Thursday, May 21, 2009
Our new blog about our new lives in Our Nation's Capital is called Capital Letter. It's like a newsletter but in blog form from the capital city of our country.
Visit our new blog. We hope you enjoy it, visit it regularly and even visit us in person in the capital!
Sarah, Stephen and Lexi
Friday, May 15, 2009
Last week the last of us Padres left our home in Nairobi, Kenya. Sarah and Lexi had stayed behind after Stephen left in early March so Sarah could finish her contract with The Lutheran World Federation's Kenya program. After 18 months, it was time for the Padres to leave East Africa and return to the United States.
After living as expatriates for five and a half years, we have returned to the United States. We are now in our new home in Washington, D.C. We are beginning new lives here and fulfilling a dream of moving to the East Coast that started in Chicago or even earlier.
Therefore, since we are now out of Africa, it is time to shut down this blog. We say asante sana - thank you very much - for going on this journey to Africa with us, for following our lives near the equator, for visiting The Middle Bulge. We were in East Africa for only a short time, but we had many adventures there, including some we hadn't bargained for.
Fortunately, we have moved to a very exciting city. We have gone from one country's capital city to our own country's capital city. We have followed the Obamas from our old home of Chicago, through the place where Barack has his family roots, and now live in the same city as he does. Because our lives will continue to be exciting in this place, we will not abandon you, gentle and faithful reader, but we will be starting a new blog soon. Watch this space for a notice about its launch and a link to it.
We will no longer be adding posts to this blog. But again, watch for the final post here about our new blog about our new lives in Our Nation's Capital.
Sarah, Stephen & Lexi
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
It's a great story I read about in Nairobi on a visit to the Nairobi Railway Museum, although it's a well-known legend in Kenya's colonial history. Here's the setup, courtesy of the website of the Field Museum in Chicago:
"In March 1898 the British started building a railway bridge over the Tsavo River in East Africa [as part of a project to connect by rail the Indian Ocean from the port of Mombasa to Lake Victoria in Uganda]. Over the next nine months, two large male lions killed and ate nearly 140 railway workers [in an area of wilderness that is now a popular game park]. Crews tried to scare off the lions and built campfires and thorn fences for protection, but to no avail. Hundreds of workers fled Tsavo, halting construction on the bridge.
"Before work could resume, chief engineer Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson (1865-1947) had to eliminate the lions and their threat. After many near misses, he finally shot the first lion on December 9, 1898, and three weeks later brought down the second. The first lion killed measured nine feet, eight inches (3 m) from nose to tip of tail. It took eight men to carry the carcass back to camp. The construction crew returned and completed the bridge in February 1899."
But it wasn't long until the lions were a threat to the building of the railroad again. So one man thought he was tough enough to go out and kill them. Now read the story in the photo below (you can click on it to make it bigger). This was on a plaque on the side of a railway car I saw at the railway museum.
A movie was made from this story - "The Ghost and the Darkness" (1996), based on Patterson's adventures in Tsavo.
Where are these lions now? Stuffed and on display at the Field Museum in Chicago.
Tuesday, May 5, 2009
Today, NPR aired an interview with Douglas Emlen, a professor of biology at the University of Montana, who studies dung beetles.
To all our visitors who came to Kenya and visited a game park or family I have traveled with in other parts of Africa in game parks, I have always said, "Consider the lowly dung beetle."
Everyone who goes to Africa wants to see the well-known "Big Five" game animals - lions, giraffes and elephants and all. There's more to African wildlife than these big creatures and what everybody pursues on safari. I learned while in Kenya that there's also a list of the "Little Five" animals in game parks that includes the dung beetle.
What a wonderful world we live in that there are animals at all levels of the ecosystem and with a purpose for hauling away other animals' waste, as undesirable as we think it is.
I'm thrilled that someone really has considered the lowly dung beetle and that NPR has taken note of this creature as well (and only NPR can make these sort of things interesting - yay! - that'll prompt my pledge to my local station).
Photos, videos and the audio interview with the dung beetle scientist
Sunday, May 3, 2009
I first visited Thailand’s embassy down in Georgetown because I just happened to have other business just a couple of blocks away in the morning. They had set up tables in several places that were selling all manner of things from Thai clothing and cloth (silk) to prepackaged food and leather handbags. In the back kitchen were several caterers selling food for lunch. It’s a new building that’s quite large.
Then I headed up to the area where most embassies are. The one I wanted to see the most because the building is an old, historical house was Indonesia’s. The line was long and stretched the entire width of the front of the building. It was because they were searching people’s bags, but it moved quite quickly. The embassy’s website gives a history about the house. An excerpt:
The building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places…
Thomas F. Walsh, the mansion's first owner, was born in County Tipperary, Ireland and immigrated to the United States at the age of nineteen. He made a fortune in Colorado's gold mining industry as the sole owner and developer of the Camp Bird mine at Ouray, Colorado…
Although Mrs. Walsh occupied the house until her death in 1932, the property's title had been earlier handed to her daughter Evalyn. As the daughter of a wealthy socialite couple and the wife of influential newspaper owner Edward B. McLean, Evalyn Walsh McLean was well-known in Washington . Evalyn inherited the house, but left it vacant for a time while she lived at "Friendship," the McLean family's estate in Washington , D.C.
Evalyn Walsh McLean is also distinguished as the last private owner of the fabulous 44 ½ carat Hope Diamond - the sale of which was negotiated at the Walsh Mansion by Pierre Cartier, the famous jeweler.What an amazing house! Right inside the front door is an enormous staircase, and three stories above that is a stained-glass dome.
Off this central room is what was probably the dining room, which is huge. On one wall is a built-in Baroque pipe organ!
The house is in the French Beaux-arts style, but it’s a bit jarring and odd to see the structure and décor punctuated by very different Indonesian symbols – a coat of arms or statues of lions. As I was leaving, in the room adjacent to the dining room, there was a group of musicians playing traditional instruments. Some of these instruments are metallic xylophone-like plates that one has to hit hard with something that actually looks like your standard hammer. Yes, it makes a very loud and metallic sound, and the whole thing, with various drums, was just deafening and chaotic. Well, I’m sure to any Indonesian ears, it was normal, but I really would have rather heard the organ, thank you. It was enough to drive me outside, which one got to by going through a newer addition to the house, which is probably the main entrance and main business area of the embassy.
Then, as a side note, I walked around Dupont Circle to find a place to eat lunch. I found another restaurant in the Five Guys hamburger chain, which bills itself as the best hamburger in D.C. There was one in my former neighborhood, Columbia Heights, but I was waiting for a time when it was more necessary to eat out and when I could choose to try this chain. I saw Michelle Obama admit on TV the other day that she has snuck out of the White House several times and has gone to eat at some restaurants in town, and this is one of them (not this particular location, however). The hamburgers are good, but still not as good as my all-time favorite place – Dick’s in Seattle (a drive-in place from the 50s). The fries are good too – nice and salty.
Then I went to Haiti’s embassy. The line there was very long too – probably more than 100 feet out the door. But I think it was just the herd mentality – if there are a lot of people waiting outside, then there must be something good inside, and it just feeds on itself. But I can’t imagine why so many Americans are so interested in Haiti. After going inside, however, there almost was nothing to visit. I spent probably a half hour waiting in the line, which continued inside through the lobby and up the stairs to the second floor, around through one room and really only to get a third of a Styrofoam cup full of punch. Sure, it had Haitian rum in it, but it was so little, and they were being so inefficient about handing it out (a non-Haitian woman asking each person if they wanted alcohol in their punch or not). The only thing to look at were colorful Haitian paintings in each room, which I saw many of at the paintings markets in Port au Prince myself many years ago. There was a man, a painter, giving a lecture in French (translated) in one room, but only a few people were interested. The rest of us were just standing in the line that snaked through the room to get our free punch. Regarding the building itself, there was nothing noteworthy or impressive about it.
Up the road a few doors was the Zambian embassy. A much shorter line, but again, very little to look at – well, absolutely nothing new to me. At least they had made the effort to set up several tables in one room and were displaying handicrafts. People were so impressed by them and were taking pictures of the large carvings. To me, it was stuff I had seen a million times before all over Africa.
On to another street to visit the Botswana embassy. Their focus was more on tourism, and so they had booklets about all the wildlife parks you could visit. As with the carvings at the Zambian embassy, I had been there, done that. Both the Zambia and Botswana embassies were in buildings that had nothing noteworthy.
I had planned to go to a different area farther north in the city to see another cluster of embassies, but by this time it was 3:00, and the whole event was going to be over in an hour, and given the wait time in lines at each place, I decided not to visit any more. And besides, it would have taken me farther from home, which meant I would have had a longer bike ride home, and my legs were already tired of standing in the Haitian embassy line. So I called it quits. I’ll do the others next year. I heard somebody saying the Bangladesh embassy was the best (another country I’ve been to). But it was all worth it because I got inside Indonesia’s embassy!
Friday, May 1, 2009
In anticipation of us leaving, I wrote Jane a letter just to indicate when her actual last day of work would be as her contract with us goes until the end of May. I told her that I would pay her the full May salary anyway but that I could not guarantee her a job. I think this made her mad as two days later, she gave me a letter from the Ministry of Labour. I didn’t open it right then but did when I got to work. In this letter, I was accused of everything from not paying a fair wage, to calling her the wrong title in the reference letter I had given her, to cheating my employer (she thought my employer paid for my house help). I felt horrible and was sobbing at my desk when the person who brings the tea and coffee things came in to my office. I think he was quiet upset that I was so upset. After consultations with colleagues, we decided that we should get the lawyer involved. The letter indicated that it had been CCd to various officials like immigration and the port – in other words, to indicate that my leaving the country would be a problem.
After review, the lawyer advised that we terminate Jane that day. I felt uncomfortable with her continuing and didn’t have the guts to terminate her either. So the lawyer and one of my office colleagues went to my house to do it; Jane refused to sign the letter accepting the final payment and said we had to meet at the labour office as scheduled in the letter I had received. I did have to come home and tell her verbally that she was fired and she left after that. Mom and Lexi were there the whole time – Mom reported afterwards that it was pretty tense and there was some shouting and lots of negative body language. Lexi obviously knew that something bad was happening as she went to stand by my mom and was very quiet.
That was Thursday. Mom and Lexi managed together without extra help. I felt pretty awful the whole weekend and didn’t sleep well Monday morning. Monday afternoon, the LWF office administrator, the lawyer and I left in plenty of time to get to the meeting which was in an office building downtown that looked like it had been built in the 70s. Out of 7 elevators, only 2 worked and there were lines of people waiting to get on one. So we walked – up 16 flights of stairs. I was pretty out of breath by the time we got to the 16th floor. And we found the meeting room right at the scheduled time. There was a line of people waiting outside this door as well which made us think we should wait. But soon the door opened and the labour officer looked out looking for us. So in we went. Jane was already there.
The meeting lasted 2 and a half hours – much longer than it needed to, I thought. The labour officer felt she had to defend herself – so we heard a lot of stories about similar situations and she kept bringing up rules in the employment act that I had broken. In the end, we ended up agreeing to pay Jane about USD 65 more than I had originally calculated if the labour office would write a letter saying that the issues in the original letter were resolved. I do think Jane did understand that I was hurt – the couple of items I spoke in the meeting, I struggled to keep from crying. But I am not sure if she was really happy in the end or not – even though she was asked and agreed to it. So to finish the transaction, we had to go back on Wednesday to hand over the money and sign the agreements. (Jane had to give her left thumb print as well as sign.) Up and down another 16 flights of stairs for only 15 minutes this time. I am not sure if it was completely wise to get the lawyer involved as I think it made it a bit more complicated than maybe it needed to be. And not that I have paid many lawyers, but it cost about USD 250 for 6 billable hours which sounds cheap to me – though I wish I hadn’t needed a lawyer at all!
So besides those disasterous few days, the stuff we are shipping to the US went this week. Because of cost, it is going by sea and will take around 2 months. Lexi didn’t seem to mind too much that the majority of her toys were being packed up. She enjoyed watching the packers do their thing including building the crate for the items in the car port. We have sold almost everything on our ‘for sale’ list which is nice.
Thursday, April 30, 2009
Tonight is my last night in my first home in D.C. For the past six weeks, I have been living on my own as a temporary bachelor in a tiny, one-bedroom studio apartment. It has its own full bathroom (with a shower only) and a small kitchen area (with just a two-burner hotplate). It’s a room in a large, three-story house where several other people live in small rooms too, I’m sure (I’ve never seen the other ones), although I think they use the common kitchen on the first floor, which has a full stove with an oven.
This place is located in the Columbia Heights neighborhood, which is largely filled with immigrants from Central and South America. So I’ve heard a lot of Spanish spoken these last weeks. The way I like to describe my location is that if I get on my bike and ride directly south for exactly three miles, I run smack-dab into the White House! It’s so cool to live in a city and in a neighborhood where I can go just a few blocks and see the Washington Monument and have the White House come into view.
It was strange that I ended up on this very street as my first residence in this city because it’s where some other members of my family – three generations of them – have started out and/or lived. My great aunt (my grandfather’s sister), who lived in D.C. for decades (from the administrations of FDR to George W. Bush!), lived in a grand old apartment building called the Chastleton a couple miles south on 16th with her mother. When my own mother was young (younger than I am now), she moved with her sister from Seattle to D.C., and they moved in to this apartment with their aunt and grandmother. Later they would get their own apartment in this same building, and my mother would meet my father, and they would get their own apartment in this same building. I think this is the story of who lived where and with whom, but if I don’t have it all right, suffice it to say there was a lot happening in this one building with previous generations of my family, all on 16th, the same street where I happened to have ended up when I first landed in this city to start a new life.
Today this building has been renovated and is now all condos, with each selling for upwards of $176,000. It’s in the hottest part of town, mere blocks from Dupont Circle.
My parents were married at Grace Lutheran Church, several miles north, but also on 16th. This is the street where everything happened, and the same is true today. We have an active new president who is marking his first 100 days in office today, and from a busy White House down there on 16th, he and his family have established themselves in this city and have gotten down to business in these first 100 days, planting a new garden, modernizing the Easter Egg Roll and sneaking out from their home to try some of the restaurants in town.
Tomorrow I move to my second temporary residence, a larger place that can accommodate three of us, since Sarah and Lexi will join me here at the end of next week when they come from Nairobi. We’re renting the first floor of a house in the Brookland neighborhood in the northeastern section of the city. It’s in the shadow of The Catholic University. We’ll be there at least through the end of August.
I’m a bit sad to be moving away from my neighbors on 16th – the Obamas. But further adventures await in a new part of the city – parks to walk to on summer evenings, a Franciscan monastery to retreat to, and a college campus with a bizarre shrine to our country’s patron saint, Mary, Mother of our Lord. It’s all a testament to how interesting this city is.
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Since I am here alone, I went up to New York City for the Easter weekend to see some friends and family. For the last few years, my brother Andy has been making artistic costumes and hats for the various parades that NYC has throughout the year (for Halloween, Easter, etc.) from Metrocards, the fare cards that the city's subway system uses.
So on Sunday afternoon, I gathered with him and a group of friends to be in the Easter parade, which is actually just a big street party where people show off their creations, mostly around St. Patrick's Cathedral. The New York Post TV unit interviewed us. You can see me, my brother and a friend in this clip about three-quarters of the way through. My brother is talking, and I'm wearing a hat in the shape of the Brooklyn Bridge.
This is the story that goes with the video:
LOW 'COST'UME PARADE
By AMBER SUTHERLAND
In an Easter bonnet, with yesterday's frills upon it.
With the economy in the tank, recycling was on the minds of many who stepped out on Fifth Avenue yesterday for the Easter Parade.
For example, a Florida woman, Molly Churchill, 47, was dressed up as a giant Easter Cake, which was made by her husband, Mark, 48.
"We had this costume from another parade. It only cost $100 to redecorate it for Easter," Mark said. "We're recycling. It's very economical. It was a very small expense and the costume amazes people."
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
- Much of what caused me to notice this in Washington, D.C., and not in Seattle, where I spent several days first, immediately after arriving in the U.S. from Kenya, is that I attended a conference for about three full days during my first days in D.C. Not that I attended many (or any) conferences in Nairobi, but I don’t think they would have distributed and used as much paper as they do in the U.S. Participants in this conference received a paper folder containing various papers at registration, and at each workshop, the leader and other speakers handed out papers. If you strolled through the exhibit areas, you could pick up more paper from various organizations. At every place at the tables in the rooms where workshops were held, the hotel provided a pad of paper to take notes on. It seemed normal to me at the time when I worked for the ELCA in Chicago and I would come home from a conference with a stack full of paper to sort through, but now that seems like a real task – and almost wasteful! - after this conference. Also, this conference was held at a big, fancy high-rise hotel (a Hilton). In the bathrooms, you could dry your hands on paper towels (the garbage can for this under the paper towel dispenser was always full), and near the entrance to the bathrooms, they had a box of Kleenex. When they provided a means to dry your hands in Kenya (which was rare to begin with anyway) at a public bathroom, it was often an air hand dryer, not necessarily because they wanted to save the environment, but purchasing a continuous supply of disposable paper towels is expensive.
- Also while living in Kenya, we took a hiatus of sorts from mail and specifically junk mail. Since there aren’t mail carriers in Kenya – mail is not delivered directly to residences (both people and businesses have to go to the post office to pick up their mail) – businesses couldn’t find us to send us ads and junk mail. We really received only what was essential to us. Junk mail is certainly a major way that a lot of paper passes through our hands every day. (As an aside, I did not really like this hiatus from mail, even if most mail these days is junk mail. I’ve always regarded mail as a gift that comes every day – I love being sent things that regularly without even asking for them!)
- I am reminded that in homes in the U.S., people use paper towels in the kitchen and paper napkins at meals. We certainly could and did do this in Kenya, but having disposable paper for this purpose isn’t something you see in a typical African household – a poor African can’t afford to buy disposable paper products. A speaker from Kenya at this conference also noted this – how American households have a roll of paper in the kitchen and bathroom and everywhere else and how badly it makes her feel that trees are being wasted.
- At the conference, the only meals that were provided in the conference costs were essentially lunches. And for those, we were given boxed lunches – that we ate at the hotel! So what a waste again by the hotel/the conference’s organizers. We each had a cardboard box that we threw away on-site where we got our lunch, and immediately after eating it – we didn’t really need to carry our lunches far in the box. At fast-food places, we do the same. There are boxes for Big Macs and fries that we throw away a few minutes after we’re given the food.
Sunday, March 15, 2009
This morning we went to church at our usual place. The African organist has actually been on time the last two Sundays; he handles the hymns well (even at a nice speed) but the liturgy just makes me cringe. He definitely isn’t playing all of the music but I can’t pinpoint exactly what he is leaving out – something in the melody, I am pretty sure. Stephen would be going nuts if he was here! They are having a church cleaning day next Saturday; I really wonder how many people will show up. Getting people to do anything besides come to church on Sunday morning seems to be a problem.
The weather is still very nice though it has been a little cooler in the mornings. It has only been overcast and will look like rain but it hasn’t been raining. People are getting concerned that if the rains don’t come at the right time, things will be even worse with the food crisis. The other major regional concern relates to Sudan; with the arrest warrant out for the President, things might get ugly.
Lexi and I have booked our tickets back to the U.S. My mom will come two weeks before and fly back with us so that I don’t have to handle Lexi alone. We are leaving on 6 May. I am SO excited about it. Lexi and I (and maybe Stephen, too) will get to see my entire immediate family – nieces and all! Yesterday, I went through my clothes and now, along with Stephen’s, we have a large box of things to give away. And on Friday at work I did all (or 95%) of the filing that had been piling up as well as threw some things away so I feel I have really accomplished something the last two days.
Friday, March 13, 2009
I left Nairobi on the night of Sunday, March 1. It was a very long journey to Seattle that involved a very long flight that was extended unexpectedly. The Dubai-to-NYC leg of my flights was long anyway – normally 14 1/2 hours – but we circled over NYC because of the snow, which was preventing any planes from landing there. So add another hour on this plane. We finally started getting low on fuel (as if 14 1/2 hours in the air wouldn’t do that in the first place), so we landed in Philadelphia to refuel, which meant we sat on the plane for another hour. Then we went back to NYC. By the time we finally landed, I had missed my connection at JFK to Seattle. But I ended up spending the night in NYC at my brother’s place in Manhattan and having lunch the next day with a good college friend, so it wasn’t all bad. Plus I got to sleep in a horizontal position that night, since I was headed into my second straight night of sleeping on airplanes.
Once I arrived in Seattle, I stayed there for ten days. My main purposes in going there were to:
- see many friends and family (and I was crazy busy seeing everybody over lunches, dinners and coffees and the unexpected phone call with some)
- sort through and clean out my stuff that has been stored in my parents’ basement for the last 18 years and get it ready to ship to Washington, D.C. One of our reasons for moving back to the U.S. is because we now desire a house (i.e., a detached, single-family home) that has more living space so we can spread out, a place that includes a yard for our children (so far just Lexi) to play in. This is our chance to get everything we own in one place (stuff that has been scattered around the country for the last several years) and then enjoy many of the things we have collected on our travels around the world.
I have just arrived in Washington, D.C., and will begin the next – and main – phase of our relocation. What steps do I plan to take/what will happen now (the question I’ve been answering a lot since returning to the U.S.)?
- I made my travel plans to arrive in D.C. in time to attend Ecumenical Advocacy Days, an annual event put on by the D.C. advocacy offices of the mainline churches (including the ELCA) and their related advocacy agencies. This is a good chance for me to network with a crowd I would like to work with, although I have pretty much already exhausted all job possibilities with these offices for the time being.
- For the first several days after my arrival, I will be staying with a friend who lives in a central location in D.C. One of my first orders of business will be to find a longer-term place to live. I want to find a furnished apartment to lease/sublet for the short-term – for five or six weeks – until Sarah and Lexi join me. I may be able to find a place that’s big enough to add another adult and child later so I won’t have to move again, but I won’t know until I start looking at some places.
- Another task - my main one in the coming weeks – that I will start immediately is looking for a job. I believe that I need to acquire things in this order: a place to live (a place on my own – an apartment – see above), then a job, then I can get a mortgage to buy a house, and then (or maybe at the same time as the house), a car for our family. So this is my list of big tasks in order of priority. Then we will be able to execute the moving arrangements for our stuff to come from Seattle and Salt Lake City and have a house to receive it in. Can I even look for a job? Yes, I am finding plenty of openings on various websites that I am monitoring for my line of work (nonprofits). These are openings that I am qualified for, interested in (more or less), and at places (in addition to nonprofits, I am finding openings at universities, trade associations, foundations, etc.) where I could work.
- As I job hunt, I also have various other networking events I am scheduled or plan to attend and individuals I have planned or can contact with to meet for networking purposes. Friends and family have given me the contact information for many people who are working in D.C. whom I can contact with for job help or networking. But I am open to more contacts if you want to share them with me.
- In between all of this, after my “job” of job hunting, I hope to get out into D.C. and enjoy some events – concerts, festivals, etc. – that are offered and visit some of the great landmarks of the city.
In the meantime, I thank all of you who are supporting me in various ways – those who responded to my first update and who keep in touch through various means, those whom I saw recently, and the rest of you who read this and who silently offer your good thoughts for my well-being.
Friday, February 27, 2009
It was an interesting experience, but not totally a surprise in all respects, considering that this is Kenya/Africa and knowing how things don’t always go as planned or smoothly here. We had been told the ceremony was to begin at 10:00 a.m., and we arrived in time for that. There were tents set up around an open stage area in front of the building in the parking lot. The area was already full of police officers and armed guards because Kenya’s president had been invited.
Strangely, although the president was going to speak at the ceremony, there were no security checkpoints for the guests to go through. Nobody checked us for weapons, we didn’t walk through any metal detectors, and nobody searched our bags. Throughout the entire ceremony, we didn’t see any other signs of security to guard the president. I could have easily walked up in front of the dais at any time to throw my shoes – or hurl something worse – at the president.
After finding our seats and sitting for a few minutes, we got our hands on a program, and then shortly afterwards another program was handed out. The first one was a color program from the church (the national denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kenya). The second one appeared to be the official program that the president’s office had put together because he was taking part in the ceremony. This second program was quite detailed and indicated that the president would arrive at 11:00 a.m., which meant that’s when the program started. So already things had changed to an hour later – not a surprise here in Africa.
So we sat and watched the proceedings, some official, some not. At just six minutes before 11:00, large rolls of faded red carpet were still being brought in and rolled out, then swept and vacuumed. In the last half hour before 11:00, the podium was brought in. It was all glass, and someone was using a spray cleaner to clean it. Four flags (one was the American flag) were also put on poles in one spot, but they weren’t anchored very well, so as soon as they were up and flying, the wind started blowing them over, and the flags were touching the ground, a real violation of flag protocol, but no one seemed bothered by this at all. At one point the announcer called for some attention to be paid to the flags so they wouldn’t fall over. He also reminded the crowd before the president arrived that we needed to stand when he entered the area and that no pictures would be allowed when he was present, that only the accredited press could take photos. What a contrast to the way things would be at a ceremony the American president would be attending. All the setup would have been done hours before the start of the ceremony, everything would have been perfect and done according to the highest standards, and flags would not be falling over, carpets would not be faded, and people would not be vacuuming them at the last minute.
The president arrived a few minutes after 11:00, and the ceremony began. There were scores of ELCK pastors and all the bishops of all the church’s dioceses present. There were lots of prayers, with each bishop reciting one, and in between, choirs from churches across the country sang. In the program printed by the ELCK, the prayers were written out, and there were all sorts of typos and errors with capitalization – very unprofessional in what they wanted to be a professionally produced and printed program. But even the government’s program misspelled the last name of the Lutheran World Federation’s General Secretary, Ishmael Noko, who had come from Geneva as a VIP (he was Sarah’s ultimate boss in Geneva). Midway through the ceremony was the part where the president went to the front door of the building to cut the ribbon, and then they scheduled a tour for him of the building while the rest of the crowd had to sit outside and wait. Well, there were some choir numbers to entertain us during this time. Surprisingly, to keep things moving, the MC cut off two choirs’ numbers and eliminated the performance of a children’s acrobatic group because they would have had to tumble across bare cement.
Only after the president finished his tour did the long line of speeches in the program begin. The church’s archbishop had delivered a short sermon after a Gospel reading was recited at the very beginning of the ceremony, and truly it was short (amazing!), but then he did another, longer, unscheduled sermon before any of the other scheduled speakers in the second part of the ceremony. The program indicated that this government minister would introduce the vice president who would then introduce the president, but of course each person had to give his own speech. A representative of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod was present and gave a little speech because his church had given the ELCK a loan to build the building. The last scheduled speaker was the president himself, and having seen him on TV before, we knew that he speaks very slowly. His speech wasn’t unbearably long. But he’s an old codger. This is the president who basically stole the last presidential election and had himself quickly sworn in again before there could be any arguing over it. Like another president in Zimbabwe, it is about time for him to go. And at one point, various gifts were presented by different people to the president, and he had to stand up to receive each of them, so whenever he stood up, the whole crowd had to stand up too, so there was a bunch of up and down in quick succession.
Sarah and I had seats with a fairly good view of the dais where all the VIPs sat. We were under a tent, although I was sitting at the end of a row, and so when the sun got overhead, I was in the sunlight, but an American lady behind me let me borrow her large umbrella, which shaded me.
The press was there in full force, it seemed. In African countries, from what I’ve observed, usually one of the top news stories on the evening news every night answers the question, “What did our president do today?” even if it was something of little leadership substance like cutting the ribbon to open a building. So the photographers and cameramen were hanging on his every step.
By 1:15, two and a quarter hours after it began, it was all over, and the crowd quickly broke up for a catered lunch inside the new building. We were not invited to that. Sarah had to attend this ceremony anyway to represent her organization, and I wanted to attend just for my own interest and because this event was at our own church. It was also good to see the president in person, the head of state of the country where we’ve been living, and since we’ve been living in the capital city, and especially for me to see him mere days before I’m set to leave Kenya.
The drive to get there from Nairobi is not very long – a little over one hour. I drove Sarah to work then drove north, almost to Lake Naivasha (where we have taken some of our visitors). I arrived at the gate of the national park where the mountain is, paid my fees, got a guide, and started up the mountain at exactly 11:00. Two guidebooks said the climb to the rim of the crater takes “about an hour.” We reached the rim at exactly 11:59. I thought this was fitting for the occasion – reaching the summit in time for high noon. The climb wasn’t so bad. First of all, the duration isn’t long – I knew I wouldn’t be climbing all day. There were certainly steep parts, and because it’s an old volcano, there is a lot of volcanic dust and regular dirt. There was a stiff breeze the whole time, which was good, since it was at our backs going up, and which helped cool us off in the noontime sun. But it also whipped up the dust regularly, and it got everywhere – in my eyes and ears, and occasionally I was tasting it. But the terrain alternated a few times between relatively flat areas and steep climbs along loose, dusty trails that I was concerned I would slip on (especially coming down). But I never felt it was dangerous or never felt scared. It was also good that I am in shape and do my cardio exercises (which includes the stair climber) every other day at the gym.
As soon as we reached the rim of the crater, I could look down into the crater. We were standing at the top of a sheer cliff face, but it was different because the cliff circled around in the shape of a mountain. So it was like a big bowl, and on the floor of the crater, which was huge, was a dense forest. One can walk in a complete circle around the crater rim, which normally takes two and a half hours, but my guide said because of our good pace that we could do it in only two hours. I hadn’t planned on doing this, and we just spend several minutes at the top of the rim only. But the rim is jagged and goes up and down, and there’s a higher peak on the opposite side that one can climb up and get a higher view of everything, including the opposite side of the Rift Valley. One can also climb down into the crater, but this is an all-day trip, and one needs to spend the night camping on the crater floor, something that would be interesting to do. I imagine the stars at night looking up from a mountain floor would be spectacular, along with other sights.
The views looking out from the mountain are spectacular too, of course (the elevation of the point I climbed to is 2,777 meters). I could look out across the Great Rift Valley and see other mountains in the distance. I also saw Lake Naivasha not so far away and places on or near it that I had visited – Crescent Island and some of the commercial flower farms around the lake.
Heading down was harder than going up, and fortunately my guide let me borrow his walking stick, which helped. It took us about 45 minutes to get down.
On the way up and down, near the bottom of the mountain, one can see some wild animals in the game park. I saw some giraffes, zebras, hartebeest and some antelope on the way up and down. One can camp in other places in the park too, and you would see many more wild animals if you stayed longer.
On my way home, I took an alternate route back to Nairobi that we don’t normally take when driving up to Lake Naivasha. It was very scenic, and I was able to see Mt. Longonot from a distance at several points as well as the whole width of the Great Rift Valley. Before I climbed the rim of the Rift Valley (in the car), I stopped at a small Catholic chapel that had been built by Italian prisoners of war in 1942 in a scenic little corner of the valley.
Saturday, February 7, 2009
Unlike most American teenagers, I did not get my driver’s license on that day of my 16th birthday, but I did get official permission that I was old enough to travel alone to the other side of the world, to a continent that none of my family had been to before, and to explore the world on my own. I began my own Odyssey that day, and it has continued for two decades.
I was a modern-day explorer of Southern Africa and saw much of the country and the region, including parts of Malawi, South Africa and Botswana. I visited Victoria Falls and saw South Africa under apartheid, while Nelson Mandela was still in prison. I flew in a glider and took part in sailboat races. I also saw my first part of Europe on my way home. With a Kenyan from Mombasa, who had never set foot off his continent, we left Heathrow Airport on our layover and took the Tube into central London and saw Buckingham Palace. That was it. I was hooked on travel. I had started to see the world’s famous and exotic places.
Those were the good years in Zimbabwe. It was only nine years after it had gained independence. The memories of the revolution were still fresh in its citizens’ minds, but there was hope and optimism that it was a new country, and everyone - black and white, British citizens, former loyalists, freedom fighters, Mugabe loyalists (imagine!) - was willing to build a new, prosperous nation together. And it was an interesting point in Kenya’s history to be here in the past year, when it toyed with a civil war, when it threatened to break apart internally along tribal lines. Ironically Kenya’s recent conflict was triggered by a president – a presidential election – while Zimbabwe’s current woes 20 years later can be blamed on the same thing. I have one story from my time in Zimbabwe of living 11 months there under prosperity, and I have one (near) war story from my time in Kenya. At least I gained that while in Africa this time. So many of the expatriate friends we know have many literal war stories from living in places like Cambodia and Liberia. It’s the war stories that give life stories the real substance and texture.
So today, 20 years later, I sit poised to return to the U.S. from Africa, satisfied that I came back to live here, satisfied with a little over a year spent in Africa again. I’m obviously at a different point in my life now, with a wife and daughter, and she will have spent her first year or so of life here, although she won’t remember any of it. But when she gets older, together we can talk about our times in Africa. I will have to talk for her and fill in her memories for her of this place. I hope she, too, feels that Africa holds a special place in her heart. And I hope that she, too, will hold those memories dear enough that they will compel her to return and perhaps live somewhere here again for a year…or two…or more. Or at least that she knows she has permission – and encouragement - to be a 21st century explorer of the entire world and that it is traveling and visiting and being and living in different places that adds richness to one’s life.
So, I wonder where I’ll be living 20 years from now, on my 56th birthday…?
Monday, February 2, 2009
Many of you, our friends and family, have started to notice from what I’ve put on my Facebook profile and what I’ve said in e-mails and on our Africa blog that I’m laying plans for my/our return to the U.S. And some of you have started asking me about it. I’m sorry to do this, that it won’t mean individual replies to many of you who have asked about this, but I’m just going to write a mass reply/note/e-mail telling you what our plans are. This may be more detail than some of you care to read, but I’m trying to cover all bases with this:
I have a one-way ticket out of
Then, on March 12, I will fly from
And no, I will not return to
You might have follow-up/new questions about my plans after reading this, but with just a few weeks before I’m set to leave
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
- Mid-morning a man from the city water company shows up in the compound, threatening to disconnect the water supply to our house – again. I’ve lost track of how many times this has happened in the 13 months that we’ve lived here. I explain to him, as calmly as I can, trying my hardest to contain my anger, the whole history of trouble we’ve had. Unlike all previous times, I manage to convince him not to shut our water off, but it appears that he is doing it only out of the goodness of his heart and after he calls me “friend” and “brother,” rather that giving me any benefit of the doubt or just believing that my explanations about the cause of the problem might be credible. The story behind this is that the water company believes more than 76,000 Kenyan shillings (close to US$1,000) are owed to it by CARE International, which was one of the previous tenants of our house (or the employer of) – and not even our immediate predecessor. The man who came today said he had been sent to shut off the water for CARE, and I kept telling him that CARE has nothing to do with us or our house anymore. He had a major epiphany that the problem must be between our landlord and CARE, to which I replied, “I’ll say!” This is something that we’ve been trying to convince the water company of countless times. But finally today’s man decided that we, the innocent party, do not deserve to be punished, but only after he asked why I couldn’t produce the latest bill and proof that it had been paid (I refused, countering with a question of my own: Why can’t he remove our house from his list?).
- I call the office of Lexi’s pediatrician to make an appointment for next week. I call the land line and am told by the woman to call back on the cell phone for the office. She proceeds to give me two different numbers. I immediately hang up and dial one of the cell phone numbers and am pretty sure the same woman picks up, but I politely tell her what I need and why all over again. In the same number of words she used to tell me to call a different number, couldn’t we have just scheduled the appointment in my first call to the office?
- I also call our Internet service provider to complain about the slow and dropped connections and manage to get through. I had tried to get through to customer support about three weeks ago, but nobody was ever answering, even after trying at least 10 times over two or three days. Finally a woman answers the phone, and when I ask if anybody works there anymore, she says yes and then tries to transfer me – twice – to a support person. Nobody picks up. Fortunately the woman comes back on and takes my number and promises that someone will call me back as soon as they come back to the office. That was at least two hours ago, and so far nobody has called me back.
- Mid-afternoon I wait for the electrician sent by our landlord to come for his 2:00 appointment. This is his second scheduled visit after he failed to fix the water heater the first time he visited last week. It is now after 5:00, and there is no sign of the electrician, not even a phone call to say why he is late or when he might come later. For his appointment last week, I was told he would come on a certain day, but he showed up the following day instead. When I asked him why he was delayed, he said he had come the original day of the appointment but that “it was a bit late,” so apparently he never got as far as our house. And on top of all this, this was the second electrician who has worked on the same water heater. And that first electrician had to make at least two visits!
- The people at the post office still cannot make change. I bring in two pieces of mail, and the total for the postage is 145 Kenyan shillings. I give the man a 200 shilling note, and he punches into his calculator 200 minus 145. I wanted to shout “55!” at him. I’m baffled at this because they always seem to be able to do some math in adding up two or three stamps per piece of mail to get the proper postage.
Is there any wonder that I can’t wait to get out of here?!
Monday, January 26, 2009
But last week in the Daily Nation, one of our papers in Kenya, I saw identified in a photo on the stage behind Obama his grandmother, Sarah Onyango. Obama calls her "Granny" or "Mama Sarah." She had what would probably appear to be something inappropriate - too casual - for that occasion: a simple head scarf fashioned out of an African print cloth. Maybe too casual compared to Aretha's glitzy hat, which appears to have a personality of its own. But her headdress was so typical of African women, and Mama Sarah was dressing her part like Aretha was, yet nobody noticed her and what she was wearing and what it represented. The accompanying article says of her: She "raised Obama's father during his boyhood in the Kenyan village near Kisumu. Until recently, she lived in a hut with neither running water nor electricity, and chickens darted in and out." (Kisumu is quite far from us in Nairobi; we would have to fly to get there.)
Even today as I write this, Jane, our nanny/house help, has on exactly this type of head wrap.
So hats off to Kenyan women like Mama Sarah and the headdresses they wear, not just at their grandson's inaugurations, but every day! They're not famous singers or rich or wealthy people, but they're often just the poor, simple women who raise the children of Africa in tough conditions. They are the child-care providers, the cooks of the ugali and sadza, the tillers of the soil who grow the maize and then grind it. These are the hats that soak up the sweat from heavy toil or walking for miles in the hot African sun to fetch the family's daily supply of water. These are the hats that are often used to wipe the tears as they mourn the husbands and fathers and sons who die of AIDS. We didn't crown a king last week, but surely his grandmother deserves to be treated like a queen. Mama Sarah's hat was an acknowledgment and celebration of our new president's humble but worthy roots in Africa.
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Yesterday’s inauguration of Barack Obama ended with a moving benediction, which began with the third verse of a hymn titled “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” This hymn is also known as the Negro National Anthem. This hymn and I go way back. I played it at my confirmation and have loved it ever since then. So I know it well. I hadn’t thought of this hymn at all in relation to Obama’s inauguration, but when it appeared, as the opening lines to the benediction, I immediately thought how appropriate it was to use at the event, especially as the inauguration happened the day after the country commemorated Martin Luther King’s birthday. The marking of his birthday had obviously spilled over into the inauguration the following day, what many saw as a fulfillment of King’s dream.
I’m pleased that this hymn has been raised in the nation’s consciousness again, and I hope people discover it again or for the first time and see how wonderful it is. It’s worth looking at all the words here and how relevant they were for the inauguration and our time. The words have not grown outdated or trite either, which makes them so enduring and relevant.
Lift every voice and sing,
'Til earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on 'til victory is won.
Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chast'ning rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
'Til now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.
Otherwise, there’s not a whole lot more I can write about from our vantage point here in Kenya on Obama’s inauguration. Obviously Kenya is very proud to be able to claim a piece of his past, and the months leading up to the election and his inauguration have been inspiring and exciting for Kenyans. The country is even going as far as calling him a “son.” The news about Obama has been appearing on the front pages of the country’s newspapers for the past several days, every day with a big photo. There were big celebrations in his father’s village yesterday, which hosted a lot of visitors. We didn’t go out to celebrate the event yesterday or go anywhere to watch the inauguration. We all sat at home in front of the TV over dinner and kept Lexi awake past her bedtime to watch the event and Obama’s speech. Obviously she didn’t know what was going on or the significance of it all, but I want to be able to tell her when she’s older that she witnessed history being made on that day.
I’ve written about things and opinions on Obama here before, and I’ll just repeat, perhaps, something I said earlier. It’s been interesting for us to have connections and similarities to Obama, the unlikely candidate and president, the man who made history. Like him, we lived in Chicago (at least while we live outside the U.S., we say we’re from Chicago), and, strangely, we chose to live in a country where some of his roots are too. This has made it easy and fun to connect with Kenyans. Like I said before, I’m glad I’m not from some small, obscure town in the U.S. like Topeka or Boise, a place that nobody in Africa has heard of. And fortunately we’re in Kenya, and not some place like Lesotho, where people know about Obama very well. So it has been convenient from both our side and theirs to tell Kenyans when they ask where we’re from: “Chicago. You know – Obama’s city.” They immediately understand, and there’s no need to explain. And people seem excited by this. I never met one Kenyan who was supporting McCain during the election.
With the Chicago connection and my sense of history, I’m thrilled that Illinois has finally sent someone to the White House again. It’s been a long time in coming – since Lincoln. And you would think that such a big city like Chicago would have had more influence on the national stage, or that politicians from there would have become big leaders in our federal government. But it hasn’t really happened. But now Chicago has suddenly moved to the center of the U.S.’s political world, and all sorts of Chicago people are suddenly running the government (even our own Hillary has Chicago roots, although I’ve heard hardly any acknowledgement of them).
So, as I wrote for my Facebook status last night before I went to bed, I was “proud to be an Obama Kenyan, Chicagoan, American!”
Thursday, January 15, 2009
Perhaps even more bizarre, the most unusual part of going to the movies here, is this (and I can’t believe I forgot this and left this out of the last entry):
After all the usual movie previews, on the screen came a picture of the Kenyan flag, and an announcer said, "Let us stand for the national anthem [Kenya's, of course]." It was quite awkward. There were just a few couples in the movie theater, and most of us clearly weren't Kenyans. But out of respect, we all stood for a minute or so while the music played, and then we all sat down, and the movie proceeded. It wasn't our national anthem, but we didn't want to be disrespectful. It was just kind of strange hearing and having to stand for the national anthem in a movie theater, with so few people present, and in the near dark.
Tuesday, January 6, 2009
When we bought our tickets, they asked us which seats we wanted, and we actually had to choose where we wanted to sit in the theater (on a seating diagram on the cash register's computer screen).
We had encountered this strange practice once before, a few years ago when we were visiting Stockholm, Sweden, but never in Kenya before. We knew that they wouldn't take such seat assignments seriously (this is Kenya, after all, where nothing is very organized), so we just chose seats without thinking about it much. And sure enough, because it was a matinee, there were only a handful of other people in the theater, so we didn't bother to find our chosen seats and just behaved like normal Americans and sat where we wanted to.