Thursday, January 31, 2008

Life in a Slum

When people talk about the slums here, I have a certain picture in my mind, though I have never been in one (unlike Stephen). But my mental pictures are all pretty negative. One of the staff in the finance unit here lives in the large slum closest to where we live. At a meeting the other day, someone mentioned the slums (they used that word) and wondered what she thinks when she hears the place (neighborhood) where she lives described that way. It made me feel rather uncomfortable – like she was being put down – but maybe she doesn’t see it that way.

Things are not getting better in the slums though – the small shops that the people would go to have either been destroyed or aren’t opening. At the ones that do open – and have goods to sell – prices have shot up (often at least doubled). There are food shortages and people can’t pay the prices for the food that is there. I can understand people being angry that the election didn’t turn out fairly; what I really don’t understand is all of the violence. How can killing someone better your own situation? Looting makes more sense – though I don’t think that it is the way to climb out of poverty either. I don’t know what type of pictures you are seeing in the media but here there have been photos of people being hacked to death and the paper reported the other day that 10 people were in the hospital with arrows in them. I can understand why people are scared and leaving their homes.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A moving experience

I’m writing from Kakuma Refugee Camp, in the far northwest of Kenya, where the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) Kenya/Sudan program (Sarah’s employer) plays many roles in the management of the camp, which is home to more than 60,000 people these days. I’m here because I’m producing this LWF program’s annual report for 2007 and am visiting most of the project areas in Kenya and southern Sudan to gather information and photos for the report.

This morning I was up very early, before sunrise, to see a group of Sudanese refugees leave the camp and return home. The war in their country is over, a peace agreement is signed, and these refugees are slowly leaving and going back home to start rebuilding their lives and their country, most of them starting from nothing.

We went to watch the final steps of the departure process this morning at the reception/departure center. We woke them up when we arrived while it was still dark so they could be fed a hot meal by LWF and loaded on buses. Some were already awake, however. They were checked out a final time by UNHCR on registration sheets, and each submitted a final “signature” – a thumbprint – on their identity papers.

All the families and individuals had piled up the entirety of their worldly possessions in the open areas between the sleeping shelters and then moved them over to the bus-loading area after eating breakfast. They had apparently loaded some of their other materials and possessions from their homes onto larger cargo trucks – the corrugated iron sheets that had been the roof of their houses and perhaps their sleeping mattresses.

I’m not sure how emotional the departure from the camp was for the several hundred who left this morning, but it was emotional for me to witness. I spoke to one young woman, 20 years old, who has been living in the camp since 1994. She doesn’t really remember anything about Sudan, where she was born. As I watched these people return to their home country, people who have been refugees, individuals without a home or a country, I was feeling a lot of things for/with them – they must have felt some excitement to return to their country, their familiar home areas, but anxiety as well, not to mention some sadness, perhaps, at leaving a place where many have lived for several years or more.

As I watched families scramble and try to keep small children together and round up luggage, I thought of myself and how I’ve moved long distances in my life, doing the same. As I watched these people load onto five buses, I remembered how I boarded a Greyhound bus in Boston at the end of the summer after my senior year of college to move to Chicago, which really was the beginning of my adult life. I recalled how scary that was. I knew Chicago a little from having visited a couple times, but I was going to a new home far from the one I had known for several years to establish myself, basically from scratch.

And I recalled moves I had made to new countries. Indeed, these were voluntary and not forced moves, but there are some similarities between me and my moves and the return of these people to a different country, and there are differences as well, of course. I recalled my feelings of both anxiety and excitement (felt simultaneously) about moving to a new place and country as I began my journey. Of course, when I’ve moved overseas, it has been away from home, so mine has been the opposite situation. The refugees carried the entirety of their worldly possessions with them, and what was important to them – clothing in suitcases, and, for some people, a large wooden cross carried in their hands, or a small radio-tape player, and, for many families, plastic dishes and cups and water cans. One man even had a live chicken bound by its feet by a cord and hanging upside down from his waist. When I’ve moved, I’ve had my luxuries – my extras – shipped ahead – my piano music and favorite pillow and kitchen implements – while my most valuable possessions, what I hold most dear and important, are the laptop computer, my iPod and digital camera. What a world of difference!

What an amazing time to experience with these people this morning, with all the symbolism and practical significance it carries. I felt a connection with them because of the life I’ve lived in the past several years – moving and living in two countries outside my home country and knowing what it feels like emotionally (and some of the practical challenges too!) to leave a place and start new in another country. But I also felt quite distant from them because of the differences between our moves – they as people who left their homes and country by force, and me by choice, and how difficult it is for them to go back, but how much help I’ve had from others to make my move easier. But there we were this morning, sharing that moment together, me with my memories of the past, and them experiencing those same emotions in the present.

Friday, January 25, 2008

My bizarre trip into the heart of the violence

Last Saturday I took a bit of a major trip - but just for the day - as part of the work I’ve been doing for the past few weeks for my former employer, ACT International, on this Kenya political and humanitarian crisis. There were many bizarre parts to it.

On Thursday, I was asked to come in to the Church World Service office the next morning for an informal meeting with the man I’ve been dealing with, Sam. On Friday morning, he asked me what I was doing on Saturday. “Nothing, really,” I told him. In fact, he had already booked me to fly with him up to Kisumu for the day on Saturday. Kisumu is Kenya’s third largest city and is in the extreme west, on the shores of Lake Victoria.

Now, if you’ve been living in Kenya during this crisis over the presidential election, you’ve been hearing every day on the news, when they’ve been talking about rallies and violence and looting and burning of shops and people killing each other, a few towns, and Kisumu has always been mentioned. Kisumu is where the bedrock of support is for the main opposition candidate, the man who’s in this bitter battle for the presidency, which he says was stolen in the election by the current president. His supporters, mostly of the Luo tribe, which are heavy in the Kisumu area, got so angry at the supporters of the president, who is of the Kikuyu tribe, that the Luos have been taking out the election on the Kikuyus in violent ways. So Sam was taking me into the heart of the violence! Because this is where the violence has been worst, it’s where the people are suffering the most – many people forced from their homes. Sam wanted to take me with him while he assessed the needs for a response by the ACT members and I gathered information and photos for communications purposes. He didn’t tell me we were going until the last minute so I wouldn’t get afraid and back out because of the violence, plus he decided to go quite late on a Saturday, a day the opposition party wasn’t calling for mass action (which has always turned violent). In fact, in the three days before we went there, there were rallies and all sorts of destruction caused.

So quickly to the highlights:

I got up very early on Saturday morning and went to the airport. Who was on the same flight as ours but the member of parliament for Kisumu and the secretary-general of the country's opposition party. And guess who sat next to this secretary-general, one of the top leaders of the Orange Democratic Movement, this well-known professor? Yours truly. It was interesting. All over, even when the plane was in the air, he was treated and spoken to by strangers as a celebrity politician. Well, now that I’ve gotten to “know” him, I see his name all over the place. Since he’s not the candidate who ran for president (and thus doesn’t need to be so diplomatic) but is still a high-ranking leader in the party, he is able to push the party’s aggressive agenda and say the president doesn’t care to cooperate in the peace talks that are going on right now, which I heard him saying on the radio this morning.

In Kisumu, I spent the entire morning with Sam at the compound that is the regional headquarters of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kenya (affiliated with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in the U.S.). Then at noon I was whisked off to another ELCK compound to see a small distribution of corn flour take place to some displaced people. Then Sam and a staff member of the Anglican Church of Kenya came to fetch me and we grabbed some Chinese take-away for a late lunch at the food court above the large grocery store in town. We ate this in the truck on our way out of town to see another group of displaced people 40 kilometers away. So here I was in the back seat of the truck, trying to eat very hot Chinese food out of containers that were impossible to open while driving over extremely bumpy roads. It was hard to guide the spoonfuls of food to my mouth, and I was determined not to spill on my white shirt. It’s a good thing I had my Chinese food to concentrate on, because occasionally I looked up at the road and could see many oncoming large trucks and buses that we were whizzing by at a high rate of speed, barely missing each time.

The other bizarre thing about our afternoon trip was that, behind me, in the bed of the truck, we were transporting a coffin. Mind you, it was empty, but Sam mentioned something about a man in this other town we were driving to whose wife had died and how he wasn’t able to get a coffin to bury her in there or wasn’t able to transport the coffin from the big city of Kisumu, so could we bring a coffin when we came…I didn’t quite understand the story – I just sort of went along with it because it was too strange to ask about. So we had picked up this coffin before we left town in a part of Kisumu where there were many shops that made wooden coffins and displayed them out on the street (I bet they were doing a brisk business in this period).

Believe me, people, I’m not making any of this up!

After stopping several times to pick up various people and goods and drop them off, after two hours, we arrived in Muhoroni, where we met with some government official at a place behind which were living many displaced families. After several minutes of this meeting, I pulled out my flight schedule and declared to Sam and all present that I was going to miss my flight, which was due to leave in about two hours back in Kisumu. Well, there was still some business for our driver to take care of, and we didn’t start heading back until 5:00 for my 6:40 flight. He assured me that I would not miss my flight. So we drove back on the same bumpy roads (luckily I didn’t have to worry about eating a meal of Chinese food this time) and actually got to the airport a half hour before my flight was to leave. I was happy to be there and be on my own, where there were fewer chances of any more bizarre things happening to me that day. Fortunately, this was the case. I was safe at home again by 8:00 after an adventurous day.

I will post on this blog the feature article I write from this trip.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Christmas in January

Today was Christmas!

Strangely, we got a huge stack of Christmas cards today (we get all our mail at Sarah’s office) from many of you. The bulk of our personal Christmas mail started to trickle in last week. As we’ve been telling people, the country’s been experiencing a bit of turmoil lately, so perhaps mail delivery isn’t a priority when you’re not sure who exactly is the president and when people are being shot and killed in the streets regularly.

We opened the cards over dinner this evening, one at a time like they were Christmas presents.

Thanks to all of you whose cards we received today for the bit of Christmas cheer in our warm January!

A little (neutral) patch of "home"

As Sarah mentioned on our other blog, we tried a new restaurant on Friday night - Rudy's French-Swiss Gourmet Restaurant. It's in our neighborhood.

What a delightful place. It was cool and damp outside, so we sat inside by the fire. The main room feels like an old, colonial house. All over the walls are photos of Rudy over the years. We sat under the one of him with Sir Edmund Hillary, quite appropriate for the day. On the other side of the table was a picture of him with some others playing elephant polo. He's sort of like a modern-day adventurer, although you never really think of the Swiss as adventurers - they're so conservative. On the other walls were pictures of cities in Switzerland - Basel, Zurich. We recognized most of them.

Rudy himself is, indeed, from Switzerland - St. Moritz, the German-speaking part. He was a flight attendant for Swiss Airlines for 20 years and spent many of them training flight attendants for Eastern African airlines. So he's been all over the world. He started this restaurant seven years ago. He spent the holidays in Switzerland and brought back many cheeses, he told us.

We had to have the fondue, of course. Sarah thought it was good, but I just didn't think it was the same. It wasn't heavy and thick enough. But it was a good night for a big Swiss cheesy meal. And it was fun to taste a bit of "home" - or at least our former home. It was a bit on the expensive side, however, but, of course, we were very used to that in Switzerland, so even the prices are authentic!

So, if any of you come to visit us and want a taste of Switzerland in the middle of Africa (especially if you didn't get to visit us in Europe), we'd be happy to take you to Rudy's!

Sunday, January 20, 2008

How guilt can fill the wealth-poverty divide

The other day, when I went into the Mathare slum in another part of Nairobi with staff from Church World Service, a member of my former employer, ACT International, to gather information for a story about the violence that’s been occurring there, I had a strange and unsettling experience.

We were shown a patch of land, almost as big as a city block, that had been completely burned down. I was told that on that spot had stood houses that belonged to about 600 families plus businesses. They were all burned down on December 30 in the violent unrest that erupted immediately following the announcement of the disputed presidential vote. The people who burned the area did it deliberately and maliciously, starting the fires from each of the corners of the lot simultaneously, so that even if the residents had tried to put out the fires – which they did – the area would have burned down anyway.

Then we actually walked across the charred remains of many houses to get to another part of the slum. And as we did this, my cell phone rang. I answered it, and it was the satellite TV company. We had a satellite TV dish installed and got this service soon after we arrived, and the person was calling to find out if we were satisfied with the installation and the service so far.

Only in Africa. What a contrast this was. Here I was, standing on the remains – nothing but ashes, in fact – of a place where 600 families (for the total number of people that is, multiply that by 5 or 6, which is the number of people humanitarian organizations use for the average family in the developing world has) were forced out and who are now homeless. And here I was talking to somebody (who was not aware of where I was standing at the moment) about the absolute luxury I have in my house that’s way too large for my family of three.

Well, it’s enough to make you pause. I can’t say that I will now obey the biblical mandate to go out and sell everything I have and give it to the poor. I’m not sure what exactly I should do, because even if we get rid of the satellite TV, then we’ll still have many luxuries here, and our arrangement to have some of these luxuries is a bit intentional. But incidents like this only make it harder to come to Africa to live as an expatriate and to work for a humanitarian organization where, by design, my job is to come into contact with the poorest of the poor, people who have been through some of the worst experiences of their lives, while having one foot back in the world of absolute comfort, only a few miles away.
See the article I wrote after this visit to this slum in an earlier post on this blog.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Welcome to Africa column: My new Kenyan coiffure

In this edition of this new column, I will tell you about getting a haircut in Nairobi. I’ve gotten it done twice since we moved here, both times at a place at the shopping center close to our house. Parts of it are quite different than in Europe or the U.S.

I’ve gone to a place that’s a bit of a barber shop-salon combination – they cut both men’s and women’s hair – and therefore the haircut itself is like this – a sort of barber-salon cut. Like at a barber shop, they don’t wash your hair (for men, at least) before cutting it. The cutting part is pretty much the same – what I’m used to.

But then as they clean up, that’s when a few surprises come. Last time, but not so much this time (today), the cutter took a towel and essentially batted at my head with a large wad of it, like one would bat against a wall with a folded newspaper or magazine when trying to kill a fly. This was apparently to get the large clumps of cut hair, and perhaps some of the fine snips of hair that cling to one’s face, off my head. He did this a few times last time.

Then they disappear into the back and come back with a small plastic tub full of warm water. Into that they put a few drops of what smells like Pine-Sol – a disinfectant. Isn’t this for cleaning your kitchen floor well, rather than putting on your face and head? Then, as if getting whacked with a towel a few times wasn’t bad enough, they take a washcloth from this kitchen-floor-cleaning solution and wipe your face and back of your neck with it – not gently, but with great pressure, as if scrubbing dirt stains off linoleum (doesn’t it mean you have to use less elbow grease when you use Pine-Sol?). They also scrub your hair/scalp quite vigorously with this washcloth, I suppose as a substitute to rinsing the fine hairs out after cutting. After this step, one feels quite manhandled. No gentle massages while getting one’s hair shampooed at this salon.

I suppose I could try going to a different place, but usually I go during the day while Sarah has the car at work, so I don’t have many choices to get to by foot.

Our neighborhood's claim to fame

The other day I discovered, while reading a magazine, our neighborhood’s claim to fame (besides being very close to the country’s largest slum, home to 1 million people): The headquarters of the Green Belt Movement Kenya, whose director, Wangari Maathai, you may recall, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.

Their building is literally on the same street as our house, within a (long) stone’s throw of our place. Maybe some of that Nobel luster will rub off on us while we’re here!

In Geneva we lived fairly close to Sophia Loren, and she and I had the same coiffure (OK, I'll admit it - that's not true, nor did we ever run into her at the Saturday outdoor market near our houses). But I’ll keep my eyes out for Nobel Prize winners at our grocery store and inform you if I see any!

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Tribute to a passport

Dear Passport,

I’m sorry, but I had to replace you today. It wasn’t me, but my government, who said your time is up, that your expiration date was approaching later this year. I went to the American embassy here in Nairobi and picked up a new blue booklet full of crisp, blank sheets.

But I do want to thank you for serving me so well for nearly a decade. I got you in 1998 in Chicago, when I was more youthful, before I was about to embark on a wonderful return to Zimbabwe for the World Council of Churches assembly there, preceded by a tour of South Africa and around Zimbabwe with my parents. Since then, you have come with me on an amazing career and life of travel around the world. You have accompanied me on every one of those trips, from Israel to Indonesia and India, from Bangkok to Brussels and Bangladesh. You have been a faithful travel companion, always staying close to me, often near my heart in the holder I wore around my neck. You smoothed the way every time when I arrived and left the many countries I have visited and were my very ticket to my entry and return home.

And you have been my very identity. You have indicated that I am an American citizen, with more freedom to travel and enter places than most people on the planet have. You have been the mark and brand that give me privileges that few other people enjoy – voting in and being a citizen of the most powerful and influential nation on earth, for one.

You are well worn now, and a couple years ago, you even graciously expanded for me so you could continue to serve me when I added more visa pages to you at the U.S. embassy in Bern, back in our old home of Switzerland. You show signs of age, of your full life, lived nearly to the maximum of a decade. The many stamps you contain in your pages are visible signs of your age but more importantly your worldliness. You plainly show you’ve been places in your life. From the top of the world above the Arctic Circle in Norway to the bottom of the world at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, you have gone to the ends of the earth. Now, it’s probably appropriate that you end your life in the middle, near the equator in Kenya.

I have a new travel companion who will go with me from now on. It’s different than you, but not necessarily better. Apparently it contains an electronic chip that will help identify me better. But in so many ways, because of where we’ve been together and what we’ve seen, you have been a description of a good part of my identity for the last third of my life or so.

You have four holes in you now that render you invalid, but I will hold on to you for the memories we share.



A country and people hanging in the balance

Here is the second feature article I have written for my former employer, Action by Churches Together (ACT) International, and a few photos that I took from my visit to the slum on Friday last week:

A country and people hanging in the balance

Nairobi, January 14, 2008--While opposing political parties and outside mediators struggle to find a peaceful solution to Kenya’s political crisis in the highest halls of power, another struggle for peace is being played out on the streets of the country’s capital and in other hotspots across the country.

The disputed announcement of the results of the presidential election on December 30, 2007, has sparked violent unrest across Kenya. Riots have erupted, businesses and houses have been looted and burned, women have been raped, and people have been hacked to death with machetes as the presidential candidates and their parties have traded accusations of voter fraud.

Muthare, Nairobi’s second largest slum area and home to 800,000 people, is one of the areas hardest hit by the violence. Rioters burned to the ground a large section of houses and businesses in the slum, leaving about 600 families homeless. A total of 225,000 people across Kenya have been forced from their homes and desperately need food, shelter, clothing and medical care.

But amid the struggle to meet the physical needs of displaced people, and while the country awaits a solution among the politicians at the top, another battle has developed among Kenya’s peoples that could last beyond this political crisis.
Those causing the violence and their victims are largely divided along the lines of the two biggest political parties, and the conflict has further been defined along the lines of Kenya’s tribal divisions. Most affected by the conflict are members of the majority Kikuyu tribe, to which Mwai Kibaki, the president since 2002 and declared winner of the December election, belongs.

Muthare resident Jacob Ogodo, 24, watched his neighborhood erupt in violence after the election. “This has been the worst experience for young people. We have never seen such a thing,” said Ogodo.

He said members of different tribes were living together in Muthare for decades, but now they are fighting. He described the difficulties he and other residents have in buying food, and how houses have been burned and belongings stolen. “Women and children are innocent and suffering,” he said.

Gathering on a calm day nearly two weeks after the election, Ogodo and other boys who are members of a community working group that promotes empowerment spoke about the pressure they were under to join the violence. In part because of his involvement in the working group, Ogodo resisted the pressure and encouraged his peers to resist as well. “I advised them not to take part in looting,” he said.

The working group is coordinated by GROOTS Kenya, a local partner of Church World Service-Kenya (CWS), which in turn is a member of Action by Churches Together (ACT) International. CWS has been working with GROOTS Kenya in Muthare since before the election, and now, in addition to meeting the urgent physical needs of people in this crisis, CWS is exploring ways to work with members of the GROOTS Kenya groups in Muthare to address some of the psychological and social issues that have arisen because of the violence.

Ogodo owns a small shop on one of Muthare’s business streets that sells batteries, cell phone cards and CDs. It was spared in the violence, but many of the others who were also lucky have kept their businesses closed for now out of fear of continued looting. Ogodo decided to keep his business open, motivated by his hope that the situation will soon improve. But the number of shoppers out during the week is down significantly, noted Ogodo.

There is a mixture of pain and optimism in Ogodo’s voice as he speaks of his neighborhood and country being torn apart but with the hope it can be reunited. “We should be living together as neighbors,” he said, adding that this is especially true in this time of crisis when neighbors need to share basic food items like salt and tea that are in short supply.

In Ogodo’s voice, one hears the fear of watching his country teetering on the brink, of being at a turning point that could determine his future, of slipping into a drawn-out battle between ethnic groups of the type Kenya’s neighbors have experienced.

Approximately 77 percent of Kenya’s population of 37 million is under the age of 29. People like Ogodo who are young participants in Kenya’s democracy are confused by the disputed election and resulting chaos and fearful of what will happen to their country as they become citizens who are able to contribute to its welfare.

Ogodo sees young people as part of the solution to the country’s crisis. He said they are still young enough to remember living and attending school together and need to remember how they got along before their tribal differences became something to fight and kill over.

Ogodo maintains hope for his neighborhood and country by acting it out. He said, “I try to preach peace. After all, we are still brothers, we are still sisters, we are still neighbors.”

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Teetering on the brink

Well, the peace talks have failed. We had the current chair of the African Union, the president of Ghana, here for the past few days, and he ended up going home without brokering an agreement between the president and the opposition party. So far we’ve had him, Desmond Tutu, four former African heads of state, and probably a few others come through to try to mediate for peace. Now there’s talk of brining Kofi Annan in.

The president is really being shrewd and is consolidating his power and making it harder to unseat him through any legal or political means. He named half his cabinet this past week, which entrenches him more and shows that he’s claiming the presidency back even more. Now he can claim, “I’m trying to govern here! Can’t you let me get on with it?” He also appointed another former rival, a man who was a member of another, smaller opposition party running against him as president, as vice president. So the thinking is that by bringing part of the opposition onto his side, if there is a re-election, the president’s party would have slightly less than a majority of the vote (if the “accurate” results are the same as the first election), but then with a candidate from an opposition party in his camp now, he can collect their votes, giving him a clear majority.

So now what? The major opposition party has called for rallies again next week on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. So it looks like we’re in for another week of uncertainty – threats of violence, office and shop closures, staying indoors, etc. But then these rallies end up being canceled.

Meanwhile, the humanitarian crisis across the country continues with hundreds of thousands of people who were forced from their homes by the violence remaining homeless. Yesterday I spent much of the day out again with Church World Service (CWS), an ACT member, who is sponsoring distributions of emergency relief supplies to some of the displaced families from the slums in Nairobi through the Kenya Evangelical Lutheran Church. Yesterday’s trip was for a slightly different purpose. I went with some CWS program staff who work with a partner that works with groups of youth and orphans and women caregivers in the Muthare slum. This is where I went last weekend for the distribution of food. Actually it was just outside the slum because going into the slum was too dangerous. Well, I flirted with danger yesterday by going into the slum (trust me, my hosts asked a lot of questions about who we could go with and where the safest streets were, especially given the fact that another white person and I were among the group – they were afraid we would be mobbed by people desperate for food).

What an eye-opening trip this was! Well, nothing that I saw was really a surprise or new to me (I’ve seen poverty in Africa that looks like this before as well as displaced people). But my mind, rather, is expanding to the additional social consequences this disputed presidential election has brought about from what I heard residents of the slum say yesterday. For the first part of our visit, we talked to some youth (boys and a young man who is 24) about life in the slums and what they think needs to happen – how peace on the streets can be achieved. The more I ponder what he says, the more I realize that this country is on a razor’s edge (and will continue to be for the coming week) from the social/civil-society perspective. I got the impression that things could easily go either way – all-out civil war or genocide or a return to the way Kenyans were living before. We’ve got some elements of the Israel-Palestine situation here. Those with nothing (in the deepest of poverty) have nothing to lose and so will not hesitate to fight and resort to violence to try to gain something – anything – not necessarily for their benefit, but for their country’s benefit. I caught a glimpse, as these youth have as well, of a country that could so easily go down the tubes and how painful it is to see your country turn and in such a short period of time. This is what has happened to all of the countries around it practically – but this was never supposed to happen with Kenya.

So the whole world knows from what it’s seeing in the media that political solutions at the top levels of the government need to be found. But how this country can go on at a social level (it’s now largely a conflict between tribes) makes the political solutions seem almost easy. This larger issue is something I almost don’t want to think about. It’s too big and too complex and would be too devastating and have widespread, dire consequences for this whole country (and region of Africa).

I’ll post the feature article I will write for ACT about this work with youth in the slums when I finish it.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Church members: How you can (and should) help in Kenya

Some of you following this blog and what I’ve been doing for ACT have told me that you’ve been sharing my work and telling people what I’ve been doing in your own congregation. That’s wonderful, and I thank you. That’s exactly why I’m doing this, and I know you’re grateful to have a personal connection to the situation (as I am to be the connection for you). The normal channels of getting information from the field (where I have been going and where I am) into congregations (of denominations and agencies around the world that are members of ACT) are through the ACT office in Geneva (where I used to work), then through the national headquarters offices of the member denominations (such as the ELCA Churchwide Offices in Chicago, also where I used to work), and then from there to congregations. But if you’re bypassing all that, that’s okay and welcome!

But in case you don’t know how to officially connect or be involved in this response in your congregation, let me put my old “salesman” hat on and remind you of the ways:

In the ELCA: The mechanism in congregations to engage/support/contribute to this crisis is International Disaster Response, which is a giving opportunity of the World Hunger Appeal. You may send/give money (100 percent of your contribution goes to the disaster you designate!) to ELCA International Disaster Response (indicating your contribution should go to "Kenya violence"). Note: Lutheran World Relief is another way for ELCA congregations to connect to this crisis (and they’re responding here as well), but I’ve always encouraged members of ELCA congregations to give “at home” first – give to your own church/denomination (in other words, give to the ELCA's own International Disaster Response), where you attend worship, as that gives the ELCA the opportunity to provide support to its other partners, such as the Lutheran World Federation (which is where Sarah happens to work and which also does work just as worthy as LWR’s).

In the Presbyterian Church (USA), which is also a strong member of ACT, the mechanism in congregations to engage/support/contribute to this crisis is Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. I know the head of this program, so I can attest to its integrity and good use of your contributions as well (its sister church – the Presbyterians here in Kenya – has a big presence). I believe PDA has good resources on disasters for children as well (a question I got from a reader). I know Church World Service is also a channel used by Presbyterians sometimes, and I’ve personally been to places where they are working.

Most of all, I encourage you to make a contribution (you can even give online with a credit card at each website above). I know Americans often feel like these crises are so far from them and that they as ordinary citizens can’t be personally involved or fix political situations or help people who are homeless on the streets of Nairobi. But in cases like this, money works and can do something – it can go a long way in purchasing vital relief supplies (in other words, don’t start collecting clothing, tents, canned food or any other material item to ship here). We can buy these goods here at a discounted rate (when bought in bulk), which makes your contribution go further and which puts money back into the economy.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

New "column": Welcome to Africa

We’re inaugurating a new “column” or feature here on The Middle Bulge called “Welcome to Africa.” It’s the new iteration of my occasional “This is Switzerland” e-mails that gave a slice of life in that country. Here we will feature similar happenings, oddities or idiosyncrasies that make Africa or Kenya unique. The title is something I’ve said to Sarah several times since we moved here after she or I have complained about how things just aren’t the same here as they are in Europe or the U.S. – they just don’t run as smoothly or efficiently or they just don’t do things the same way (in a way that makes sense to us).

Today’s entry is a random thought but something that I just can’t get over. I stopped by the post office today to mail four letters. The man behind the counter, like the woman who was there the last trip I made to the post office, took my letters, determined the postage for each, and then tallied up the total on the calculator, which was 535 Kenyan shillings. I handed him a 1,000 shilling note, and he then proceeded to punch 1,000 into the calculator followed by 535 to figure out what change to give me. Why can’t the people at the post office make change and figure it out in their head?

Following presidents here and there, then and now

One thing I had to give up to come to Kenya is living in the U.S. during the presidential campaign. Today I feel like I’m really missing out on some of the excitement and action of it all. I’m feeling nostalgic for my college days and remember fondly the day of the New Hampshire primary election in 1992. I had been volunteering that fall at the national headquarters of the Paul Tsongas campaign, and this was a man who was a rising star. On N.H. primary day, I think I skipped my classes and hitched a ride with a TV reporter I found at the headquarters up to Manchester. There I hung out most of the day at the restaurant where the Tsongas end-of-the-day party was going to take place. It turns out it was the party for the day’s victor, so it was a lot of fun to be there in person to see the candidate make his victory speech.

Up to that point, the victor in New Hampshire had always gone on to win the nomination – that was the pattern. Well, history took a new turn, and the man who came in second that day in New Hampshire, who until shortly before then was a real unknown, had the name of Bill Clinton. He declared himself the “comeback kid” that night. A few months later, Tsongas dropped out of the race (because a close friend had stolen campaign money and left him unable to compete in the New York primary), and a few years later, he died when his cancer recurred. In an ironic twist, his widow, Niki, whom I met that victorious night in N.H., now holds the seat in Congress that her husband once held due to a special election that was held last year.

But now my aspirations rest on another presidential race – or the consequences of it. Here in Kenya, where the disputed results of the presidential vote have caused violent unrest and a humanitarian crisis across the country, I’ve returned to the work of my former employer, Action by Churches Together (ACT) International and have started to provide my communications services to the local ACT members in this crisis.

In December, shortly after moving to Kenya, I was worried that nothing would materialize in the new year, when I felt I would be ready to get involved in solid and meaningful work again. Well, I guess I’m in the right place at the right time. It seems this crisis will be good for me (as bad as that sounds) and that it will satisfy at least some of what I wanted to get by moving here.

I’ve been hired for 7 to 10 days by one of the ACT members in Kenya – Church World Service – but am being made available to all other ACT members here to gather information to write feature articles and take photos for them. So Church World Service wants to send me from east to west in Kenya to gather the stories of what is happening and how ACT is responding to the crisis. In the next several days, they want to fly me to Mombasa and to Kisumu and nearby areas in the western part of the country where the worst of the violence has occurred.

Besides that, in becoming involved with these members, I am learning what it is like in the field, as they call places like Kenya in Geneva. I wanted to get some experience of working in a developing country to round out my resume after having worked at the national level (at the ELCA) and at the international level (in Geneva). I knew life in these countries wasn’t as calm, peaceful, efficient and smooth as it is in Geneva or Chicago. I wanted to experience the difficulties of gathering information with low-speed Internet connections and in getting around to various places on bad roads. I wanted to see how coordination among organizations worked – or didn’t (something we complained about in Geneva).

I am getting all of this, and am getting to do exciting work in the midst and at the height of a national disaster too! This travel I will do will be like standing on that shore in Banda Aceh in Indonesia where the first waves of that tsunami, as high as the tall trees behind me, first hit. I know this sounds kind of sick, but for a news junkie and someone who has followed and been involved in human misery, from hunger to disasters, for a good many years now, this is the stuff that gets me excited. To me, “good” news is not the opposite of the day’s murder or about the corrupt politician. The “good” news or story for me is the one that is the most human or that contains the most drama, and in these sorts of situations, there is a lot of stuff that makes for “good,” interesting stories to tell.

In conclusion, I’ll say your response for you to save you the trouble: Stay safe. I know. When I travel to these hotspots, I know I will be in good hands, the hands of people who know the areas. I know they would be in big trouble with their donors in Europe or North America (not to mention a Western government or two) if something were to happen to me.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Unelected refugees in their own country

Following from my blog posting on Saturday (see below), here is the article I have written for my former employer, Action by Churches Together (ACT) International, including a few photos that I took as well:

Unelected refugees in their own country

By Stephen H. Padre

Nairobi, January 6, 2008--Millions of Kenyans went to the polls to choose their president in the national elections after Christmas. But for Benta Nyipolo and tens of thousands of Kenyans like her, being forced from their homes in the violence sparked by the election was something they did not chose.

The violence erupted across Kenya immediately after the results of the vote for president were announced on December 30. Nyipolo, a resident of Muthare, a large slum area in the country’s capital of Kenya, said groups of angry people went on a rampage through the area. They broke into houses, hacked people to death with machetes, raped women and stole property, from stoves to furniture. “They even took spoons,” she said.

Some of Nyipolo’s neighbors were killed, and she heard of a pregnant woman being thrown to her death from a high place. “It was really scary,” she said.

She sent her 8-year-old daughter to stay with a friend the first evening of the violence. After three days, as the violence escalated, she and others were forced to leave their homes.

Some of Muthare’s residents fled to a small patch of land outside the gate of Moi Air Force Base, just across from the slum area, where they felt they could receive some measure of protection from the military personnel guarding the gate.

Dressers, desks, plastic sheeting, empty jugs and even some live animals like ducks and goats are some of the items in scores of piles spread out across the grass of personal belongings that people brought with them when they fled. People dragged sofas and hauled cushions and mattresses to sleep on, and the metal bowls and fire pots they managed to grab from their kitchens now form makeshift cooking areas on the ground.

For several days, these families have been refugees in their own country, just meters from their own neighborhood. And they have been refugees of violence in a country that has been a sanctuary for millions of refugees from its neighbors – Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia.

It is estimated that 300,000 people across Kenya have been forced from their homes and that more than 300 people have been killed in the violent unrest.

“The situation here is hard,” said Nyipolo. The group outside the air force base has stayed on this spot with very few supplies, and Nyipolo said there are rumors circulating that the water is poisoned, meaning any supplies they can get themselves are suspect.

Nyipolo, who is HIV-positive, not only lacks food, but also lacks regular access to her daily regimen of drugs. She is worried about catching TB from sleeping outside in Nairobi’s cool nights without a blanket in addition to continued fears for her safety, so she sleeps at a friend’s house.

On January 4 and 5, Church World Service, a member of Action by Churches Together (ACT) International, through its local partner, the Kenya Evangelical Lutheran Church (KELC), distributed emergency relief supplies to Nyipolo and the 346 other families in the makeshift camp. With an initial grant of US$20,000, KELC was able to distribute flour, salt, cooking oil, vegetables (tomatoes, carrots and beans), blankets, clothing and feminine hygiene products.

After finishing the distribution of supplies on the second morning to the people staying outside the air force base, the coordinator and volunteers of the distribution from KELC went to the Muthaiga Police Depot Station on the other side of the Muthare slum area. Other Muthare residents had fled there for the protection the police presence could offer.

The KELC group determined that the 290 displaced residents there had an adequate supply of food for several days and decided to go to another site where the needs were greater. It will complete its distribution of emergency relief supplies in the coming days.

Nyipolo is unsure of what will happen to her. For now, the slums are too dangerous to enter, even for organizations like KELC bringing relief supplies. She cannot return to her neighborhood, where shops and homes have been looted and destroyed. While the country’s top leaders try to reach a political settlement, many of Kenya’s displaced citizens will have to wait for a settlement to the crisis on the streets it has caused.


Since we moved here, we have been church 'shopping.' Basically trying out different ones looking for one that might be a good fit. We have been to services where the music wasn't very good and have yet to feel - at any of the churches we visited - very welcomed by the congregation. We have always introduced ourselves as visitors, but the only person who has really spoken to us after the service has been the pastor. One church we have attended has very good music, but it's a large congregation so we probably wouldn't get involved much more than attending Sunday services.

We have also been invited to two other churches - both are non-denomiational I think so probably not our "cup of tea", but we will try them out.

Today, we had a pretty good experience: the music was lead well, the service was familiar and the sermon was good. The pastor also seemed in touch with what was happeneing in the service. Right before communion, though, we saw a large rat run up the wall before it came back down and sprinted towards the front of the church. Good sign or bad?? (We will probably go back anyway.)

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Going where the action is

I spent a good part of the day today outside the house, and it was wonderful.

I spent it with a staff member and a group of volunteers from the Kenya Evangelical Lutheran Church distributing relief supplies to people who have been forced from their homes by the post-election violence. The morning was spent in one part of the city fairly far from us across from one of the city’s major slums on a small patch of grass at the gate of the air force base. More than 300 families have taken refuge there since Wednesday or so last week after gangs of the opposition party went through and hacked people to death with machetes, raped women, and pillaged and plundered houses and businesses. So the church is distributing emergency relief supplies – blankets for mothers with babies, flour, salt, cooking oil, vegetables (tomatoes, beans and carrots), feminine hygiene items and a few clothes. I was there to gather some information to write a feature article for my former employer (ACT in Geneva), which will supply funds for more relief supplies to be distributed, and to take photos of the distribution of relief supplies.

After that we went to the other side of this large slum to a large housing compound for police where another 300 or so people have taken refuge, where, like at the air force base, the slum’s residents felt they could get some measure of protection. This group had already received some food and other supplies, so we didn’t need to leave with them as much as planned, and the KELC was going to take that food to another place where it was needed.

On my way back into downtown, where I had arranged for Sarah to come meet me, I passed the now-infamous Uhuru Park, the designated site for this on-again, off-again demonstration by the opposition party. Every entrance was blocked by ten or so armed policemen, but I don’t think I saw a soul inside the park. So the downtown area, for a Saturday afternoon, was more or less normal, as far as I could tell. For today, at least.

Not only was it good to spend an extended period of time out of the house, but I got to be with other people (even if I didn’t know them), see some more of the city, and see where some of the action from the past week has been. Oh, but wasn’t it unsafe, you may ask. I did not feel unsafe at any time. I was right outside the gate of a military base, after all. And although these slums are still very dangerous at night, from outside the slums during the day, things are fairly calm. So I felt I could go out and do this, both for my own mental health (to keep from going stir-crazy), for my personal benefit of seeing and experiencing what has been happening in the city this past week, and to do something productive work-wise, which I’ve been eager to get started on since we arrived here.

After I write my feature article and send it to Geneva, I’ll post it here, and it will tell you more about what I saw.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Confusion reigns

These are the days of confusion, still in the midst of this unresolved political crisis and outbreaks of violence on the streets.

Yesterday was due to be another tumultuous day because of a million-man rally that was scheduled by the opposition candidate in the big park downtown. So Sarah’s office was officially closed again, and we all stayed home and inside all day.

From mid-morning to mid afternoon, we heard plenty of frightening activity as people organized and headed to the rally, which was canceled by mid-afternoon. But during that period, the city and country had some really tense moments. I actually saw the shopping center where we do our grocery shopping and where we go to the gym on CNN very briefly yesterday. This should give you some idea of what's happening that close to us – if the international news media are gathering footage from that portion of the street! After that, from what we could hear, the streets were very quiet, and we ended the day having survived another one in this momentous week.

We woke up this morning hoping for a normal day – that we could get just one normal day in this week. Sarah showered and went about her routine to go to work, but then the acting director called to say the rally was going to be held today, so not to come in to the office. Jane, our housekeeper/nanny showed up still, and she worked until lunch, and then we sent her home as both Sarah and I are around to watch Lexi this afternoon. And we wanted to get out of the house, so we took a walk to the grocery store, which wasn’t crowded. The traffic on the roads was lighter than usual. We could see here and there small piles where tires, probably, had been burned by the crowds yesterday, but otherwise there was no evidence of damaged, burned or looted property on the route to the store. But still today, many shops were closed, including the post office.

But confusion still reigns. Here is what has happened with this rally by the opposition party:

  • Sunday, when the results of the voting were announced: The opposition candidate called for a rally to take place on Thursday.
  • Thursday (yesterday): People started gathering and funneling into the city center for the rally, but it fizzled out because the police were successful in dispersing the crowds. Then we heard a rumor that the rally had been rescheduled for Saturday.
  • Friday: We woke up this morning and heard that the rally was scheduled for today. If large crowds were going to gather, we certainly didn’t see them this morning, and as I write this, it sounds quiet outside on the main road.

I suppose in this way, the opposition candidate, the loser in the presidential race, can have some control and power.

So, as we’ve learned this week, we can only report on today or the past – there’s no use in speculating on what will happen tomorrow. The situation is still just to volatile, unpredictable and remains unresolved.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Text messages and shouting crowds

I received two text messages from the government of Kenya today. Both basically saying that sending messages that might incite violence or partaking in illegal rallies might result in prosecution. They sent these messages out en masse to users of my mobile phone network, but not to Stephen's.

We finally heard something from the American Embassy via e-mail. They were cautious but not too concerned in our opinion. Basically, stay home, avoid downtown, etc.

And for the last hour, we could hear a crowd shouting and moving it's way downtown for the rally this afternoon. Someone had a megaphone and was leading the crowd in some sort of chant/song for the opposition party. They have moved off now so it is quiet once again.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Expecting situation to heat up again

Tomorrow, the opposition presidential candidate is scheduled to hold the 1-million-person rally at the big park downtown that he’s been threatening to do. Therefore, the city (and country) is bracing itself again and is expected to be dangerous in many places. Sarah’s office has decided to officially close, so she will not work again tomorrow, and we’ll plan to just stay inside again all day.

Jane, our nanny/housekeeper, was able to come in today. I called her last night to check on her before her scheduled return. We don’t know what neighborhood she lives in, but she said that two of her neighbors were killed in the violence and that that is scary because you see people in the next house (I don’t know if it was literally next door) being killed and know it could be you next. The killings seem a bit random, although it’s largely one tribe against the other. She said where she lives, members of the two tribes here are killing each other (the current president is a member of Kenya’s majority tribe, and the opposition candidate is a member of another, much smaller tribe; even during good times, Kenyan society is dominated by tribal rivalries). So those who are of the majority tribe are having to carry their national ID cards around with them and show them whenever confronted by members of the other tribe. (The ID cards don’t say the name of your tribe, but it shows where you are from, and in this case, if you’re from the west, the president’s stronghold, you had better watch out.)

Needless to say, we've told Jane not to come to work tomorrow, primarily for her own safety, and because Sarah will be home all day tomorrow, she and I can watch Lexi together.

This morning I was able to go to our regular grocery store to get almost all of the remainder of the items on our list from yesterday. The store was open yesterday when I left Sarah at the other store in the long queue. I was there around 11:00, and it was only slightly busier than usual, and as I was leaving, it was getting much busier. But they had almost everything on their shelves except bread. So Sarah and I are set for a few days with our supply of food should we be home-bound again.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Experiencing an ordeal alone together

A few of my own thoughts, of a more philosophical nature, from our visit to the grocery store this morning (see Sarah’s blog entry before this one):

It was good to get out of the house because I was going a bit stir-crazy at home. It was good to see our neighborhood, at least the main road we travel often, still intact. And it was good to see other people, even though we didn’t know any of them.

But as we all stood in line, almost silently, to go through the checkout, it occurred to me that we had all been through a terrible ordeal. What had happened here yesterday affected all of us perhaps in different ways, but in one common way, we were all probably trapped in our homes yesterday, getting stir-crazy like me, and needing something very basic, very human – food. So we had all come out this morning to restock our food supplies at the same place. But because we were strangers, we couldn’t talk to each other about these experiences, about the terrible ordeal the neighborhood, city and country had been through. And we especially couldn’t talk about it because the topic was politics and it was political. Any conversations that might have taken place might have led to people asking each other, “Whom do you support?” or “Whom did you vote for?” This country is so divided along political party lines and tribal lines.

Perhaps lingering tension in the air prevented us from talking to each other as well. But it was strange – all of us having gone through something together, the aftermath of the same event, yet separated in our own homes, and having come together for a common purpose and because of a common need – to get more food in our kitchens again quickly. Yet we couldn’t name or talk to each other about what was happening. This must be the same feeling of having gone through a terrible ordeal together as communities that have experienced natural disasters or in something like the L.A. riots.

There was the basic, usual level of civility at the grocery store this morning. The store was very crowded, but people managed to get what they needed in an orderly way. There seemed to be a prevailing feeling that all people were there to do was their weekly shopping, which they weren’t able to do over the weekend because the stores were closed. In this type of situation, especially with continued uncertainty about the situation this week – if the unrest will continue while the situation remains unresolved – I would expect people to have a hoarding mentality. I sort of had it myself. The uncertainty and apprehension I was feeling was pushing me to buy a lot more to stock extra food in case I got trapped in the house again. But people didn’t seem to be doing this, so I didn’t either.

How We Spent New Year's Day Morning

We went to the grocery store this monring. When we tried last Sunday afternoon, the store was so packed and the lines so line, that we just left. But now we were really low on fruits and vegetables and felt we must try. The first store that we passed was closed - supposedly poeple tried to set it on fire the other day. But the grocery store a little further down the way was open and not too busy. But the shelves had definitely already been picked over. There was no milk of the kind we usually get, no eggs and only a few loaves of bread left. I stood in the checkout line with Lexi and our cart while Stephen went around finding the things on our list - well, he found 2/3rds of them. About 2 hours later, Stephen and Lexi went home - I stayed in line. I finally paid for our groceries 3 and a half hours after we had left for the store - which is 5 minutes away from our house. The grocery store had no coins so they were asking people to make sure that they were buying things in round numbers - or had coins to pay with themselves. We should be set with food for a couple of days again now.

How's that for a fun New Year's Day?