Friday, December 26, 2008

Trauma in Kenya - part II

Tuesday morning, I went with one of my colleagues to the police station. Good thing he knew which building to go to in the police compound as I never would have found it easily. It was a good sized piece of land with various sized buildings scattered around. There was even a man cutting hair behind one of the buildings. The building we went to was pretty small. It was crammed with 3 desks and a small bench - and several people. I waited outside as my colleague went it. They have a large ledger book with all of the reported accidents in it. At first, they couldn't find our record. Then we went in another room, then we went back to the first room, then we returned to the 2nd room. They finally found the record and I sat down on some old bus seats to give my statement of what happened. The first thing the police officer asked me was whose fault was it. I stated that the bicyclist ran into me. The bicyclist happened to be there and I think he was asked the same thing. He spoke in Kiswahili so I couldn't understand a thing. He did say 'indicator' a couple of times - I had not used my indicator as I wasn't turning!

Anyway, the police officer wrote down my statement in long hand on lined paper. Then he had me read it. I made him change probably 4 things that he had gotten wrong. Finally, I agreed that it was acceptable and signed it. (The other party in the accident didn't have to write down or sign any statement.) Then there was a bit of putzing around as they tried to find a police officer to accompany my car to the inspection yard. Since it was a car-pedestrian situation, this was a requirement. Finally, they just gave my colleague a signed bit of paper and he took it to the inspection yard.

So hopefully, this will be the end of it and no one will decide to sue us. We will ask the insurance company to reimburse us for the costs paid for the bicyclists hospital bills (about USD 50) and the money we gave him and his friend for bus fare.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Our Christmas letter

For those of you who may have not gotten it any other way (because we don't have your e-mail address), here is our Christmas letter:

Monday, December 22, 2008

Trauma in Kenya

Today Stephen used the car to run errands while I was at work so he came to pick me up at the usual time. He brought Lexi with him as he often does. She likes to ride in the car and it gives her a little outing. We were taking a colleague home so all 3 adults and 1 16-month old piled into the car. We were barely half a mile from the office when we had to stop behind a mutatu. When it started to pull forward, so did I and suddenly, a bicyclist crashed into the driver's side rear view mirror and hit the ground. We weren't going very fast and I immediately stopped. People started crowding round and the traffic backed up. The rule in Kenya for accidents is that you don't move the car - at all - from the scene of the accident. You stay put. Stephen got out to check on the bicyclist and I called the transport guy from the office who said he would come. The injured wasn't bleeding and I saw him lift his head so I knew he wasn't dead. People were clammering for us to take him to the hospital. We got in touch with the police and finally, the guy from the office came and took the injured to the hospital with Stephen accompanying him. Lexi, my colleague and I waited for the police.

Lexi was very good about the whole thing. Even when people were shouting at us to move the car. Then they started rocking the car and so my colleague only with a Kenya outside the car who had helped us contact the police decided that I had better move the car. That was scary. I don't understand why they were all so angry. They knew the rules as I did - you don't move the car until the police come. PERIOD. I called the police several times - they were caught in the traffic as well. They finally arrived - on foot. They certainly weren't in any hurry and didn't seem to have energy at all. We walked back to where the accident happened and I let the Kenyans helping us do the talking.

Finally, it was decided that we all go to the hospital to check on the injured man. Another of the work colleagues had come along so he took the police and we followed. I went a different way than they and arrived at the hospital before they did. This hospital was right down the street from our house so Stephen took Lexi home. At the hospital, we had to wait for the police - they had stopped to investigate another accident. This was after it took them over an hour to come to our accident scene. The injured man is fine - nothing broken, nothing dislocated. Just some bruises and pain which he got some medicine for. We paid for his hospital costs and gave him money for bus fare - too much money, I am pretty sure. The police wanted to take the car as it was involved in an accident with a pedestrian. My colleagues argued them out of that and we agreed that I would go to the police station to make the report at 11 tomorrow morning.

Of course, the thought goes through our heads that this injured person will try and sue us even though it was his fault. We don't really trust the police either. I do know that LWF has been involved in court cases before over this sort of thing. LWF is the one with the insurance (which covers any one driving). If the company gets sued there is nothing I can do about it. I hope it doesn't happen though. It doesn't seem fair - but I think it has a lot to do with the color of my skin.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

O, star of wonder...

This was the scene from our front porch last night just after sunset - a crescent moon with Venus (the brighter of the two stars) and Jupiter - to usher in Advent.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Welcome to Africa column: 101 uses for cow dung

For Christmas this year, I will be giving all of you a new pamphlet I’m working on titled “101 Uses for Cow Dung.” Several years ago, Sarah’s mother gave me a similar pamphlet with hundreds of uses for baking soda a la Heloise’s Hints. This is along those same lines. I learned many of them while visiting a cattle camp in Southern Sudan on Thursday. A cattle camp is a large open area where many young men and boys from many families bring their cattle together for protection for several days before moving on to graze their cows. These men and boys are the primary caretakers of their families’ cows, which are the main way Sudanese store – and show off – their wealth. If you think this is strange, if you think it’s an uncivilized thing for young men of 15 years old or so to walk their prize bull down the main street of a town to show off their wealth to attract a potential wife, consider this: Is doing this any different than a man driving a sports car down a city street in the U.S. to attract the attention of a woman?

Don’t have a supply of cow dung on hand? In the U.S., I figure there should be plenty around after a bruising two-year presidential campaign!

Here’s a preview of my upcoming production. I also plan to submit this to Good Housekeeping.
  • Burning cow dung to create a lot of smoke keeps flies and mosquitoes (which are annoying and can carry harmful diseases) away from your cows.

  • Smearing the ash from burnt cow dung (see the above for why you would be burning cow dung in the first place) on your face, head, neck and other exposed skin will not only make you look like a ghost (great for a creepy look at Halloween), but it serves another practical purpose: It keeps the flies and other “dudus” off you as well!

  • Brushing one’s teeth with cow dung ash is a great whitener! (I swear this is what I was told!)
  • Bonus tip: Cow urine makes a great hair dye! Tired of that afro looking like everyone else’s? Impress the ladies and increase your chances of finding a wife when you dye your hair yellow with cow urine! You’ll really stand out (not only because of your looks, but the smell will let people know you’re there)!

Giving thanks for Thanksgiving hospitality – Sudanese style

The main project area I visited on Thursday was a remote village a drive of an hour and a half from the town of Yirol (I just don’t know how the Lutheran World Federation finds these places anyway; I think aliens identify them for LWF staff from their spaceships). I spent some time interviewing women in a savings and income-generating group. One of their new projects is running a shop. First they offered me a soda, and then when I asked the staff person who took me there if I could pay for it, he told me that it would be an insult to their culture if I refused something that was offered to me like that (which I suspected because I would probably be insulted too if they were visiting me in the U.S.). But I told him – and he translated it to the women, who understood my joke – that I felt like I should pay in order to support their new business, especially since that’s what we had just finished talking about. But I said I would graciously accept their drink, which the women said had not come from their shop anyway. When we were done talking, the women then offered to make me lunch. They had known I was coming and had already slaughtered a chicken (good thing I didn’t have to be one of their first customers the next day at the restaurant that they were opening next door, since the goat – still alive – had been purchased in preparation for the slaughter). So we walked around for a few minutes and then sat down and had a meal of stewed chicken with homemade bread.

I didn’t remember until we were driving away from the village that Thursday was Thanksgiving Day, and I realized that that was my Thanksgiving meal. It wasn’t turkey, and the main dish had only one trimming, but I thought to myself, “What gracious hospitality. It wasn’t a Thanksgiving meal like I had ever had before, but their gift, an offering from strangers, is something to be thankful for.” In the same way the Pilgrims had sat down with the Native Americans for a meal, I was hosted by strangers in a foreign country and was given a meal in their tradition. Again, it was a different meal than I would have wanted, but the unexpected surprise I received was Thanksgiving in the truest sense.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

'Over the woods and through the river' on Thanksgiving eve in Sudan

After a short day at home, I left again on Wednesday for a quick visit to the third and final project area of the Lutheran World Federation (the organization Sarah works for) Sudan program for my work on its 2008 annual report. This project area is in the same part of the country as first area I went to last week – it’s a city called Yirol and is in Southern Sudan’s Lakes District. Getting to this place involved taking a morning flight out of Nairobi that stopped to refuel in Lokichoggio (“Loki”), a city in northwestern Kenya (which, by the way, is where one flies to visit Kakuma Refugee Camp, which is managed by the LWF Kenya program), and then continuing on to Rumbeck, where I was picked up by an LWF vehicle and driver who had come from Yirol, 70-some km away. However, the drive took almost four hours, which tells you the state of the roads in this (large) section of Africa (Sudan is Africa’s largest country and is roughly a quarter the size of the lower 48 United States). It’s the same story in all of these LWF project areas with the roads. I’ve spent many, many hours in the car the past week on very, very rough roads.

Wednesday’s car trip was more adventurous, exciting and visually stimulating than my car trips to, from and around the other two LWF project areas. For a little ways out of Rumbeck, where I flew into, the road has been graded and is dirt but is quite smooth. Then it starts getting rough – many potholes and rough parts, which means you have to drive much more slowly. The land is quite lush with vegetation, but it is also very flat, so rains have fallen in a higher part of the country, and all the water has flowed to these parts, which means there are large areas that have some water sitting on them and that are swampy. In several places, the water is flowing across the road in little streams that aren’t very wide – the widest was no more than several yards across – and not always very deep, but these are prime places for vehicles of all types to get stuck.

When we came upon the first of these water-crossing points, there were two other vehicles belonging to non-governmental organizations similar to the type we were in that were stuck in the water, one of them with one of its back corners sunk deep and sitting at an odd angle. The driver and our two passengers joined the small crowd to assess the situation. After several minutes, I was told to roll up my trousers and walk through the water to the other side, which I did. Then, suddenly, came our driver with our vehicle roaring at top speed (as fast as one can go in 4-wheel drive and starting quite close to the edge of the water) through the water. He made it through without getting stuck! I was amazed, but still said to him as he jumped out of the car on the other side, “Are you crazy?!”

Then attempts were made to try to pull one of the other Land Cruisers out with the LWF vehicle. First the cable snapped, and then when it was reattached, it pulled the stuck vehicle free, which started coming toward me at a funny angle. I started to back away to make sure I gave it plenty of clearance, but then I got myself stuck in a thorn tree. Then attempts were made to pull the second Land Cruiser out, which was the one that was more severely stuck and in deeper water. It took two vehicles pulling the stuck one by cable at the same time to free it, but as soon as that happened, we took off to continue our journey.

We soon reached the next stream of water over the road and took some quick assessments. This time the driver told me to stay with him in the vehicle. I asked him if he was going to drive through the water fast. He said no. But he didn’t inch through the water either, which would be one technique that I would think would work. But apparently the best technique is to go through fast so the car doesn’t have enough time to sink in the mud and get stuck (again, it shows my complete uselessness and ignorance as a city boy in these rural parts of Africa). My driver demonstrated his fearlessness again as we plunged into the water with it splashing in front of us and over the hood of the car onto the windshield (these Land Cruisers can drive through deep water without it affecting the engine because they have their air intake through a tube at roof level). We did this a few more times, with our passengers jumping out each time we approached a deeper pool of water to wade through it first to find the shallowest route for us, as the driver and I stayed in the car. Each time I was both scared and excited by the adventure of it all. I kind of wondered, however, why we didn’t caravan with the other vehicles we had seen and freed at the first crossing in case any of us got stuck again. At most of the other crossings, however, we found other types of vehicles, most of them larger than our standard passenger Land Cruisers, that had gotten stuck and that looked like they were there to stay for several days. At one crossing there were two semi tractor-trailers stuck in odd positions – at odd angles and half-in, half-out of the water. Certainly our much smaller Land Cruiser wasn’t big or powerful enough to pull those trucks out with a cable attached to our rear. At another one we passed two truckloads of Kenyan army soldiers who were traveling with the United Nation’s Sudan mission and who were on their way to rescue some of their stuck U.N. vehicles, which one soldier had asked me if we passed. There was also a flatbed truck that had gone through the water but that was stalled on the other side because the water had flooded the engine. We tried pushing it from behind to see if the driver could kick start it, but it didn’t work. We also saw many motorcyclists getting off and pushing their motorcycles through deep water. One of them even successfully kept on driving through the water.

Once we passed through several of these, the road improved somewhat and we could move fairly quickly again. With all of this standing water in swampy areas, one thing that it – and especially these points where water passes over the roads – attracts are many water birds. I saw several interesting species of water birds, some of them quite beautiful. One was fairly large, probably a stork. It had a big, long, bold yellow beak with a bit of red at the top where it connected to its head. Most of its body was white, but on its wings it had some black on the edges and tinges of pink. At one point I also saw another type of stork, which, besides an ostrich, is probably the biggest bird I’ve ever seen. As it stood on the road as we approached it, it probably stood almost 5 feet tall. Then we scared it, and it started to fly off the side of the road. It was mostly black, and when it spread its wings, its wingspan must have been at least 8 feet, but it could have been 10. It was amazing to see this bird both standing and taking off in flight. I wanted to ask the driver to stop every time I saw an interesting water bird like this, which was happening a lot along this stretch, but I was worried about us getting to our destination in time because we had probably delayed by helping the stuck vehicles at the first crossing and because it was getting close to sunset, and I didn’t know how much farther we had to go.

Soon we were approaching some villages, and as we went through them, I saw so many other interesting sites, this time related to people. We drove through lines of cattle that were walking in single file on both sides of the road. Some of these cattle are very large and have enormous horns. All along the way we had to occasionally dodge a single dog or a pack of them or some sheep. One time I saw a pig cross the road in front of us. We passed a few cattle camps, an area where people gather hundreds of head of cattle and have literally set up their camping area among them (makeshift shelters, fires for cooking, etc.).

And the people themselves were so interesting looking. Even though we’re near the first area I visited last week (Panyagor), the people in this area look quite different – or they dress differently. The women wear fewer clothes, and many have just a single piece of fabric that they tie over one shoulder, so many more breasts are exposed here. I’ve seen many more young men wearing funny things on their heads (like a single white feather on the top). Because there’s a lot of standing water lining the roads, many people were taking advantage of it as a place to bathe, so I saw many boys and men (but never women) naked, washing themselves in a large puddle of water.

It was interesting to see the differences in people in this section of Sudan, and as we proceeded along the road, it was like watching a live documentary of life in Sudan through the windshield.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A very Sudanese Thanksgiving

As of today, we have lived in Nairobi for a year. This is longer than the previous time I lived in Africa (when I was 16, I was a Rotary exchange student in Zimbabwe for 11 months). Since this anniversary falls during the week of Thanksgiving (which no country in Africa celebrates, by the way), I shall tell you the things we have here that I am thankful for. And since I am writing this on my one day home in between two trips to Southern Sudan, a very poor country in Africa, foremost on my mind are things that we have here in Kenya that I did not see always in Sudan, some of which are things that I am now much more thankful for, even if they still do not measure up to the U.S. standards that I expect and am used to:
  • Good roads that one can drive reasonably fast on (i.e., paved and/or mostly free of potholes)
  • A variety of food and availability of fruits and vegetables and milk (so I can have a bowl of cereal)
  • Weather that is not unbearably hot (but still warm and pleasant and summer-like all year 'round)
  • A comfortable house to live in with some luxuries (indoor plumbing – not having to use the latrine or shower outside – and even wooden floors that are nicer to walk on)
  • Internet access
  • The opportunities we have had while living in Europe and Africa to travel; just this past week alone, I have seen many places that tourists never go to (in fact, that’s true of the whole country of Sudan)
  • The “deal” we have gotten for living here that provides in Sarah’s contract a house where the rent and all utilities are paid for and that comes with outside maintenance staff; a vehicle that is provided and maintained and the fuel paid for; the fact that we can afford a housekeeper/nanny

And as always, no matter where we’re living, I’m thankful for:

  • My wife and daughter and other family
  • So many friends scattered around the world
  • My good health
  • The ability to live and work where we want, even to return without having to do anything (like apply for a green card and wait for years) to that great land of opportunity, the U.S. (I think it still is that place!), which so many other people long for
  • The gift of music (although I’m thinking more and more that it’s a curse because I always have a song in my head and can’t ever seem to “shut off” the music)

Happy Thanksgiving, all! May you see what blessings you have received as well.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The high price of a wife these days

Hot on the heels of yesterday’s question of what tribe Sarah comes from was today’s doozie from my driver and another Lutheran World Federation staff person in Ikotos who were taking me to one of the projects in the area. We somehow got on the subject of men and women and how they marry in Africa. I was told that women are “bought” with cows when a man wants to marry her – the man’s family “buys” the wife from her family with the cows – 25 in this part of the world. This I already knew. They asked me if this happens in my culture. I told them no, that I did not “buy” my wife with cows or anything. I explained that Sarah had gone to university and had been self-supporting for some time with her own job and was independent from her parents already when I married her. At this they were astonished and had a good laugh about this big difference between our cultures.

But come to think of it, how many cows is Sarah really worth anyway?

Friday, November 21, 2008

Those Iowans - they're downright tribal!

I am currently in Southern Sudan, visiting the three project areas of the Lutheran World Federation’s Sudan program for my work on its 2008 annual report (this is the organization/program that Sarah works for).

Yesterday we were driving around some of the areas in Panyagor, one of the project areas. The projects always have drivers taking people around to the various project sites in the LWF vehicles. So the driver and I were talking and getting to know each other. The driver there is a native Sudanese, a fairly young man who is married but already has five kids. He asked about me. “Does your wife come from the same tribe as you?”


Is Iowa a different tribe? I must admit I’ve never been able to figure Iowans out. They are a bit foreign to me, indeed. But I had a bit of a challenge explaining to him that we don’t really have tribes in the U.S. But how was I supposed to answer that question? Are we from different anythings?

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Visiting the obscure country of Burundi

Here are some things I learned or observed on our road trip through Tanzania to visit Burundi and Rwanda a couple of weeks ago. In all, we drove 3,707 km/2,303 miles from our home in Nairobi west through Tanzania to the capital of Burundi – Bujumbura – then north to the capital of Rwanda – Kigali – and back east again.

  • Out of the four countries we drove in on this trip, Kenya, our own home/country, has the worst roads of the lot. This is surprising, given that it’s the wealthiest and arguably the most developed of all countries in East Africa. But this could be the very reason – this is why it has the most cars and trucks that use the roads and wear them out perhaps more than they do in Burundi, Rwanda or Tanzania. We took one route in Kenya west to go into Tanzania, but stretches of one road were so bad that on the way back, we chose to take a longer route once back in Kenya, hoping to avoid this stretch. But we happened upon another long stretch of road that was under construction, which meant we had to drive on a long, bumpy side road!
  • Much more so than in Kenya, people carry things on their heads and ride bicycles for transportation and to haul things in Tanzania and especially in Burundi and Rwanda. Instead of carts for cargo or even wheelbarrows, people use their bicycles to haul all manner of goods, from huge bags of charcoal or bales of hay to people – using them as a town’s official taxi service (we saw a lot of women riding side-saddle, sitting over the back wheel on a carrier). And it just made sense to us – but apparently not to the bicyclist - the many times we passed a bike that the load they were trying to haul was just way too heavy. Several times we saw an overturned bike, the load obviously top-heavy, with two people standing next to it, scratching their heads, trying to figure out what to do next. Or we could never figure out how the bicyclist could balance such a tall or heavy load and ride their bike. And we’re not sure why, but we don’t see people walking and carrying things on their heads much in Kenya at all, but this is common in the other countries we visited.
  • We visited the world’s third- and fourth-largest freshwater lakes – driving around Lake Victoria in Tanzania and stopping there both ways and visiting Lake Tanganyika at one of our destinations in Burundi. And we hail from the shores of the world’s largest freshwater lake – Lake Michigan/Huron (which are considered one lake together, since they are at the same elevation and water passes freely between them).
  • Good thing we are flexible drivers. When we moved to Kenya, we had to learn to drive on the left side of the road again, and we are now quite adept at it. Tanzania also drives on the left. But as soon as we got all the way across Tanzania and crossed the border into Burundi, we needed to switch sides of the road. This was challenging in itself, but we had our right-hand-drive car with us, so the steering wheel was on the outside of the road. But both of us did quite well switching to the other side of the road there and also in Rwanda (and then back again in Tanzania and Kenya). It’s odd that neighbors like this in Africa drive on different sides of the road. It must be according to who the country’s colonial power was. For Kenya and Tanzania, it was Great Britain, which drives on the left side, and for Burundi and Rwanda, it was Belgium, which drives on the right.
  • We are also grateful we have some fairly flexible skills in the language department as well, that we had previously lived in a French-speaking country. We didn’t find many natives in Burundi who speak English, and we managed to ask a few times for directions to the American embassy. In Rwanda, however, we found more English speakers, since they get a few more tourists there.
  • Driving west from Nairobi, we passed through a wide variety of terrain. We went down into the Rift Valley and skirted Masai Mara game park, which is the Kenyan extension of the famous Serengeti in Tanzania. On the eastern side of Tanzania we passed through an area that had hills jutting up out of the plains and outcroppings of boulders that sometimes had interesting piles of balancing rocks. Much of Tanzania was very flat, but these plains varied from very dry to being hit by torrential downpours, which we got caught in a few times. Once we hit the western side of Tanzania, it becomes very hilly. Both Burundi and Rwanda are very hilly. In fact, Rwanda’s nickname is the “Land of a Thousand Hills.” The land is also very lush. We saw many kinds of trees in these countries, including banana, coffee, tea, palm, baobab, eucalyptus and pine.
  • As much as Rwanda has been through, as concerned as it should be about racial tensions, the social atmosphere and alleviating poverty, it is also very concerned about its environment. Surprisingly, it has essentially banned the use of plastic bags in the country. In fact, at the border, a guard asked to see in the back of our car (our luggage) to see what we had in plastic bags, and then he asked us to throw at least one away (he didn’t catch all the plastic bags we had). They even had some free paper bags that we could have taken. In some places in many African countries, the land is so littered with thrown-away plastic shopping bags (I’ve seen this a lot around the refugee camps in Kenya). I’m not denying that plastic bags are bad for the environment, and it certainly is unsightly to see them discarded and blown away and stuck on bushes and trees in rural areas. But I’m just surprised that Rwanda would be so concerned about the role of plastic bags and that it would take such widespread action on a countrywide scale. Indeed, especially the rural areas – along the roads – are quite clean of such rubbish.

Our purpose in making this trip was to see some other countries and parts of the East Africa region while we are living here. I had never been to Burundi and Rwanda before, but Sarah had for work when we were living in Geneva.

I wrote about our time in Rwanda in an earlier entry on this blog, so here is a bit about our time in Burundi:

In Burundi, we stayed at the home of one of my former coworkers from the ELCA in Chicago in the capital, Bujumbura. Her husband has been stationed with the State Dept. at embassies in Bangkok and London (we visited them there once when we lived in Geneva). A while ago, he bid on a post in Burundi and got it, and they arrived there in August. So we were their first visitors. My former coworker is also now working at the American embassy in the capital.

The Kleibers lucked out and were given an embassy-owned house to live in that used to be occupied by the deputy chief of mission (the #2 in charge after the ambassador). It’s located in the hills above the downtown area, and it has a spectacular sweeping view of the city, with Lake Tanganyika beyond that and the hills of the Democratic Republic of Congo on the horizon. It’s an enormous house with a huge terrace that is great for entertaining. It also has a large garden filled with tropical plants and flowers that is well-cared for (by their hired gardener, paid for by the taxpayers of the U.S., of course). The house is definitely designed for wealthy expatriates who have domestic servants and who like to entertain – a huge dining room with a well-separated kitchen, two large bedroom suites plus a couple of other smaller bedrooms, a cold-storage room, etc. It’s a lovely place to relax.

Because Tony has lived in Bangkok, all of their house’s décor is Asian – many objects from Thailand, Burma, China and the region. As soon as I walked in, I thought, “It’s a little corner of Bangkok right here in the heart of Africa.” All of these same decorations were there in their American-style apartment in London, where it also seemed a bit out of place. The Kleibers are in their early 50s and have never had children, so all the delicate statues and shiny lacquer ware from Vietnam were definitely not toddler-friendly. So we really had to keep an eye on Lexi, but she really loved running around on their front lawn.

Burundi isn’t exactly a well-known country, certainly not as well-known as its neighbor to the north, Rwanda, which has a notorious reputation for its genocide. As such, it doesn’t attract many tourists because there isn’t much to do there. None of the countries that border these large lakes seem to really take advantage of the lake as a resort destination. We know some people do have boats and use the lake for recreation, but they’re white. The day we arrived in Bujumbura, we had been driving for two and a half days, and we arrived in time for a late lunch, and we spent the rest of the day just relaxing outside on the terrace and enjoying the view and the garden.

That night the Kleibers invited some other expatriates over for dinner. We met the director of the counterpart to Sarah’s organization in Burundi. He’s got Dutch nationality but grew up in Tanzania the son of missionaries and has an American wife. All the other couples were American and worked for the embassy or the U.N. (except for the wife of one man, who is French and West African; she was awfully outgoing and bold, eating the olives from my salad, which I don’t like, off my plate at dinner). It’s always fun to meet other expats but ones who have lived for many more years outside the country and to hear about how many places they have lived and how much stuff they have collected.

The following day was a holiday in Burundi, so the Kleibers were able to spend some time with us. In the morning, we took a drive to try to find the monument marking the spot where Livingstone met Stanley, but as I said, the country doesn’t get many tourists, and like in Kenya, these sorts of haunts aren’t marked well or at all. So it ended up being just a drive only along the lakeshore south of the city. We stopped at a couple of small handicraft markets. They had the same stuff we see in Kenya and Tanzania. And in the afternoon we went to a fancy hotel (for the tourists they do get) that has a large pool and a beach on the lake. So we swam in the pool and walked along Lake Tanganyika. Lexi was afraid of the waves again.

So our visit to Burundi wasn’t marked by many tourist highlights like our other recent trip to South Africa was, but at least we saw a new country and one that has a different sort of past than Kenya.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Public holiday to celebrate Obama's victory

Today, Thursday, has been declared a public holiday in Kenya to celebrate the election of Barack Obama as U.S. president. Apparently Kenya's prime minster, who is from the same tribe, in the northwestern part of Kenya, as Obama's father, and who hails from the same area of the country, declared this day a holiday.

We think this is odd in many ways:

  • In a way, it's a day for Kenyans to celebrate democracy, the fact that Americans voted in, in a peaceful way, a man from the opposition party, a man so foreign to the office of the presidency. This when Kenyans can't hold a democratic election themselves, one that is peaceful, and simply allow the opposition leader, who arguably won the vote, into office as a true democracy would allow.
  • It's strange that we, American citizens, the only ones who had a say in selecting Obama, have to be outside our own country to get a day off to celebrate the election of our own president.
  • We wonder how Kenya can suddenly declare a nationwide holiday for the next day. I figure only small countries can do this. It would just be logistically impossible for a big country for the U.S. to do this. But it doesn't seem to inconvenience anyone here to be told they don't need to work the next day. Jane, our house help, seemed delighted to get a day off work and never asked us if her absence today would cause any problems (it won't, since Sarah's office is obviously closed too). But things in Africa are always so loosey-goosey. Hard and fast plans are never made for anything, or if they are, it's okay if they're changed or canceled.
  • What does one do to celebrate an occasion like this? I saw in the newspaper that a hotel in Mombasa this week was serving two types of double-decker hamburgers named the McCain and Obama burgers. The chef created them because he knows Americans like hamburgers. Perhaps we need to eat something American. But for breakfast we "celebrated" by making French toast!

But we have the whole day to figure out what to do, think about the impact of Obama's election and savor the victory for Kenya, the U.S. and the world!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Happy days are here again!

This morning I have been awake for most of the past seven hours (and not sleeping very well before I got out of bed) - since just before 3:00 a.m. - and for much of that, I was watching the presidential election returns come in and Obama’s victory speech from what I will claim now as my (last) hometown - Chicago.

Again, to remind you of the historic nature of Obama’s election to the presidency (besides all those other firsts you have heard about over and over):

  • This is the first time since Abraham Lincoln that Illinois has sent someone to the White House.
  • This is the first time since JFK that a sitting senator has been elected to the presidency.
  • (not so seriously) The candidate whose last name did not end in N was elected, but the taller of the two candidates did win. Also, does anybody know if Obama is left-handed? That may be why he won.
  • Chicago has now proven itself as a national political powerhouse, something that has not happened in a long time. I’m sure Mayor Daley is pleased that his city is in the spotlight these days, especially as he’s placed it in the running for the Olympics. I wonder if he’ll get an appointment in the administration.

And again, I’ll state that earlier I was a Hillary supporter, and this was really supposed to be her day. It must be a bittersweet day for her (and Bill). But still, as a die-hard Democrat (and originally a Massachusetts one), I couldn’t be happier that my party has recaptured the White House.

But overall what I want to say is this: Because of the monumental nature of this election and selection, for the above reasons and more, my confidence in the United States of America is restored. Sarah and I were planning to return to the U.S. anyway next year to live and work, but now I feel we can do that, and with some pride. The U.S. really showed – to itself and to the world - that it has matured in choosing Obama as its leader. As an American living abroad, I am so pleased that America’s stature in the world, in places where we have lived like Geneva, from the houses of world power and influence, to Kenya, where millions of people live hand-to-mouth lives, will change instantly today. The disastrous era of George W. Bush ends today (and the Republican party is in shambles, which is a position the Democrats have been in more than once). America’s image has been restored, and I don’t mind so much living abroad and representing a country that is willing to turn around and put itself on the right course again. (BBC News has an article - "President Obama and the world" - that does an excellent job talking about what I'm referring to here.)

But another reason I am rejoicing today, along with millions of others who know how significant (in many ways) Obama’s election is, is because of my new perspective in this election. This is the first presidential election I have experienced as a parent. Sarah and I have recently brought a person into this world, a new U.S. citizen, and she will return with us to a country under new leadership, one that cares about what the U.S. does in the world and that cares that it acts responsibly. I know Obama won’t be perfect and won’t accomplish everything, but I feel like the world will be a safer place for my child because of his election, a new concern I have now as a parent. And like Obama himself said during the campaign, his campaign and that of Hillary Clinton meant that his daughters – and mine as well – now have every opportunity open to them – even the highest office in the land, the most powerful position in the world. It doesn’t matter what race or gender you are – everything is open to anybody. Sarah and I happened to have a girl baby last year, and there are still so many places in the world where every opportunity isn’t open to women. But now new paths in her country, at least, appear to be open to her, as today has proven. I wonder what her generation will accomplish when they are old enough to lead.

But for now, I’m thrilled that my generation is closer to being in power in the U.S. and this world (I don’t quite feel like Obama is my generation – he’s a bit too old to be one of my siblings). I don’t really need to feel ashamed anymore as a representative of my country living abroad. And by living in Kenya for the time being, where the son of a native has just been elected U.S. president, I actually now have something to be proud of!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

My faith restored (somewhat) in Nairobi restaurants

My faith is a bit restored in the Nairobi restaurant scene. Earlier I wrote on this blog about how disappointed I was that I could not find a good Pad Thai. After church this morning, we went out to a mall clear on the other side of the city which we decided to visit because we were halfway there from church anyway. We were planning to have brunch at the nearby Nairobi Java House, one of our favorite restaurants. But while at the mall we saw a restaurant advertising crepes. We always enjoyed having these in Geneva and on visits to various places in France (and the Dutch pancake version in The Netherlands and South Africa). We decided to eat there, but rather than having what had originally enticed us into the place, we each ended up with something different. I was delighted to see one of the lunch special was rosti, a favorite Swiss dish. My favorite place to eat this back in the “motherland” was at a small, dark café a half a block from the capital building in Bern. I always describe it as the Denny’s skillet breakfast. Sarah had some sort of filled potato pancakes (so she had something like a crepe).

The presumed owner was standing in the dining area making the crepes, and Sarah discovered that he’s from Switzerland. Although the place is called the Latin Café, it’s quite broadly European, and we felt very comfortable there, so much so that I had to stop myself from speaking to the waiters in French. They also have quite an extensive offering of different kinds of fondues, so we will have to return there to savor that favorite dish from Switzerland. For dessert, we had a yummy chocolate fondant (a cross between pudding and cake). This is a very European thing too (and very rich and satisfying). I thought I might even be able to get a decent cappuccino there – let’s hope!

Friday, October 31, 2008

Visiting Rwanda and the horrors of the genocide

Last week the three of us piled in the car and took a long road trip west to visit Burundi and Rwanda. The highlight of the trip, er, the lowlight – okay, the most significant part - besides visiting some friends in Burundi was visiting the memorials for the genocide in Rwanda that took place in the early 90s.

I’ll write about the other parts of the trip in another entry on this blog later, but I want to give you my impressions of what we saw in Rwanda here first. We made sure we saw Hotel Rwanda before we visited. If you haven’t seen this movie, do watch it (because chances are you’ll never get to Rwanda like we did). It’s not as well-made as Schindler’s List, but it’s in the same genre and it will hopefully affect you just as much as Schindler’s List did.

When we left Burundi, we drove north into Rwanda and stayed the first night in a medium-sized city called Butare, a pleasant tourist stop with all the helpful services. About 30 km outside the city and outside a village along a rural road is the campus of a former technical school. It’s set among the hills surrounded by hamlets where people raise their animals and grow their food. All along the main road to get to the adjacent village are churches and schools. It’s a quiet, peaceful setting – today, that is. But maybe it’s only quiet because of people’s remembrance and reverence for what happened there, or maybe it’s so haunted by the horrible memories that no one dares to disturb the quiet of the place that is trying to heal its wounds.

The campus was actually never used as a school because it was under construction during the genocide. At one point, for about a week, 50,000 members of the Tutsi tribe fled and took shelter there before they were all massacred. It was later discovered that the very ones who told them they should flee there for “safety” were the government itself, which was behind the genocide. Now the campus is a memorial to the genocide, since so, so many people died there. They were buried in mass graves and then exhumed, and some were reburied elsewhere. This would all make the place significant enough and reason alone for one of the country’s major memorials to the genocide.

But what makes this place significant is the graphic way it portrays the genocide. Inside four blocks of six classrooms each are the dead bodies of a few thousand victims of the genocide, and when one “tours” this memorial/campus, the main part of the tour is viewing these dead bodies. So imagine walking into a minimally finished classroom (just the basic concrete walls and floors), and on three or four wooden-slat platforms are rows and rows of dead bodies placed side by side. To me, they looked like mummies with no clothes, and they had all been preserved with lime, so they were mummies that were bleached white. And like actual mummies, their muscles and flesh had wasted away, so they were mostly bones covered only with a layer of leathery-looking skin (again, very white). They weren’t skeletons – bones only – but contorted, twisted dead bodies.

What hits you first when you walk into each room is the smell – most probably the lime. And then the sight, of course. You see people’s faces – not a skull with empty eye and nose sockets – but covered with skin. Occasionally you would see a tuft of hair on top of a skull, and that, to Sarah, was chilling. There are things like this that remind you that these were real people – living, breathing people with lives and families and who worked and grew up – at one point. To me, they were first many, many dead bodies, and I had to mentally remind myself that, although they were bleached white “mummies,” they all once looked like the Africans with dark brown skin, like the small group that was following us around room to room (the main tour guide spoke broken English, but I think having a baby and being the only visitors there at the time attracted a few other people who appeared just to be hanging out there for the day). What was the most sad and shocking was the sheer numbers of the bodies you could see – and this was only a portion of the murdered who were exhumed and chosen to be preserved so they could be put on display at this memorial. Why did they do this, I asked the man. “To remember,” he said very firmly, but with a taste of bitterness in his mouth, it seemed – like why should something like this have happened and been forced into their memories.

Also sad and shocking was remembering that the last thing every single one of these people knew was fear and pain. When the killings happened, women were raped, some people were made to kill their children and husbands first before they themselves were killed, and people were beaten, hacked to death with machetes, or shot.

Talk about a powerful sensory and physical experience – visually, with smells, and definitely viscerally. I remember being hit this way physically when going through the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and getting to the room where there were hundreds of shoes on display. The smell of old leather and sweat left in the shoes hit me first, and in that way I was reminded of the humanness of it all – that the victims of that genocide wore shoes and were ordinary people just like all of us. But this was the same sensation with the smell and a lot more – not just an object that a human used, but the human him/herself – his/her body. And it was the same sort of experience of visiting a concentration camp like we did in Germany – only worse. On our visit to Dachau, outside Munich, I remember feeling like I could hear, in the emptiness of the place, the thousands of people who had been there. I could hear their voices in the cramped living quarters, and especially when I stood inside the gas chambers, the very place people were slaughtered. But in that place, what I “heard,” the sensory experience, was inside my head. What hit me hardest in the concentration camp was seeing the ovens where bodies were incinerated. In those places, they killed people and then wiped off the face of the earth any last trace of them – that’s how much Jews were hated. But there, in that place in Rwanda, there was a visual reminder – a trace, a body - of who had been there and who was killed, and it made it much more real, tangible, but also stark and scary.

I could have taken pictures of these dead bodies, but I just would not have felt right in doing so. I felt I needed to leave them there without taking anything away with them out of respect and for their dignity. I did search on the web for some photos that others had taken at this place, and here is one:

I didn’t want to, but I made sure to look carefully and thoroughly at some bodies in some of the rooms. Yes, I looked at faces. Occasionally there was a hand on a face, and it made me wonder if that person was killed and frozen in their last pose while they were alive, one of shock and horror – a hand over a mouth that was gasping or shielding their eyes from witnessing murders in those very classrooms. Occasionally a hand or foot was broken off. There were sunken bellies and lots and lots of contorted, writhing bodies.

There were all sorts of people in all of the rooms – young and old, tall and short. There were babies and toddlers. We did not bring Lexi inside any of the rooms with us (one of the people walking around with us kindly watched her). But I saw several bodies of children who appeared to be about Lexi’s age, and I thought how awful it was to have children killed, or even how awful it is that this sort of thing is happening in her lifetime – that such horrors are still going on in her world today.

It was strange, but a woman with our tour guide went ahead of us to unlock each room (each opened to a passage outside). She did it as if there were ordinary things inside, as if to invite us to her museum of many rooms. I guess I couldn’t really expect her as a memorial employee to be falling apart emotionally in opening the door to reveal something horribly sad. This was simply her job and she had done it many times before. But could one ever get used to doing that job? Before we started visiting the rooms, I dreaded what we would see. Our Lonely Planet guidebook had described what was there, but I didn’t know what all these dead bodies would look like. I almost expected to see people’s faces and be able to look into their eyes (dead bodies like one sees at the new crime scene on the crime shows on TV).

Again, there were 24 rooms like this in all. After seeing 12, I said I had seen enough.

Our tour guide wanted us to see just one more, which was a little different than the rest. Inside on one platform were 150 skulls neatly lined up, and on the other platforms were other types of bones that had been separated from bodies.

It was everything you can imagine it was – haunting, chilling, shocking, alarming, horrific, sad, etc. It was all almost too much.

In other buildings, we were shown some of the victims’ clothes and where some French peacekeeping troops stayed.

The next day, we drove on further north to the country’s capital, Kigali. There they have the country’s main memorial. It was established by a U.K.-based foundation that educates people on genocide. It is very well-done and presents the background to the genocide – the history of the country during colonial times, explanations of the cultures and tribes, and the players in the genocide. If the earlier memorial was the visceral, sensory one, then this one provided well the intellectual side and presented the irrationality of the genocide. One could blame just about anybody – or everybody – for the genocide. You could go back and blame the countries that first colonized Rwanda – first the Germans and then the Belgians. One interesting fact about what these colonizers did is to essentially create the Tutsi and Hutu tribes. Apparently before the Germans colonized the country, there were many tribes there, and then the Germans decided arbitrarily that one group was the one who owned ten cattle or more, and the other group owned fewer than ten cattle. Over the decades, the Tutsi and Hutu tribes were pitted against each other in various ways, which ultimately led to the genocide. But again, whom should one really blame? You could go back a long way or else look at recent events and players in them. But one finger that should be pointed is at the rest of us – the international community at the time, the group of nations in the West who basically did nothing but sit and watch this genocide taking place. People from Kofi Annan to Bill Clinton have later admitted that they had the power to do something to stop the killing and regret not taking more action.

At this museum/memorial are gardens where there are also mass graves of victims. We also learned from the displays there of other sites of major massacres. In some cases, huge numbers of Tutsis were killed when they took sanctuary in their churches. In one case, the pastor allowed all of his parishioners to be slaughtered inside his church. In this genocide, humanity was at its worst.

Being in Kigali today, if you knew nothing about the genocide and if you were, say, visiting the city on business, you would probably never know that the country had been torn apart in such a violent way so recently. The city is busy, alive and vibrant. It appears the economy is booming, and there’s a construction boom all over town. People are out on the streets, and business workers downtown go out to lunch and enjoy themselves. There are huge plans to clear slums and put up 5-star hotels all over the city. Foreign investors have bought large tracts of land where slums are, built new housing for the slum’s residents in other areas, have paid them for their land, and will put up their hotels. Huge houses selling for US$400,000 are being built in new neighborhoods. Business areas will be cleared in 2010 and new areas developed. Even the original Hotel Rwanda – the Hotel des Milles Collines (Thousand Hills Hotel), which, surprisingly, is right downtown – is being renovated to capitalize on the increase in tourism and its fame from the movie. We tried to go there for a drink and dinner after our tour of the city but discovered the whole place is closed. It is great to see the country moving forward, but we were a bit puzzled about who would come to stay in the 5-star hotels – can any Rwandans afford it, or what else in the city would attract tourists to come and stay there? The tourist office is very professional about marketing the capital and other parts of the country, but I wonder what reputation the country has beyond the genocide. Unfortunately, people know Rwanda well only for its violence and genocide. I didn’t see the tourist office saying, “Come to our formerly war-ravaged country to relax and enjoy yourself! We’re not killing each other anymore!” But I wondered how and why they expected tourists to come – for what now after the genocide?

On our city tour, we also saw where ten peacekeepers from Belgium had been killed early in the violence. This spot is now a memorial as well. And at various places around the country, sometimes in rural areas, by the side of roads, are smaller memorials. Some are in the form of a small plot of land that looks like a graveyard. Inside these are probably a large common grave for many people. They are usually decorated with some purple fabric and painted with words like “RIP” and “We will never forget you.”

Also a few times while driving through the country, we passed a prison and could see prisoners outside working (behind fences). I found a travel article that a journalist had written about her visit to Rwanda, and she had noticed these prisoners as well. She wrote:

" the car, Foufou, my driver's daughter, had pointed out crumbling houses bombed by the killers, smaller memorials and even pink-clad prisoners convicted of war crimes toiling in the fields.

"I asked her why they are allowed to roam out in the open.

"'They will not escape,' she said. 'They have no place to go amongst their neighbors.'"

After seeing all of this, but especially the first memorial with all the dead bodies, we were obviously very moved and disturbed by this period in the country’s history. I was outraged – and still am – that such things could occur in the supposedly civilized 20th century – and that they still do in the 21st century in places like Darfur. I am moved enough to write to my representative in Congress (but I just may wait until later next week, since my senator in my last home in the state of Illinois happens to be a man by the name of Barack Obama, and I hear he might be leaving his position soon). I hope you would be inspired too by what I have described to you here to write to your member of Congress and/or the president. In my last full-time job, I worked with my employer’s response to the humanitarian crisis in Darfur as a result of the violence and genocide that is going on there. I could tell you a lot about the many terrible things that are happening there as well – villages being destroyed, women being raped, men being slaughtered – and that continue to this day, even after we saw what happened in Rwanda. I urge you to write to your legislator and ask him/her to work to end such situations like the genocide in Darfur. If you need help with this, to know what issue to write about or who your representative is, the ELCA's advocacy website is one place to find this information. We as Americans are in a position to do something about this because of the unique and supreme power and influence of our country, and if you plan to vote next week, then you know you have the power and privilege to participate in our democracy and elect leaders who have authority not only in the territory of the United States, but power and influence in places like Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo, or Northern Uganda. Tell them, as I will, and as we heard in Rwanda, an echo from the Holocaust of Europe in World War II: Never again!

Monday, October 20, 2008

A Long Road Trip

We had been planning for a while to drive to Bujumbura, Burundi to visit friends who had moved there this summer. The 20th is a holiday in Kenya so I took the rest of the week off and early Saturday morning we set out. The plan was to drive to Mwanza, Tanzania which we thought was about half way. The roads in Kenya are NOT consistently good. It took us about 2 hours to go just 100 kilometers and the day's trip was going to be 720 kilometers. We didn't really stop for lunch (we had a picnic lunch in the car) and finally reached the border between the two countries at 2:30. Luckily it only took 40 minutes to cross the border and more good luck for us, the roads in Tanzania are quite good. We made it to our planned destination 11.5 hours after we left home that morning. It was good that we started early or we never would have made it before dark (and you don't want to drive in the dark here).

We thought Sunday would be an easier driving day. We were taking a better road, even though it was longer, but we thought we could make up the difference in speed. Yes - and no. There were all of these small towns with speed bumps so you were constantly slowing down. About 1 PM, we knew we weren't going to make Bujumbura by
 night fall. We did make it to the border town and looked for a place to stay - not as easy as in the U.S. The two best possibilities were full. We finally found a guest house that had a room and after hand motions with the woman who didn't speak English, had a room for the night. It was clean and we had mosquito nets but the toilet was a squat toilet, there was no hot water and no bath towels - and of course, we hadn't thought to bring them.  We made it through the night fine, with Lexi only waking up a little early.

We set out a bit early this morning as well and finally made it to Bujumbura around 1:00 local time.  We were to meet our friend at the US Embassy (where she and her husband work) and then go to their home. The US Embassy in Bujumbura is NOT well marked. We asked three different people for directions (all in French) and finally called our friend for some more help. We had driven past it three different times. It definitely doesn't blare 'embassy' like some US embassys do.

Tuesday we will spend doing some tourist things and then Wednesday, we drive north to Rwanda where we will spend a few days before starting back for Nairobi on Friday. I think I am all ready not looking forward to that drive home!  Too bad we can't warp.

Here is the view from our friends' house in the hill above Bujumbura, overlooking the city and Lake Tanganyika:

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Voting for a local boy (in more ways than one)

A couple of weeks ago, Sarah and I cast our votes for POTUS (President of the United States) and for the office of senior senator from the state of Illinois. For the latter, I voted for the venerable Richard Durban, who holds the same seat as the late, great Paul Simon. (In case you’re wondering about the questions, the answers are yes, we can and do still vote from abroad, and no, we can’t do it over the Internet yet. We receive paper ballots in the mail and send them back the same way. Remember that our last home on American soil was Chicago, where one votes “early and often,” so that city is going to do all it can to get as many votes as it can.)

For the office of president, we voted for Mr. Durban’s esteemed colleague, the junior senator from Illinois, a man I had voted for once already (in that office), Mr. Barack Obama. Although I was an early supporter during the primaries of another Illinois native, Hillary Clinton (she grew up in Park Ridge, which is a Chicago suburb spitting distance from the ELCA), I am a card-carrying Democrat and will really vote for whomever the party puts up as its nominee (except for maybe someone like Sarah Palin).

Although I still carry some disappointment that this was supposed to be Hillary’s day (and, OK, Bill’s comeback), it still makes me proud that my senator is running for president. Not since Abraham Lincoln has Illinois sent someone to the White House, so this could be history in the making in that way as well. I’m not an Illinois/Chicago native, and even though I lived there for eight long years (and it’s where I started my career and met Sarah and got married), I still feel a bit strange calling it my home and saying I’m proud that “my” state’s leaders have taken to the national stage (I don’t feel totally at ease anymore saying I’m from Seattle either, but it’s a little easier to say my heart is on the East Coast, even though I lived there for really only four years during college.) Nevertheless, the fact that we can say we are from Chicago when asked where we’re from while living in Kenya has actually been very convenient. We happen to have chosen the country to live in a year ago where Obama’s father was from. So to say that Kenya has Obama fever is an understatement (last week the man who wrote the latest book that is critical of Obama was unceremoniously kicked out of the country just before he was to give a major press conference at a huge hotel downtown. No one here would deny that the reasons were political – because he was being critical of a native son of the country, where nobody believes he has a single flaw). During Obama’s rise earlier this year, I became grateful that I didn’t hail from a small town in a less popular state, like Topeka, Kansas, or Boise, Idaho, which anyone outside the country has never heard of. It has been very easy to say to Kenyans who ask where in the U.S. I am from that I am from Chicago. It doesn’t take long for the connection to be made and for them to reply with, “Isn’t that where Obama is from?” Last week while in a more remote corner of the country, I had a little fun with this and was telling people I met, “I come from Illinois, and my senator is a man by the name of Barack Obama. Have you heard of him? I already voted for him once as senator, and now I’ve voted to send him to the White House.”

Even though we’re voting for a native son, a hometown boy (even though I just said Chicago truly ain’t my hometown), and we know that Illinois, one of those major industrial and high-population states that is a must-win for any presidential candidate, will no doubt be a blue state, I wish our votes could have been cast in a state where they would have made more of a difference. Our votes for Obama might have tipped the scales in his favor in a battleground state like Virginia if we had voted there.

I’ve had several occasions in the last few years while living abroad to tell Americans back at home of the importance of the U.S.’s role in the world and of a solid American foreign policy and good relations with the rest of the world. In the five years we’ve lived abroad, we have gained a new perspective on our own country (especially from all my studies in my efforts to join the State Dept.), and, because of our line of work with desperately poor people in developing countries, we have seen how dependent many of these countries are on the U.S. in many ways, including economically in general and through foreign aid. This election, as has been said by the candidates themselves, is an opportunity to put the U.S. position with the world right again. Although the U.S. economy is the only thing on Americans’ minds right now, I want to remind all voting Americans that, in my opinion, foreign policy is an equally important issue and just as urgent. You can read one of my earlier posts about meeting some Somali refugees in an enormous camp in western Kenya. For that situation alone, the state of anarchy in Somalia, the world desperately needs a U.S. president who is willing to work with the U.N. and pressure it to resolve that conflict so these refugees can return to their own country.

But I’ll tell ya – and you’ve all probably heard this before – if all the other countries of the world could pick the U.S. president, they would probably elect Obama. And maybe they should be allowed to vote for our president or at least have some say. The U.S. president isn’t just the president of the U.S. – he is truly a world leader. And so I hope Americans can be mindful of this and not so narrowly focused on themselves and what their president will do for them.

So, in a few short weeks, I – along with all of Kenya here – will be watching the election with bated breath. I hope the man who also hails from some of my homes – Chicago and Kenya – wins!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Springtime in Kenya

Okay, the seasons aren't actually changing here, and we're not moving from a cold season to a warmer one and toward a hot one (see one of the earlier posts on seasons). But in the last few weeks, certain trees have been blooming, including the jacaranda trees, a tree common in parts of sub-Saharan Africa (especially in Pretoria, South Africa, which is known as the Jacaranda City).
There's a jacaranda in the yard of the house behind us, and part of it hangs into our back yard. The blossoms are a beautiful pale lavender, and they are delicate, so they tend to fall off the trees quickly and easily. But then they create a pretty carpet of purple on the ground.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

I’m glad I’m not a refugee.

I’m glad I’m not a refugee.

I have expressed this sentiment many times in the last several years as I have traveled for work and have visited refugee camps and met people who are in refugee and internally displaced situations.

More recently, as we have made some moves between not only homes but across oceans and to different continents, I have also somewhat jokingly expressed this somewhat opposite statement that is not as grave as the first:

There is something to being a refugee (i.e., being free from many household and worldly possessions that weigh one down and that tend to own a person rather than the other way around).

I returned last evening from my latest trip as a free-lance communicator here, for my work on my newest project of producing the annual report for 2008 for the Lutheran World Federation Kenya program. It was my first visit for this year’s annual report among the three projects that LWF Kenya operates. It was also my first visit to this particular project – the three refugee camps around Dadaab, which is a tiny town almost directly east of Nairobi and about 80 km from the Kenya-Somalia border and smack-dab on the equator. I flew there on Monday morning and back yesterday on a small-plane United Nations charter flight.

During my few days in Dadaab, LWF marked its first year of work in the three camps, although they have existed there since 1991. The camps are there because of the situation of anarchy, civil unrest and violence that has plagued Kenya’s neighbor, Somalia, for the last several years. Tens of thousands of people have been fleeing the situation for almost the past two decades, but it has gotten worse in the past couple of years, which is when LWF was asked to step in to address the influx of recent refugees.

I had been to LWF Kenya’s “flagship” project a few times before – Kakuma Refugee Camp in northwestern Kenya, which has housed tens of thousands of refugees from Southern Sudan. That is a well-organized, firmly established camp, which LWF has managed since 1993. Because LWF’s involvement in the Dadaab refugee camps is more recent, and because LWF was asked to come in to do some desperately needed organizing of the camp (the physical layout and of the people), I was interested in seeing the differences between the two camps. The circumstances of each camp’s creation and existence are also slightly different too, which made me see some new things that I had not seen on previous visits to Kakuma and other camps in other countries.

For these reasons – learning some marginally new things about refugees – even though I had been exposed to refugee situations before, I still believe in those statements about refugees, but see them slightly differently now. I knew before that those statements could be made in a derogatory light – that they speak ill of refugees and put me in a superior place above their situation, which often they cannot help. It places them in a position of pity from my perspective – “at least I’m not as bad off as them.” I’m well aware of that and work very hard in my work to not portray that attitude of my own (I have to be objective anyway and try not to inject my own opinions into my writing for other organizations) or such an attitude from the organizations I’m working for.

My visit to the camps around Dadaab and speaking to refugees exposed me to some other angles of being a refugee that I knew about before but had not seen so clearly in other situations. I spoke to some refugees who were very desperate for a number of reasons. Dadaab is in a very hot, dry, sandy, dusty and desolate part of the country. The region is essentially a desert. It feels quite isolated. The situation in the camps is dire, mostly because of space and land issues. There is a long list of problems I could list, a vicious cycle of problems, but suffice it to say there are a total of about 217,000 mostly Somalis living in the three camps around the town. The ideal number for each camp is 30,000 residents, but each is holding or approaching 80,000. About 200 refugees arrive unofficially and on their own each day, and there is nowhere to put them – no new land to expand to for new plots for each family.

There is a lot I could write about to describe this dire situation, but I will wait to write these things for the annual report I will produce in the coming months and then perhaps post some excerpts here. But I wanted to share here my personal feelings on the situation, not to say only that I’m glad I’m not a refugee but to name the flip side of that statement – to say what I am grateful for, what I have and what I can do. So, following my visit to Dadaab, here is a reminder of what I am thankful for:

  • My family, especially my wife and daughter. I have not been separated from them by force. We are able to live together. Neither has been killed and taken from me by war. Sarah and I have not been forced by extreme economic circumstances to separate so that one of us can go to work for better pay in a better place.
  • Luxuries like TV and a computer/the Internet. These keep my mind occupied and are ways that I can continue learning about the world. They provide amusement for me daily. In other words, because of these things, my mind is stimulated, and I have something to engage with. For a refugee, there are many hours and many days with few or no external stimuli, and especially with something like a job or a regular task to concentrate on or to accomplish. In other words, I do not suffer from constant idleness, nor is it forced upon me. Plus I have a way to relax, an escape from my day. Not everybody has this.
  • My bed. It is not a flat or scratchy mat on the hard ground. I have blankets and the option to put them on or take them off depending on my temperature.
  • Access to food and a variety of it. I am not dependent on someone else for my daily ration of food. I don’t have to worry about getting tired of eating rice or maize meal every day. I am able to have pasta one night for dinner and rice the next. I can have my favorite peanut butter on toast whenever I want (because I have a toaster too).
  • (This is a big one.) Freedom of movement and the ability to move around. Also the fact that I am a U.S. citizen. I’m grateful that I can move around my own country, that war (or any other disaster) never forced me to move from Illinois to Oklahoma, or that my government never said I couldn’t live on a farm if I chose to purchase land in Texas because of my race or class. I am so privileged in this way, being an American, that I can actually chose – which I have – to live outside my country. And – importantly – this privilege allows me to return at any time! How often do I see on the web advertisements for green cards or study permits to the U.S.? There are so many people in places I’ve been who long to move to the U.S. and who would have so many hoops to jump through – legal ones, not to mention just preparing oneself education- and economic-wise for a big move like that. After seeing how much difficulty others have in moving around – within their own countries or even to visit another country on the same continent as a short-term visitor – I am ever more grateful that I have the option to simply decide at any moment that I will go to the U.S. to live and work and don’t need to ask any government’s permission, and that I can settle anywhere I want! Nobody will tell me that I need a sponsor or to go to a certain place. And I could choose to uproot myself from California and move to Maine if I wanted to. What a privilege!

Friday, October 3, 2008

To everything there is a season – except in Kenya

Here in Kenya, the weather is mostly the same all year ‘round – sunny and warm to bordering on hot. I like warm and hot weather and am happy to give up winter all together. So weather-wise, I’m happy here, where it’s essentially summer (by my North American definition) almost all year long. Because we’re so close to the equator here, the country does not have distinct seasons of winter, spring, summer and fall, but it does have rainy seasons.

It wasn’t until we arrived here from our former home in the Northern Hemisphere – and after several months of living here at that – that we began to notice how much of an impact the weather seasons as well as the various holidays that divide up the year into distinct periods have on ordering our lives and moods.

Lately, people have been saying things that have sounded utterly ridiculous in my mind, which has blissfully gotten wrapped up in the constant warm weather and has forgotten the rhythms of the North American/Northern Hemisphere seasons.

We received a package this week from my mother with a Halloween outfit for Lexi in it. We’ll certainly have her wear it on or around that day, but we might be the only ones here who appreciate it or even know its significance. Last year Lexi had another Halloween outfit, and we were having her wear it well after the date, and Jane, our housekeeper/nanny, never thought it was odd or remarked that the outfit was for a certain occasion. I have seen absolutely no signs of anybody celebrating or even recognizing Halloween here at all. I must say that with things like this, especially from a retail/consumer point of view, this is refreshing – it’s wonderful to visit stores and not have them pushing such a consumer holiday like this so much and so early (or at all). However, there are parts of this time of year that I miss. Sarah’s mother has been talking in her e-mails about picking apples and making cider and apple sauce. That is one thing I love about fall – the fruits that one gets and making things like apple pie. But an advantage of living here is that rhubarb is available year-round, and we’ve enjoyed many pies over the past few months.

Last week, an American woman we know invited us (albeit a bit early) to Thanksgiving dinner at her house. This is the woman who, with her family, always hosts big parties for Americans (and a few others) on the big American holidays. We attended one on the Fourth of July at their house. I know Thanksgiving comes in November, a month that is approaching, but my mind wasn’t signaled to start thinking about that by a change in the weather, which is normally the case. So I was almost dumbfounded by her invitation. The atmosphere and people's daily rhythms here just don't feel like we're headed toward that major holiday of the year.

At church, they've been talking about the "harvest season" and how it's time to consider stewardship and giving. This seems utterly odd to me because this always seemed to go hand-in-hand with back-to-school things in the U.S., and Kenya is on a different school schedule than the U.S. (and for us to have felt connected to a harvest season even while living in cities in the Northern Hemisphere is strange when you really think about it). Sarah confirmed with a coworker that it is, indeed, harvest season in Kenya, where the majority of the population is still involved in farming in some way (this coworker, a city-dweller, was even going to return to his family's plot somewhere upcountry to help with the harvest). But in the U.S., the fall harvest time was always such a big deal because it was the one harvest time of the year, but here, they can get two or maybe three growing seasons in every year, I think, so why September or October would be the harvest season, the time to discuss what we collect, earn and give, I don't know. But at our church, I think they also marched to the beat of the U.S. church season for these types of things because they were probably so missionary-oriented years ago (both Lutheran churches in Kenya were started by missionaries).

We've been here only a little less than a year, but we feel so out of touch with these season changes and the holiday cycles – Memorial Day signaling the beginning of summer, Labor Day marking its end, etc. I like variety and do miss some of the cycles that one gets to go through during the year in the U.S. But being removed from these cycles, I see how strange it is how they order our lives so much and have so much control over us and our moods and actions.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Welcome to Africa column: Church bells and mosque prayers

In nearly every European city and town, you can count on being able to hear the bells from the tower of the medieval church in the center. In Geneva, the hourly chimes and other carillon music coming from the Cathedral of St. Peter became part of the city noise we were used to. We heard it all the time when we were outside our apartment, but to hear it from inside, we needed to open our bedroom window and stick our head out. Church bells are very much part of the landscape of cities and towns in Europe.

Now, in Kenya, it’s a very different scene. Although Kenya is an overwhelmingly Christian country, there are very few bell towers on Christian churches to be found. Instead, every neighborhood has its mosque with its minaret that projects prayer chants five times daily around the surrounding blocks of houses and businesses. The first day’s Muslim prayer session is usually before 5:00 a.m., but we have gotten used to this and don’t even hear it most days (although the dogs in the neighborhood have never grown used to it and still howl at the sound, day or night). As I sit in our upstairs back bedroom writing this, I hear an extended prayer this morning to mark today’s celebration of Eid ul-Fitr, the end of Ramadan (it’s also a public holiday in the country). On Fridays at the lunch hour, Sarah and I can hear the day’s sermon being projected from our neighborhood’s mosque. It’s a different scene than in Europe, but one that still provides a rhythm for the day and week, and one that is comforting in a way, the same way that the songs from the bells of Geneva’s cathedral, sitting high on the hill over the city, meant that everything was normal. The sounds from the mosque have become part of the neighborhood for us, a fixture in our senses.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Giving up on Thai food

I give up. There’s no way we will find decent Pad Thai in this city. Last night, after Sarah got home from her week on business in South Africa, we went out to dinner. We tried a new restaurant, a place that’s listed in the Lonely Planet guide book, which said it had authentic Thai food. Like the other Asian restaurants in town, this place’s Pad Thai just was not the same as what I’m used to and what I like.

I’m almost ready to give up on Chinese food as well. We’ve tried a few Chinese restaurants in town. The last one we went to was a place next to the American embassy on our anniversary a few weeks ago. I love fried noodles, but this dish had no taste. We had tried another Chinese restaurant earlier that bills itself as having “Chinese” and “Thai” food, or maybe it is named something like “Thai Garden.” When we got there, there were no Thai dishes to be found on the menu, and when I asked if they had any, I was told that they use Thai spices in their Chinese dishes. Disappointed again.

I know I’m picky with my food, especially when it comes to something I’m craving at a particular time. Or maybe I’ve just been spoiled. I’ve eaten real Thai food in Bangkok, drunk mojitos in Havana, and have had the most memorable Italian meals in Italy (I remember how good the cappuccinos are even at the airport in Milan). So I get cravings for some of these favorite foods and long for something that will satisfy me, and not every city is cosmopolitan enough to have authentic food from around the world. We have found a really good Italian restaurant down the road from us that we’ve been to many times. The pasta is at least homemade there, and they have a wood-fired pizza oven, so it’s pretty European-style cooking. And there is the Swiss restaurant nearby as well for when we miss fondue, but the weather is too warm here for that most of the time.

I know that no matter where we live, I will never be totally satisfied, that there will be some favorite food that is just not quite like the real thing, like the perfect croissant (like they have in Paris) or the best shepherd’s pie (like they have in London – usually tasteless, but at least it’s authentic).

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Five years as expatriates

Here's a bit of a personal note to ourselves about today, but something that I'll share with the rest of you – my reflections on what the day means to us. This day on our household's calendar used to be marked as our "Geneva anniversary," the day we arrived in Geneva in 2003, having sold our house and car and left our friends and family behind, as well as most of our possessions. We had left our home and country, but we had set out on a great European adventure. Neither Sarah nor I had really taken the requisite backpacking tour through Europe as a young person, but we ended up becoming residents for several years and adopting and liking many customs there. We were still young and enjoyed those years immensely. I often thought of our move there, essentially leaving my country for work and economic opportunities, as doing the opposite of – and even undoing – the work of my great-grandfathers, who had left a poor part of Europe more than a century before. What would they have said if they knew that one of their great-grandsons had returned to a very prosperous Europe and to opportune locales?

Of course, "Geneva anniversary" isn’t what's on our calendar anymore now that we live in Nairobi. Today has become our "living out of the country anniversary." It has been five years now. I'm very pleased to think of that period as most of the years in the George W. Bush administration (however, having to represent him abroad as our president has been a real burden), and I'm pleased to remember that we haven't paid one single cent in U.S. federal taxes in all those years (thus not financing an unjustified war in Iraq). We are thinking about our return to the U.S. now. It will happen sometime in 2009, and we're ready to be back where we came from. We would like to say that we can come back because Bush won't be president anymore, and we'd like it even more to say we're returning because Obama will be president. But really it is our decision. Living abroad has been fun, and there are certain advantages that we do not have in the U.S. Just to name a few, the weather is great (warm and sunny) for longer periods of the year in Nairobi, we have a nanny/housekeeper, and we feel like tourists constantly because there are always so many new things to see. So we appreciate all that we’ve done and gained in the last five years.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Back in South Africa

So I am back to South Africa, roughly 1 month later for a meeting for work. We are going to be here a whole week. It is much colder here than it was 2 weeks which is going to be problematic for me as I didn’t bring the right type of clothes! People will just have to get used to seeing me in the same sweater every day…

Stephen and I are still trying to figure out why Kenyans seem to give oblique answers – or can’t give you the correct answer, but give you an answer that they think you want to here. ‘Is this chicken?’ ‘Yes.’ But it’s not – it’s turkey. ‘How small does that playpen fold up?’ ‘Yes.’ We can’t believe that these people don’t know the right answers – but they don’t seem to be trained in customer service at all.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The world lives!

In reference to one of my earlier posts about the new Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva (see below), this news was released this morning: The collider was switched on for some tests this morning, and I'm happy to report that, by the very fact that I am writing this, by the fact that I'm able to report this news, the world has survived!

However, I was sitting at the desk in our spare bedroom/office this morning, and I did feel a slight tug at my body, as if a small black hole was trying to suck a large chunk of Africa into it. But I grabbed on to the large rocking chair we have next to the desk, and I was able to remain in the room. I then continued my work at the computer as usual.

Unfortunately, there's another point in the near future when the world may come to an end: November 4, the day Americans go to the polls. If they elect John McCain and Sarah Palin to a third Bush term in the White House, then we are all doomed!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Out of Africa

As Stephen explained re: our visit to South Africa, it truly did NOT feel like Africa to me. If that is the only country you ever visit in Africa, I feel like you really have not been - even if you do go to one of those native villages set up for tourists.

And yes, we didn't go into the really poor rural areas - which I am told there are some - but we did see some of the rural parts, though the more wealthy ones I think. First off, the roads are SO good. It's amazing after Kenya. It was such a pleasure to drive a car there. No potholes, people follow the traffic rules, things are well sign-posted. Second, the stores have a whole assortment of things (not so different from Kenya) BUT I don't think we had a power outage the whole two weeks! And they are supposed to be having an energy crisis.

All in all, it was a nice trip and I am glad we went. It was different traveling with a wiggly 1-year old, but I think she enjoyed it as well. We went to an acquarium one day and she looked at all of the fish and of course, she likes to look at people wherever they are.