Thursday, February 26, 2009


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.

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.