Tag Archives: nairobi

Where I Was and What I Was Doing

I know, I know, not a lot of updates this week. Sorry, but it’s been busy and so I thought I would provide you with a nice recap of everything that I did this week, because there are a couple good stories in there.

First things first, I was in Nairobi from Sunday to Wednesday for a Peace Corps assignment. It all started a few months ago when I was asked by PC/Kenya office staff (i.e. my bosses) to write up an assessment of one of the tools Volunteers have access to in the field: an implementation of Microsoft Sharepoint knowledge sharing tool used for sharing documents within the Peace Corps Kenya community of volunteers and staff. For many reasons that I will not get into here this implementation just does not suit our volunteer needs and the staff wanted to know why. Turns out we aren’t the only post suffering from this fate and apparently my comments got forwarded onto Washington and Peace Corps Kenya called me and the other ICT volunteers in to talk with Washington about why this program is not fulfilling our needs.

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Nairobi, Just Gets Weirder…

We all know I don’t like Nairobi, but at this point, being here for more than a day or two gets boring. Money is in short supply because we are volunteers, and lunches that normally we pay 30 or 40 shillings for in the village cost ten times that amount, at minimum… literally. Get me out.

To top it off though, it is just starting to get weird. Not everything, but specifically the hawkers. I have mentioned before that Nairobi hawkers will hawk most anything, including giant inflatable chairs and etch-a-sketch. However, I have now repeatedly walked past a group of hawkers hawking pets out of boxes. You can walk down the road leading to Westgate shopping mall and you will have the opportunity to purchase puppies, kittens, rabbits, gerbils, and hamsters… out of fruit boxes. Better yet, if you live in Westlands you probably drive around in a big SUV with fancy acronyms like UNEP, UNDP, UN, WFP, DED, DRC, etc., (Peace Corps thankfully has no such labeling on it’s vehicles, much preferring a relatively inconspicuous but Kenya-mandated address stenciled on the driver side door near the tire), and these pets are all brought to your window like it’s some bizarre 50’s roller skate diner. Hamster for dinner? Don’t mind if I do!

To top it off, as we were walking, “home,” to the hotel, my friend Alex and I walked past a man hawking turtles out of a box. The price? 20,000 shillings. That’s right ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Nairobi, where you can buy a $270 turtle out of a box from a guy on the side of the road.

Nanyuki tomorrow, unless these matatus stay on strike…

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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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Off on an adventure… or two… or three…

Ok Folks, this may be the last update you get from me for a while?  Oh, who am I kidding, I always find a way, but just to cover my bases, i’ll pretend like this is it for about a month!  “A MONTH!!!” you shout at your computer screen.  I know you will all survive without me for a month, though I also know it will be difficult, but just think, if I am gone for a month, I will most certainly have heaps of fun stories to share.  So just hang on, and maybe this little sneak peak of my adventures to come will let tantalize!

Next week I will be in the lovely, cooler climate, Nyeri Town.  Myself and two volunteers from Costa Rica will be working under the World Computer Exchange (http://worldcomputerexchange.org) banner in secondary schools in Nyeri town, from what I can guess, doing general computer maitenance, internet, fun stuff like that.  I believe we will be accompanied by Kenyans from the Kenyan School for Professional Studies.  It should be  a lot of fun, and I really liked Nyeri when I was there this past March, so it will be nice to get back.  Of course, don’t go thinking Peace Corps just lets us all go willy-nilly where we want.  Getting this clearance was a give and take.  I tried to take some time off from the end of the semester (all my students stop coming anyways in preparation for finals), and I was given an assignment.  I need to compile a report on my experiences teaching computers to various levels of Kenyans, to be used as a resource by other volunteers.  Fun.  Worth it.

After Nyeri, it’s off to the wonderful city of Nairobi again for a few days of report writing (no laptop yet) and medical.  I have a dentist appointment and just some general check up stuff they like to do while you are in Nairobi.  Whatever.  Anytime you are called in by medical, Peace Corps foots the daily expenses and accomodation for the night, so that’s always nice!  Medical is not really an adventure, but pretty much any time spent in Nairobi is always an adventure, so it gets the classification anyways.

After NRB, hopefully it is off to Yatta.  A fellow PCV, David, works at the National Youth Service there as a computer instructor.  He is basically me, but in Yatta and not on the Coast, though he is also considered much more amicable than myself, has far more patience for the average individual, and is just a generally nicer guy I would say.  But I have more computers.  And we all know what is more important right?  So David and I will be doing any general tech work that usually requires two minds instead of the one, and of course comparing notes from the semester and seeing how we can help one another improve.

Then I am hoping to head back to Nairobi for an evening to see the swearing-in ceremony of the new volunteers.  Hopefully.  I don’t know if peace corps is letting me.  I guess we shall wait and see!

After swearing in, it’s off to a the town of Nanyuki (even cooler than Nyeri I believe!)  The first few nights will be spent visiting PCV Gavin, another friend in my training group whom I have not seen since april, which is just wholly unacceptable in all things concerning Gavin.  Then, it’s off to the Peace Corps Permaculture workshop hosted in Nanyuki (and more nights on Peace Corps dime!!!).  I am not 100% sure what I will learn at this workshop, but I think some topics include soap making, gardening, and other forms of sustainable, earthy, living.  It will be interesting times spent with the few volunteers who are able to make it.  Cannot wait!

Finally, after Nanyuki, it’s back to the coast.  BUT, not home yet.  The coast is a big place, and Peace Corps loves its workshops.  I will be attending the Cross-culture workshop, where any volunteers currently serving for over 3 months are invited, with their Kenyan counterparts from their projects (I don’t have one…), and we basically sit around and bash heads and figure out how we can help one another.  For example, someone might as me, being an ICT volunteer, how to use mobile phones to distribute public health notices most effectively (mmmm, sms aggregation… it’s a current hot topic).  This goes on for like a week.

Then I might come home.  If you can find me!

Until then, stay tuned for little snippets that I might be able to get online!

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The Winds of Change, They be a Blowin’

I know, I know, long time, no update. But it’s because I have been busy!!!! I know, what!?! This can’t be!?! We sent him over there to do nothing, how did he find things to do!? Get over it, here’s the recap:

Nairobi

If you all remember from last post, my avid readers found me about to set off on the always magical, often life-threatening trip to Nairobi. Needless to say, after a 9 hour bus ride, followed by 3 hours of traffic, I arrived at my little slice of heaven in Nairobi, Upper Hill Campsite. Settled in for a good Hamburger and a chat with my Peace Corps friend Leah, who has sadly left service and was in Nairobi for the end of service process. But she was happy doing so, so that’s what matters, being happy! Then hit the hay hard. That bus ride is exhausting.

The next day was day one of crazy meetings. Did I mention I was with Crystal and her family? She is the Voices of Africa lady and the primary reason for going to Nairobi. Our first meeting was with a trading company in NRB whose CEO is very interested in Crystals Tuk Tuk mobile information center. So interested in fact that he called us back for another meeting. He is very interested in creating what seems to be a Socially responsible business model for some of his future endeavors and Crystal was able to wow him with some of her ideas. I provided tech support and technical opinions for the meeting. Not going to lie, I feel there is a really big potential for socially responsible corporations to do some real good in the world and make up for where development agencies have come up short, but it is relatively untested waters, so we need to swim carefully.

That afternoon it was then off to the US Embassy to meet the ambassador. Jess, the manager at Upper Hill was making fun of me for ironing my clothes that morning before the meetings, saying that the ambassador is not that big a deal, but I felt differently. We arrived at the embassy (after realizing there’s nothing to do around the embassy to kill time) early, and after 3 security checks (less intensive than an airport however…) we were able to wait in the lobby. The inside of the Embassy just feels like America. I know how cheesy that may sound, but it just does. Otherwise it doesn’t look any different from some of the office buildings in Nairobi, but at the same time, not all buildings in Nairobi feel like America. Like I said a long time ago, something is always just a little different. But here, everything felt at it should.

If your wondering how we got an appointment with the ambassador, it was easy, Crystal asked. She sent an email and they replied and said it was ok and scheduled one.

We met Mr. Ranenberger and his Assistant Jonathan that day and got a chance to discuss the general US Policy in Kenya in relation to development and they informed us that though they couldn’t offer some direct assistance they would certainly inquire more into some of Crystal’s proposals that seem to have got lost in the muck. Then the ambassador said he had to cut his part of the meeting short because of a crisis in Somalia (“Isn’t there always a crisis in Somalia?” / “Yes but this one is worse.”), and then myself, Crystal and Jonathan continued to discuss various parts of development in Africa. Overall it was good to just get info straight from the horses mouth, and Crystal got her chance to tell the ambassador in person how much she likes him, which he seemed to appreciate. What we also talked about confirmed mine and Crystal’s perception of the situation on the ground in Likoni. It’s a good feeling when the US and you share similar viewpoints. Solidifies your footing for moving forward. After our meeting, we went home and crashed.

Friday morning was a meeting with Google, or Google Round 2 as I call it. This time we got a chance to talk to Mark the Geo Team Lead. I threw at him some ideas for mapping and whatnot and in general we talked about the role of GIS in development. Crystal also talked to him about her Tuk Tuk and though he couldn’t offer any direct assistance he said he would be happy to help us get the proposals into the right hands. So that was good. Hopefully we were cordial enough that there will be a round 3 for google. I see a great opportunity for branding for them, as well as creating a socially responsible role in the east african community as a whole.

Friday afternoon I got a chance to attend the board meeting of Voices of Africa, which was good. The board has a really good grasp on the situations in Africa, and Crystal updated them with all the footwork she’s been doing, and introduced me as well. Yet another busy day!

Saturday morning Crystal and I had a very early meeting with our Tuk Tuk partner to discuss in more detail the future of the project, as well as some other ideas he hopes crystal can help him with. That afternoon I spent on the couch watching the Arsenal vs. Man U match. Man U won. I think I was supposed to cheer. I chose to dose instead.

So that ends part one of this update. I was going to write more about NYS and the good things happening here as well, but I am actually too busy to write it at the moment. hopefully later. Probably tomorrow. Until then, hopefully this gives you all some insight that I am happy and running around like a chicken with its head caught off. I find myself having gone through the stereotypical Peace Corps process of throwing myself at heaps of projects and seeing which ones pan out. Above is only a smidgeon of things I am working on and Ill keep you posted about everything else. The past few weeks have been BUSY!

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