social Structures from The University of Nairobi. (Of course we got along!) We met her at the branch office, waiting excitedly for our arrival, accompanied by an army of volunteers. We loaded our maize into the Red Cross Landcruiser and set sail for a journey of a lifetime—hoping it wouldn’t end our lives.

The driver climbed up volcanic cinders the size of port-o-potties and wove the way through combative cactus and sand traps like a fish in a reef.
30 kilometers outside of Isiolo town, we arrived at our drop-off zone, a fairytale of a Turkana village—acacia trees with fantastically elongated branches, like arms of a principal ballerina, and awe-inspiring views of the mesas and steep rock faces waving from the northern-lying Shaba National Reserve. This was the community of Daaba, the community who was now, with our help, able to feed their children and families once a day, securing life on this earth for one more month.

We distributed thirty kilograms to each family representative (all women—the Turkana are a fascinating tribe where the women do all of the work, domestic and market, and the men sit and chat all day, waiting for their multiple wives to come home from an 11 kilometer trek home with the goats and cook dinner. Fascinating?)

Smiles were plentiful and intrigue rang all bells as they studied us muzungus (whitefolk). I couldn’t quite understand their acknowledgement for our help—even the translator was in broken English—but we did converse like sisters using the simple Turkana phrase, ‘Ajok,’ for ‘Hi. How are you?’ interweaved with gazing into each other’s eyes in attempt to communicate more.

After the maize flour was distributed, each woman embarked on her journey home, to her 6ft x 6ft dung-construct of a house covered with USAID bags and donated mosquito nets to pose as a roof, like a little kiss from the U.S. government.

Our mission had been accomplished. Although our meager relief is no nostrum to the national famine, we did what we could. And we did it through our hearts. And our hearts were counseled by our intelligence gathered through hours of research and speculation and talks with the UN World Food Programme and USAID, and local authorities, and the starving.

I’ve always found sensible the little adage: One for me, one for you. Maybe Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki could make use of this mantra as he sits in his un-taxed Nairobi penthouse wondering why 10 million of his citizens are literally starving and reliant on food relief. “The Kenya We Want,” and his “Vision 2030,” just may actually retreat from the clouds and take a wander upon this desperate, convoluted nation.
xo

Kenya. Strike One.

There are many hungry people in the U.S.. Some die of starvation, usually in association with a mental disorder or drug addiction, but most get help when necessary—go to soup kitchens, community shelters, or churches. Others post up on busy streets like carbon monoxide-covered stone statues donning real woolen fabric draped over shoulders to keep warm, while striving to keep their hands out. Poor David. I imagine he was cold.

There are also many hungry people in Kenya. The government currently estimates nearly 10 million people have fallen onto the ‘starving’ list. And unlike their adored Western neighbors, (thanks to Barack Obama, I travel quite safely here in the East African country) the starving consist of entire communities, not just those who were socially unfortunate or disabled, or buried in debt from their medical bills. The question seems trite when asked while you rest your feet on the leather ottoman, saluting the sun’s ambitious journey into the tree-lined horizon as you reflect back on your accomplishments of today’s work and how you may want to channel your investments within a different network, maybe stocks to real estate—the market is low—or maybe into a savings option for your children’s children to go to school. Regardless, how are so many people starving in Kenya? And large communities? Complete cities?

Painfully, after a shocking two months playing Kenyan in blistering heat and noisome streets enveloped in thick, white smoke from burning trash, Kenya’s national disaster of famine becomes all too clear and, ironically, in much juxtaposition to that which we Americans are told, or believe, or are told to believe back at home.

Yes, Kenya is in a drought (they seem to always be in a drought). Yes, Kenya is faced with the bitter reality which many developed nations have undergone or are currently experiencing—a transitioning period perplexed with the issues of readjustment, whereby the urban cities become the heart and pulse to the nation, changing the structure of the previous economic and social systems to reorganize no longer on the local community’s needs, but on the quest for foreign markets, convenience, opportunity, riches.

The carpenter no longer makes doors for homes, but makes them to earn money—regardless if they’re installed or sit for years at Pottery Barn. Industries giving birth to plastic products or hormone-laden meats gasp at the prospect of initiatives and groups forming to eradicate such useless, odious commodities. They cry to Congress for help when their efforts become clearly unsustainable or unproductive—as they have always been—except in cunning, human welfare-abusing money-making circles.

This urbanization brings havoc for the landlocked, concrete-ceilinged, average anyone who begins to see their work recreated—and much faster and reliant!—by machines or cheaper labor abroad, or when they see their communal—okay, we’re in Kenya—tribal farmlands sold from under their feet, through the government’s pipedream that the quick sale is worth more than a self-sustaining nation and an environmentally-friendly future. Suddenly Tom from Texas and Mr. Chau from China are skipping along fertile Kenyan soil, measuring their picture-perfect, frequently pesticide-sprayed GM wheat while Kala the Kenyan awaits his monthly delivery of maize flour from the Kenyan Red Cross, as he and his community sit atop their rocky, cropless land.

So, again, how are so many people starving in Kenya? And how are so many people eating well, very well, just ten kilometers from a Kenyan Red Cross food drop-off zone? And what about the foreign-occupied land giving birth to abundant crops for export to foreign countries?

Once again President Kibaki and his motley crew win the blue ribbon, as they have failed to integrate almost 40% of the nation—composed of arid lands and still pastoral tribal communities—into the national repetoire. These people are neglect in the popular talks surrounding parliament about “The Kenya We Want” and “Vision 2030.” While the government has it’s sights set high on ensuring cell phone network access across the nation, or spending a whopping $2billion Kenyan Schillings (roughly $US dollars) on a funeral service for the 130 idiots who swarmed an upside-down oil tanker that had toppled while speeding on a notoriously deadly road, they have erroneously used their nation’s limited time and money to put gold plating on what is actually an unraveling rope. Perhaps this is a common dilemma for a nation entering the industrialized, developing world: needing to impress foreign politics and markets to secure aid and investment options, therefore having to forego imperative investment and attention domestically, drowning the weaker half of the population in it’s dirty bath water.

There are 10 million people starving in Kenya because the most fertile and stable farmland is occupied by foreign hands. There are 10 million people starving in Kenya because the post-election violence of early 2008 demolished bountiful crops, turning maize stocks into smoke signals to attempt communication with the deaf government. There are 10 million people starving in Kenya because the government has illegally sold the nation’s maize reserves under secrecy, an issue that is still in court and is quickly proving to turn into yet another ‘unknown’ and ‘unsolvable’ issue of government corruption and scandal. There are 10 million people starving in Kenya because the ‘united’ nation is actually a deeply divided, politically-bordered region of tribal factions where the government and national leaders are simply poster children for the tribe holding office (presently Kikuyu)—either legally or illegally.

There are no working national efforts to alleviate ‘Kenyans.’ There are, no doubt, struggles to aid the ‘Kenya’ that is in Nairobi, or the Kikuyu or their affiliated tribes, otherwise, the red carpet rolls out for aid organizations to cover such simple, necessary duties. (Food relief, healthcare, HIV/AIDS treatment, water and sanitation programs, tribal mediation.)

Remind me again, Mr. President. What does the government do?
xo

Thursday, March 5, 2009

"That is a bird..."


Although it has been nearly a month since our defection from Thika, I can write about its splendor like it was yesterday. I remember sweating in our moldy volunteer shelter- to a point of laughing about it - laying side by side atop our single bunk bed like two corpses accidentally buried in one box, wondering, “How the f@%k did we get into this situation?”
This situation was hammering. Incessant hammering. All of Kenya seems to be under construction. People are actually getting busy with the “development” used to describe this part of the world. Will it be responsible? (Why should it?) Will it last? (How could it?)
Either way, as volunteers fresh-of-the-boat, our role soon became clear as sponsors of development. The impetus behind all of the hammering is that Mama Lucy- our volunteer host, a devout Christian, entrepreneur and single mother of three- recognized a precious survival niche in an unforgiving and harsh environment. It works like this:
A steady stream of well-wishing foreigners arrives in Kenya every day (us), looking for volunteer work that will make a difference (fulfill some fantasy concocted thousands of miles away in university classrooms). For the willing, there is no shortage in Kenya of opportunities to work for free- unlike the US, where young people with advanced degrees virtually need to do something unspeakable to get an unpaid, resume-boosting internship. Here in Kenya, the twin concepts of free work and philanthropy are greeted like messiahs and are more likely to have emerged from an alien spacecraft than to have evolved endemically. The homegrown organizations you do see are either 1) utterly un-funded or 2) funded and reeking of embezzlement. Either way, they are left clientless, toting empty briefcases, while farmers continue to starve and orphans with AIDS continue to sniff glue. It’s not that people here are blind or pathologically insensitive to the strife in their communities. It’s that their own problems are just too pressing to be concerned with the problems of others.
Enter the volunteer. Sun block (2). Mosquito repellent (1). Lariam (1/week for 2 wks + 3 wks upon return). Bandanas (3: red, blue, green). Crocs (1 pair). Lonely Planet: Kenya (1). The Alchemist (1). Idealism…(supply duration: TBD).

From the US, UK, Canada and Australia, we march on to the scene in possession of something we feel is noble, pure and priceless, demanding to be exploited and to have it mean something. It turns that our intentions do have a price and that we are traded about, from town to town, from brokers to shareholders, not as green, but as pasty-white, well-fed commodities.
Return now to Mama Lucy’s niche and the hammering:
For an entire month, beginning at 6:30 every morning, until 6:30 in the evening, two “fundis” (Swahili for “experts”) bashed and sculpted scrap materials together to form an 8’x12’ annex to house 4 more volunteers (new capacity: 9 volunteers).
Based on these figures, Mama Lucy’s new income stream could total KSh 120,000 ($1,600) per month from volunteers alone. Ironically, that’s roughly monthly salary of a professor at the University of Nairobi– employment I have been considering.
My fellow Americans, I hereby report from my perch abroad, that I can see the smoke that enshrouds you as Wall Street burns and pandemonium fills the streets. “Fear not!” I say. The beating heart of speculative investment is not dead. It has merely relocated to Kenya, like a Corleone to Vegas, and is now, to be precise, making a hell of a lot of noise from the dirt swath just outside our door.

To investors: the answer to the economic crisis is Mama Lucy Inc (NASDAQ: MLX). The volunteer market is soaring. Supply lines pump our crude across entire oceans, propelled by a guilty conscience or other more nebulous beliefs. The many faces of poverty are multiplying and becoming more appalling every second.

To prospective volunteers: the more you allow yourself to be “facilitated”, “placed” or “handled”, the bigger the pie, the better the feast etc.

All cynicism aside now…we have discovered the antidote, a natural defense to this predation that feeds on good will. The defense, as Emerson puts it, is self-reliance.

A month removed from our first assignment in Thika and happily dwelling in our own rented apartment in Isiolo, we can be ourselves. We can plan our mornings and our nights and then, miraculously, do the things we plan. We make appointments with interesting people and learn every day. We have become both the architects and laborers of our volunteer experience. Over the last 24 hours for instance, we did some yoga at home after working in town. After enjoying a wonderfully simple dinner we prepared- consisting of fresh vegetables and rice purchased from the nice lady across the street named Mama Dennis for about $1- we drank tea and revisited a conversation we had earlier in the day with a Muslim traditional doctor, hashing out some old philosophical issues of free will versus determinism on our 2nd floor balcony, overlooking the quiet streets of the Bulapesa slum. We slept comfortably and securely just under the breeze of two windows and awoke to make coffee and small-talk with our friendly neighbors and venture into town a little earlier than usual to capture some footage of the street kids waking up.
All of this without hammering, blaring televisions, awkward religious petitions or midnight sprints into the yard/ work-zone to relieve diarrhea pangs induced by the copious amounts of salt and oils that Mama Lucy’s daughter felt compelled to use in preparing kale.

Things are looking up. We’re feeling empowered. This morning we had slightly too much to look forward to and were feeling a bit neurotic. Then we hear that a police investigation of cattle-thieving Samburu tribesmen triggered a series of murderous raids in the plains outside of town –where we delivered our relief food a few weeks ago and had planned to go camp next week. Those plans have been scrapped. We now get to focus on creating a short film to advocate for government attention to the problem of street children becoming addicted to glue and dying before they reach 20.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Daaba



Out on the crusty volcanic plains beyond Isiolo, nestled under the bony canopy of acacia trees lies the Turkana village of Daaba- the destination for our relief food drop-off. Our friend Musyoka from the Isiolo Red Cross told us that once upon a time he had visited this village to do "civic education" about malaria prevention. He left them with some mosquito nets. We found the nets strewn across the tops of the huts like yamikas, full of holes, baking in the sun.

Sweet Chariot...


Ready, set, go. Here, we are atop the truck of a fellow named George. One fine Monday morning, in one magnificently orchestrated operation, we delivered our brochures to the hospital, nailed my thumb to a wall, loaded a truck full of relief food from a local mill, and got the hell out of Thika- headed for the wind-swept foothills beyond Mt. Kenya, to a place called Isiolo. Adventure! Intrigue! Fulfillment!

Escape from Thika. With loot.

The bags you see here contain exactly 1 ton of Kenya's most precious commodity: maize. Unlike the vast majority of maize in Kenya, however, these bags were not lost, stolen, sold clandestinely, buried in red tape, or rotten! This perfectly tasty and nutritious stuff was purchased and delivered by yours truly (A+A) to a famine-stricken village in the Eastern province, 5 hrs north of Nairobi, inhabited by wonderful people of the Turkana tribe. A more lengthy account of this adventure is coming soon.

Fruits of labor!



"Karibuni" tells the visitors to the Thika Hospital HIV/AIDS clinic that they are "welcome". These boxes were built to display and dispense the information brochures we created. Clients coming in for testing, check-ups and drug refills will notice our new installation and hopefully be compelled to grab either a brochure on ARV therapy, nutrition, or on reducing the stigma associated with AIDS. We agonized over the English version almost to the point of combat, but handed over the reigns for the Swahili translation to a kind professor at Kenyatta University.
This photo was taken towards the end of our home-stay in Thika. We've moved and can now cook for ourselves. I'm happy to say that I no longer look like a malnourished old man. Just old.

Monday, February 9, 2009

full moon rising...














Hi Friends. We're approaching our 1 month anniversary in Kenya, which falls squarely on Valentine's Day...
Here, we're pictured in front of a nice little gem in the Mathare slum, outside of Kisumu, in Kenya's western province. Also in the photo is our pal Steve's finger. We're sure he did this intentionally- to show us that in order to get by in Kenya, one needs a little humility.

Thursday, February 5, 2009



A typical day at the CCC; the most adorable children waiting for their parents (or their own) appointment with the ONE doctor. A simple check up or drug-refill can take up to 6 hours! Good thing I had a backpack full of paper and pens!

Monday, February 2, 2009

Mathare Steve


16 year-old Steven Ocheng, our Luo friend from Mathare, Kisumu. We met at the pre- inaugural rally, just after he had given a speech to a fairly big audience.
The following day, he took us around his neighborhood in the slum of Mathare, outside of Kisumu.
Steven is the first recipient of funds from your donations. This week, he'll be starting "secondary school" (high school). We helped him get closer to his fundraising goal to cover his school fees. He hopes to become a lawyer. Yikes.

Chaos and The Shining


To make our commute to the hospital more leisurely, we purchased an excessively heavy bike, furnished with a princess cushion above the rear tire to carry lovely passengers...or to dangerously fit two people on one bike. This specific construction (or taxi) is better known here in Thika as a "Boda-Boda".
The transaction drew crowds and culminated in a quadruple receipt-signing ritual by Julius Chaos (the seller), myself, Anneliese, and a guarantor who emerged from the crowd to make it official. So with a handshake, some awful Swahili on our part, a bit of posturing in negotiation, and ~$40, we got a bicycle and this photo with the Athena Boda crew. It's nice to have pals waving at us as we cruise by. Everyone says to us, "Hey JOHNNY!!" In turn, Anneliese howls "Here comes Johnny!!" as we sail around corners, 51% in control. Everyone names their Boda bikes here. Ours was "Big Timer" under the previous ownership.
It's now called "The Shining".

Rolex Purses and Salt

We finally found a program where we could apply our anxious volunteer hands and brains last Thursday the 22nd. We have committed to work at Thika District Hospital, specifically the Comprehensive Care Clinic (CCC) where all of the HIV/AIDS and TB patients excitedly come skipping in to get tested, pick up their suitcases of medication, have counseling and check-ups, and talk to a nutritionist about why they’re losing pounds each week. The CCC is a project funded by the Mailman School of Medicine at Columbia University, NYC in 2007. It’s a tiny wing of the equally tiny hospital, with a total of fourteen small, dark, concrete rooms dedicated to caring for, controlling, and preventing HIV/AIDS. Austin has been placed in the world of lab analysis—testing blood samples for HIV, various disease progression testing (CD4 count as a gauge of the declining immune system), potential infections associated with HIV/AIDS, and liver and kidney function in response to the ARV drug regimen. (Anti-Retro Virals: the cocktail of medicine prescribed to all HIV positive people.) He is also learning the system of the CCC pharmacy.

I, Anneliese, have been spending my hours in the nutrition and counseling rooms. Patients enter at the request of the doctor and some, surprisingly, for their own personal curiosity and problems. The concept of ‘nutrition,’ especially the study as a science that practically applies to life, is a pioneer wagon, roaming lawless and without a road, towards a destination spelled out by nothing other than faith. The ‘study’ of nutrition was just introduced to Kenya a bit over a year ago. To me, this signals a huge upward leap, as nutrition, quite frankly, is really more something of privilege. A delicacy. No longer do you eat to survive, you now have choices and can regulate how you survive. –This how has been quite antithetical to my previous modus operands, where people are viewing nutrition as diets that are supposed to drop weight and control the overindulging and hyper-consumption of foods. Here—fortunately or unfortunately—they are looking at nutrition as a method to keep on the pounds, eat foods that cooperate with their ARVs and come up with an affordable way to somehow eat meals that are 15-20% protein, 50-60% carbs, and 25% fat everyday.

Kenya has adopted their curriculum from the World Health Organization and USAID, and then made a few adjustments to bring it closer to home: a country with a declared national disaster of food shortages at least every decade, arid lands that produce some of the weakest and smallest vegetables I’ve ever laid eyes upon, an extreme lack of water, and a population resting either on or below the gate of poverty.

The most pressing issue with nutrition in Kenya, especially for the HIV infected who require nearly 20% more food and nutrients than a healthy person, is the brutal fact that they simply do not have access to food. Many of the people I see are surviving on uji—Kenyan porridge made from ultra-cheap maize or millet flour, with water, sugar, and sometimes milk. And that’s it. And that’s it always, that is on days they actually eat. Others are more fortunate and eat the standard Kenyan dishes. (There are really only about five options….at home, in a restaurant, or in a cookbook!) They survive on white rice, njahi (beans), sukima wiki (over-stewed, bitter, and salty micro-chopped African kale), maize (in a few forms), potatoes, and horrendous cuts of fatty, dried out meat (goat, pork, beef, chicken, mutton).

I spent the first few days quickly learning Kenyan (and all) nutrition and observing the nutritionists in action—how they interacted with the patients, what the patients were being seen for, their stories, what they were eating, how the nutritionists recommended specific dietary choices, and prescribed food supplements. (Donated by USAID; giant bricks of maize flour for uji that are fortified with nutrients and vitamins to supplement those who are literally ‘wasting away’ and dropping too many pounds each week, never reaching anywhere near the recommended body-mass index, BMI, of height/weight ratio.)

I was quite discouraged, to say the least, that the staff had adequate information, necessary materials, plenty of time to visit with patients, and minimal paperwork, yet they spent a good 70% of their day doing crossword puzzles, texting friends, staring into space, and chatting. Frequently, when a patient would enter the room, the staff would continue their puzzle or raucous laughter. Needless to say, I quickly found a place to work and make a difference.

Thankfully we’re learning Swahili, as we should be fluent working at Thika District Hospital. A good 10% of the patients speak English, and the staff knows the basics.

I anxiously await the patients and greet them at the door, “hujambo!” (how are you/hello) or “karibuni.” (Come in/welcome). A white person, me, throws them off guard and some seem either pacified….perhaps they think I’ll be more help…and others become instantly frightened…maybe making the scenario seem more grave. I do what I can in asking them why they are here (with a translator) and read their card which they carry around for the entirety of treatment at the CCC (there is no database or computer system at the CCC that is efficient or can handle records), therefore the red, 5x7 inch card-stock papers are airbrushed with layers of dirt and grease and god knows what else, with folds so antique you’d be convinced you’re reading an old map of the silk trade.

I weigh the patient on a temperamental scale and take their height. Next, I chart their body-mass index and record all three readings, by hand, on their red card. If their BMI is in the ‘underweight zone,’ which nearly 80% of my patients have been, I give them a prescription for Foundation Plus, the adult food supplement. (Others for children and infants.) I find myself losing the war at this point in the battle, as my intentions travel a different road than those of the resident nutritionists. It seems absolutely important to discuss with the patient, why they’re losing weight, for how long, what their daily diet has been like, where are they getting food, if they can’t afford food—I should give them strategies. My pre-school Swahili can’t communicate this and when I ask for translation, my judgment smells foul and over-the-top. So we let the patient go.

This is the recurring problem in all areas of the CCC. The staff is here to get paid and follow rules and guidelines like robots. Input in. Interpret. Output out. No one listens, internalizes, comes up with solutions, or takes concern in why these patients are here and how they are in a great position to help and make a huge difference. They simply don’t care. It’s more than frustrating; it’s embarrassing.

After a week playing nutritionist, I had to take a step back and see how we could utilize or strengths best and create a better system under such circumstances. Austin has expressed similar frustration and shocking news reports (the blood samples wait for their turn to go into the diagnostic machine open, without a top, and placed in a window-less windowsill opposite the dirt parking lot. No one uses latex gloves although there are boxes of them crowding the hallway. The chemist cleans his tubes with his own dirty lab coat while the cleaning solution is out and available).

Let me pose a bit more insight here and elaborate on why this is happening. It’s not due to carelessness or neglect, or greed of a paycheck robbing humans of morality. It seems to be connected to a deeper, older problem. Although the staff at Thika Hospital holds proper credentials for trained, Kenyan doctors, pharmacists, and nutritionists, this is simply not enough. Healthcare, especially the systematics of AIDS, is very new and intellectually foreign, despite the localism of the actual problem. They truly don’t know much about it, as their only training is word for word from the material handed to the schools and hospitals from WHO and USAID. The lackadaisical nature of Kenya exacerbates the problem and creates a society and hospital that functions merely on information and care that is vomited back into the world. Very rarely is anything digested, producing a new form.

Rather than contributing to the over-populated and inefficient staffing problem, we’ve decided that we could be more powerful in other ways, here at the CCC. While still working in our respective rooms for a bit of each day, we’re spending the other half (and our evenings at home…thank god we’re both workhorses) creating brochures and information sheets for all Kenyan hospitals, and hopefully AIDS-related organizations. The hospital rooms have no handouts or information to give the patients so they may reflect back upon the issues once they’ve returned home. Because of this, many forget to take their medication correctly, eat or avoid specific foods, or even remember that HIV is infectious.

We’re almost finished with a Nutrition & HIV pamphlet, one on ARVs, and one on Reducing the Stigma of HIV. Next, we will translate the English into Swahili—hopefully with the help of Mount Kenya University—and print those as well. We will also build racks in each room (to hold the brochures) and send them to different hospitals.

Our volunteership at Thika District Hospital’s CCC ends the 22nd of February and we are brainstorming our next placement. Most likely in Nairobi’s trenches or in the starving villages by the coast.
xo

Here Comes Johnny...


It’s a hot Sunday afternoon and a procession of dapper churchgoers are making their way home through the potholed streets of Thika. Like those bad dreams where you find yourself clinging to the edge of a mysteriously steepening slope, Thika sits on a slum-covered hillside, leading down to a valley that produces pineapples, coffee and an unimaginable stench every 2 or 3 days. After a few hasty decisions made in the huddle, we find ourselves here, at the tips of the Nairobi tentacles, at the junction of rural and urban life, smack-dab in the middle of 21st century Kenya.

Three things dominate the news here in Kenya. They are related, like the beginning, middle and end of a parable. The first and foremost is blatant, rampant corruption of the Kenyan government. Everyday it seems the Ministers of Parliament accomplish a new maneuver behind closed doors, in air-conditioned rooms, that robs the Kenyan people of either their money or some basic liberty. In either case, the hope index drops each day, while anger and desperation gain steadily. The second set of headlines is famine. In much of the country, particularly in the drought-ridden northeast and southwest, people are starving. The drought was recently exacerbated by a sudden deluge of rain that ruined good crops and then escaped unutilized. To make matters even worse, the Kenyan government is currently under investigation for the mysterious exportation of millions of dollars worth of the country’s maize reserves (see major news theme #1). Yes, it appears that a few government officials, including the “people’s man” Prime Minister Raila Odinga, actually sold their nation’s food reserve during a food-shortage, to stuff their own pockets. In related news, teachers have been on strike for a week, demanding a desperately needed wage-increase. The government response: declare the Kenyan National Union of Teachers (KNUT) illegal and give them nothing. Also in the news this past week, a bill passed to make the handsome salaries of Ministers of Parliament (MPs) tax-exempt. Then, beautifully, parliament passes the “Media Bill” to essentially give the government control over television broadcast content, extending into news coverage. That’s censorship. The doors are closing, and a train, full of thieves, is leaving the station.

The parable, though, would be incomplete without resolution and a lesson. Thus, the third, and most significant story in Kenya is the inauguration of President Barack Obama. As all of the papers here quip, and the furor on the streets indicates, one could easily make the mistake that the Kenyans had elected Mr. Obama as their own president. “A Son of Kenya” with Barry’s grinning mug reproduced everywhere, “Yes We Can” the response substituted for “nice to meet you” whenever Kenyans meet an American…what a bold, new reality we’ve entered.

Our names changed overnight from “Mzungu” (white guy) and “Johnny” (same) to “Obama”. Shoes for sale on the street became “Obama Shoes”. Fish yanked out of Lake Victoria became “Obama Fish”. For about a week, the noise about corruption in Kenya, the indignant refusals to comment by culprit Ministers of Parliament (MPs), and the rag-tag protests by teachers and farmers crying for justice, all, to the last man, changed their tune. It was time to celebrate something. A black man- however far a stretch he may be from an actual citizen of Kenya, or Africa for that matter- has seized, by opportune timing and his own merit, the highest office in the world, thereby lighting what may be the most powerful beacon of hope ever seen from this tail-spinning continent. The papers herald a new era for East Africa, placing African trade issues and disaster relief at the top of Obama’s to-do list…never-to-mind his obligation to wrap-up two ongoing wars, broker peace between Israel and Palestine, and somehow rescue an economic “downturn” with a repair bill that could have instead paid 1.7 million teachers $60,000/yr. For twenty years. Just some fun math for the future bankers out there!

“Yay Capitalism!” - Austin Powers.

Now we bring you back LIVE! To Kisumu, Kenya, for celebration, optimism, hope etc:

Kisumu is the third largest city in Kenya, sitting on the shores of Lake Victoria, the largest lake in Africa, about 10hrs by bus from Nairobi. It’s on the map, though, because of the neighboring village of Kogelo, where actual relatives of Obama, namely Mama Sarah (Obama’s Great Aunt (?)), various uncle-types and a slew of half-this half-thats’ still live, instantly forming a new Kenyan royal family. In addition to any actual privilege their new status may bring them, they are without a doubt the newest Kenyan cash cow that must be milked! Roads have been paved to comfortably deliver the hordes of tourists they expect to come see Obama’s roots. Never-before-seen electrical power lines were strung up in hours. The airport has been expanded – probably referring to the hiring of a herder to swat grazing goats off of a runway. This new form of eco-political tourism (?) sounds a little half-baked to me. Besides one other American filmmaker from New York, visiting Kisumu to cover the inauguration, we were the only white folks to be seen. People knew why we were there, but also asked anxiously if any more were coming. The sleepless overnight bus-ride digging into our necks says “No, probably not”.

The bus ride snaked along Rift Valley cliff roads and through police spike strips –laid every 20km to create drug traffic inspection points – for about 8 hrs. We listened to Dark Side of The Moon on the ipod jack splitter. We arrived at 3am and reluctantly got into a taxi with a driver as tired as we were, in a totally foreign place. He drove us to the hotel after taking an actual short-cut through some dodgy-looking alleyways. I picked my head up from rummaging my backpack for my knife (like an idiot) when we were parked safely in front of our hotel.

In the morning, we walked into town and met a very friendly, young insurance salesman named “Wycliff” who was heading down to the fishermen’s wharf for some lunch. He insisted we join him. I had the pleasure of watching Anneliese swallow her better judgment and actually attack a juicy, stinking tilapia (eyeballs, fins, bones and scales still intact) with her bare hands. Wycliff showed us how to use mashed corn as a utensil-bowl-swap thing. So hectic. We only wish we had brought the immodium with us.

In Kisumu, the events taking place in Washington were broadcast on jumbo-tron screens made of extra large sheets attached to skinned trees, beaming the magisterial Americans 20ft high by truck-sized projector/generators. A few thousand people gathered for the party. They watched and listened mostly in a hush, cheering and affirming as people do in church when the reverend’s tone gets nice and high.

We all watched together, the odd Americans and the Luo people of Kisumu (members of Obama’s ancestral tribe), and for those minutes we were not hassled or singled-out or reminded at all that we were foreign. We were watching history take place and our imaginations were running wild. The strange new lack of anger and contempt I felt when watching this new American president speak, the wonderfully surreal images of Cheney wheeled out of his fortress, hunched over and broken, and the Bushes jettisoned away for one last free ride to Crawford…the word is glee. I imagine the sensations were probably very similar to what the Kenyans around us were feeling. Obama symbolizes so starkly a real leader – that by some magic trick seems to be raised from everyone’s own stock, both Kenyan and American, black and white, past and future. It overwhelmed the skeptic in me.

It felt very obvious that everyone watching wanted only to believe that a world like the one he described is possible. The waving of the American flags in this far away place, the dancing, the screaming joy, amidst all the despair ravaging this part of the world, is something remarkable: citizens without borders, hinting at a coming paradigm shift, taking place under the same old laws of “power perceived is power achieved”. For once, this truism may be put to use as the stuff of revolution.

The new “power perceived” was tangible in that audience in Kisumu, in Nairobi, in Lagos, in Johannesburg, in New Orleans- the perception that precedes real change. It’s the pressure drop, right before the rain. “Yes We Can” is the new African soil. How to till this soil, so that it will produce sustainably, is the next hurdle. Maybe that’s why we’re here. There is a strong possibility that we could be deluding ourselves. We’re feeling pretty certain though, that being here and trying is the best way to find out.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Eagles Have Landed...

Power shuts off in 1 minute. The basics: We are safe and happy as clams. We are working in the Comprehensive Care Department of the AIDS ward at Thika Hospital, about 30km outside of Nairobi.
Tomorrow, we are heading up to Alego/ Kisumu (the village on the shores of Lake VIctoria where Obama's family lives) to celebrate the inauguration. It should be wild.
A proper post is coming soon. Sorry for the brevity!
With love,
A+A.