Friday, February 27, 2009

An encounter with Kenya’s president

This morning we attended a ceremony to open and dedicate a new building at our church. The most regular church we have attended during our time in Nairobi has been Uhuru Highway Lutheran Cathedral (the fact that it’s called a cathedral is a misnomer because it’s not the size of nor does it look anything like a cathedral). Next to the church building during the time we have lived here, a multi-story building with commercial and office space has been under construction. The offices of the congregation and of the denomination’s local diocese will also be housed in the building, which is now complete.

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.

One last mountaintop experience in Africa

Yesterday, as a way of saying farewell to Kenya and Africa (for now, at least), I climbed Mt. Longonot. I figured one last foray into the African wilderness was a good way to close my time here. The mountain is a fairly low one and is on the floor of the Great Rift Valley. It’s a volcano that blew its top many millions of years ago and now has a huge crater inside. We only recently discovered that it’s a fairly easy and quick climb, so I decided to squeeze it in before I left.

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

From Zimbabwe to Kenya: A 20-year odyssey that begins and ends in Africa

Exactly twenty years ago from this Monday, on my 16th birthday, I set foot in Africa for the first time. I arrived in Harare after two long plane rides from Seattle, set to spend the rest of 1989 as a Rotary International exchange student. One could say it’s ironic that I’m living in Africa again two decades later, but I say it’s exactly because I went to Zimbabwe and lived there during my formative teenage years that I returned to live here as an adult.

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

Stephen's plans for leaving Kenya and returning to the U.S.

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 Nairobi leaving the night of March 1. I will head to Seattle first because that’s where we strategically arranged with LWF (Sarah’s employer) for our home base to be as part of her contract with LWF in Kenya. This gives us all the flexibility, should we need it, to go that far west when we first leave Kenya (i.e., repatriate, which is what LWF calls this). I will obviously take advantage of this opportunity, but Sarah may or may not (she can obviously choose not to go that far west but can fly anywhere east of there in the U.S. – not as far from Kenya - for less cost to her employer, which they should not object to). In Seattle I will visit family and friends and use the time to sort through and pack up some household belongings and old mementos that have been stored in my parents’ basement for, oh, the last 18 years (only half my lifetime) and get these things ready to ship later in some way to Washington, D.C. This is finally our chance to bring together in one place (a house) everything we own! We will somehow have to get everything from our Chicago condo that we didn't take to Geneva with us that is now in storage with Sarah's sister in Salt Lake City out to D.C. Everything that was in Geneva with us went straight to the D.C. area, and thanks to some of my coworkers from long ago who are retired and living in the area, they got it into storage in Rockville, Md., for us in preparation for the day we move back, which is finally this year.

Then, on March 12, I will fly from Seattle to Washington, D.C. (not stopping anywhere else en route for any layovers or visits). D.C. is our desired new home. Where we actually end up living and working will depend on where we can find jobs and an affordable house. But we are choosing D.C. or its environs (which includes the district’s suburbs in Maryland and northern Virginia). This means I will head to D.C. alone. Sarah and Lexi’s plans are to stay behind in Nairobi until Sarah’s contract is up in early May. Then she will fly to the U.S. with Lexi to officially repatriate. Where she will go first and what she will do as soon as she leaves Nairobi is not determined yet - visit some of her or my family in parts of the country before heading to D.C.? She hasn’t decided yet. We have talked about this and have made these arrangements together and believe it is best for us at this time. This head start with my repatriation, me going to D.C. alone, will allow me to concentrate on searching and hopefully finding a job and hopefully getting a start on searching for/buying a house and car. My initial plan is to stay with a friend for several days and then hopefully find a furnished studio or one-bedroom apartment in D.C. or nearby to sublet.

And no, I will not return to Kenya to help Sarah pack up our house (which we got furnished anyway, so most of the stuff isn't ours) or fly back to the U.S. with them.

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 Nairobi, and with some projects to finish up, as well as a visit of Sarah’s parents, I may not have the time to answer each of you individually. Please know that I appreciate your interest when you ask about my/our plans, but I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t respond to you right away or at all about my/our move and plans for it. This is what I know and have planned so far, and I’ll try to keep writing general updates for everybody to read as I make further plans.