Monthly Archives: January 2009


Imagine this. You have a whole yard to yourself. Not another house but your own in site. About a hundred feet from your front veranda there is a large leafy tree which affords much shade from the midday sun. The perfect spot to read a book or swing from a hammock swing.

But between you and the tree your yard is a tad unruly. You decide to tame it. Cut the grass. Possibly line a path out to the tree with stones. Maybe even lay down stepping stones to the path. It can only get better?

You begin your labor. It is worth the sweat and ache, hacking away at the grass. Soon you will have a nice path to your favorite spot. You may even be able to just walk out there barefoot, with a glass of lemonade and swing yourself to slumber.

Finally you arrive at this paradise under the tree. Here the grass is still unruly so you begin to hack. Whats that? Buzzing? All of a sudden you feel sharp pain and the buzzing gets louder and louder. Apparently your paradise is already claimed.

You run back to your house looking back only once hoping to not see a black swarm chasing you. Your luck holds there. Your back is only aching from maybe two or three stings. Thankfully you aren’t allergic but you can kiss your dream of the tree swing goodbye.

Karibu Kenya.

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You might call me…unconventional

Aright, so I have been at the game now for two full weeks, and I feel that I have the ability to start talking about what it’s like teaching Kenyans how to use computers.  But first, let me explain the teaching situation:

I work for the National Youth Service (NYS) of Kenya [and a giant grasshopper has made its way into my house ladies and gentlemen].  NYS is a uniformed branch of the Kenyan government [I think its breaking things in my kitchen now], which means that to the untrained eye, it appears that I live and work on a military compound.  There are no guns however, and when I proposed the notion of push-ups I was gawked at.  Para-military would be more like it, with the focus of helping shape the youth and mould them into productive members of society.

They do this moulding by offering diplomas and trades courses.  I don’t know the full run down of everything offered, and the website has minimal information on it, though it might all be in this huge packet of info they gave me the day before swearing in.  Needless to say I didn’t read it.  There are many different NYS camps throughout Kenya, each specializing in specific areas.  Here in mombasa we specialize in the trades: Carpentry (and Joinery; they say Joinery here in Kenya), Plumbing, Masonry, Production, and Electrical and one more that is escaping me at the moment and I am too lazy to go find my day planner with.

So where do the computers fit in?  Computers is classified as a Craft course, i.e. elective.  As far as I can tell, each first year student is being required to take a computer course with me, so I see 6 different classes each week for 2 hours per class.  Why do I not know the specifics? Because no one has told me, and when I try to figure it out, no one wants to tell me.  It’s a very admitted fact about Kenyan culture that they do not directly answer questions.  In fact, even when asked a yes-no question, you will not get a yes or no answer.  Ever.  Thus it makes finding out my role all the more difficult.  So instead I just roll with it and have decided to teach a simple intro to computers class.  I have no supervisor besides the principle, no one sits in the class with me except Dai Kato, who has given me the reigns due to my better grasp on English and Kiswahili, and no one evaluates what the heck I am even teaching these kids.

Where’s the problem in all this?  Nothing really.  Enter my unconventionality.  Something you must realize though is that these “youth” are mostly all my age or older than me.  Agemates they are called in Kenyan English.  Yet they see me not as a peer but, I believe, as a Mzungu first, teacher second and then, maybe the crazy guy obsessed with the fact that there are as many monkeys here as squirrels back home.  Needless to say there is a very awkward social barrier surrounding the whole situation (obsession with monkeys not aiding my cause).  And to be perfectly honest because there seems to be no sense of officiality to anything I am doing, I am trying to side more on being their peer than their teacher.  I just happen to know more about computers and really, really want to share it with them.

This is a seemingly impossible notion to convey to them however.  There is minimal exchange of dialogue between us.  When I ask questions, general questions, I get no response.  When I ask specific questions to specific individuals, I must get to within a nanometer of [killed a mosquito; today’s count: flies 3, mozzies 3] their mouth in order to hear their response.  Having trained with [mozzies 4] teachers for two months, I have heard that this is how the Kenyan education system works.  The kids sit in school and “learn,” afraid to ask questions or be wrong because they fear to be chappa-ed (caned).  All learning is done through rote memorization with minimal critical analysis or thinking applied.

I haven’t meshed well with this, and because I did not go through teacher training, (I went through business training), I am applying my business strategy of learn about the culture and see what minimal amount needs to be changed to be productive.  From what I hear about being an “official” teacher-volunteer you need to confirm more to Kenyan ways of teaching.  You must teach from the prescribed books with the prescribed lessons and whatnot.  If I remember correctly, one volunteer even told me that if a student needs to be disciplined and you don’t feel you can hit him (which I believe is technically illegal), then you can call in another Kenyan teacher to do the deed for you.

Myself on the other hand have been given no books, no materials, no supervisor or counterpart, nothing but a room full of Kenyans and computers (that are actually quite decent and certainly useable for teaching, if only low in quantity).  I pace up and down the room, draw pictures on the white board, speak loudly, and have quite  explicitly told all of my students that class will pause when I ask a question until I get an answer.  And it’s working, a little.  I asked all my students to arrive on time for class (a near impossibility in typical Kenyan culture), and within a week of being told I even have students arriving early!

Today, being a bit sick and exhausted (I haven’t been particularly sleeping well due to the adjustment), I sat down with my students and was very honest with them.  I said that I was unable to stand and lecture on the fundamentals of an Operating System, so instead we would have a circle Q&A session about anything computers or America related (I am here to exchange culture as well).  I did this with two different classes.  Neither class responded very well.  So I had to get creative.  Don’t blame me, don’t judge. Teaching Kenyans is one of the most frustrating things  anyone can do I believe.

The first class, upon being silent, was given an option.  Either one person becomes the board writer and elicits questions from his peers or I throw a marker at someone.  They got a countdown.  A marker may or may not have been indiscriminately thrown in the general direction of one of my students.  A student became board-writer and questions were asked/written on the board.  The rest of the class was then spent with me answering those questions [mozzies 5] and then with the students having free time to use the computer.


Then back to class.  This next class was small, only 9 students (most of my classes have between 20 and 35).  I decided to try something other than throwing markers, so I tapped into the Kenyan desire for education.  Knowing these students do want to learn and do see value in an education, I informed them that everyone would write a question on the board within 10 minutes or I would kick everyone out of class and no one could use the computers for the day.  Within 10 minutes 9 questions were written on the board with minimal prodding needed for the last two.  Were they all serious? No.  Some had been answered in the previous class (making me wonder if anything gets absorbed), but just the compliance confirmed the Kenyan desire for an education, at least a little.

Spent the rest of class answering questions and then decided to be creative again.  Everyone was told that for one half hour they had to write a story.  The story had to include a male character Jack, a female character Jill, a chui (leopard) named George and had to take place in present time on the slopes of Mount Kenya.  Then we all went around and read each others’ screens (I felt it would be too much to have them read them aloud considering nothing in class gets done aloud except cell phones going off).  Two of the nine stories included references to the chui being a creation of God, two stories did not really get written (one due to technical difficulties the erased the story, and another due to … who knows what?).  One included the fact that though when Jack and Jill got married they were happy, soon their marriage degraded into sadness.  It was a good time.

That’s what I do.  One class Mondays and Fridays from 2 to 4pm and two classes Tuesdays and Thursdays, morning and afternoon.  I have wednesdays off though there was one hint, once, that I might be teaching teachers how to use computers.  We shall see.  As in all things Kenya, labda kesho (maybe tomorrow) or tutaona (we will see).  I just can’t sit and teach the same boring lesson 6 times before coming up with something new.  And without feedback from my students, and no counterpart, I get creative.  And the mombasa heat frying my brain does not lend sanity to the creativity.  More as it develops!


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I’ve had a request from one of the most wonderful people in the world, who shall remain nameless (to keep you all guessing), to speak a little about the Obama-factor of living in kenya.  Let me say, like all things Kenyan, it’s interesting.

As most people in the States know by now, Obama’s father was a Kenyan native, and actually to get more specific he was a Luo (one of Kenya’s more prominent tribes), and to get even more specific he was of a sub-tribe of the Luo whose name would require some Wikipedia searching on my behalf.  I won’t do it, because, well, I am lazy.  Also, anytime I venture into Wikipedia it’s a good hour of clicking various links before I get back to why I was there in the first place.  And I really want to write this instead.

The Luo inhabit mostly the western portion of the country, near the shores of Lake Victoria.  They are a strong fishing based community, I believe.  They are also, like the other major tribes of Kenya (Kikuyu, Kikamba, Maasai…) prone to more prominent displays of tribe-ism.  What is tribe-ism you ask?  Good question!

It’s Kenyan racism.  Just as in America we have streotypical jokes about different nationalities usually involving one-armed individuals, trees, waving, pennies, shoe laces, submarines with screen doors, or other inventive situations Kenyans have the same thing.  Though of course all the jokes are in Kenyan mentality and are usually not funny to a Westerner.

There are also very apparent tribal inconsistencies in power, and thus once in a blue moon, tribe-ism results in violence.  It was itner-tribal violence that forced Peace Corps to pull out after the election in 2007.  To this day, Kikuyu have told me they cannot go out west to Luo territory without fearing for their lives.  All tribes are to blame in this, as no one tribe has ever dominated in the tribe-ism area.  They are all tribist equally.

This tribe-ism has died down in recent times.  Especially with this current generation of youth you are seeing less and less tribe-ism.  It is mostly from the generation of individuals who were alive and thus affected by early political decisions made at the time of Kenyan independence.  Yet even amongst that generation you will have intermarriage and multi-tribal communities (Loitokitok is a perfect example, almost all major tribes being well represented).  So, even though Kenyan tribe-ism is very apparent, it is actually mostly superficial except in government.

But this post is about Obama.  So why all of this about tribe-ism?  I will get to that later.  First, the immediate impact of Obama.  Well, there’s a beer about him.  It’s named Senator beer and it is a very inexpensive beer, being brewed under the mentality of providing Kenyans with a safe (as in production standards) beer to drink because too many people were dying drinking home-made distilled spirits.  Also children are named for him and his wife.  One PCV had a home-stay sister, nine years old, who changed her Christian (read: english) name to Michelle.

Local drinking establishments have also repainted their facades and now tout names like Obama Pub and Obama Bar and Obama Wine and Spirits.  There are at least three unique establishments like this in Mtongwe/Likoni area alone.  Dogs are named for Obama as well (I met one just friday night).  Laso and Kikoi fabric have pictures of Obama with the Kenyan flag in the background and some of the most popular music over here are reggae and hip hop songs that sample from his speeches.

Needless to say, he’s popular.  But as always, this is a double-edged sword.  There are Kenyans who now call themselves Americans.  There are Kenyans who say Kenya is the 50th, or 51st, or 52nd State of the Union (depending on education level).  Alone, these are seemingly harmless [holy crap i think a bush baby just exploded outside my window], but they become more of a nuisance when Kenyans begin to genuinely beleive they should get easier applications for Green Cards.  It becomes even more of a nuisance when Kenyans start to get angry about this.  Thankfully this last case is a very small case.

As for me, I watched the inauguration at my neighbor’s house.  It was nice, but it makes me wonder how much of what he’s actually saying is getting processed.  His speech is very different from Kenyan English, and it seems the love for Obama is only because he is a Kenyan, and not because of his proclaimed shifts in policies or whatnot.  This superficial love is highlighted again by the Green Card issue.  I have stopped attempting to seriously explain that Obama is not going to just give a Green Card to every Kenyan who asks.  I would be interested to see if there has been a drastic spike in Embassy inquiries in Nairobi about applying for U.S. residency.

Obviously not all Kenyans fit this bill.  In fact, there are even Kenyans who fully understand the notion of free democratic elections and when I explained that I initially did not vote for Obama (I was an Edwards guy up until the minute I found out he was a cheater too), they understood that and thought it was ok.  My vote, my choice.  However, these seem to be more a minority than anything else, and I fully admit, I rock an Obama sticker on my nalgene as much as a security blanket as a show of support.

Let’s go back to the tribe-ism though.  I am simply intrigued that all Kenyans love Obama even though they are all very well aware of his tribe.  This lends hope to the notion that tribe-ism really is on its way out because this country would be far better off because of it.  Language alone would help increase learning and information retention because you might be able to eliminate one language from the Kenyans’ culture: mother tongues.

They are good and all, don’t get me wrong, but it’s difficult to master a single language and learn to express complex thoughts when you speak one language at home, one language with friends and in the community and one language at school.  Tanzania has almost 300 tribes compared to Kenya’s 43 and yet they managed to get everyone speaking Kiswahili, possibly because they do not use English in any official capacity.  But all of that is for another post.  This one is already pretty long and I know some of my more ardent readers will complain 😉  Ta ta for now.  More to come later as always.

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Jon’s Dinner-time Thought Process

AHHHHHHH!  This post never posted!  That’s so sad.  It was really funny.  I am annoyed at WordPress!  How dare they rob me of sharing with you the brilliance of my dinner-time thought process.  Like all my other posts though, this one was really long, and I don’t feel like re-typing it.  Pole.  Hopefully a future post will provide as much hilarity as this.  We can only hope. Bad WordPress, bad!

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Blog Maintenance

Hey Folks, so I have been doing some Blog Maintenance over here at “Once Computer at a Time.” Some new things you might notice include a new link at the top of each page entitled, “Sending a parcel?” I’ll give you a couple guesses as to why you might click that link ;-). Also, added a link to subscribe to my RSS feed. Apparently, WordPress has always had the feed, but do not default to supplying it (though some of their other defaults are far less helpful and far more annoying than that would have been).

So that’s it for now. Sorry for the lack of real updates at the moment. I need to head into the city to get my mobile phone fixed because it’s been fritzing, and, well, Peace Corps strongly suggests you have a working mobile phone at all times. Don’t want to make Peace Corps angry now do I? 😛 Kwa heri kwa sasa!

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The skin on my back is experiencing a severe wave of necrosis. Beware the jua kali of mombasa


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A Sofa Set!

I have finally purchased a sofa set for my living room. Mr. Katiku, the Carpentry instructor, kindly went with me to the furniture shop in Likoni to make sure I got as fair a price as a mzungu will ever get. For this I am grateful.

Shopping for furniture in Kenya, is like all things (besides Nakumatt), slightly different from America. You do not have books of patterns, swaths of fabric or even many styles from which to choose. Instead, on the side of the road are rows of sofas and chairs. There are two chairs and one sofa, pre-built, of the same design and with matching fabric. They sit out under the sun and rain and dust all day, waiting for the day some Kenyan family comes to purchase them. There are different price ranges, but they are not nearly as bargain-able as other things. For example, I could bargain a bar of soap from 20 /- down to maybe 5 /-, but a sofa, you only get maybe a 5% bargaining window on price.

You are not paying for comfort in these price differences, and in fact comfort does not actually seem a factor in purchasing at all. The pieces are actually so squished together in the rows that there is absolutely no space to sit down on them to test, and they do not even keep the cushions on the furniture. The cushions themselves? They are single foam pads with a case of matching fabric and come in either high-density or low-density foam. The high-density is only available at certain shops. This means that even if you pay more money for a “nicer,” set, your rump will still be sitting on the same cushion as a less expensive set.

So why are there price ranges to begin with? First is fabric quality. A good test of fabric quality is how well it survives being outside before being sold. It is clearly visible that the more expensive sofas do actually have better fabrics that will hold up to the wear and tear of life in Kenya. Second is build construction. I don’t know if the high-priced sofas use more wood or nails or what, but we were literally shaking the pieces to see how they held up, and the less expensive ones warped and bent too much. I was with a carpenter, I assume he knew what he was talking about. And the third mark of difference? Garishness. The less expensive the sofa, the far more garish the fabric (I ended up purchasing a mid-range set, the lowest-priced set without garish fabric). These three held up at all shops we stopped at.

Which brings me to differences in values, as illustrated by furniture, between Kenyans and me. Though never having bought furniture for myself alone specifically, I have certainly been a part of many a sofa-purchasing decision. The most important ratio of worth for me is certainly the price to comfort ratio. Highest level of comfort for the best price, using other factors such as style and material as tie-breakers or unavoidable factors due to price circumstance.

However, when furniture shopping in Kenya, it was very apparant that comfort was least amongst concerns. The most obvious concern was appearance, and a fabrics ability to maintain that appearance despite the harshest of circumstances, which seems to be quite the pervasive theme in Kenyan culture. When I showed Mama next door my new set, her comments first began with, “Very smart!” which is the same comment anyone receives when they dress up nicely. I do not know if Kenyans always judge substance based on presentation, but so far it seems they certainly do evaluate based on presentation more than substance. In fact, Mama never even sat on the furniture to try it out. She just looked at it, said very smart, and was sure of the quality.

I know not all Kenyans feel this way, or act this way, or think this way, but there are certainly indicators that the society as a whole values one thing over another, and in this case it certainly is appearance over comfort. The way all the shops had their wares squished together. The way even Kenyans said the lower-priced options were ugly and garish. And the proclaiming quality without even sitting on the set! These indicate to me that at some level appearance certainly ranks higher than other qualities to a Kenyan. At least in furniture…

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