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Friday, April 26, 2013

Privacy Settings?

An interesting aspect of living in Kenya is that there is very little  sensitivity to privacy in the public domain. I have often felt that Americans are over sensitive about privacy issues and a bit paranoid.  In fact, I’ve been known to complain about HIPPA, for instance, when I am told that I can no longer request info from our pediatrician about our older children’s records. Of course, at home,  the whole topic  of having identities stolen and the creepy sensation that nothing is private any longer because of the invasiveness of the internet, has complicated our feelings about the modern world and created a sense of unease for anyone over 30.  
In Kenya, The lack of concern for privacy or boundaries in certain situations, most certainly has to do with people habitually living in close quarters and many never having their own private space because basically, there is none. Or relatively little. Internet security is not a big topic of concern yet, and although security is constantly being talked about, privacy is not.  The majority of folks are not technologically connected beyond using cell phones, so you don’t hear much about stolen identities and such.  No doubt all of this will soon arrive.
The lack of privacy or boundaries in some settings takes some getting used to.  I am accustomed  by now, but on occasion, I am still taken aback by something that occurs which would a) never occur at home and/or  b) strikes me as completely unacceptable because of my own personal hang-ups about privacy or personal space, which seem closely related.  Just a small example is when you are at the ATM machine and there are others waiting. There is no hesitation on the part of people waiting to just hover, overly close to you and the machine, by our American standards, and people just leave their receipts in the machine all the time, or on the floor or in the waste can next to it. It cracks me up because they have gates around all their houses but they just leave their bank receipts for the taking.
In the last few months, I’ve had several moments which have highlighted this issue and have also kind of blown my mind. My first real experience with the whole privacy matter happened when I took the boy that we are sponsoring, Dennis, to the eye clinic at the hospital. His eyes were troubling him and because we wanted to help him do well in school, I took him to get checked. There’s a  reasonable clinic at the public hospital.  After paying a small fee at the outdoor counter, we were told to wait in a room. The “waiting room” it turned out, was also the examination room, and the consultation room. We sat on a bench with other patients, and waited while the doctors, or clinicians, did eye exams and diagnosed other patients. There were probably eight of us there at once…a couple of young mothers with babies, another woman with an older child, a couple of men, and me and Dennis. We had to wait about 20 minutes, before she called his name, but the entire time we were privy to both the exams (stand at a distance and call out the directions of the letters on the eye test) and the consultations for all the other patients. I didn’t really think much about it until  it was Dennis’ turn. His name was called to come stand on the line at the far end of the room , but as he got set to read out the letters, all heads swiveled  in his direction to watch and listen . It was almost like he was performing or in a sporting competition the way folks watched him. It was funny to me then and now, actually, and it certainly didn’t bother anyone else, but I did think to myself “yikes, no HIPPA here!”  After the exam, the doctor called him to her desk and asked him several questions in a normal voice making  no effort to keep the conversation confidential. I was standing there as well and was glancing over my shoulders  at the others in the room feeling self conscious for Dennis, but he didn’t flinch or glance around. Again, no one seemed to notice or care, so I just decided to lean into it, thinking “well, there are certainly no secrets here!”  Not a concept I’m completely comfortable with, but what can you do?
This issue of privacy and/or personal space comes up for me frequently when I am waiting in line at the bank, or at the internet/cell phone service store where the lines are guaranteed to be long. First, people cut if given the opportunity, and with no remorse. I guess I’m an easy cuttee because I am often caught unawares until it happens and then I’m like “Wha???” looking around indignantly and no one catches my eye.  This gives the expression “you snooze you lose” another meaning! I mean, I definitely don’t snooze any more. In fact, I’m all elbows and outstretched arms, leaning on whatever is next to me so someone  shorter than I  won’t sneak underneath me and take my turn!
 Being ” on cue” can be a  very intimate experience, believe me. Kenyans like to stand right on your back. I mean right on it, like they want to get on for a piggyback ride. Another favorite position is right next to you when you are doing your transaction, all eyes, watching the whole dang thing! At the Ugandan border crossing cue, I had a young man literally standing so close I’m sure he could see my pores. He was sort of waiting, I guess, but making me so uncomfortable I had to finally tell him that he was standing too close to me.  It didn’t seem to bother him. He just kept on standing there. He either didn’t understand me or was worried he might lose his spot!
My most disconcerting episode so far was right before our trip. I had to go to the bank and get dollars exchanged for Kenyan Shillings so we would have dollars to go into the parks in Tanzania. I had to go twice because we needed a lot of cash to go over the border and into the parks. The first time I went I had Liam with me and he was waiting in a chair off to the side. I had a lot of Ksh with me and I asked the teller if he had dollars. HE answered yes, took my Shillings ( 84000) and proceeded to do the transaction. I was watching through the window rather intently as I had also given him my passport. I noticed, with a start, another person,  a man, looking in another window to the side of the teller,  watching the whole transaction too! I was stunned and felt a little whoozy. I mean, I was going to walk out of the bank with $1000 cash on me. The fact that this stranger was intently watching this whole transaction just gave me the creeps. I tapped on the window and pointed to the other guy, “um, I don’t think he should be there watching you,” I said nervously. The teller just smiled a big bright Kenyan smile and said, “it’s ok” which is their pat answer for most concerns. After receiving the money, I quickly gestured to Liam and hooked my arm in his as I said, “ok we are walking quickly home; no stops. That guy just watched me take all this cash and put it in my purse.” Fortunately, no one followed us, but when I went back in I told the manager that I thought it was unsafe to have another window on the other side of the teller. “oh that is for big deposits. It’s ok” he said with a big grin.
My most recent experience with the issue of privacy again happened at the hospital and fortunately it was not my privacy that was violated but it was nonetheless disconcerting. I was spending time in the hospital, pediatrics ward, because Julius, the baby I have been monitoring and snuggling was admitted again for a lung infection. He is always there with his caretaker from the children’s home and I go down and visit and try to give her a little relief and him a little love when they are there. The Pediatrics ward, like all the wards in the Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital, an underfunded public hospital, is crowded. There  are two “mamas” and two children to a twin bed  there. Talk about no privacy!  Everyone is on top of everyone else, and they sleep, brush teeth, change clothes together , and yes, hold each others’ babies. Since it is a teaching hospital, when the docs do rounds, they always have a large gaggle of students with them. So, since Julius is an infant, I wasn’t overly concerned about his privacy, although the fact that I could go and look through his files was strange (again no HIPPA here!), but there were older children in the ward as well and we were all privy to their issues, or certainly could have been, if interested. In fact, it’s like the sharing of their stories is what kept the mamas going. Whenever I would go in, there would be several mamas sitting on two beds ( at least the original 4 and then maybe a couple more) just visiting or eating. At one point I was pretty stunned when the docs came through and were examining the adolescent that was in Julius’ bed. Apparently she had had some psychic episode which was concerning and the lead doc was examining, asking questions of the mother and the child, and all of the parents/other adults  in the ward cubicle were all ears,  me included. I was literally smashed against the wall holding Julius because of the number of students in the cubicle, but I could clearly hear the conversation between the lead doc, the assistant doc, and the patient’s mother. I was a bit uncomfortable because it  seemed like maybe it should be confidential. But again, no one else seemed concerned. In fact,  I’m pretty sure I could have gone around and asked any of them what their kid had or why he/she was there, or even the nurses, and they would have been happy to tell me.  With a bright smile and reassuring "sawa sawa" , meaning , "it's ok." 

Saturday, April 6, 2013

On the Road

At this point I think we have logged enough miles in East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania, and Malawi) that we can highlight some of the interesting and bizarre things that we have seen on the road. First of all, since the weather is generally pleasant here in this part of the world, and people don’t spend much time in their homes, the most prevalent item on the road, is people. People are everywhere! Adults, children, toddlers, babies on backs, schoolchildren, and old folks. People sleeping, sitting, walking, riding, carrying, holding, running, selling, waiting, talking and eating. It’s so different from home, where now and then you might run into a pedestrian crossing the road or a bicyclist pedaling around for fun. It definitely makes for interesting driving. Let’s just say the driving is not low stress.  We generally try not to drive at night, both because there are SO MANY people on the sides of the road at night AND there is no lighting not to mention lines on the roads (there are a few in towns). In fact, for some reason we have yet to understand, many people drive without lights at night, all over this part of the world. Personally, I can only imagine what it’s like to drive, as I find it very hair-raising just being the passenger.  
Kenya is particularly hazardous we find, because the condition of most roads is not good (there are a couple of main thoroughfares that are, and there are a fair number under construction as we speak) and there are an abundance of children everywhere.  Not all the roads have good or even reasonable shoulders and pedestrians definitely don’t have the right of way.
So, it was interesting driving out of Kenya, in Tanzania, and also into Malawi, where the driving experience was quite different.  Both Tanzania and Malawi have many fewer private cars on their roads, and also fewer matatus making it a bit less nerve-wracking. Matatus, which are small over packed mini vans, are the most common form of public transportation in Kenya, but not so in Tanzania. In Tanzania, one sees many more buses, for people travelling from town to town, and like matatus, they tend to drive very fast, and are very overloaded with goods and people.  There are more people bicycling on the sides of the road in both Tanzania and Malawi, both men and women, clearly en route somewhere….whereas in Kenya, you only see men on bicycles, unless it is a “bicycle taxi” and often there is a female passenger, usually riding sidesaddle on the back, where they have attached a  “seat.”
There are seemingly few laws that apply to driving in Kenya, and one rarely sees police on the road. You do see them sometimes outside of border towns, or outside of bigger cities, but they typically only stop matatus, and people say that is because they are taking bribes. They stand in their uniforms, unarmed with no vehicle in view,  so they definitely aren’t checking for weight, loads, or speeding. To our surprise, in both Tanzania and Malawi there were cops everywhere. All of the countries have an abundance of speed bumps which are designed of course to slow one down (particularly the speeding matatus and buses) just outside of every village and town. In Tanzania there were also policemen, in their white uniforms and caps, stopping trucks to check their loads and people like us, it seems. We were stopped probably 25 times on our recent trip and we received a record 3 tickets in 3 days at the beginning of our journey south from the parks for various interesting infractions. Not only were we pleased to see that the police were actually controlling transport , speed (they even had a speed gun), and safety regulations,  some of the roads in Tanzania and Malawi  (however not all, but again many were under contstruction) were in much better condition than the roads in Kenya on which we have travelled (many fewer potholes, good drainage ditches, no damage to the asphalt surfaces due to too much weight, etc.). For us, although we were given citations (which you pay on the spot and for which you are given a receipt) for speeding, not wearing our seatbelts, not having reflective tape on our bumpers and at a final funny stop, not having red reflective triangles in the car (we did end up purchasing all and wore our seatbelts at all times after that ticket!), the fact that there were controls seemed like a good thing.  Many people will tell you that cops in these countries are only out for cash bribes, but our experience was mostly positive (we had all the necessary papers, our passports and visas, a letter from IU, etc. on us) and we were only expected to give a bribe to one cop (“a friendly”) which was a completely confusing and funny experience because we were trying  to “get” what he wanted in our broken Swahili and naiveté, while also trying frantically not to get a ticket again! He was quite amused by us.
Aside from cops and speed bumps (on the “highway” mind you) in all of these countries, the most prevalent sight is people either selling wares or carrying wares. You see children and women often on the road carrying containers for water , milk and petrol,  and  charcoal and wood, so it clearly is the essentials which one must constantly pursue in one’s life here, especially if one is living at a subsistence level. You also see piles of food…the East Africans are lucky this way; food is not lacking and between the climate and the geography in most areas of these countries, there is plenty to eat all year round. Fruit! Mangoes, bananas, pineapples, jackfruit , melons, passion fruit, papaya, guava, grapes, plums , oranges, and even pears are grown in these parts, and  you will see different fruit for sale on the side of the roads in different parts of the country. Vegetables also are everywhere although it seems to depend again on which area you are in. The funny thing is you will find people hawking their vegetables along the road by standing in the road and waiting for vehicles slowed by the speed bumps. They are also at small stands along the roads or just sitting with their wares if a stand is not available. Apparently different tribes present their wares in different ways and this is noticeable as you drive through the country in any direction.
 Like at home, certain areas are good  for certain items and you can find women lining the road, with buckets or piles of potatoes, onions, carrots, peas, beets, kale, tomatoes (all plum, no round), cabbage , garlic, avocadoes and many others. If you decide to stop for something, which we often do because we love the fresh veggies and they are SO cheap, you risk being “accosted” by the vegetable sellers shoving their produce through the windows of the vehicle that might be down. We’ve taken to just pointing at the seller whom we want to purchase from so the others won’t get their hopes up.  We’ve also seen, in areas where fishing is done, young people just standing on the side of the road, arm extended, with a handful of fish on a string, hoping for a sale. Fish, bunnies, chickens and pigs are often seen either for sale or being carried by someone on a motorcycle to the market.
Other ubiquitous things  are herds of animals and beasts of burden.  Some tribes are still pastoralists and therefore you see large and small herds of cows, which apparently are still used for dowries and as a show of wealth, just walking along the sides of the road chomping away at whatever greenery there might be, or crossing or standing  in the middle. Sadly, the grazing of cattle has created huge erosion problems in these countries which one can also see while viewing the landscape. People also herd sheep and goats but they seem to run around more randomly in villages rather than being followed around on every road and in every field .
In northern Tanzania, it was very interesting to see the Masaii, who are still grazing their cattle and living a semi nomadic life, as they live in a frankly barren area which has to be as hard as it gets.  Theirs is a sad story due to the influence and importance of the tourist industry in TZ, but one has to wonder how they can hold on to this cattle herding lifestyle and why,  when it provides them with very little (they don’t eat the cows either).  Donkeys are used by certain tribes for carrying wood and water and you often see them on the sides of the road or in fields seemingly leaderless, wandering around. It’s fun here also to see wild animals which one would never see at home, just crossing the road or eating at the side of the highway. Zebras, baboons and giraffe are most visible while driving towards Nairobi and in northern TZ.
People are also selling other kinds of wares and sometimes you’ll come upon someone riding a bicycle or motorcycle with his wares dangling off the back. This could be any number of plastic items, from shoes to containers, toys or magazines or even bread. The physical labor involved in living here for most people is rather stunning;  it is evidenced easily by what one sees people carrying or pushing.  Men are seen carrying many heavy items, either on their bikes, motorcycles, or backs, from steel rods, large engine parts, to plywood, to animals, to baskets. They are also the carriers of large loads of wood and charcoal, mostly on bicycles. Women carry things also, mostly on their heads. Large loads of wood or sticks, vegetables or grain in bags, and other household items (like 5 gallon buckets of water).  Not to mention their babies on their backs.
I mentioned children earlier;  this is the sight that I will never get used to. We did not see so many kids in Tanzania or Malawi as we do in Kenya, partly because it is not so populated, but there must be other reasons which we have yet to figure out. There are children on the sides of the road in Kenya EVERYWHERE! Sometimes you see school children, all dressed up in their uniforms, either coming or going to school, but you also see lots of smaller children, carrying plastic containers, presumably going to get water or milk for the household. Children begin “working” here at a very young age. Whether it’s carrying a younger sibling, carrying some essential item for the household, helping with washing in the creeks, or fetching stuff, they, like many, many adults, are outside on the road pulling their weight for their families. We are always stunned when we take a drive by the sheer number of people working to make ends meet. If we ever have the opportunity to give someone a lift or lighten their load we try to do so. Not that it makes a big difference, but carrying someone a bit further down the road so that they don’t have to wait for a matatu makes them happy.

Giants in the Moonlight

We recently spent a few days visiting some of northern Tanzania’s wildlife parks. Having read in advance about the parks we knew that we wanted to visit Serengeti, which of course is iconic, and a “must see” if you have the chance while living in this part of the world. Then, next to it and quite different but also beautiful,  is Ngorongoro Conservation Area. A bit further south is a delightfully unusual place called Tarangire National Park.
After visiting Serengeti and Ngorongoro Conservation Area, we headed south to Tarangire. As we approached the area, we began to wonder if we had made a mistake. We had come from the highlands which are quite lush and cool. Tarangire National park is located low in the Great Rift Valley where the climate is dry and  hot;  there is little vegetation, and  it is quite inhospitable looking. However,  the Tarangire River runs through it, and the topography is greatly changed because of it, plus the river draws large numbers of wild animals, both big and small.  This was what attracted us, as well as the chance to see Baobab trees.

Baobab trees (remember the tree in The Little Prince?) are massive, with smooth silvery grey trunks and thick crooked branches. They look like they are from another world. My travel book says that their trunks’ “circumference grows to 10 meters after a century”, and it can be several meters greater after it reaches “old age.” Most live to be over 600 years old which makes them all the more astonishing. We could just not get enough of them. The interesting thing about Baobabs, aside from their enormous size, is that they are well adapted to their semi-arid habitat because their trunks are hollow, their wood is fibrous, and they store water inside of them. They can hold from three hundred to a thousand liters of water, which enables them to survive long droughts.  The tree is used by Africans for several practical purposes and of course animals use them as well for nesting, shade, and elephants for sharpening their tusks. The most amazing aspect of them to us was just their size. We saw many on this trip, but most in Tarangire and we had to stop and look almost every time. They dwarf the elephants and giraffe which stand under them for shade  , which tells you how giant they actually are!
 We were not disappointed by Tarangire. Not only is the park home to Baobobs, it is also home to herds of elephants, giraffes, water buffalo, many monkeys, interesting birds, impala, gazelle, wart hogs, various cats, etc. We were very excited, especially, to see the herds of elephants. We had seen some in the other parks, mostly a few at a time, but seeing many at once was amazing. We are particularly partial to elephants, both because they are so awesome and interesting and also because they are endangered.  I grew up with a sort of mystical feeling about elephants, so the opportunity to see them in their natural habitat, in close view, is beyond words, really.
Sadly, the poaching of elephants has become very strong again the last few years due to the incredibly sick marketing of ivory “trinkets”, particularly in Asia.  They are some of the most wondrous and beautiful animals on earth and they are being killed, viciously, for their tusks.  It’s brutal and horrific and just sickens us.
The feeling one has , being in an area where there are known to be big wild animals is hard to describe. Of course, you can’t wander around outside of your vehicle, but there are designated camping spots in each of the parks. One never knows, when one goes into these parks, if you are actually going to get to see a big animal, so it’s a bit mysterious and exhilarating at the same time.  For me, just the excitement of looking for and possibly encountering wild animals, puts me a little on edge. It’s fun, but it is a little bit scary, like a roller coaster ride (but not as fast)!
We set up camp in Tarangire under a giant Baobab tree and were terribly pleased with ourselves to have found yet another “perfect” spot, away from the other campers.  The campsites are pretty rustic but there is a shelter for leaving your “kitchen” in and here there was actually running water and “showers.” It was very hot there so we were not spending a lot of time in the tent or campsite. Before dinner we took a long drive to see animals and were treated to a lot of beautiful views of the river and both elephants and giraffes among others.
Upon returning to the campsite, we fixed our dinner in the shelter, ate and visited a bit with the safari cooks and folks that were around, and then we were going to “hit the hay” because it was getting dark and we wanted to get up very early for more animal viewing. I noticed as I was returning from the sink where we brushed our teeth, that there was a uniformed , armed ranger near the shelter. I had to ask what was up. “Oh, in case of Tembo (elephants).”  “ Odd, “ I thought, “that seems a bit extreme.” “Well, whatever,” I thought, “surely they don’t shoot them.” The rangers in these parks are the ones who are typically called upon to protect elephants from poachers. Knowing that there were a lot of animals around, we made sure all of our foodstuff and gear was in the vehicle.
After seeing the armed guard, and hearing a story about a lion attack earlier in the day, Michael even brought our “panga” (machete) into the tent as a precaution. We stripped down to our undies and even took the fly off the tent because it was so hot, and there was a lovely near full moon and a slight breeze.  We lay sweating,  under the moon, whispering as we heard the forest wake up. The critter noises at night never cease to amaze.  Many birds are out at night, insects of course, and who knows what all nocturnal animals are scurrying around in the dark. Michael challenged us to figure out what was what, but soon we all fell  asleep.
I don’t know what time it was, but several hours later (we’d gone to bed early, mind you) I awoke with a start to a distinctly loud noise. Not sudden, but consistent. At first it sounded like it was coming from the “kitchen” which was fairly far away. I thought , “ok, it must be baboons getting into the foodstuff. “ No worries.”  I tried to relax and go back to sleep, but I was pretty awake and the moonlight was streaming into the tent, nearly as bright as a spotlight. I lay quietly, listening intently. The noise stopped for awhile and then it started again. This time it was more distinct, like movement, dragging, heavy walking, dragging….I lay listening…I felt my ears were going to cramp I was listening so hard. As I lay, wondering, speculating, I eventually realized that the sound was coming from closer by than I originally had thought. It was coming from my side of the tent, and was not so far off…I thought it must be monkeys still but they tend to scurry around and make verbal noises, so I was not sure….I sat upright and looked to my right into the darkness….since there was no covering, I could see perfectly out the “window’. To my surprise there was an ENORMOUS elephant walking straight towards us…his tusks were huge, maybe 5 feet long, and they were glinting in the moonlight, like giant weapons of some sort! He looked to be about 15-20 feet away. His big ears were swaying and his trunk was busy scouring the ground. It was an amazing sight, the light of the moon adding a lovely touch to the scene.
 I sat still, staring at him. I couldn’t move but my brain was busy jumping around for answers. “ok, what is one supposed to do in this situation?” You can’t imagine the ridiculous thoughts that went through my head for the next few minutes. Everything from quickly running to the car, to offering him peanuts seemed like a good idea for just a second, but nothing seemed quite right.  I was both entranced by his size and beauty,  and scared to death that he might walk right over us! I waited a few minutes before waking the boys. We all sat up watching him for a bit, whispering about what we should do.  Michael’s size and his panga seemed useless  at this point. Finally I whispered, “ok, if he continues to approach, we’ll have to run, but I think he will smell us and go away.” After a few more minutes of slow forward movement, getting closer and closer to our tent, eating as he went, fortunately, he did turn and go straight under the Baobab that we were also under, near enough that we could see him, but not so near that we were in his path.  Michael and Liam, relieved, went back to sleep, knowing that I would stay awake to alert them if he headed back our way.  I was awake for a long time ( an hour or two) watching him from the little ventilation window by my head. He was probably 15 feet away and with the brilliant moonlight I could see his silhouette perfectly, as he ate, lifted his trunk  to pull down small branches, ate some more, flapped his giant ears, moved leisurely  to a new spot nearby,  and continued his snacking. He was glorious, truly, and I felt so lucky and blessed to get this gift of seeing him with the glow of the moonlight around him. After a long time, he turned finally and lumbered away.  I had to chuckle to myself, as I tried to calm down and fall back to sleep,  that “our baobab” turned out to be  one of  this giant elephant’s favorite eating spots! Needless to say, it took me quite awhile to doze off and upon awaking very early, it all felt a bit dreamlike.
 The broken branches and large loads of elephant poop proved to us that indeed we had had that experience. I described to the guys how long I was awake watching him and how long he stayed. Michael, who had been feeling rather brave before said it best,  “ Having an elephant in your campsite makes you feel pretty small, especially  when you’re in your briefs.”