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


Kibera. First impressions: dirty, loud, crowded, hot – and this is winter. Then there’s the smell. The smell of raw sewage, rotting mountains of trash and burning plastic. Butcher’s shops with flanks of meat hanging in the windows. Dried fishes – tiny and large – out for sale in the sun with flies buzzing all around. Lethargic dogs lie sprawled on piles of rubbish. Small children peeking out of dusty doorways, smiling, waving, shouting at the tops of their lungs “Our are you! Our are you!” Adults either glance at us briefly or make no acknowledgment of our presence at all. They go on with their business as usual. Women sit cutting slivers of sukuma wiki, men sit chatting in groups in front of their stores. Women walk past with large sacks balanced on the tops of their heads, men walk past with planks of wood balanced on their shoulders. When the narrow, filthy road does make a dip, you can see out over the tops of the houses – rows of tin roofs as far as the eye can see.

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

Fish and Football

Today at lunch I ate a fish—like a fish that was pulled right out of the lake, dipped in a fryer, and then put on my plate. Head, scales, bones and all. Yum. So I’m sitting on our bench outside, the plate on my lap is filled with ugali, unidentifiable greens, and of course, the fish. I just have a napkin and no fork, and I’m thinking: now how in the world am I supposed to eat this fish? All I can say is thank goodness for Bethuel. He is so patient and usually tolerates my Americanness. “Sarah,” he says, “you just have to poke it!” And sure enough, he succeeds in breaking through the ribcage of his fish and draws out the white, fleshy, good-to-eat part. I try to do the same thing, but end up poking the little side fin of the fish, which simultaneously blocks my attack and grosses me out. Long story short, I waged a war on this fish and eventually won. But it wasn’t a pretty picture, and I left a lot of uneaten carcass on my plate. Deborah reprimanded me for wasting so much of my food and added that many people in Kenya don’t get enough to eat. So obviously I felt horrible and proceeded to shove down more of my ugali…

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.”[1] 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.”[2] 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.”[3]

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.

[1] Edward, Jane Kani. Sudanese Women Refugees: Transformations and Future Imaginings. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Print, 116

[2] Walzer, 245

[3] Eltahawy, 35