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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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