one of our favorite sights

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Things are "hotting up" and we are "popping out!"

big mural on wall in Nairobi--read carefully!

political rally in Eldoret

Many of you have probably heard that Kenya is about to have its General Election on March 4,  2013, which is coming right up. They are electing 6 positions this year which is one of the biggest general elections in their short history. From President and Vice President, to Governors, Senators, Women Reps, and Prime Ministers.  Unfortunately, the Kenyans have historically had a lot of tension among their tribes, much of which has to do with land issues created by the British in pre independence days (favoring certain tribes , putting certain people and not others in power, pitting people against each other) and then carried on amongst themselves after  independence (1963).
They are still carrying grudges that are over 50 years old and although one cannot feel them much as an outsider, apparently they become very heated and tense during election seasons. There was a lot of post election violence in 2008 when the current President apparently “stole” the election at the 11th hour. Eldoret and the surrounding Rift Valley region were hit very hard, many people were hurt and killed and many fled their homes. The issue of the past violence still lingers because there are still a lot of displaced persons in this region and there are land issues that came up due to people fleeing their properties as well. After speaking to many people about this topic and trying to get a better feel for what is going on and why,  my conclusion is that I can never really understand it because these sentiments are so profound, historic, and complex. I do understand it a bit better than I have, but I feel like I would need a course from a neutral person to really completely get it.
I have made the effort to speak to people from different tribes (personally I can’t yet tell but they don’t hesitate to tell you), as Eldoret is a big enough city that there are people here from all over the country. Also, on our recent trip to Nairobi, I was able to talk to a couple of other people from that area and from the coastal area. It’s also interesting to speak about it to people from different generations. Basically it comes down to racism, which is of course a difficult topic but people here even acknowledge it (they call it “tribalism”) and that it is something they have yet to get over. It may take another generation or two.
It doesn’t help that two of the current lead presidential contenders are the sons of two of the early Independence leaders who had a big falling out back in the 60’s. From our perspective, they are both, and their Vice Presidential candidates (they form coalitions before they are elected)  sort of fat cats who are out of touch with the poor of this country, own too much property and are very good at manipulating the population (see attached mural found in Nairobi). These guys, Raila Odinga, and Uhuru Kenyatta, remind me of party bosses in the 30’s and 40’s in the U.S. I can’t really describe it, but their campaigning (rallying is done in the streets a lot and sort of all the time it seems) seems way over the top, loud, aggressive, and rather unpleasant. People come out en masse to hear them; I’m told because they have nothing better to do, rather than because they are going to vote for them.
On the good side, they both have created coalitions with people from tribes outside their own which hopefully will help temper the cross tribal hostilities, and they certainly are talking that talk. The bad thing is that Uhuru, who is much loved by the Kikuyus, because his father was the leader of Kenya back during independence, and his running mate, William Ruto, who is from this region (Rift Valley is Kalenjin), have both been indicted by the International Criminal Courts for crimes against humanity from the last post election violence. There’s a lot of finger pointing and calls of “trumped up “ charges etc which causes me to see that these people just don’t trust each other at all. At least in the political arena.  It’s sad.  Most of the Americans here cannot even believe they are being taken seriously or allowed to participate, and we are quite concerned about what will happen if they win, with regard to the country’s international relations/aid, etc.
 The other thing is, and I’ve been told this several times now,that both of the big candidates, or coalitions, go out into the villages and PAY people to vote for them. This is considered normal here for those two guys, anyway, and we are told this in the same conversation with someone who says, reassuringly,  “we are hoping for free and fair elections.” My response ,  which I keep to myself , usually is “um, I think it’s too late.”
 The crazy thing is, for me, and it just proves how entrenched all of these feelings are, when you suggest to a bright educated Kenyan that he/she could vote outside their traditional tribal block (there are others who are running who seem capable, have governed, and  are not part of those two historic rivalries), they tend to respond by saying that they can’t because that is how it is here….you vote for your tribe. One young woman told me that her family would be very angry if she voted otherwise.
Another negative thing is that since the two top contenders are basically neck and neck right now, everyone is predicting a run-off. The Presidential candidate must win by 51% . The current feeling is that they are too close to call. OF course depending on what actually happens on election day, that could change.  A run-off would be very expensive for the country but also would create even more tension.
So, as disconcerting  as this is to us,  and frankly, sort of confusing, really, we are standing by, waiting to see what happens. However, IU and AMPATH have requested that we leave the country for 2 weeks, so even though we don’t really want to go right now, and Michael’s project is finally seriously underway , we are going. We are taking a road trip through Tanzania, which should be both fun and exciting. Lots of herds of big animals down there apparently which we are excited to see. We will be driving and camping and sometimes staying in hotels and will be keeping a close watch on the Kenyan elections during that time.
We are hoping that they will get through this period and election without violence but there have already been some smatterings of violent acts in other regions that may be election tension related. Maddeningly, we have also been requested to leave if there is a runoff, so let’s all hope that that doesn’t happen! Honestly, it’s exhausting and expensive to have to pick up and leave due to the possibility of unrest! Having a student, a baby,  and a dog counting on us makes it a bit of a pickle to leave for long periods of time.
Personally I find all of this heartbreaking and disturbing and in a sick sort of way, interesting. We shall see. Please keep your fingers crossed and say  prayers that Kenya comes out of this in a positive way.

What Would You Like With That Jam?

We traveled to Nairobi, the capitol of Kenya, last week because Michael had some meetings, we had not yet been there, we wanted to visit our old family friend Miriam Chege, and we had to take Jeannette to the airport. Although Eldoret is a fairly good sized city, it is completely different from Nairobi, both because it is not nearly as cosmopolitan and it is much smaller. Like all huge cities (population close to 3 million) Nairobi has issues despite its many positive aspects. One, there are too many people and there is a lot of poverty. However,  it is also the banking and commercial center of East Africa. Like everywhere in the world, many people move here looking for work, and that creates a lot of congestion.
matatus lined up

here's another, slower, option...the tuktuk!
 All big cities have a lot of traffic, even terrible traffic, by our standards in Ogilville, Indiana, but Nairobi, due to its limited infrastructure, numerous construction projects, whacky drivers, and all of the other oddities abundant on the side of the road in Kenya, takes the cake, for me, so far. The public transportation in Nairobi consists of buses and matatus, which are everywhere, and used quite thoroughly by most people.   Matatus are privately owned and registered mini vans which carry up to 20 people and are not particularly well behaved on the road. Their goal is to pack as many people in the van as possible, drive as quickly to their destination as possible, then drive back even more quickly, packed again, with little regard for whatever rules there might be on the road,  in order to make the most money in a given day. Since the drivers are not usually the owners, the more trips they make, the bigger cut they get. They often are stopped by police on the roads for overloading and they have a reputation, particularly on the highways, to be unsafe and cause a lot of horrific accidents. We even saw a couple being chased by police on foot, driving backwards at high speed on the highway trying to get away!
Michael drove us to Nairobi, and I must say he has proven himself to be a tenacious driver, managing  on many kinds of roads and he keeps his cool in the midst of incredible “jams.”  Michael did a lot of driving around on his own, trying to find his meetings, and picking up and dropping off his colleagues. The first day in Nairobi, we arrived around 2 and he dropped us at the National Museum. He went on to meetings with his colleagues and planned to come back to find us around 5. Well, he actually spent an hour waiting in stopped traffic, so he got us around 6. He had had enough by then, and all he really wanted was a cold beer, but unfortunately, we had to get out to Karen , where we were to stay with our old family friend, which is about 20 kms out of town.
We immediately got lost, despite what seemed like clear directions from both Miriam and the guard at the museum. We were trying to take a back road out of the city which would take us to the suburbs more easily, without getting into the rush hour congestion again. Sadly, we ended up missing some turn and landing right in the thick of the rush hour traffic downtown.  Although it was hot and we had left home very early and we were all a bit cranky by then, we could see from the line of traffic that was literally NOT moving that it was going to take a while, so we found ourselves being happily amused by the roadside entertainment.  Many vendors carrying a variety of  strange items walk up and down the lines of traffic, hawking their wares.  Everything from National Geographic Magazines, maps of the country, to peanuts and bananas, to bobble headed dogs, cell phone cords, machetes, and bubble blowers. There was even a guy selling  a blow up Spiderman!! Not all of the people in the street were hawking, some were begging and we did our best to maintain a sense of charity while roasting in our car and inhaling diesel fumes. Michael asked me at one point to find out if any of them had a cold beer, but sadly, they did not. No beverages at all. The lack of refreshments was noted a few more times before we actually started to inch forward towards the totally blocked roundabout.
Over the next two days in Nairobi, Michael had more interesting adventures while trying to maneuver through the Nairobi traffic.  Apparently, his Kenyan colleagues  thought they knew their way around pretty well but since there is so much construction and roads are closed, they managed to get their driver/colleague into some trouble with the local cops. Aside from sitting at a standstill quite frequently, at least once  he was stopped and asked to get out of the lane by a cop.  On Thursday, there happened to be a big presidential procession  so the streets were crowded with onlookers and Michael drove right into it. The cop on duty stopped him by hitting the car with his baton and then telling him to appear in court the next day! Charmer  that he is, he was able to talk his way out of that one thankfully!
The kids and I were on our own the next day, and we had the numbers of a couple of cab drivers whom IU considers “reliable.” We had been warned that Nairobi is a haven for “bandits” and that you shouldn’t get into a cab with somebody who is an unknown entity. So, I had called this fellow, Phillip, and told him that we were coming and that we would need his services. He was happy to oblige, but when it came time to come get us, the first day, he was stuck in traffic, and sent someone else.  We ended up sitting in traffic for awhile with this driver which at that point seemed to be “du rigueur.”
 Later, I called Phillip in order to get a ride out to where we had planned to meet Michael in order to get to Miriam’s house . Phillip said he’d meet us in twenty minutes in front of the City Market which  is a  bit of a tourist trap  in a very bustling area with some interesting shops and a pretty mosque nearby. After taking a stroll around the mosque ,we stopped in a shop. Phillip called while we were there and said he had arrived. He was waiting, so I sent the kids on ahead to meet him while I made a purchase. I followed a few minutes later, said hello to him, and we all got in. As we were driving, I tried to make a little conversation with “Phillip” but he did not seem very inclined and he showed zero interest in our relationship with IU and AMPATH, which was odd since they recommended him and he had driven Michael around Nairobi before. I began to suspect that something was weird, as we headed out of town.  I sat in the front seat, suspecting this person was not the right one, sweating bullets both because I was in the sun but also because I was not sure where we’d end up.
Happily, we did end up at our destination, and as I was paying this fellow, I received a text from “Phillip” which said, “still waiting for you. Getting worried. Are you coming?” I looked at this driver and said, “so, are you Phillip?” “No I am James.” He said with a grin, “Here is my contact information if you need help tomorrow.” I was so embarrassed and a little horrified that we’d ridden with an unknown taxi driver AND we’d stood Phillip up. I called him and apologized profusely and promised to use him the next day. He was not happy about it, believe me.
I did call him the next evening in order to get a ride to our hotel (we moved closer to the airport because Jeannette had a nutty flight time out).  Not surprisingly, he couldn’t come get us because he was stuck in a big jam!