Monday, June 30, 2008

Even the air is different

Nairobi/Kenya/Africa is obviously a very different place than Chicago/the U.S. It’s strange to be familiar with and comfortable in both places, which are, in many ways, a world apart. When I was living in the U.S. and traveling abroad for work several years ago, it was always a challenge for my mind to hold together the world of Chicago – home – and places in developing countries, especially remote places where extremely poor people lived subsistence lifestyles, while I lived a life in a huge metropolis with all the demands of city life. Even now it’s still hard to reconcile these two worlds in my head when I really think about it.

After spending a little over a week in Chicago, I returned home to Nairobi on Saturday morning. The first thing I always noticed when visiting Africa is the air. I had forgotten this time when returning from outside Africa that even the air here is different to me. Going back to the U.S. or Europe, I never notice a change in the air. Most of the time I make a conscious effort to notice the air when I step off the plane because it’s always the first signal that I’m in Africa. But this time, for the first time really, I was returning home to Africa, which was strange in itself. But because Africa is home now, it was familiar to me already, and I forgot to notice the air when I stepped off the plane. But it was sure to notice me this time. It was the very first thing that hit me – unexpectedly – on Saturday morning. It’s the smell of earth, of air fed by vegetation of the flat savanna. Sometimes it’s flavored by the body odor of people here, which strangely I don’t mind.

And it was strange in other ways to be returning to home here in Africa, as opposed to a home in Europe or the U.S. I still feel very much like a stranger, an outsider, a foreigner, someone who visually sticks out here. It’s still very easy for me to set foot again almost anywhere in Europe or in the U.S. and be comfortable and know I can blend in and get around. But Africa to me is still an exotic location in the world, a place that people visit only on vacation or temporarily. So here I was after several days of visiting Chicago going back to Africa to live, to return to my family and house – to go back to the place I belong, to go home. It was strange. But if I even forgot to notice the air, then even that ordinary thing has become familiar and comfortable to me.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Read an article I wrote in The Lutheran magazine

In February, you'll recall that I visited Southern Sudan as part of my work in producing the 2007 annual report for the Lutheran World Federation's Kenya-Sudan program (the office Sarah works for).

I included in that annual report several sidebar feature stories of real-life people that LWF had assisted. I adapted one of those stories for The Lutheran, the member magazine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), where I used to work. The Lutheran has published this feature article in its July issue. Read the article: Be it ever so humble: Lutheran help follows refugee families back home to Sudan.

A companion piece about the son of the main article's subject also appears in the July/August issue of The Little Lutheran, the magazine's periodical for children. Unfortunately that magazine is not on the Web. But with that I can also add "children's author" to my resume - quite appropriate, I guess, now that I'm a father!

Flying first class

I was in Chicago last week, my main purpose being to take the Foreign Service exam on June 24. More on that in an entry on this blog soon.

On my way to Chicago from Nairobi, I flew British Airways through London. That airline was generous to me and upgraded me on both flights to business class. So I enjoyed more legroom and a bigger seat that included a leg rest and foot rest. On the second leg to Chicago, a man wanted to trade seats with me so he could sit next to his wife, so I got his seat, which was a seat alone in that row and in front of the exit, so I gained even more foot room and privacy.

On my return trip, my first flight, from Chicago to London, was delayed three hours, which meant I was going to miss my tight connecting flight in London. (On that flight, I had to sit in ordinary coach.) So I was rebooked on a Virgin Atlantic flight, which meant a second overnight flight the next night and a longer layover in London – basically the afternoon. Well, it was well worth the delay in getting home and the extra time in London. If British Airways was generous to me, then Virgin was extremely generous – they upgraded me all the way to first class! I was in the very front section of the plane in seat 9K! What luxury! I had a great time sitting there. I don’t know what I had done to deserve this. Perhaps they knew I had gone through some trouble with my late flight, having to change airlines, and being delayed on my trip. Or perhaps it was because I wasn’t causing trouble at the check-in counter like one African man a few people ahead of me who was growing very impatient and slapping the counter and threatening the agent who was helping him, which prompted her to call the police and take him and his family off the flight he so desperately needed to get on.

I did get some final generosity from British Airways before their obligations to me ended. I had gotten a meal voucher to have dinner with in Chicago because of the delayed departure of my flight. And then because of my extended layover in London (which was their fault), I asked to have some more meal vouchers, and they gave me two of them for a total of GBP 15. So I had a lovely traditional Irish meal of steak pie, mashed potatoes and peas at an Irish pub for lunch, and I had time to get a generous snack later.

On my Virgin London-Nairobi flight I had a little compartment all to myself with a seat that had a wide range of reclining positions and a permanent footrest at the other end of the compartment. I was offered champagne (or another drink) as soon as I boarded and then had a glass of wine with potato chips as a pre-dinner drink. The wine (I had three choices in each of the red and white categories as well as for champagne) flowed freely throughout dinner, which was served on real china, with real glasses (and a choice of regular bottled water or an expensive sparkling kind) and real silverware. I had three choices for the starter and main dish of my meal and a couple of choices for dessert (in addition to the three cheese options). I enjoyed a movie during dinner on my large TV screen, and I listened with my deluxe headphones in stereo with a noise-canceling feature. Then my seat converted into a lie-flat bed, and I changed into the “sleep suit” I was offered (basically a light and soft sweat-suit type outfit with a top and bottom) and slept a bit under my warm and fluffy duvet. Before bed I was offered some goodies from a basket that was brought around – things like mints, shaving cream, hand lotion and lip balm. For breakfast, I had about a half-dozen choices and again was brought a meal on real china, including coffee made to order, i.e., with my cream already added for me, not given to me in some mass-produced plastic container (I discovered later that I could have ordered an espresso drink). So I had a lovely breakfast of fruit in a real bowl and a Danish.

Another bonus was that, because of my seat, I was the second one off the plane. One drawback of my upgrade was that I was in the back of this front second, right near the bar, where there were a couple of seats and a small space for people to stand and socialize, which people did after dinner. But I think someone asked them to be quiet because they wanted to sleep, so I wasn’t disturbed for long.

So that was my experience in traveling home, a small consolation, perhaps, for my trip which had not resulted in me getting what I had hoped for – a position with the U.S. Department of State. But these complimentary upgrades sure made it easier and nicer to take the journey on a couple of long-haul flights between Chicago and Nairobi.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The House Help Sleeping Over

Since Stephen was away and I had to go to northern Kenya for work overnight, Jane, our house help/nanny, needed to stay overnight. It was a big deal trying to figure out where she was to sleep. She needed to stay in the house, but we only have the guest bed which is a double bed. She thought she should sleep in Lexi's room - there wasn't enough space for that mattress in there. We do have a servant's quarters out back - but no bed there. However, even though we have never told her not to, Jane always uses the toilet out there. She also uses the shower there on occassion too. So I think it was a bit wierd for her for me to insist that she sleep in the guest bedroom. I am not sure if she slept in the bed or not the first night when I was also here - I had to leave very early so she needed to stay over. When I came back, she told me that she had slept in Lexi's room that second night - on the floor, I guess. I didn't ask.

Retirement benefits

LWF has set up a provident fund for staff here in Kenya. As part of my job, I am a trustee of the fund. The last two days we had a trustee training and an annual general meeting of the fund for the staff. The government has only been regulating/encouraging these funds for the last 8 years. Many of the staff still do not understand it. The current rule is that when the staff leave the organization, they can get their contributions to the fund, but don't get the employer contributions until retirement. This rule went into effect 3 years ago - before that, you could take out the entire balance. Some staff don't see why they can't get the entire amount when they leave the organization. They worry that they will never get it; that LWF keeps it or somehow the government gets it. Most don't understand why they need to save for retirement - the practice in the past is that the children provide for the parents in old age, but that is becoming less possible for most to do.

Other related facts:
Life expectancy in Kenya is 44 years.
There is no offical government set retirement age; it really varies by organization.
The trustees of the LWF fund can change your beneficiary (when the person dies) if they don't think your selected choice was appropriate (nothing provided for the kids, nothing for the wife and all to the girlfriend, etc.). -{I feel pretty uncomfortable with that.}
There is a government Social Security plan - everyone contributes about $3/month and the employer matches it. This plan has not been managed well and no one really has a clue how much is attributable to them.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Baby hippo going into water

While in Chicago, I have access to a better (i.e., true high-speed) Internet connection, so I am posting here now a handful of videos I shot during a visit we made with Stephen's sister over Easter weekend in March to Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda, where we took a boat ride on the Victoria Nile River.

This one shows a baby hippo going into the water from the river bank.

Fish eagle in flight

A fish eagle in flight over the Victoria Nile River in Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda

Angry hippo running into water in the Nile River

On the Victoria Nile River in Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda

Hippos on the Nile River

Hippos on the Victoria Nile River in Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda

Skimmer birds on the Nile River

Skimmer birds on the Victoria Nile River in Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda

Saturday, June 21, 2008


While it might be June and warm in the northern hemisphere, but it is definitely cold in Nairobi! We are wearing sweaters and jackets and Lexi now as the opportunity to wear her stockingcaps. I am told it won't warm up again until September. Parts of the country are still warm though. I will be up at Kakuma Thursday and Friday and it will definitely be warm there.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Welcome to Africa column: Hiring movers

The family in the house next to us in our compound at #4 is moving out. Yesterday and today a moving company with two large trucks has been here. Yesterday, the vans were still parked in front of their house and ours, blocking our driveway, when Sarah got home from work. As Sarah was trying to park in a different spot, I was talking to the driver of the larger van about moving it so she could park the car in our carport.

It turns out that the van was having engine trouble, and they couldn't get it started. So a handful of men started pushing it backwards. I thought they were doing that to get it out of the way of our driveway, which was a sight that was funny enough - men trying to push this very large and heavy moving van. But actually they were trying to get it started, and the driver was inside behind the wheel, and all of a sudden the truck lurched and started.

Apparently the truck was still having engine trouble today.

The name of the company is "Urgent" something, and the side of the truck shows moving boxes with the words "Urgent shipment" in big, bold letters. I would guess this refers more to how they urgently need to get their trucks to start so they can transport people's belongings.

Wouldn't these sights just inspire confidence in you if you had hired this company to move you? I guess they have to load up their trucks, and then they push them to your new house. Urgently.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Different things in South Sudan

So we left early this morning to drive 3.5 hours north to Juba where I was flying out of. I got to sit up front - either because I was the only female or the only white person, not sure which. The driver, who is Sudanese and very skinny, was to my right. Driving in Sudan is like in the U.S. on the left side of the road but many of the cars are right hand drives. Kind of hard, in my opinion. Anyway, the two last fingers of his left hand - the pinkie and fourth finger - had a very pretty pink nail polish on them. I certainly don't see that too often. This is also the fellow who on my last trip to Sudan wore the same red (warm!) track suit for all 4 days.

I also learned that most Sudanese usually only eat 1 main meal a day - for breakfast and either lunch or dinner, they would only have a cup of tea or coffee.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Hot and Sweaty in South Sudan

I am here on Sudan on another business trip. We had a three-day meeting of the senior staff - not the most well-organized, but I have survived. Of course, it has taken my entire weekend. I will only arrive home Sunday afternoon.

And it is HOT here - quite a contrast to Nairobi where we are wearing long sleeves and jackets. The air is so still and there is hardly any breeze. It is supposed to be the rainy season, but it hasn't rained at all while I am here. My ankles have been bitten up and the flies seem to like my ankles as well - maybe because of the scratched open bites??

I am staying in a tent - on a bed in the tent - so that is kind of fun. It cools down enough at night that sleeping is not unbearable.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Pastors' passage through Africa

We have continued to host a slew of visitors, and for the past two days visiting us has been the pastor of the church in Seattle where I grew up (although she was not the pastor when I was there) and her husband, who is also a pastor at a Seattle church (where my Aunt Carol is a member). They decided to stop by Nairobi for a quick visit at the end of their time in Africa, after two and a half weeks on a sort of study tour of Rwanda through a Seattle-based organization. They are on a sabbatical/vacation and are spending quite a number of weeks visiting a number of countries in Africa and Europe.

Those two short days were really not enough time to see a lot of Kenya or even Nairobi alone. But one itinerary that gives visitors a good taste of some of the country’s history, culture and African wildlife in just a few hours, while allowing them to soak up some Kenyan sunshine and enjoy the warm air, is what I call the “Karen tour” – most of the sites are in the suburb of Karen, named after Karen Blixen, who wrote Out of Africa. We visited the elephant orphanage, where one can observe young elephants up close. Then we went to Blixen’s house, which you can tour. Then we had lunch in the garden on part of her old property. And then we went to the giraffe center, where you can stand face-to-face with these animals and feed them out of your hand.

On the morning of their second day here, I arranged a visit for all of us with the pastor of the Lutheran church (LCMS-affiliated) in Kibera, the enormous slum near us, that had been looted and burned during the post-election violence. This burned church and the pastor had made international news in January. Since our visitors’ time in Africa had been dealing a bit with peace and reconciliation issues in Rwanda, I thought a visit to this church would be along those same lines – a story of peace and reconciliation in Kenya. That pastor showed us around the church and its facilities that were burned, some of which are being rebuilt today, and told us about those tense days in late December and early January when the slum and other parts of the country had erupted in violence. He also took us for a walk a bit into the slum so we could see how people live there. Kibera is supposedly the biggest slum in the world, with about a million residents. Our visitors were moved by the powerful story and the scenes of destruction, so that was another side of Kenya that I’m glad they got to see, as tragic and negative as it is. Even I found it interesting, although I had visited this church once before during worship with our pastor and his wife.

We really enjoyed the visit with this couple. It was short but intense because of all the conversations we had, which ranged from talking about travel, past, present and future, to deeper conversations over work experience and being married. I did not know Kathy well, although she has turned over the pulpit to me many times when I have gone home and have preached at Our Redeemer’s. And I had never met Bruce before (his congregation’s secretary and her husband came with my Aunt Carol to visit us in Geneva at one point). So there was a lot to share about our lives, and since we have so many friends who are Lutheran – and Lutherans pastors – it was easy to relate to them. They took us out to dinner on the first night, and we went to a lovely restaurant in Karen. The food and conversation over a bottle of wine was excellent, and we enjoyed wonderful desserts afterwards.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Visiting Kenya's second city, Mombasa

Late this past week, my parents returned home to the Seattle suburbs at the end of their five-week visit with us. For a few days before they left Nairobi, Sarah and I took advantage of Baba and Lolo’s (what the grandparents call themselves) willingness to babysit and took off without Lexi to visit another place on our East Africa list – the city of Mombasa. When people here say they are going to Mombasa, they mean the beaches and resorts that are outside the city proper. We had already been to one of these beach resorts back in December, and we actually prefer to visit cities as tourists as there are usually more museums, monuments and tourist attractions in them. So we had to return to see the city itself.

Part of deciding to go to Mombasa was to experience something else that was nearly as exciting (to Sarah, at least) as the destination – the train ride home. Because of the schedules of the train, we took it only one way and flew down to Mombasa on Sunday morning. More on the train trip below.

Mombasa isn’t the most pleasant place for a tourist. Many factors were not in our favor. We tried to see the city like we saw European cities – by staying at a hotel in the city center and walking around on foot a lot. Most tourists visiting Mombasa would probably have a guide to drive them around to the various sites. It’s the low tourist season anyway, hurt more by the fact that tourist numbers are still probably way below normal as a result of the post-election violence from earlier this year. So many guides and tourist operators are even more desperate for business and an income. So we as white people in a very densely populated town really stood out and showed we were tourists. We were hounded a lot by people wanting to be our guides, to give us taxi or tuk-tuk (motorcycle taxis) rides, or to come browse (and buy) in their souvenir shops or visit the tourist information/travel agent. And there are many more child beggars on the street than Nairobi who aren’t afraid to ask for a handout. So we could not really walk anywhere without being noticed and spoken to; so much for a quiet, pleasant getaway in another city. Also, it’s much hotter there than in Nairobi. One afternoon we just went back to our hotel and rested in the heat of the day. And there are lots of mosquitoes that ate me alive – they always love my blood. Add to all this the fact that Mombasa is a lot dirtier than Nairobi. There are large piles of garbage all over the place, and the streets and sidewalks have litter everywhere. Then the cats and crows scavenge in these garbage piles.

But like a European city, Mombasa also has a historical old town, and we stayed very close to it. We toured it with a guide on our last afternoon there. The houses have balconies over the street (think New Orleans-style but with intricately carved wooden railings instead of iron), and the lanes among them are windy and narrow. The architecture here is influenced by the Portuguese and Indians, and the city, which was really just the old town, an island on the coast, for centuries, changed hands many times among the Portuguese and Arabs. There are some streets in the old town that are mostly intact and where most historical houses/facades are in fairly good condition. But wander off the main drags, and you’ll encounter much poorer living conditions with many run-down houses and with all the piles of garbage among them.

On the edge of the old town is Mombasa’s main attraction, Fort Jesus, built as a defense by the Portuguese. We toured that as well. It’s got a few interesting places to walk around among the outer walls and ruined buildings inside, and it has a museum inside.

One night we had a lovely dinner at a fancy restaurant on the water. We returned to a dark city center and a dark hotel room, where we were issued a couple of candles for the night. It appeared the entire city was without electricity – the case for most of the country, we later learned.

We paid a brief visit to a large Hindu temple near the train station. It had been advertised as being tourist-friendly – that you could get a tour. We were met by a kind Indian gentlemen who met us at the front door. He showed us the prayer rooms and explained briefly how and to what Hindus pray, mentioning their belief in reincarnation. Sarah asked him how long he had been in Kenya. He told us he was born in Kenya and that his father had been born here too. I thought it was a strange answer for someone who believes in reincarnation. I was surprised he didn’t respond with something like, “I started my life as a peasant in 1362 in Nepal then became someone in the royal court in India after that…”

Shortly after we moved here, I had heard about taking the train to get to/from Mombasa. This route’s operation has recently been taken over by the South African railways, and apparently they had brought back some of the old-time feeling of a railway journey. So we had to try it ourselves. Going either way, it’s an overnight trip that takes at least 13 hours – leaving one city at 7:00 and getting in sometime the next morning. This isn’t Switzerland anymore, Toto, and trains (or anything, for that matter) cannot be expected to run on schedule. They tell people to expect to arrive more around 11:00. We had to check in for our trip an hour early, although there were only a handful of other parties in the one sleeper car that was used on the whole train. It was dark by the time we left Mombasa, so we were not going to be able to see anything. At 8:00 we were invited for dinner in the dining car. This was part of the trip that we had heard was fairly luxurious, and it was a fine and lovely meal. We started with bread and soup and had our choice of three main courses (one of them vegetarian). We chose the beef/vegetable stew over rice. And there was fruit salad for dessert. The silverware used was mostly the old, fancy silver used during colonial times, but the dishes were fairly modern. By the time dinner was over, it was fairly late, so we retired to our cabin, which was fairly spacious compared to its European train counterparts, and went to bed. I slept quite well. A hot breakfast was served at 7:00 a.m. the next morning in the dining car again. We sat and read after breakfast while we finished the journey. We got into Nairobi around 10:45 a.m. Before we entered the city, we saw a bit of wildlife in some fields – some zebra and some animals in the antelope family. All this – transportation on an overnight train trip, a two-person private cabin with bedding, and dinner and breakfast – was quite cheap. The only drawbacks were that the bathrooms were lacking in several ways – squat toilets, no soap, and no locks on most of them. We had a small sink in our cabin, and there was a separate faucet for drinking water, but it didn’t work. But it was fun to come home this way – a fun part of the trip and not just functional transportation to get us home.