Thursday, March 27, 2008

"I had a farm in Africa" - Blixen; "We live near it" - Padre

I decided that while we live here, I should read Out of Africa, especially because the Nairobi suburb of Karen, which is supposedly named after its author, Karen Blixen (although when you visit, there's another explanation for the name), is just a short drive from the neighborhood where we live. Last week while my sister was visiting us from Seattle, I took her to see Blixen’s house. (Yeah, I know – no need to ask me, “You hadn’t read this book before?” If you know me well, you know I’m not a reader, so I haven’t read many of the classics in my lifetime, although I have read Make Way for Ducklings, which takes place in Boston.)

I’m probably a third of the way through the book, and even though it was written some 70 years ago, I think many of the things she writes about are still accurate, or I’m learning many truths about Africa that still pertain to today.

There’s a line at the beginning of the book that says the rainy season starts every year on March 15. I read that section in early March, and I observed on March 14 that there was a very heavy rain. Since then, we have been getting heavy rains regularly. It seems to rain mostly at night, although yesterday morning when Jane arrived, it started to pour and continued for a while. Then, last night, it poured for a long time when we went to bed and again for a long time early this morning before we got out of bed. This isn't just a steady, average rain. It's usually heavy and solid for a surprising amount of time. Where does all this water come from (and where is it all going)?

Most of the time, when we're not trying to sleep, the sound of the rain is fun to listen to. In our house, the ceilings aren't insulated, and in our bedroom, we have a high ceiling with exposed rafters. So we hear the rain pounding directly on the roof over our heads in the bed.

We've learned that these are the long rains and will last a couple more months, and then later in the year we'll have the short rains. So instead of the usual winter, spring, summer and fall seasons here near the equator, we have the rainy and dry seasons.

With the rains have come slightly cooler temperatures, and it's now only between 75 and 80 degrees for our afternoon highs. Woe are we.

As an aside, I find it amazing that Karen Blixen had two of her books made into critically acclaimed movies, which is infinitely more than any author could hope for. These were Out of Africa and Babette's Feast. If you haven't seen Babette's Feast, which isn't as well-known as the other, I urge you to rent it sometime. It's got a great "Lutheran" theme.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Adventures on safari

My sister, Lora, is visiting us in Kenya for a few weeks from Seattle. A couple of weekends ago, the first weekend she was here, we all drove down to Amboseli game park, in the shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro on the Kenya-Tanzania border, the same place that Sarah, Lexi and I went between Christmas and New Year’s. After two nights at Amboseli, Lora and I spent an additional night at another private game reserve, the same one that we had gone to last year after Amboseli, but at a different hotel in the reserve. So after Amboseli, Sarah and Lexi flew home on Sunday morning so Sarah could go to work on Monday, and also because the hotel in the other game reserve did not allow children under 5. This meant that Lora and I had a drive of a few hours from Amboseli to Taita Hills game reserve, farther away from Nairobi, after dropping Sarah and Lexi off at the airstrip in Amboseli.

At the airstrip, a game warden who staffs the “airport” there, asked me where we were going. I told him we were headed to the main highway and then south on to Taita Hills. He told me that maybe we could take an additional passenger, a man who was standing around and who needed to go to a town along the highway closer to Nairobi. Providing rides to strangers is a very common thing in Africa. In rural areas like where we were, this is how many Kenyans travel long distances. It’s basically expected among Africans. And since many people are poor and don’t own cars of their own, sharing rides or picking people up when you need them to come with you are very common. We weren’t really asked about transporting this man – he was just kind of handed over to us – but I didn’t mind so much. I was a bit surprised, however, that I as a white person was asked to do this. Part of why I agreed was that I was just unsure of how to say no on the spot and wondered what reasons I would give if I said no (I just felt it would have been unkind to say I was afraid for my safety in front of him). As we left the airstrip and he told us he was an employee at a hotel in Amboseli where we needed to stop first to get gas and pick up a security escort, part of me thought that he would be – and he was – helpful in some small ways when he was with us because of this.

About this security escort: When Sarah and I drove from Amboseli to Taita Hills in December, we took a long route out of Amboseli to the main highway, over a muddy, very rough and never-ending dirt road. This time, I wanted to try a supposedly shorter, more direct route that wouldn’t take us so far north to the main highway only to go south again. Last time we learned that going this other way would require a security escort through the first area out of Amboseli, which is partly why we didn’t go that way, plus we would have had to cut through another national park and pay the fees, even for just passing through it. But we thought we would try this way this time despite these extra barriers. So at the hotel where we got gas, we also asked for the escort service. I was expecting a specific thing in my mind – that it would be another car we would follow, and in that car, I did expect there to be an armed person. Apparently this stretch between the two national parks was hit a few years ago by armed bandits who would attack tourists (those are all the details I know – I don’t know what exactly they did to tourists). So the two parks provide this service for free.

When getting gas at the hotel, I was told by our other passenger and others at the gas station that the escort would leave in a few minutes. I was expecting that we would be told where to go to meet this other car or that the other car would find us there at the gas pump and we would proceed. While we were waiting, we were “registered” – our names were written down as well as our car’s license-plate numbers on an unofficial looking piece of scratch paper (it definitely wasn’t a form, nor did it have anything official printed on it). So far, nothing was surprising to me. But while we were waiting, a young guy, probably in his early 20s, with a machine gun slung over one shoulder showed up and spent a few minutes talking to all the people standing around at the gas station. After a few minutes, this guy and our other passenger got in our back seat. I said to the young guy with the large machine gun, “Oh, are you taking us to the escort?” He replied with a bit of a smile, “No, I am your security.”

Boy, was I surprised at that moment to learn that the escort actually went with you in your own vehicle! Then all sorts of terrible thoughts started racing through my mind. My main concern was if the guy with the gun would wait until we were in an isolated area and point the gun at my head, tell me to stop the car and give him all our money and passports, and run off with it all, leaving us stranded in the middle of nowhere. He could have easily done that. And then, not only did we have this guy with a machine gun with us, but we had two men in the back seat who were strangers. What if they both attacked me and Lora, or worse, what if they somehow worked together to overpower us? It just made me very nervous to know that directly behind me was a man with a deadly weapon, not that I would have felt much safer with him in the front seat. I actually feared him and now our hitch hiker too and wasn’t so concerned about being attacked from outside the car by bandits who lived along this stretch. I couldn’t tell Lora about how nervous I was about this because I didn’t want to talk out loud about it in front of them – then they would surely attack us, I thought. But when we got to the gate to leave Amboseli, I handed Lora my cell phone and managed to catch her alone for a moment. I instructed her to call Sarah while I was checking out of the park at the window of the gate office and tell her that we were leaving the park and who was in the car with us. I thought that if anything happened or if Sarah didn’t hear from us for a while, she would know some good information (time we left the park, who the culprits might be, etc.). I don’t know if Lora understood why I told her to do this or how nervous I was. Unfortunately, when I got back to the car, she told me that there was no cell phone service from that spot. So, what else was there to do but to proceed as planned? So I just started praying as we left the park.

The road was in much better condition than the other road we had taken out of Amboseli. We cruised along quite nicely, and occasionally, the two men in the back seat engaged in conversation in Kiswahili. I was just sort of waiting for the awful things to happen as I drove. There were little villages along the way, and we saw one or two people on occasion. After a while, we came to a hamlet, and there was a makeshift wooden roadblock. I slowed down to a stop, and our security guy told me we needed to register. In a little booth made from roughly hewn sticks next to the roadblock, there was a soldier in a camouflage uniform who got up. We all piled out of the car, the guy with the gun going a few paces away to talk to a group of people standing by the side of the road. I’m not sure which authority I was registering with (the parks service, the Kenyan police?), but he took my name and passport number, car license plate number and then asked me how many there were of us in the car. I wasn’t quite sure how to answer it. I knew I could count Lora and me, but did our hitchhiker, who officially wasn’t related to us, count? With slight hesitation, I told the uniformed man that there were three of us and our security guy. “OK, so three,” he declared.

After about two hours of driving, we made it to the boundary of the other national park. There wasn’t a gate there, so we drove into the park and drove through it for a while. Eventually we came to a gate, where we had to get out and talk to somebody. Our security escort cheerfully declared to us that he had reached his destination. I gave Lora 200 Kenyan shillings to tip him. We had made it safely through the park. We had to go to another gate on the opposite boundary of the park to pay the fees for driving through the park, and outside of that gate, we let our other passenger out as we turned south on the main highway.

While this was quite an uncomfortable situation, it was still similar to many things I have done here. It seems as if every process you go through here, whether it’s figuring out how to pay a certain bill or doing something with forms for a government agency, you are never provided with all the information about it. There’s never any explanation at the outset of all the steps that you’ll need to go through so you know what to expect and how long it will take. And when you ask someone about the process, or for more information about what is going on, they just don’t seem to understand what you’re asking or what you need. As I stood at the window of the gate leaving Amboseli, I asked the man there if the security arrangements like we had were normal, and he basically said yes, but I still got a feeling he couldn’t tell that I was confused or needed more information.

This situation arose toward the end of a weekend that had already been adventurous – or rather when we had come dangerously close to a major inconvenience. We had borrowed a more rugged vehicle from a coworker of Sarah at the office (since they’re all “company” cars, trading of vehicles like this happens on occasion) and had driven down to the first park very early on the first morning (after stopping by the airport first to get the rest of Lora’s luggage, which hadn’t arrived with her the previous day) really without incident. After checking into our hotel (actually a camp) and eating lunch, we set out on our first game drive late that afternoon. But shortly into the game drive, we saw that the engine of the car was overheating. Fortunately, we were only a couple of kilometers from our camp, which we immediately returned to. Upon inquiring at our camp if anybody knew anything about auto repair, the camp staff directed us to the headquarters of the park, which, fortunately again, was a very short drive away. There they had full auto-repair facilities and trained mechanics (for the park vehicles). They determined that the radiator had sprung a leak and wasn’t cooling the engine, and they told us to come back early the next morning and they would try to repair it fully. In the meantime, we found other ways for Lora to go out on game drives, since normally we would have driven ourselves around the park to view the animals in our own vehicle. On Saturday morning, as the mechanics at the park headquarters determined that they did not have the right things to repair the radiator fully, we were in touch with staff of Sarah’s office, and they decided to send two drivers down to meet us with another vehicle, and they would take the broken-down car to a regular repair place or try to get it back to Nairobi while we continued our holiday weekend with the replacement car. This all happened relatively smoothly. But it was determined that, indeed, there was a leak in the radiator and all the water inside had drained out, but we were very lucky that we had made it all the way to our destination after a drive of several hours on the first day, which included a stretch on a long dirt road with really no other cars, people or houses along it.

The weekend provided us with some good stories, and we’re thankful that things were not worse than they were, which could have easily been the case. But I’ve traveled enough around Africa to expect there to be incidents like this – vehicle breakdowns, that is, which have happened on a few trips I’ve been on, but thankfully being the victim of a crime or armed robbery is something I’ve only heard of happening!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Greetings, Kenya style

“Hi. Good, thanks.”

Sometimes people greet us with these three words uttered quickly, without us ever asking, “How are you?”

In a way, I suppose it’s more convenient. You don’t have to bother asking “How are you?” On the other hand, I can think of it as being quite presumptuous – I care how you are only if/when I ask.

In other ways, Kenyans view greetings as very important. Men shake hands a lot, even when you see a friend or colleague, and if there’s reason to show a closer bond with somebody, you do two types of grips in one hand-shake greeting.

Men often call each other by their last names as well. Some Kenyans know how to pronounce Padre and are aware enough to ask me if I know what it means. Most, however, have problems with pronouncing it, and, rather than just calling me by my first name (which isn’t unusual here), they struggle with my last name and say it’s Peter or something. I had a coworker in Geneva who was Dutch, and several times when I wrote a news article and referred to somebody by their last name on the second and subsequent references, she came to me to tell me how offensive this was to her in her culture (even though it’s a standard journalism practice all over the world). I can just imagine how she would feel here in Kenya with this common practice among men – and there are a lot of Dutch people here!

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Words and Phrases

Maybe it is the British influence or something else, but there are many English words and phrases that they use here in a way that Americans, at least, wouldn’t do. If the traffic is bad, you say you are caught in a jam. You don’t live in that neighborhood, you stay there. The plug for the sink is a stopper.

More later….

No Water? Or No Electricity?

Which would you rather have? Or not have, that is? The electricity going off is a fairly common problem in Africa. At work, we have a generator that kicks in quite quickly when the power goes off. And I have a little grey box that is hooked to my computer so it never shuts off and I don’t loose any work. At home, we don’t have a generator so when it’s off, it’s off. During daylight hours it’s not a problem, but as the sun goes down around 7:00, it can get pretty dark at home. We have candles scattered around the house for just such instances. Our stove has 3 gas burners and 1 electric. So we can cook with no power but can’t bake anything as the oven is electric.

Yesterday, the water company came and shut off our water. We do have water in the tank so we can survive for a while, but we don’t know how much is there. The story seems to be that someone who lived in our house several years ago owes the water company over $1,000. Doesn’t seem fair that they shut it off when our account currently has a credit balance! So my office is trying to sort it out. Supposedly it was to be fixed today, but it didn’t happen. If it doesn’t happen tomorrow, we may soon be dry here!

Didn’t post this when I thought I would…so Tuesday was the day that the water was shut off and today, Saturday, Stephen and I went to the water company ourselves. Supposedly, the information on our account was too vague and the person who would turn the water back on spent all day Friday looking for our house. For some reason, the same person is not responsible for turning on and off the water – it’s two different people. Go figure.