one of our favorite sights

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Musings on the Modern Global Economy--Kenya 2012

plastic shoes for sale in town

As with everything else that one runs across in the developing world, the influence of the modern global economy is striking here in Kenya. Kenya, being a coastal African country, has had a global economy for centuries, between the early early traders coming from Portugal, India and Persia, to the Europeans and others later on. The market for East African goods was large and deep and certainly global, even in those days, whether it was slaves, spices, exotic fruits, or minerals and gems.
Although at home we do try to buy locally as we feel it helps the local economy and lessens our contribution to green house gases,  it is nearly impossible to buy locally all the time. So, living where there are a lot of fresh tropical fruits, for instance, which is something that we had basically stopped buying (bananas, mangoes, pineapples and avocadoes) is pleasant because we can get them here knowing (and seeing!) that they are grown here locally and sold by Kenyans at the market. In fact, as we plant our garden, we are trying not to grow vegetables that we see around locally so that we can continue to support the local vendors in town. Having no idea how to grow a banana or avocado helps make that an easy decision, but we also will not plant tomatoes, spinach, kale, onions, and a few other items which are prevalent at the market.
Sadly, just as it is difficult in the States to only buy locally it is also here. Guess which country is selling a lot of non food items here in Kenya as well? You got it! China! Not only has the handmade housewares industry gotten completely taken over by Chinese wares, much of everything else has also. Hardware, electronics, decorative items and on and on. It is a sad state of affairs from our perspective. Nothing against the Chinese as a people of course,  but their trade and manufacturing industries are a bit all pervasive, let’s say. It used to be that you could find handmade items all over Kenya and people wearing clothes manufactured here in the country, but not anymore.
 Very few folks wear locally produced textiles and when they do it is for a special occasion. That is another industry which has completely changed due to the global economy. You know when you take a load of used clothes to Goodwill and you think it’s being purchased there at home (or you go there yourself?). The craziest thing is that apparently a lot of the used clothes which are not sold in the US are sent to these countries and they are sold on the street here. Most people wear “western” attire here and there are people hawking western style clothing all over the streets. Everything from undies to shoes and all that one wears otherwise is for sale. (There are some Kenyan made shoes).
 In fact, it’s kind of fun to read all the various tshirts that are seen on the street here. We are making a little game of it ourselves as some of them seem extremely absurd when walking down the street in Eldoret. My favorite thus far was a young man wearing a black tshirt that said “Future Trophy Wife”..LOL…anyway, it seems a little sad because as many people can verify, African cloths are lovely and it is so nice to see people dressed using their locally made cloths. I don’t know how it is in other African countries now but certainly in Kenya it is not the fashion! Of course with this lack of market there comes a lessening of the need for a textile workforce and therefore fewer jobs available here locally (sound familiar?). So, I’m not sure it can be construed as a positive.
liam working on garden fence

MG and the boys

Rafiki supervising work 

mamas with plastic bags

clothing for sale


market in Eldoret

atypical scene

plastic bag trash mostly in town
Most of the locally made products today are for tourists. There are plenty of artisans making baskets, decorated gourds, little statuettes, wooden bowls, etc, and they are lovely and plentiful and some are localized so there is a familiarity with that product nationwide. WE recently purchased outdoor furniture from a friend  from Busia, on the Ugandan border, which is known for its handmade woven furniture.  We are so pleased with them . They are handmade, comfortable, and they smell like grass!
Possibly the most disconcerting and unpleasant aspect of the modern global market here in Kenya  is the inundation of plastic. Plastic bags are everywhere and everyone here seems to think that they are a necessary aspect of “modern” life. It is very difficult for us, as environmental activists and anti plastic bag people from way back to see them all over the ground. I mean all over. That is one thing I will never get used to. There is sadly, no way to recycle them and the trash collection in Eldoret is practically nonexistent, SO they do not get taken away.   All we can do is try to make our point every time we go to the market and/or grocery store. It’s not so different than in southern IN really, although littering is more de rigueur here.  We take our reusable bag and make a mild pronouncement when they move to put things in a plastic bag, about how we don’t NEED a plastic bag and how bad plastic bags are. Even the vendors in the market are using them for their vegetables now! We can only guess that it is because they think that they are then competing with the grocery stores which use them at every turn (again, sound familiar?). So, as we continue on our path here, trying to be a positive influence, trying to do the right thing in terms of supporting the local economy, we are also hatching a plan to help eradicate plastic bags from the local environment and get some folks behind cleaning up Eldoret. Wish us luck!
One interesting note is that some countries, like some cities in the US, have legislated the elimination of plastic bags altogether. Rwanda most notably. People here say that that is what the government should do, but that would take some initiative on the part of the government….which there doesn’t seem to be….hmmm   well, not to be a broken record, BUT….sound familiar?
Another interesting aspect of the global market in Kenya is the ubiquitous use of cell phones. Actually the local cellular and internet service are homegrown so they too are local even though they certainly help one to stay connected internationally. No doubt they also help Kenyan companies and entrepreneurs do business worldwide. In fact, Kenya has one of the most innovative and modern money exchanging services, called MPESA, which takes place over the cell phone. It is crazy for this old fart, to be moving money with a cell phone, but it is very commonly done and most everyone here has a cell phone, even if they aren’t moving money. One of my favorite images is going by a market scene and seeing all the mamas selling their wares while talking on the cell phone. Well, so there you have it. The modern world is all pervasive some for the good and some for the bad but mostly for the absolutely mindboggling!

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Out and About

Obviously, one of the most exciting aspects of being in Kenya for a long time is that there are going to be a lot of opportunities to see some new and interesting natural beauty. Kenya is known for its wildlife and interesting terrain. In fact, I would wager that the image of the Acacia tree with a lion underneath it chowing on an unlucky zebra is a common “African” image among most nonAfricans.  Kenya is quite diverse in terms of its terrain and of course they do have a lot of wildlife parks.  We look forward to being able to take some adventures, both big and small, while here. Since we live in a city, and are not really into city living, it is nice to have an outdoor excursions to look forward to.  Our tentative plan is to take day trips at least ever two weeks.  I am not sure we will be able to sustain that pattern, and right now we are a little homebound because of the puppy (looking for dogsitters).
Although Eldoret itself is not so appealing to us, it is well situated for taking short journeys. It is located in the Great Rift Region and it is very near the Great Rift Valley, which is quite picturesque and home to many  lovely nature preserves and lakes. We are also lucky in that there are quite a few folks from the AMPATH community who have lived here awhile and who have done a lot of cool adventuring. So we have the benefit of their input.
Soon after arriving, we went to Kakamega Forest, which is the last rainforest in Kenya. It is about 2 hours west of here and we went with one of the AMPATH drivers because you need a 4 WD vehicle to get there and we of course were nervous to drive at that point. There is a place called Rondo Retreat Center, where we began our tour. It is a lovely little oasis of a place, set off of the road but in a completely natural setting surrounded by the forest.  We hired a guide who was very well versed in the flora and fauna of the rainforest and we took a 4 hour hike with him. It was beautiful, interesting, and fun.  We were relieved to get out into the woods.  We not only experienced the joy of unadulterated nature, but we also saw some cool wildlife which we never see at home! Most noteable were the Colubus Monkeys who were jumping all over the place from tree to tree.  Although we were there  midday, which is not the best time for birdwatching,  we did get a gander at  a black and white casqued hornbill. There were other birds that we don’t know the names of but none that we were familiar with and many of which are only found  in this part of Kenya.
The next weekend we went to  Kruger Farm, on the outskirts of Eldoret, and then on to Kerio Valley, near the village of Iten. Kruger Farm is both a large working farm owned by white Kenyans (who hail originally from South Africa) and it is also a giraffe conservancy. It is nearly 3000 acres and is in a very picturesque area. We were thrilled to get the opportunity to walk the farm and see the giraffes close up.
In fact, we were able to walk almost all the way up to them and if we had been  taller, we maybe could have petted them! It was a definite highlight as I have always loved giraffes. It may seem odd that they are so domesticated to not be scared of approaching humans, and although they must be used to humans, they are definitely not in an enclosed area. They roam the farm and the surrounding acreage freely and they are protected from poachers. Sadly, poaching is a huge problem in Kenya and the Kenyan Wildlife Services must use a fair amount of its minimal resources to hunt them down so that they don’t ruin the wildlife preserves. There is talk of it in the national  papers all the time. However, Kruger Farm is a privately run preserve and they maintain only about 15 giraffes at this point (they have 2 babies and 2 are pregnant, though).  We are thrilled to report that Liam is going to get to go out there during his upcoming break to help out with the farm and hang out with the giraffes.
Iten is a small village nearby and it is interesting because it is up pretty high  and home to the Iten Training Center which is where a lot of the East African athletes come to do their training. Just outside of Iten there is a public viewing spot of the Great Rift Valley which is fantastic. The Great Rift Valley is the major geological feature of this part of the world, running from Lebanon to Mozambique. It is just exactly what it is called, a great rift, and due to that, it has terrifically beautiful mountains on either side of it  in this area, so and there will be many opportunities for hiking, etc. The views are breathtaking as the air is clear and you can see all the way across the valley. Apparently there is a road that goes through the valley that we hope to traverse one day. We then went to Kerio View Hotel for lunch and to take in another view of the valley.  We enjoyed learning about both these places as we have hopes that we will have visitors during our stay here and these are three places to which we would definitely take visitors. The lakes in the valley are of particular interest because they are home to all sorts of wildlife , especially birds.  The great thing is that they are all within reach by car and/or taxi and we can even get to them and home in one day.
The most recent place that we visited, last weekend, is called Naiberi, and it is a bit northeast of Eldoret. We asked our favorite cab driver, Andrew, to take us there as he had been talking about it and we were interested in it because there is a pool there. Most of you know that we are water people and the weather here is lovely almost every day thus far, so we think of swimming a lot. Unfortunately, we are not on or near the coast and the fresh water opportunities in Kenya are too polluted and full of strange buggies (or other weird things) that we wouldn’t dare swim in them. Naiberi is a little oasis out in the middle of nowhere where I suppose tourists go although the day we were there it was full of Kenyans enjoying themselves. Basically it is a hotel with bandas (little round huts) and a campground all built into the rocks. There is a lot of area for walking and playing games, a couple of bars and restaurants, a nice river running through it, and yes, a swimming pool. We will definitely go back and it will be a nice place to take company, should they come!
our guide in Kakamega forest

indigineous tree in forest


Colubus Monkeys

Kruger farm

Kruger preserve

view of farm from hillside

looking down into field

Rothchilds Giraffe

View of Great Rift Valley

Great Rift Valley

View from Kerio Valley hotel

lunch at Kerio Valley hotel

Entering Naiberi

grounds at Naiberi

local beer ad


pool at Naiberi

bar at Naiberi

monkey at Kakamega


guys carrying wood from outskirts of town

big load!

guy carrying charcoal from outskirts of town
Our next adventure will take us to the Kapsabet Forest, which is just 25 miles outside of Eldoret. We have met some new friends who are building a home near there and they have been working to protect the forest. We are hoping to get involved in that conservation effort as well. Like the wildlife, the forests of Kenya are in a lot of danger and have been for awhile. Fortunately there are a fair number of people here who are aware of the issues of deforestation and wildlife conservation so there are a lot of efforts being made. It is unfortunate and sort of mindboggling how to deal with or positively affect the deforestation because all villagers and even institutions still burn wood to warm water, cook and bathe! Even the hospital here in Eldoret uses wood , or charcoal made from wood, for cooking and laundry! So, you see a lot of people out on the country roads,  all the time, collecting wood.  It’s actually interesting but sort of disheartening when you look across the hills of Kenya and see how few forests are still here.  There has been a lot of education of late about deforestation and erosion, etc, and thanks to groups like The Greenbelt Movement there is an effort to reforest. We are hoping to get more involved in these efforts while here. It is not unlike our issues in the States and all over the world really, but the bigger issue is how to offset this need to use wood for cooking, bathing and laundry, the essentials?  It is a difficult situation for sure and a pretty universal one. 
So, that's about it for news from us just now. Hope you enjoy the pictures. I think they relay the diversity of terrain and the opportunities available for outdoor experiences! The sky here, as you can see, is quite amazing. In fact, I just can't really get enough of it. Take care and Keep in Touch! Kwa Heri!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Emerging Democracies

The other day I was talking to a group of women after a meal and we got to talking politics which is sort of unusual. I think I broke the ice because one of the women, about my age, is a nurse, and the nurses have recently been on strike, so I asked her about it. It is so interesting to me because not only the nurses, but the teachers and the doctors, all of whom are government employees if they aren’t in a private facility, have been on strike since we arrived and this news has been all over the papers (the government recently negotiated a deal with the teachers and the nurse went back on a “promise” she told me).  In fact, the day the nurses struck I happened to be walking home from town and I ran into this huge mob of mostly women standing in a big circle outside the hospital doors (Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital which is both a medical school , AMPATH’s partner, and a public hospital) singing and chanting union songs….At first I was a little nervous because I was literally stuck in the throng , unable to move one way or another…so I just stood there watching and listening and hoping  that nothing weird would happen. Nothing did. In fact, all the singing and smiling and chanting got me sort of fired up and had I known the words, I would have sung along!
 I find this a tremendous step in the right direction although there has been a lot of debate in the papers about these strikes. The fact that these people are able to protest and assemble without worrying about arrest or violence on the part of the government seems huge to us. Also, the press is free. The newspapers here are incredibly forthright and frank. They criticize the government freely, they report on individual politician’s issues and inanities, and they give  lots of in depth  local, regional and national news. It is sometimes overwhelming  to read partly because I am still learning all the various regions         ( they have districts, regions, counties, etc) which I have been reassured by others who’ve been here much longer, are “impossible” to figure out.
As I get a handle on the various regions I’ll be better able to understand what is going on where but for now, it is helping me understand their political system (and keeping me aware of where we are not going to travel anytime soon). As you may know they are about to have another General Election in early March 2013. In 2007 there was an election and it was “stolen” by the current president’s  (Kibaki) party at the very end of the day. On the day of the election, according to friends who have described that day to me,  it was pretty clear that his opponent  (Odinga) was winning  the election and then suddenly the lights went out, the television and radio transmissions ended and when it all came back on , Kibaki was announced the winner. He then went on to have himself sworn in in the middle of the night! This was totally out of protocol so clearly something fishy was going on.
So, the shit hit the fan…people went nuts and looting and burning ensued, a lot of it in this area, because this is where Odinga is from.  Folks  are still very tied to their “people” and vote accordingly.  It was a terrible time because many  people were killed  and maimed and a lot of people fled their homes. However, after Kofi Annan intervened and a new position was put in place for Odinga (Prime Minister) the country has been bumping along pretty well. In 2010 they had a referendum vote on a new Constitution which ensures freedom of religion, press, and assembly.  There was a little conflict in Nairobi during that vote but apparently not enough to cause much concern.
 So as the next election approaches, there is a bit of mystery in the air. Non Kenyans whom we know and who have lived here for quite awhile seem not to  be too concerned about the possibility of violence. They are fairly philosophical about it, even saying “so why should I leave and get out of the situation if they have to deal with it?” Very interesting take.  Kenyans whom I have spoken with usually say something like , “oh there will be a lot more security”,  or ” we are very optimistic” meaning they don’t really know either and are hoping for the best. This is not terribly reassuring to me as someone who is pretty violence abhorrent.
Some people say that some of the politicians (MPs) were responsible for inciting the violence which is disappointing to hear. Others say it was the poor and disenfranchised who were so pissed off, taken by surprise by the outcome,  and got all riled up out in the streets  and then it just snowballed (or fireballed). In any case, you can see it happening in a place like this where democracy is a relatively new concept, and there is a lot of poverty, tribal connections and some corruption among the police force. People speak of it freely and are highly aware of it but they don’t seem to be sick of it yet! In fact, the other day in my conversation with the women, I told them that if our MPs (Representatives) behaved the way theirs were currently (they just voted to take a large  bonus at the expense of the taxpayers when the coffers are empty and they have promised pay raises to those recently have struck. Update: President Kibaki vetoed this idea, hurray for him!  ) that we would “kick them out” and vote in all new people,  which is what we seem to do every two years. They seemed surprised and sort of sheepish about that comment and kind of looked at each other like “would we ever do that? “ It was illuminating I thought.
If you listen to world news you will hear reports on Kenya. Kenya used to be considered sort of the diamond among African nations. It has of course, a lot of physical beauty, a strong tourism industry, a thriving tea and coffee industry, resources, culturally intriguing people, and it is relatively developed. In parts. Recently the news has likely been reporting on the various tribal conflicts in various areas (far from here fortunately). It has also been reporting on a large suit against the British government by a group of former Mau Mau rebels who were victimized by the British (along with thousands of others who were incarcerated , mistreated and murdered) and are appealing for compensation. 
Michael and Liam playing checkers on soapstone board with bottle caps

baby Natasha and me

richard's house in the country

country road

Michael and jacob

Michael, Richard, and Jacob


Mother of Natasha on left, and friend

new friends in Kapkeino

saying goodbye

cloth found in Eldoret shop/ only decoration hanging on our walls!
Kenya is rife with issues and problems AND corruption, but frankly, so is the US and we’ve been at this a lot longer. Our election process is far from perfect and it is far from just, right? How many of us would not like to see some sort of changes made to our political process (more parties participating, less money talking, fewer “bought” politicians, less negative advertising, less lobbying, direct popular vote, no voter suppression, etc. to name a few!) yet we can’t really figure out how to make it happen? So, Kenya will plug along, making mistakes, having conflicts, and hopefully growing and changing in order to become a better stronger and more representative democracy than it is right now. I would not expect that for a long time, though, as we all know that it takes a very  long time for any sort of evolution to occur!