Monthly Archives: October 2009

The Morning Kill

This morning as I was sitting at my computer in my house catching up with people, I started hearing the students outside running around.  In the morning, students are on duty, which basically means keeping the compound nice and clean.  Once a week for one section, duty is cutting the grass of the big field outside my front door.  All of these students were running around and at first I thought they were chasing each other jokingly for some small, “insult,” one made against another (same type of horseplay we have in the States).  But no, they were organized and going after something.

The way they were hacking the ground with their scythes I thought it was a snake.  Snakes here are the devil, and all must be killed, says conventional wisdom.  This includes the little garter snakes that crawl around and couldn’t hurt anything bigger than a mouse even if they tried.  Kenyans take their snake-killing very seriously.  But as I watched, I saw an obviously mammalian head pop up out of the grass.  My students were still chasing it quite energetically, trying their best to kill it.

Which they eventually did.  Just as I got outside, they succeeded in cornering it and killing it.  I asked what it was, and they said a gazelle.  It was too small for the species of gazelle I know, so I asked if it was a baby, and they said yes.  But at the same time the animal had too much fat on it and was too disproportional for a baby gazelle (again, my opinion), so I am putting bets on it being a member of the dik dik species, which are of the same genus as antelope, not of gazelle.

My students will most likely hand it over to the kitchen, who will then properly butcher it and they will eat it for lunch or dinner.  This is a fairly regular occurrence on this compound, and two of these chases have now happened on the field in front of my house.

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Nairobi

Being on medical visit means that I get to be spending all my time in Kenya’s largest city, the shining star of East Africa, Nairobi.  I will not bore anybody with the details of this city and its history, but keep this article deliciously subjective as I tear into the bits and pieces of the city as they pertain to me.

The city itself is broken up into neighborhoods which, like many cities, become stratified representations of class and wealth.  Each neighborhood has its history, its list of famous residents, and so forth.  The Peace Corps office is located in the neighborhood Westlands, which, to my understanding, was the first up and coming “wealthy,” neighborhood in the city and as the number of wealthy has steadily increased, the truly wealthy have slowly moved on to other neighborhoods, making Westlands now a middle and upper-middle class neighborhood.  Nice single-family houses built into housing compounds, placed behind heavily-fortified (seriously) walls, guards out front.

The hotel volunteers stay at when brought into Nairobi for, “official business,” is also conveniently located in Nairobi, making it easy for Peace Corps drivers to pick us up on time, avoiding the notorious traffic jams that plague all parts of the city, but particularly routes heading into the central business district.  We are about a 5 minute walk from the main road, and about a 10 minute walk from the shopping district of Westlands, which includes the Sarit Center and Westgate (western-style shopping malls), and plenty of food.

All of this is to our benefit.  But it’s very expensive.  All of it.  We call it ‘mzungu-priced,’ which is fine for the wealthy Kenyans and western-salary development workers who frequent Westlands, but is not ideal for Peace Corps stipends.  This is not a rant against our stipends, and in fact I am quite happy with our stipends to the point where I would rather the office spend extra money on other things before us (don’t tell the other volutneers, shhhh!), but it’s also impossible to deny that our stipends are not Nairobi-friendly.  Stipends are supplemented by a per diem when here on medical, but even then, it is not truly Nairobi friendly.

On top of this, its in our best interest to not travel at night, especially alone, unless in a cab.  That is not inexpensive, with one-way cab rides alone costing our entire per diem.  It creates a true sense of being caged into Westlands, which also significantly reduces options for finding more stipend and per diem friendly prices.  It is also a necessary move however, with the city being so large, and not safely navigable via public transport at night.  The result: I was never a mall-rat at home, but people-watching at the Sarit center has become a favorite past-time of mine.

Then there is the jam itself.  Almost every day, in seemingly 2 hour intervals, the city’s roadways jam up.  This can be due to cows crossing the road (Nairobi was traditional Masaai grazing land), the roundabouts, annoying police checkpoints, push carts or any other myriad of reasons.  10 minute trips easily take 40 minutes or more.  Getting even from Westlands to downtown becomes a stressful endeavor.  Peace Corps drivers refuse to take volunteers into downtown because of the jam and the unpredictable travel conditions that exist outside of Westlands.  I say that it seems everyone in Africa is waiting for Jesus to come, but he’s stuck in the Nairobi jam.

There is fantastic food though, especially for Western-food (read: cheese) starved volutneers.  A future post will be on one of these restaurant alone.  So when it does get worked into a budget (more times than it economically should…), volunteers are in heaven.  Also, with Nairobi being the medevac for many countries in Eastern Africa, we always get to meet volunteers serving around the our corner of the continent, swapping stories, intrigued by the differences of service in other places, and bonding over the similarities.

Other ammenities are also abound.  Java House has free wi-fi (via which this is being posted), and it seems to be speeding up.  The hotel also has nice hot showers (in most rooms).  There are no sidewalks however, with the exception of the downtown region.  This can be hard to conceptualize for those of us accustomed to sidewalks everywhere, especially in cities.  Trust me, it’s not fun.

Also, a note on the language.  Most people will tell you that Nairobians speak english, and that’s true.  Nairobians speak english.  As a result, many [white] people simply speak english. But this is still a class difference.  If you listen to locals speaking to each other, they are speaking kiswahili.  I can count the number of personal conversations I have heard shared in english or even sheng (kiswahili/english mix) on one hand.  Instead, the cityfolk are using kiswahili or their mother tongues.  It is a reminder to me that english is still not the people’s language.  People in this country do not use English, they speak it, but they do not use it, and until everybody admits this, I just feel communication issues will still exist.

Finally, Nairobi is the center of everything in Kenya.  Politics, commerce, culture, transport, all of it is centered in Nairobi.  But it seems to be a very introverted center.  People do not look from here around to other parts of the country.  Instead, “getting here,” has been the goal for many Kenyans, and once achieved, it seems all the problems of the rest of the country vanish.  Don’t get me wrong, this is a horrible generalization, with plenty of holes.  Do people move to Nairobi to get jobs and send money home to the villages? Yes they do.  Do villagers succeed against all odds and get to come here to get a veritable education at some of the best Universities in Africa?  Yes they do.  But we all know how one bad apple spoils the bunch, and there are plenty of bad apples who drive around in million shilling Mercedes-Benz, “serving their fellow countrymen,” while those fellow countrymen are in their drought-stricken, famine-prone regions, starving, and dying, living with no sense of hope or oppurtunity.

Yet we are all here.  It’s the “Little West,” of East Africa.  It’s where there are resources.  It’s where there is some sense of infrastructure.  It’s where there are doctors and dentists.  It’s where there are other NGOs.  It’s where the government is, the Embassy is, the UN is.  And for the next week or so, it’s where I am.

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I came to Kenya and all I got was an extra vertebrae…

Don’t anybody panic after reading that subject, nothing is broken that wasn’t already… apparently…

It all started with a crazy notion to run a marathon, specifically the Lewa marathon in June 2010.  I needed to get exercise, but without a clear goal, I could never seem to motivate myself properly.  I had done distance running before in Australia, so I figure, why the heck not, a marathon would be easy, especially with so much time to train.  This was the end of September.

Around two weeks ago I noticed something was wrong however.  Or rather, what was wrong made sure it was noticed.  if i moved in certain ways, I would get sharp pain in my left hip.  Running, walking fast, reaching for my wallet, getting on and off matatus, all of these things soon became off limits.  This wasn’t right, but I also felt that it could just be normal strain.  So i called up my friend who is a runner and asked his opinion, and within five minutes he had already named the cause: running on uneven pavement causes a particular amount of strain on the body and that’s what I was running on.  Bingo.  Simple muscle strain, give it the obligatory week of rest and see where it goes from there.

It never got better, and in fact got worse at some points.  Called up my friend again, and he said to call medical.  I knew what this would mean: trip to Nairobi, intense sessions and frustrations with doctors followed by boring lulls at the hotel, but at least getting to hang out with whichever volunteers were in Nairobi for whatever reason, and there are always some.  I called medical, and within two minutes the decision was made that I would be coming to Nairobi for scans.  I expressed concern about missing time at school, and just my simple dislike of the city (a topic for another post), but my medical officer insisted that there was not a doctor in Mombasa with facilities to handle whichever situation should arrive.  I was off to Nairobi a few days later, giving me enough time to administer my last classes worth of exams.

The next three days (over this past week) included x-rays, visits to the peace corps office and the doctor’s, as well as hanging out in Nairobi with various volunteers coming in and out.  On Friday, I had my final appointment with the doctor where we went over the x-rays together to decide what was wrong and what I would need to do to get better.

Apparently for my entire life I have been a member of 5% (doctor’s statistic, not independently verified yet) of the population that has a lumbarized sacral-1.  In non-medical speak this means that the top part of the lower region of your spine, known as the sacral section or tail bone, does not completely fuse with other parts of the sacral section, and instead becomes more of an extra vertebrae in the lumbar section (lower back) of the spine.

Compound this with my running on uneven pavement and apparently my spine has become aggravated and is aggravating a nerve that coincidentally(?) ends in my hip.  So I don’t actually have a hip pain, I have a back pain.  The doctor also informed me that this would be the reason I would suffer lower back pain during long car drives and the reason I can’t touch my toes! I asked my doctor back home a few times about my lower back pain and he always just chalked it up to a “tight back.” But it’s not a tight back, I am just a mutant, haha!

I now sit in limbo over the weekend as my doctors and peace corps hash out where to go from here.  The only thing to do is Physio-Therapy.  A lumbarized s1 is in no way a major concern (according to my own internet research) but it can sometimes lead to inconveniences like this.  Of course, what are little inconveniences in America very quickly become large inconveniences in Kenya.  Such is life.  Also, have no fear: this will in no way lead to an early termination of my Peace Corps service.  The thought never even crossed my mind, and I am even a pessimist about that sort of thing.  I have a year and a few months to go, and I fully intend on serving them out 🙂

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One Step Further

What if we continue with the web portal idea for web design, and make it bigger, expand it.  The web design portal serves a very specific purpose: it connects people who need to get their information out (the CBOs and NGOs) to the people who can do that (the local web designers and developers), which subsequently gets the CBOs and NGOs connected to the people with the ability to provide funding or volunteers or whatnot.  The web portal will provide a mass hub to enable an e-commerce explosion in the development-support world.

How about another web portal, this time connecting organizations on the ground with software needs, to developers who can build applications to serve those needs.  The techies out there scream, “Not another collab-site.  We have Sourceforge, we have Launchpad, heck even Microsoft has one starting up!”  My response, “None of them focus on the needs of the developing world.”  One of the angles I use when preaching Open Source is that free tools enable communities to build software to suit their own needs, which is completely true, but in reality the development scene is not as nicely innudated with programmers as would be hoped.  Because we cannot bring the programmers to communities (…easily), let’s bring the communities to the programmers.

Create a hub that allows communities to post speicifcations about their software desires, for example, a database application for manning a library.  But at the same time, let them also post their operating system, their computer hardware specifications, and maybe even their level of confidence in their copmuter skills.  Will all of this information be easy to attain from community members?  Well, I am hoping that if there is a computer, there is also someone who knows how to use it.  I have also spent enough time on the ground to know that some of the “knowing how to use it,” would not be enough for this site’s requirements.  Therefore the site will not work with every single community, but what development practice ever does?

Armed with this information, let the developers get cracking at it.  Emphasize turn-key solutions.  Emphasize pushing out a working product quickly, avoiding feature creep at first.  Emphasize readable code, use of industry best practices, and future-expandability (but not at the sacrifice of finishing the product).  Emphasize an attention to detail and actual usability, something we all know the Open Source world lacks. And of course, open source it so everyone can use it and expand upon it.  Build up a web page of continuing projects and also project portfolios.  Give developers a chance to show their chops while taking home the gold-star for [global-]community service.  Show programmers they can help too.  With an emphasis and expectation on simplicity, hopefully projects would be pushed out quickly.

I want to come back to the attention to detail and design.  This does not simply apply to in-application experience, but also to how well does this app integrate into the existing operating system.  Does it require a bevy of external libraries? Does it crash gracefully?  How hard is it to install.  If you go by the Linux community standards for these questions, the whole project will fail.  When I say turn-key solution, I am not talking Windows-simplicit, let’s strive for Mac simplicity, or better.  Maybe the app developer will need to step on the operating system’s toes once in a while, but if it means the application is easier to use and attains broader acceptance than that’s the goal; not POSIX-compliance.  Consider it the development challenge to make applications 100% user friendly while also adhhering to operating system standards.  Good luck!

It’s just another idea.  If someone already knows this is out there, let’s start advertising it to the development community.  Ultimately the goal is to let ICT workers on the ground and in the communities know this solution is there fore them.  If it’s already there use it, if it’s not, build it.  Make it a one-stop software-solution hub to the developing world’s software needs and get more of the global ICT community in on the feel-good factor of development work.  Software Development for Development, haha. ICT4D using SD4D, I copyright that (under Creative Commons of course 😉

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The Developing Web

Below is an idea I posted to the development-ideas website Africa Rural Connect, hosted as part of the Peace Corps Connect program.  If anyone wants to run with it, feel free!  I don’t currently have the time, but would also never want to hinder the development of an idea which I think could help a number of people.  The idea as written here is slightly modified.

The link to the original idea page is here: http://arc.peacecorpsconnect.org/view/960

For the past 10 months that I have lived in Kenya, working in ICT, consulting with individuals and their ICT needs, I have noticed an increasing trend towards the web, something which should be expected and of which this site itself is a product (referring to Africa Rural Connect: http://arc.peacecorpsconnect.org).  However there is still a distinct lack of NGO’s and CBO’s who might benefit from a web presence making proper connections with those who could enable them to have the presence in the first place.

What I propose is a web portal along the lines of Lending Tree (“When banks compete, you win!”).  Freelance Kenyan web designers and studios, of which there are many, would be able to use this portal to pick up contracts, but with a catch.  The portal itself would moderate the pricing and agreement structures to be much more CBO and NGO friendly.  It would also work to simplify the whole process of creating a web presence, such as domain registration, hosting space, etc.

On the other hand, the freelancers and studios would have to agree to accept the lower fees, and agreements would also have to be negotiated with hosting providers to provide less expensive services.  Consider it a corporate-social-responsibility angle to the web development world.

Finally, the portal would also have a preconstructed pack of open source software designed to ease development of e-commerce sites and donation sites.  Both of these can be tricky to implement, especially for new developers, so providing a known and trusted solution available to all contacts on the portal would increase the website’s potential revenue generating abilities.

Admittedly, there is room for expansion in this idea, as with any idea.  Things that come to mind immediately are a sliding pay scale, where let’s say a handicrafts site starts selling really well and making a profit, then the hosting provider might be allowed to slightly increase the rates to compensate for increased traffic.

The desired effects of this idea are many.  First off, I would like to create a single-solution place for fledgling Kenyan web developers to go to sharpen their skills on smaller-scale projects where there will still be some compensation.  Second, NGO’s and CBO’s will finally have a trusted organization easing them into the new and confusing frontier of the world wide web.  Third, a more “development friendly,” pricing system will get more ideas on the web, and if combined with the trusted donations and e-commerce software solutions, potentially become a true income generating activing for a group.

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A More Light-Hearted Entry

I thought I would write a more light-hearted entry from my past two.  And I haven’t gotten to use a list in a while.  Here’s a compare and contrast of my life in the States to my life in Kenya:

  • I have running water… it comes from a magically invisible catchment tank somewhere and when that runs out, I get to scoop it from a giant bucket in my kitchen.
  • I take a shower every day… with no hot water, and no water pressure ever.
  • I cook on a gas stove… but one that many Americans would laugh at and might not even take with them on a camping trip.
  • I do my laundry… using three buckets, about 18 litres (I am lucky to be able to use so much), and my knuckles.
  • I can judge distances, measures and whatnot… using the Metric system.  Take that you Imperial [System] Dogs!
  • I have a drying machine, and it’s got its own Energy Star rating… it’s called the jua kali ya Mombasa (harsh sun of Mombasa).
  • I take public transportation… that very often fits about 28 people into a van smaller than a Ford E-150 Econoline.
  • We get into traffic jams… often caused by cows or people pushing over-sized wheelbarrows.  Yes, this even includes cities like Mombasa and Nairobi, and yes, even on the, “highways.”
  • I go to bed every night on a college dorm-quality mattress… underneath a chemically-treated mosquito net.
  • I fall asleep peacefully to the sounds of crickets chirping… and cats fighting, and bush-babies screeching, and Christian Revivals/Crusades/Really-Loud-Get-Togethers-That-Go-‘Til-5-AM
  • At which point I wake up in the morning… to the sound of the mosque’s call-to-prayer.
  • I worry about my safety at home… Will baboons attack me as I walk outside?  Will the monkeys break in and steal my food?  Is that green snake that just slithered into my ceiling poisonous (no, mouth and fangs were too small)?

I am sure this list could go on forever, but I also know my past few entries have been quite long, so I will keep this one short.  Hope you have enjoyed 🙂

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A Personal Rebuttal To My Own Rant

This is why I am a bad blogger.  I cannot write something without feeling afterwards that what I’ve written is not the truth, is not honesty.  Especially after I see the responses it illicits from random readers of my blog.  I don’t want the random readers to stop coming to my blog, I enjoy the notion that my blog is seen as worthy of peoples’ time, but I also want to ensure this blog represents my complete experience in Peace Corps.  The last post was a rant.  Do I recant anything that I have said?  No.  Do I regret it? No (never regret anything that doesn’t kill you and you can learn from!).  Do I agree with the points made and agree that those points still anger me? Of course.  However, I would like to attempt a more objective clarification on the issues raised, as I see them.

At this point in time, Peace Corps is going through an identity crisis.  Peace Corps is the rebellious teenager trying to figure out if he is a jock, a musician, a nerd, a geek, popular, handsome, ugly, smart or stupid.  Should he listen to his parents and their wisdom-through-experience, or should he accord his own generation a temporally-unique experience that is therefore alien to his parents and their wisdom and nuts to them.  And what’s this college?  Who cares about college?  I’m going to start a band!  Rock on!

Do not worry, taxpayers, Peace Corps is not going to try its hand at the music industry.  Instead, Peace Corps is struggling to be what it was, what people expect it to be, what it is becoming and what it should be.  Peace Corps was conceived in the 1960’s as a means for the US to boost its image abroad, provide the developing economies of the world with energetic, intelligent individuals and to coincidentally rid the country of those same individuals who might have swayed towards the subversive with their intelligence and energy.  It worked and membership soared as people fell in love with helping out others and getting free plane rides around the world.

In this day and age, this expectation from the American people still exists.  In fact, it is another stressor on my life, though not constant.  I do not live in a mud hut.  I do not walk 10 kilometers a day to fetch water.  I do not eat bizarre insects on a regular basis.  Yet, for right or wrong, this is what I feel people expect me to be doing in Peace Corps (though readers of this blog have now learned otherwise).  Joining the Peace Corps, this is still a very possible reality for volunteers, including some of my very own friends serving here in Kenya, but on the flip-side of this, volunteers in Jordan for example frequently have satellite television in their rooms; in Thailand they work in offices with air-conditioning and have washing machines; I have regular electricity, and an affordable high-speed Internet connection.  Do we all still face very difficult challenges living abroad as Peace Corps volunteers? Most certainly.  I would never belittle the Peace Corps experience of a volunteer who lived with air-conditioning because, basically, we all still go through a lot of tough times. However, are these challenges and tough times what the American public expect them to be? In my opinion no, the expectations and realities differ.

On top of that, we have an American government that is strapped for cash while still looking to grow the program… somehow.  How does one justify growth? With oversight, statistcs and other forms of quantitative anaylsis and proof.  It’s what the computers understand.  It fits better on single-page white-papers being passed around committees, and it makes it all so much more tangible to hardworking law-makers in Washington.  I would not want their job for the life of me.  Their expectations of Peace Corps volunteers are very different from the American public’s, but both fuel this identity crisis.

Finally, throw into the mix a radically changing development situation around the world.  We still need teachers going out teaching best practices, but we need to be teaching them to engineers, doctors, computer scientists.  The developing world is learning on its own how it should develop.  Cultures that were seen to be under attack, and still are, are also learning how to adapt on their own.  I don’t need to teach a Kenyan mama how and when she should use her mobile phone.  I teach her what it does, and she fits it into her own life.  What developing economies need are educated professionals who are also in tune with the masses of their respective nations.  For example, when a library comes to a computer scientist and says we need library software to run on this old computer that still functions but cannot run the latest software, that programmer can write up the custom tailored software.  The numbers and energy are all there, it just needs to be properly focused.  Development needs volunteer professionals to show where host-country nationals could be put to use to foster the growth of creative solutions to in-country problems.

This is not necessarily what Peace Corps is right now or ever was, nor is it what the American people expect of it at this moment.  But this is what it should become because this style of development is what the world needs of Peace Corps.  Until this transition is complete however, we suffer through this identity crisis and subsequently opinions such as those expressed in my blog.  Peace Corps administration is not blind to the needs of the world, yet at the same time, it has never had the budget to implement this paradigm-shift.  I am confident that the Peace Corps administration knows how to do enact the shfit, but it’s hands are tied.  It tries.  It throws itself into the rink anyway and returned volunteers, discharged trainees, early terminators, and volunteers like me kick it, beat it viciously, hoping to humble the beast but only because it cannot always fight back.

When it can fight back however, it does, fighting hard, sticking to their rules
when they can be enforced and expecting of their volunteers all they
need to get their program the funding it deserves.  It’s going to be a
tough time for Peace Corps: prospective volunteers join expecting to be dumped into the middle of
nowhere; Congressmen expect numbers; Peace Corps Administration wants
to shift the program’s focus but comes into scuffles with those same
prospectives and lawmakers. Its hands are tied in many of these circumstances.  But it’s
necessary and unavoidable if Peace Corps is to become what the world
needs it to be: an organization providing energetic, intelligent and
now professional individuals to developing economies and the people that
need them.

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