Saturday, August 7, 2010
This last week has been a whirlwind. On Sunday, a week ago, I joined the entire staff of Kituo cha Sheria on a Civic Education Caravan. We traveled around the suburbs of Nairobi on an open-air bus (no seats, everyone was standing) passing out copies of the proposed constitution and answering questions about the referendum. It was such a blast! Between the speeches and Q&A sessions, the bus became a huge party. There was a DJ who blasted pop music, and three male dancers who were dressed in safari gear with padded tummies and butts (to look like British colonialists) performed every time we stopped at a town. My friend Audi tried to teach me how to dance like a Kenyan, and we fell down at least twice when the bus sped around a corner or went barreling down a hill. I also may have broken some toes as I stepped on several people’s feet. But you try learning to shake your hips while standing in the middle of a moving vehicle while not holding on to anything.
I did have an unpleasant experience at one of the stops though where a really drunk man kept following me and pulling my hair. Luckily the whole Kituo staff was there and I was surrounded by friends who shoved him away.
Then, on the way back into the city, we passed by the remnants of a “No” caravan/parade. They were booing us and giving us the thumbs down (we weren’t officially campaigning for “Yes” but were just ‘educating’ people and asking them to make the ‘right’ choice…) so in retaliation, we started throwing constitutions at them. What fun! Overall, it was a great way to spend my last day with the Kituo gang.
Jamie and I spent Monday and Tuesday at RCK as usual, said our goodbyes on Tuesday, and then hurried to town to catch the bus to Mombasa (a city on the coast of Kenya). The 8-hour bus ride was painful, but not nearly as bad as the bus ride last year from Kampala to Kigali. When we finally arrived in Mombasa, we got off the bus and found ourselves in a crowd of people who kept shouting “Jambo!” and “Taxi!” at us. Our two full days in Mombasa went a lot like that actually. I found myself really missing comparatively hassle-free Nairobi.
Anyway, the next morning, we took a matatu from the guesthouse where we had slept to the ferry that would take us out of Mombasa town and south to Diani (a town renowned for its white sandy beaches). We went up to the top floor of the ferry and looked out at the beautiful view of the ocean. It was then that the ferry ride from hell began. A old man appeared almost out of nowhere and stood right in front of me and said something that sounded like, “Are you from Baltimore!?” I was confused and mumbled something like “No.” And then he started going on a rampage about how we were fat, smelly, white, pregnant pigs that didn’t know how to bathe. He kept stringing insults at us for about five minutes, when finally, the man sitting next to Jamie stood up and shoved the guy away. But all he did was move a couple feet in the opposite direction and continued to shout in our direction. At one point, he started talking to the other people on the ferry and said something like: “let’s kill the white pigs.” I’ve never been the recipient of such hatred in all of my life. And granted, the man smelled of booze and was probably insane, but still, it’s not an experience I’d wish on anyone. When the ferry reached the other side, we lost sight of the crazy guy. But the man who had shoved him off followed us up the embankment to make sure we got into a matatu okay.
We eventually made it to Diani beach and rented two small cottages across the street from a 5-star resort. The only way to the beach was through the resort, and so we walked up to the gates and were only slightly surprised when they let us in no questions asked. I can’t even explain how amazing this place was. You walk into the lobby and find yourself standing on a transparent glass floor and look down to see giant goldfish swimming below your feet. Then you walk through the main entrance to a deck encircling a huge baobab tree surrounded by a pond filled with lily pads. Walk forward some more, and you’re on a balcony that overlooks a swimming pool and palm-trees, and beyond that, the green Indian Ocean.
The view was unbelievably beautiful. For a moment I thought it would be a really great place to have a honeymoon… but then we got to the beach. About five or six guys were pacing around by the edge of the water, hovering almost, like sharks, waiting for people to approach the ocean since there was a policeman keeping them away from the resort edge. We went to go stick our feet in the water and were pounced on immediately by the closest fellow. “Jambo!” He said as he approached us with a handful of necklaces. “Apana asante” (No thank you) we said and tried to walk away. But he followed us down the beach, and I finally yelled at him and said, “If we were interested in what you have there, we would have said so!” And he finally backed off. Then another man came towards us trying to get us to go see the dolphins, and then another about a safari, and then another and another. For the first time in my life, I found it impossible to relax at the beach. Sure, the view was breathtaking and I felt I was in Pirates of the Caribbean, but I don’t think I would want to go back to vacation there just because you get hassled so much. But can you blame them? That is how they make their money. If it weren’t for tourists, Kenya wouldn’t have the economy it has today.
We had dinner at a little Italian restaurant – owned by Italians – and then went to bed early. The next morning, we said goodbye to the beach, went to check out a nearby sacred kaya (forest), and then made the trip back to Mombasa town. After dropping our things at our guesthouse, we took another matatu and then a tuc-tuc (a motorcycle carriage) to Fort Jesus. According to a plaque we found on a wall, Fort Jesus was built by the Portuguese in 1593, was captured by Oman Arabs in 1698, became a government prison in 1895, and then was declared a national monument in 1958. As soon as we got out of our tuc-tuc, a tiny gentleman with an official tour guide badge ambushed us and began to tell us all about the fort. I explained to him calmly that we appreciated the sharing of information, but that we really didn’t have the extra money to tip at the end of a tour, so he might as well forget about it. We also explained to him that we weren’t interested in going into the museum inside as it was 800 shillings a person and we were running out of money. So he said “No problem, no problem! I’ll take you on a tour of Old Town for 200 shillings each.” Jamie and I looked at each other and decided that Old Town sounded pretty cool, and that 200 shillings each wasn’t a bad deal. We accepted. It was probably the best decision we made on that trip.
Aga Khan (that’s what he called himself) then took us on a whirlwind tour of the Old Town part of Mombasa. It was really an amazing tour – Old Town seemed almost more Arab than African. So many ethnically ambiguous looking people! Small narrow streets not even big enough for a donkey cart. The balconies and doors reminded me of certain parts of Morocco. I was picturing Matt Damon jumping from window to window above our heads (from Bourne Ultimatum when he’s in Tangiers – yes I know I use movie references a lot). We saw Vasco de Gamma’s house and an old slave market where they used to buy and sell human beings before shipping them off to the Americas (that place gave me chills for sure).
Aga Khan was an interesting character, he probably only weighed about 100 pounds and was half Omani and half Indian. During our tour, we passed some women sitting in front of their house making traditional Swahili doughnuts (I forget their actual name) and Aga bought a bag for us to try. Seriously the best thing I may have ever tasted in my life. Better than Krispy Kreme. They were round and small, like doughnut holes, fresh out of the hot oil and smothered in honey and spices. Along the way, Aga also bought us two other treats, one was another traditional Swahili dish (small balls of fried spiced dough - or maybe it was chickpeas - with chili and lime sauce poured overtop) and the other was a bag of cassava chips hot out of the oil. When we were brought back to the entrance of Fort Jesus, we ended up giving him 300 each instead of the requested 200. We needed the rest of our money to get back to the guesthouse. Aga then hailed a tuc-tuc and rode with us all the way back to the guesthouse to “make sure we didn’t get overcharged” by the driver. Really, I think he was just looking for another tip, but who knows…
All in all, it was a trip filled with both really high highs and really low lows. But I’m glad I got to see the coast because it is so different from the rest of Kenya. Ah and of course, those who’ve been following the news know that Kenya passed the new constitution with just about a 70% “Yes” vote. No incidents of violence reported yet, and all seems to be going smoothly. Congratulations Kenya! :o)
Now I’m in the airport in Paris, waiting to board a second 8-hour flight. As Bethuel says, people ought not to be sad to say goodbye, but glad to have been able to meet in the first place. Thanks to everyone I met in Kenya, and thanks to all of you who followed my blog. I really had a wonderful seven weeks, but am definitely looking forward to seeing my dear friends and family asap. Love to all, Sarah.
Friday, July 30, 2010
Yesterday was exhausting. Kituo held a civic education program on the constitutional referendum in Kamukunji – about an hour drive from the office. We were supposed to leave Kituo at 8:00, but didn’t get out the door until 9:30. No one had really told me anything prior to leaving about where we were going or what we were doing, but as you know, I’m always up for an adventure, so I climbed into the back of the truck and we sped off.
I had sort of just assumed the community forum would be in some kind of building or conference center, so when our truck dropped us off at the edge of an informal settlement (or slum as some call them), I was pretty surprised. We entered the “neighborhood” on foot since the truck could not follow us down the narrow, uneven dirt roads. My Kenyan co-workers had obviously known what going to Kamukunji entailed and were dressed in jeans. I on the other hand, was in my black suit pants and blouse. So here I am walking through waste in my crocs and my dress pants - which are a bit too long by the way. Usually, it’s not a huge problem, but when you’re walking through dirt and perhaps raw sewage, you really don’t want your pants dragging on the ground.
We trek through a maze of shanty homes and emerge at a large dirt soccer field where some men were setting up white tents and plastic chairs. It takes us about an hour to set up – we hung posters encouraging people to “vote wisely,” and the DJ had to hook up all of his equipment. Finally, we were ready to start. The event kicked off with dancers and acrobats, and throughout the entire program, there was just as much entertainment as there was information dissemination. At one point there was even a dancing competition (I of course did not take part). The two women finalists were quite talented, but their style would be considered very inappropriate in the States. At one point, I was thinking to myself, someone should get that woman a pole.... Moments later, Camille, another muzungu intern from the University of Washington, turned to me and whispered, “I feel like I’m watching porn!”
Most of the program was conducted in Swahili, so I busied myself by staring at the large numbers of children who had gathered to watch the event. In the middle of one of the speeches, a little girl ran down the aisle towards me and threw her body across my lap and just hung there for a few minutes. I said hello, and that was the extent of our conversation, but she proceeded to use my leg as an armrest while she stood and watched the rest of the performance.
The event was supposed to run from 9 – 2 but really ran from 11 – 4. It then took us an hour to figure out how to get back home as there was much miscommunication about whether or not the truck was coming back to get us or not. At around 5:00, we established that no, the truck was not coming back to get us and we should take a taxi. We were 4 wazungu and 2 Kenyan, and having not had anything to ingest since breakfast save half a soda, we were all hungry, dehydrated and grumpy. Getting back out to the main road was another challenge in and of itself. At one point, we “lost” Jiro (one of the 2 Kenyans) and had to stop to try and figure out where he had gone. Twenty minutes later, he found us. He had gone up ahead to a butcher's shop to have boiled goat’s head.
All in all, it was an interesting, but exhausting day. Today is my last day in the office at Kituo cha Sheria (but I will attend more Kituo civic education events on Saturday and Sunday). Then Monday and Tuesday Jamie and I are at RCK again before we head out to Mombassa (a Kenyan coastal town) for a few days before flying back home on the 7th. I’m sad that my time here is coming to an end. It’s been a great trip and I’ve learned a lot, and I’ll really miss the people I’ve met along the way. Goodbyes are overrated. I think I’ll just say “see you tomorrow.”
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
So my hair has been getting pretty long as of late. The ends are split and I look like a male lion. Because I didn’t bring a blow-dryer or a straightener here, I usually just get out the shower, gel it, and let it dry naturally (which can take up to six hours). I’m already self-conscious about it (I prefer wearing it straight), but when I left home I figured, Sarah, you’re going to Africa, no one cares what your hair looks like… you stick out anyway, so who really cares? This morning, Jiro (one of my favorite people in the office, a man of about 40 who insists on talking to me in slang Swahili even though he knows I have no idea what he’s saying) walked by my desk, laughed, and said something to me. As usual, I asked Bethuel for a translation. The response was: “He says you need to comb your hair.” I almost started crying right then and there. Don’t men know that women can’t take criticism! Now I’m wondering if I should have thought: Sarah, you stick out anyway, so you might as well look good. Ah well, next time I come to Kenya, I’ll know to bring my fancy handbag, high heels, jewelry (a big thanks to all those dope websites who told me not to bring jewelry), and a hairbrush. Maybe I should just get braids…
In other news, I went to Eastleigh for the first time on Monday and loved it! Eastleigh is the part of Nairobi where most of the refugees we interview at RCK live. It was so different from the part of Nairobi we live in. Such an interesting blend of cultures. The Ethiopian and Somali communities congregate in Eastleigh so there’s a big Muslim influence. The majority of the women I spotted were covered head to toe in dark blue or black, loose-fitting fabric. The ones in all black with only their eyes showing reminded me of the dementors from Harry Potter – minus the whole kiss of death thing. No gated, guarded houses and apartments here. Instead, the roads are riddled with potholes, and there are lots and lots of shops! Not like Georgetown shops though… open stores filled to the brim with skirts, purses, shoes, and anything else you might want to buy for a bargain. It’s difficult to describe why exactly I loved it so much… I think it was because the atmosphere was so new and exciting. At one point, I felt like I was in the movie the “5th Element.” Maybe it was the crowded mass of alien people portraying a mix of colors and smells – though I guess I can’t really associate the “5th Element” with a smell since it’s a movie… hmm. Touché.
I was in Eastleigh visiting the URIP (Urban Refugee Intervention Programme) branch of Kituo cha Sheria. Like RCK, URIP provides free legal aid to urban refugees in Kenya. I went to compare the two organizations and found out that basically, they do the exact same thing. Refugees (primarily Ethiopian and Somali) come into the office seeking assistance – usually they want help finding a “Durable Solution” a.k.a. resettlement to a third country – and the person doing the screening interview either tells them, “sorry we can’t do anything for you,” or “sorry you have to wait while I pass your case on to my superiors to see if we can do anything.” It’s really quite depressing, though fascinating work. URIP, like RCK, can really only assist with a small percentage of the cases they screen. If someone’s security situation is really really bad (if, for example, an individual was jailed and tortured for 20 years in Ethiopia, escaped to Kenya, but is still being followed by government agents and has been physically attacked multiple times even after moving all over Nairobi), then we can advocate resettlement. But usually, the interviewee’s security situation is just somewhat bad (if, for example, a woman is being constantly harassed and followed by unknown males), and we can’t do anything for her except tell her to “take care.”
I took a matatu back to town from Eastleigh and got dropped off at an area totally unfamiliar to me. After a few moments of panic, I decided to just start walking in the direction that “smelled less foul” as Gandalf would say. Sure enough, after about ten minutes of winding around some narrow streets near the matatu park in Nairobi, I hit Kenyatta avenue – a street that I recognized – and was able to make it to the T-Spot to meet Jamie and the government official we were supposed to interview (and did, then, in fact interview). Don’t worry Mom and Dad, the streets were packed with people and it was very sunny out! (Zombies don’t come out in the sun, remember?).
Sunday, July 18, 2010
I went in mentally preparing myself to be shocked, and so when we first exited Kenya’s largest slum, I thought to myself It’s not that much different than Fez (a city in Morocco). It took a couple of hours for me to digest. Now that I’ve had a full day and a half to process, I’ve come to the conclusion that in fact, Kibera is nothing like Fez. Sure, once you enter the slum, just as when you enter the old city in Fez, you feel like you’re entering a labyrinth of narrow, dusty, wandering footpaths with no hope of finding a way out again. And in each setting, you can find vendors selling fruit, vegetables, shoes, and cell phones. But in Kibera, there is no sewage system. If you don’t watch where you’re walking, you’re likely to step in a pile of shit.
Even though we were passed by several vehicles, I was always surprised by the random car that would come barreling down the dirt road towards us, its wheels barely skirting the troughs that run on either side of the main street carrying all kinds of waste to who knows where. At one point, a woman dumped a bucket of waste (and I’m almost positive it was human) into the trough just behind us. The smell was so overpowering I gagged.
But amidst this poverty, people carry on. Though we certainly saw many people – mostly young men – just sitting around passing the time, we also saw many people hard at work. There’s a lot of economic activity going on in Kibera, and though it may be small scale buying and selling, it’s a type of livelihood. I’ve also met several community leaders from Kibera, and they’re all very involved and working to better the human condition. We were shown a garden – right next to a dumpsite – that had been a part of that dumpsite just a few years ago. The community members had cleared the mounds of trash, brought in soil from central Kenya, and started an organic vegetable garden. When we visited, they were growing corn and eggplants with the aid of a drip irrigation system.
I really struggle with how to characterize Kibera… partly because I’ve only had a glimpse of it, and partly because I’m trying to consider the ethics of describing someone’s home as squalid. Basically, I want to highlight the fact that Kibera isn’t necessarily a place of hopeless despair. Just because the conditions there are inhumane doesn’t mean the people living there are inhuman. The living environment seems appalling sure, but in saying it’s appalling, do we somehow offend the residents who live there? The school kids we met were just like school kids from any other country. They laugh, they joke, they flirt and shout. The people who make their living in Kibera are just like people from any other country. Does pitying them do any good?
Jamie and I went in with our friend Aaron who knows a woman named Jamia – a community leader in Kibera – who allowed us to come observe her class on HIV education. Jamie and I have been asked to go back to Kibera and teach a short program on conflict resolution and mediation. Hopefully, we can follow through with this because I’d love to go back and learn/ponder more.
Thursday, July 8, 2010
After lunch, I found out that some of the staff were going to play soccer after work. Kituo is playing in a soccer tournament in two weeks, and they need at least one girl on their team, so I said I’d love to at least practice with them even if I’m not in town on the day of the tourney. I haven’t been very active here as the pollution doesn’t make for a great jogging atmosphere, so I was really excited to do something physical. I made sure that some other girls were going to play before I went and got my sneakers. Then I came back to Kituo and we were about to head out when we were stopped by the head of the Legal Aid department. “You can’t leave!” She said. “We are having singing practice and attendance is required!” (Kituo is having a birthday dinner/party on Friday night, and the staff members from each branch are supposed to perform something for the crowd. Our branch is going to attempt to sing a song.) So we had singing practice for about 45 minutes before we were able to escape. Then, on the way to the field, the Kituo van broke down and we were delayed a bit longer. Eventually we made it to the soccer field—in some places, the grass came up to my knees. We all poured out of the van, but then the girls who said they were going to play soccer ended up getting right back in the van and drove away. Apparently, people here joke a lot… they say things like: sure I’m going to play soccer, when really, they have no intention of playing soccer. I guess this is called sarcasm. I’m having a difficult time here figuring out when people are being serious and when they’re joking. True, I’m a very gullible person in general… but in Kenya, my gullibility seems to be heightened tenfold.
Now that the van is gone, I have no choice but to follow the group of men towards an empty spot on the field. We put our things down, and they start stripping at once. Three of them strip down to their boxers, and several of them take off their shirts (granted they were all wearing work clothes and you can’t play soccer in a suit and tie). Meanwhile, I’m thinking Oh dear lord, what have I gotten myself into? I’m going to have to play soccer with a group of half-naked men. At least I have Harvard Law with me who is also muzungu and keeps his clothes on.
We kick the ball around for a bit to warm up, and then the men introduce me to their coach. Their coach?? I thought we were just going to play a game of pick up! The coach is a little, quick looking guy, and he’s the only one wearing actual cleats and soccer socks. He proceeds to make us line up and run suicides. Are you kidding me? I’m freaking 24 years old, and I have a coach telling me to run suicides? No one tells me what to do; I’m not in high school anymore! I exercise if I want to. I run fast if I want to (which is never). Why am I here with a bunch of African men running suicides?
Praise the lord, he gives us permission to stop running, and we do some stretching. Now here is something I am good at! My friends are very impressed with my ability to touch my toes. Finally, we get to play some soccer. We divide into teams, and overall, I have a very good time. At one point I stop the ball with the outside of my foot, and someone commends me for it and notes that’s how Beckham used to do it. I should have gone pro.
Aaron (Harvard kid) and I decide to scoot out early at 6pm because it is starting to get dark. And after all, we are in Nairobi—aka New York City in “I am Legend”— and if we don’t get home before dark, we’re likely to get killed by zombies (or mugged).
All in all, it was a very fun afternoon. Plus, it was cool to hang out with a group of Africans… even if they are all men and speaking in a language I don’t understand. I didn’t come to Africa to hang out exclusively with white people. (No offense to Jamie, Consuelo and Aaron.)
Monday, July 5, 2010
On Mondays and Tuesdays, Jamie and I go to the Refugee Consortium of Kenya (RCK) to help interview refugees at the organization’s legal aid clinic. Eventually we’re supposed to be conducting interviews ourselves, but for now we’re just observing and trying to learn as much as possible. The whole process brings up so many ethical questions, it makes my head hurt.
Since I’ve been studying humanitarian crises in school, I’ve read a lot about the relationships that form between aid workers and refugees. And in fact, it’s a little bit eerie to see how accurately scholars have been able to characterize some of these issues. What I learned about last semester is happening right in front of my eyes. I’m seeing that there is indeed a complete lack of trust on both sides. The aid workers don’t trust the refugees to be telling the truth, and the refugees don’t trust the aid workers because they see them as insensitive. This past semester, I wrote a paper on Sudanese refugees in Cairo. In it, I touched on the frustrations felt by the Sudanese refugees towards the Egyptian staff at UNHCR. Though RCK is not UNHCR, the employees there seem to play a hauntingly similar role. I wrote:
As Jane Kani Edward notes, “The suspicion and mistrust between [Sudanese] refugees and UNHCR caseworkers stems from the very process of refugee status determination.” Refugees often feel as though their life histories are either ignored or not taken seriously. One southern Sudanese noted that his UNHCR interviewer “spent more time doing her hair than asking me questions.” Another refugee recalls,
I remember my mother telling us she felt she was made to beg for something—for anything—inside the UNHCR office. I’ll always feel angry when I remember the way my mother was treated inside those offices and I’ll always resent the officer who showed her no respect.”
Sometimes it does indeed seem that the RCK staff members are apathetic towards the narratives of the Ethiopian and Somali refugees. But, as our supervisor explained to us, it is important to try to remain as objective as possible. And I’m almost ashamed to say that I think she must be right. You can’t get emotional about every case that comes in unless you want to burn out in a week. I’ve only been there three days and I’m exhausted.
Though RCK is not in charge of refugee status determination, they do decide whether or not a case is serious enough to warrant legal representation. For example, if the physical security of an individual seems to be in jeopardy, RCK will help the refugee apply for resettlement to a third country (like the US, or Australia). Thus the refugee comes to RCK knowing that his chances of resettlement increase if he portrays his case as seriously dire. Consequently and perhaps expectedly, this means that some refugees try to take advantage of the system by making up false grievances.
Basically, I have found myself in a very odd situation. I’ve read about the lack of trust on both sides… and now I’m to become part of that system? Even if the refugee does exaggerate his condition, the fact remains that he’s still fled his country and is living in poverty with very little resources and no support system. And my gut instinct is of course to be sympathetic. And when some of the women come in and tell you’re their stories, you really just feel like crying. But as the volunteers at RCK say, “you really can’t believe everything they tell you” and “you can’t be emotional with them, or they’ll expect you’ll be able to help them.” So is it more unethical to act unsympathetic or to express sympathy (but in doing so, raise false hope and allow the individual to feel even more frustrated when he realizes you can do nothing to help)?
Last Tuesday, we listened to five women tell their stories… most of them reported cases of rape, and said they had no place to live and not enough food to eat. And we turned all of them away. RCK cannot give social assistance. It can refer the refugees to an organization like JRS (Jesuit Refugee Services)… but then our boss told us that JRS is running out of funding and can rarely do anything to help either. Wonderful.
RCK is a strange place. Metaphorically, it’s much like the entrance to the afterlife. The yard is full of people with blank looks on their faces. They sit or stand in clusters as they wait for their names to be called. There’s a secretary sitting at a desk right inside the front door, and if you’re lucky enough to be on her list, you get ushered past her down a hallway and into an interview room where you’re expected to tell your life story. Then, the interviewer decides what to do with you. If she thinks RCK can help, she refers your case to someone more powerful upstairs. If she decides RCK can’t help, you’re turned back out onto the street and remain in limbo indefinitely.