Friday, August 31, 2007

Postcards from the Mombasa Road


Traffic in Nairobi moves like a tourist on Lomotil during morning and afternoon rush hour. After a week with George, the AWC driver, I�m used to his aggressive take on assertive driving. But edging through congested traffic circles and cutting off matatus at 20 Km/h is one thing, playing chicken with transport trucks at 140 Km/h is another.

If you�re going overland to the coast, the Mombasa Road is the only way to get there. It�s busy. There are matatus, buses, coaches, transport trucks, safari tours, private cars, cyclists, goats, hand carts and even an occasional baboon. Today, there is also construction. Miles of it.

We leave Nairobi later than intended and are slowed further by the poor condition of the �bypass� routes for the construction zones. These are essentially rutted dirt paths wide enough for two transport trucks. Apparently road crews here follow the same guidelines as road crews in North America. For every one man working, there are three others assigned to stand by and watch him work. And here there is less heavy equipment, so the construction is lengthy in both distance and duration.

George is determined that we will get to Mombasa before dark. It�s only about 400 Km, but with construction and a stop for lunch, that�s a solid eight-hour day. So dirt shoulder or newly-laid blacktop, on-coming matatus or none, George floors it. As the guest from Canada, I get the passenger�s seat and a front-row view of what �road trip� means in Kenya.

He passes buses. He passes matatus. Ostrich, zebra, camels are just black, white or brown blurs on the side of the road. Oncoming traffic is also busy passing other oncoming traffic. Decisions about who will give way are made through a mysterious language of light-flicking, horn honking and hand-waving.

I stop pressing my imaginary break pedal once my toes start cramping. I�m pretty much in the 140 Kph groove when George pulls our little Subaru into the path of an oncoming Maersk container truck.

�George?� I say.

He looks over at me (that means he�s not looking at the road), �You are scared?�

�No,� I say, in an attempt to remain dignified.

�You don�t trust me?� He is smiling at me. �I�m in control. And God is with us. I�m still young and God wants me to get old and have children.�

I can�t bring myself to tell him that I don�t believe in God, but I do believe in physics, and that Maersk truck would crumple the Subaru and keep on rolling.



The East African Rail Line runs alongside the Mombasa Road from Nairobi to the coast. Construction of the railroad shaped much of Kenya�s development, kind of like Canada rail lines helped shape our provinces. Nairobi was just a Maasai watering hole, before the British made it a supply depot as they built the rail in to Kampala.

�You know, there are many man-eating lions around here,� Wilson says from the back seat. �They ate the Indians when they were building the railroad.�

East Indian immigrants were brought here by the British to work on the railway. In fact, they led the Asian influx into what some people hoped would be the �The Indian�s America.� There is still a large Indian population in Mombasa and Nairobi. And, yes, lions did attack some of the laborers who worked and lived under poor conditions in an unforgiving environment.

�And did you hear, a few years ago, how the lions ate a British girl?� Wilson says. �You should be careful here. The lions in Tsavo like to eat white people.�

�In North America,� I say, � we call that international cuisine.�



After four hours of dusty, rutted road, we stop in Kibwezi for lunch. There is a small row of shops and restaurants on the side of the road here. The main attraction is the gas station and an open-air bar and restaurant. Before you enter this restaurant proper, the menu out front lists chicken, goat, chips, chapati� all the Kenyan staples.

The specialty of the house gets special billing; beside the menu board, fresh racks of goat ribs hang in a mesh-walled display case. Wilson points to a rack that is big enough to feed all five of us. The restaurant owner lays the ribs on a bed of coals next to the bar and we all wash our hands for the Nyama Choma (meat roasted) -- Kenyan party food.

Under the high thatched roof, a handful of brown bats are sleeping the day away. Small cats prowl the bar, waiting for bones from Nyama Choma leftovers. As we wait, the clouds that have dogged us since Nairobi thin slowly.

Kibwezi is about half-way between Nairobi and Mombasa. It�s a regular stopping point for people traveling to and from the coast. The town is known for its honey. Wilson tells me there are many beehives in the enormous Baobab trees that are scattered across the grassy landscape.

Samburu and Maasai sales people walk through the restaurant selling belts, flip flops, beadwork, sunglasses, hats, and key chains. IWhen a man shows up with a big, live chicken in his hands, I learn my Swahili for the day� kuku mkubwa means big chicken. He�s asking 300 Ksh for it, a little more than four dollars. And this is one big chicken. The salesman keeps poking and squeezing the chicken�s legs, pointing out all the meat we could be eating. We tell him that we�ve already ordered lunch and he heads off for another table.

I�m surprised when the nyama choma arrives. The goats we�ve seen wandering alone and in herds on the side of the road look scrawny to my unpracticed eye. But chop them up and throw them on the fire with a little salt, and they turn out fatty, sweet and delicious. The only trick is to eat your fill before the flies move in.



We see a group of kikoy-clad Maasai standing on the side of the road just past the eastern edge of Tsavo National Park.

�Hey guys, why haven�t the Massai started wearing western-style clothes like every other tribe in Kenya?�

Solomon explains that the woven tartan cloth that is classic Kenya tourist trap fare is actually a European introduction. Before the British came in the Maasai wore animal hides, he says, and they were the dominant tribe in most of Kenya.

The British had to negotiate with the Maasai to get passage for the railway. Solomon explains that, because the Maasai are traditionally nomadic, once the British got their way with the rail line, they didn�t have to �manage� (read: subjugate with Christianity and British schooling) the Maasai the way they did more stationary tribes.

Red cob Maasai homesteads are sometimes just visible through the scrub trees on the side of the road. The only thing that sets apart a Maasai cluster of buildings from a Samburu homestead are the animal pens built out of thorny cuttings from acacia trees.

�They stay very much to themselves,� Solomon says of the Maasai. �It is still that way, though it is slowly changing. It will change when they find oil or coal in this part of Kenya.�

In fact, Chinese interests have exclusive rights to search for fossil fuels in Kenya. But for now, tourism is the main economic driver. Solomon says most of the tourism money doesn�t stay in the country. When people book tours and safari in Europe or the US, he says, it�s overseas tour companies that keep the cash. The Maasai and other Kenyans only make money selling bottled water, flip flops, beadwork and other incidentals. Although these grassy plains and the approaching coast are prime destinations for visitors, the locals here are selling the peanuts at the big ball game that is Kenyan safari tourism.


Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Going to Mombasa

I'm going to Mombasa until next Monday. Check back for news next week!

Sunday, August 26, 2007

The last leg to work


As far as I can figure, bus routes 2, 3 or 4 will get me down Ngong Road to the AWC office. I�m the only mzungu waiting at the matatu stop outside Nakumatt Junction. And when the first number 2 bus comes along, I make myself more conspicuous by interrupting the crushing flow of commuters to ask the conductor if his bus will take me to Nairobi Hospital. That�s the only landmark close to the AWC office that I know the name of. He shakes his head and I walk back to the sidewalk.

Matatus wheel into the stop with their ticket-sellers hanging out the open door. They flash the route number on their fingers and call out ��two, two� or ��five, five?� as the minivans pull in. A cacophony of crank, reggae and gospel music pours out of the open windows. Only a few passengers smile at me, more just stare.

I decide to get on the next bus that comes by. I�ll see what happens. So when a big green City Hoppa with 4 in its front window stops, I climb up the stairs and take my seat in front of the stairs. I�m pressed against another young woman, glad somehow that my first seatmate isn�t a man. People get on and off and I can�t quite figure out how the system is working. The bus stops at some waiting spots and blows by others. At least, from where I�m sitting, I can�t see the chaos the driver is navigating (and contributing to) as we make our way into town.

�Hey, pay me!� At the next stop, the conductor yells out as a tall man starts heading for the stairs. The tall man says he has no money. The wiry little conductor is blocking the way to the stairs and now he reaches out and slams the door closed in protest. The tall man says something in Swahili. The only words I understand are �Hey, fuck you.� The tall man is right beside me. As he talks with his hands, they waive about six inches from my face. My mind goes to thoughts of mungiki, the gangsters cum religious sect cum political agitators cum petty criminals that �protect� matatu drivers and slum-dwellers.

The men yell at each other for another minute as I try to figure out what I�m going to do if the fight gets physical. Finally the conductor says, �eh, just get off my bus, you�re slowing us down.� A few more �hey, fuck yous� and we�re back on the road.


I�m keeping one eye out the window, in case the bus turns onto some unfamiliar street. The other eye is on the conductor. He is taking money from people in the front of the bus. When he squeezes down the narrow aisle to collect fares from those of us in the back, I ask him if we�re heading toward Nairobi Hospital. He knits his brow. He looks to the back of the bus and shakes his head, �no, no.�

But we�re still heading down Ngong Road, so I figure I�m doing alright. The conductor�s back is pressed against me as he collects from the three people in the neighboring seats. They, in turn are pressed up against each other, with the last hard-shouldering the smudged window.

The woman beside me gets off the bus and we whiz by the next stop, just outside the Baptist Center that neighbors the AWC office. I�m trying to figure out how to get off the bus when the conductor plunks down in the seat beside me and says �You want to go to Nairobi Hospital?�

�No. I just want to get off here.�

The conductor stands and hits a small red button in the ceiling of the bus. So that�s how you get off. I say, �I have to pay you. Thirty, nah?� I drop two coins in his palm and that confused look crosses his face again. But before we can figure out if I�ve over-paid, the bus is pulling in to a stop one round-about past AWC. �OK. OK,� he says and I climb off the bus and back-track back to work.

I keep threatening to buy a bicycle and join the small percentage of Kenyans who get around by bike. Hey, if I can cycle commute down Montreal�s Rue Sherbrooke in the middle of a February snowstorm, surely I can hack Nairobi traffic? Then again, at 15 cents a ride, matatus may be the ticket.


Friday, August 24, 2007

Ease on down the road...

My_kenyan_passionflower_for_web"How are you??"

Four children chorus out a greeting. They are standing in the gate of a forlorn-looking compound. I can't quite guess their ages, but they are all leass than four feet tall. The smallest is still in diapers.   

As I wander down to where Kibera Junction Road meets Ngong Road, I pass the spot where, later today a woman will be roasting corn over a small charcoal fire. Next to her, a man will have laid out a variety of shoes... soccer cleats, trainers, flip flops and slip-ons.

Ngong Road is a major traffic artery. Its two lanes extend from Nairobi's downtown core, through Jamhuri, Kibera, a tract of forestland, the wealthy suburb of Karen, all the way to the Ngong Hills. Here where it meets Kibera Junction, the roadsides are full of plant vendors. They have rows of seedling and small shrubs potted in black plastic bags.

Roadside_greenhouse_for_webMost of the plants are recognizable from North American gardens or houseplants. Four-foot high trumpet-flowered datura hang above a bed of snap dragons and just-budding gerbera daisies. The young cypress, eucalyptus, and ficus trees are lined up next to orange-blossomed coach whip cacti and purple succulents. Rusty red soil sits in a big pile behind the plants. Prince Edward Island has nothing on Kenya for red earth!

I hop over a drainage ditch and join a line of pedestrians negotiating the narrow path beside the road. It's morning rush hour in Nairobi. Cars, buses and matatus stop and go and stop and go along the road, belching black diesel exhaust every time they start moving again.

Matatus and two private bus companies are the mass transit here. They clog the road beside me, trying to edge around eachother. The doors of the brightly-painted minivans are wide open so the men who take fares can perch on the running boards as the matatu edges through traffic chaos. The fare-takers call out route numbers as the van hurtles toward the small crowd standing at the next pick-up spot.

A five minute walk brings me to The Junction. It's a world away from the tin kiosks back in Jamhuri. There is a gated parking lot that gives way to a patio full of shaded tables. Java is famous in Nairobi for its coffee, so I head in for a cup of Kenya AA. The decor and the prices are thoroughly developed-world. Ochre walls, stone counters and 2000 KShs (about $3) a cup.

Coffee-in-hand, I head into the indoor mall. I pass a few shops selling import goods, but more selling Kenyan-made products at expat prices. There are Masai kikoi textiles for $30 and Louo leather pillows for $50. It's still early, though and there aren't many boutique shoppers.

Nakumatt market is busy, though. This is my errand for the morning: finding the bulletin board where there are supposed to be postings for apartments to rent. Nakumatt is a cross between a supermarket and a department store. I pass aisles for kitchen equipment, dairy products and office supplies on my way to the back wall.

Awc_office_for_webThe two apartments posted on the board are in keeping with the Junction setting: geared toward expats and far beyond my meagre $200 price range. I walk back out to Ngong Road and join the crowd for the City Hoppa bus, heading for AWC office.

-bus ride to come...-

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Give the people what they want!


�Enough politics and weak ethical ramblings, tell us what it is like in Nairobi!�

I hear you, already!

What is it like? How about I tell you about my journey to work yesterday morning�

There was boiled arrowroot on the table, next to toast and jam. Scola, the �house girl� of my temporary hosts Rosemary and Dan Orlale, prepares traditional and western food for each meal. Dan and I eat some of the arrowroot, which is like most other starchy root crops when boiled� mealy and bland. Terry, Dan�s 12-year-old daughter opted for a piece of toast and the spicy India-derived chai that everyone here consumes throughout the day.

We hear the car horn at the gate when George, the AWC driver, arrives to pick Terry up for her day with her church group. I turn down the lift, to run an errand before work.

Rosemary and Dan�s compound is not as big as some, but the three-story house is generous by North American standards. The garden is small but lush, with climbing jasmine and passionflowers eclipsing the 12-foot-high fence.

Just outside the gate, however, is a great mix of incomes. Kibera is only about 200 meters away. It�s said to be the biggest slum in Africa, with more than 1 million people living on about 630 acres. Kibera is big enough to have distinct neighborhoods within it. A rail line separates it from this new development. Many of the compounds in the area, called Jamuhuri 2, are still under construction. Some are apartment complexes, others are large homes. The vast majority of them are behind high fences and locked gates with security guards.


There are a few permanent shops in the area, mainly cyber-cafes and chemists, but most of the businesses operate out of corrugated tin shacks. They sell fruit, meat, sweets, haircuts... There is a small shop across the road from Rosemary�s house that has only a tin roof and three counters. A woman brings an armload of fresh produce there everyday and sells is piecemeal to the house staff of the surrounding homes.

I jump a sizable ditch to turn off Rosemary�s street onto  Kibera Junction Road. Cars have to carefully navigate to get through the development without breaking an axle. In the downtown core and the older upper crust neighborhoods, the roads are paved. Here the roads aren�t just unpaved or potholed. They are gorged, cratered, cloven. They are epically ragged.

Nairobi_sidewalk_for_web I join the thin stream of pedestrians walking the wide margins on either side of Kibera Junction. A few chickens run out of the way of the occasional passing car. A man rides by on an old one-speed bicycle, a bundle of cilantro tied to the rack. A small dog is up to his muzzle in a yellow bag of garbage on the other side of the road.

Most of the grass on the road verge has been trampled down, but a row of tall ficus trees shades the road. I get a rush of elation when I recognize the ficus by the shape of their dark, glossy leaves. The trees are planted in boxes in North American malls. They struggle along in office complexes and living rooms. I�m used to seeing them scraggly and brown, branches bowed over a carpet of dropped leaves. I confess that I have, myself, murdered a couple ficus. But these trees are huge. Their trunks are fat like a fully-grown White Pine. The smooth grey bark doesn�t look sickly here, against a verdant canopy.

-check back tomorrow for more on the road to work-

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Activist Journalism? Journalistic Activism?


AWC Features seems to walk a tricky line between advocacy and journalism, as, I suppose, does JHR. The agency has some writers on staff, who produce feature stories on women and children�s issues. There is a particular push currently to profile female political candidates, given the elections in December.

As part of the work to get more women into office, and more positive and powerful female voices in the media, the agency also trains candidates in communications� how to be your own spokes folks, I guess. It�s a curious idea to my western mind - that the same organization would be training reporters to ask good questions, while at the same time training �officials� how to get their message to the media. At first glance, it seems like one dealer arming opposing militaries.

JHR�s mission, however, seems a little more clearly advocacy-oriented. They send reporters into the developing world to help other reporters strengthen their journalism skills, with a particular emphasis on increasing coverage of human rights issues, or at least considering the human rights �dialogue� (I am trying to avoid NGO-speak, bear with me) somewhere in their reporting process.

I mean, I�m all for respecting human rights. And I�m all for a free, competent press. I�m even, less enthusiastically, in support of media literacy and communications training in general (this despite hours spent trying to get people to stop repeating their �core message� and start answering my questions).

I�m a little embarrassed to admit that there have been times when I�ve been relieved by some interviewees� idea that they have to answer my questions. It makes my job a little less conflictual, a little easier. But yes, media literacy is important. Understanding how and why media work is an important lesson for any citizen. How can you choose between Fox and PBS, if you don�t have a basic grounding in media literacy?

Next week Wilson and I are heading down to


to conduct a joint workshop for women candidates and local reporters. Now that I think of it, the j-school at Kings pitted Canadian Naval PR officers in training against junior journalists when I was at school. Maybe this really isn�t any different.

But I worry that, in the midst of all of this, it�s the reporters (from the developed or developing world) who may find themselves between a proverb and a metaphor. Do reporters need to consider the human rights dialogue in every story? Is it forced or awkward to push legal and diplomatic jargon into copy that is otherwise accessible? It is certainly the media�s role to educate and inform the public. It is not the media�s role to be the mouthpiece for any agency, no matter how seemingly benign or beneficial their message may be.

It�s kind of like the affirmative action debate. Is it OK to do address gross inequities with policies that are not inherently ethical, that a more equitable society might shun?

As for me, a reporter training reporters, I won�t tell any journalists that they must include human rights dialogue in their material. I will talk about human rights theory separately from reporting techniques� and hope that satisfies JHR and AWC.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Hello, Nairobi

<due to frustrating web connectivity issues, photos for the blog will have to wait a few days>

August 18 p.m.

For a city of approximately 2 million residents, this city feels remarkably manageable. There are a few major roads, always packed with traffic, and the downtown core.

Rosemary took me on errands with her this morning. We went to the meat market and I wished I had brought my camera to shoot pictures of the woman who was using flaming newspaper to burn the pin feathers off freshly-plucked chickens.

A Masai couple came into the Halal butcher shop, where Rosemary was buying a leg of lamb. She had traditional beadwork ringing her stretched earlobes. He was carrying a walking stick and wearing the traditional garb, about which I recently heard Gwendolyn Thompkins say �[it] can only be described as a miniskirt.� I was somehow pleased to see that the soles of his plastic loafers were reinforced with a cob-like mix of mud and grass.

As we drove up the hill by Kibaki�s residence, Dan said that, although there are about 40 tribal groups in Kenya, it has little bearing on social structure. Tribalism only comes in to play around elections, he said, when political parties attempt to use those affiliations to garner votes. Kibaki is Kikuyu, as are many of the current members of parliament. But despite the upcoming election, Kibaki is refusing to claim affiliation with any particular party. He was elected as a representative of the NARC party, but has yet to announce who he'll run for this time around. Dan said Kibaki does not want to align himself with one tribal group, which seems to fly in the face of the tribal politics statement. I�ll have to ask for more information.

First Night

August 18, 20007 2AM Nairobi

The two ragged German Shepherds who roam inside the walls of the compound where I am staying just woke me with mad barking, running and snuffling. I lay in my bed, listening to their voices echo through the rooms, their toenails click against the tile floors, and wondered if Rosemary and Dan have an evacuation plan.

�We always know if someone strange is around,� Rosemary told me earlier this evening. �The dogs never bark if it is one of us.�

Rosemary and Dan are both journalists. They met at the Daily Nation, the East African media house where Dan still works, now as a senior political writer. Rosemary started AWC Features more than 13 years ago.

Earlier this week, Rosemary coordinated a large protest after a Kenyan MP tagged a last-minute addition to a law that would have required reporters to reveal anonymous sources if their stories led to litigation. More than 1,000 people turned out with taped mouths and hooded faces, to march silently through the center of Nairobi. Although  it is not yet assured, Rosemary says it now seems the bill, though passed through parliament, will not be signed in to law.

JHR requires me to come up with a personal evacuation plan within my first two weeks here. A s the December election approaches and President Kibaki faces his first round as the incumbent, I lay in my bed wondering if it is on the whole more or less safe to  live with two high-profile journalists. For a greenhorn girl from North America, there may be some comfort in the walls and the night security guard. But as a greenhorn girl from North America, I would likely be no less conspicuous if I was living in an apartment on my own.

That said, Rosemary has welcomed me with arms open. She organized a special meal at the AWC office with her staff. They seem dedicated, smart, well-traveled and warm. Rosemary says she chooses to run AWC as a family, which she says has benefits and drawback. But the staff of ten (plus two interns) produce a wide range of content for national and regional media. They also train reporters around the country to help improve their coverage of gender and children�s issues, as well as their reporting in general. Later this month, I will go to Mombasa with my colleague, Wilson, to lead a training on the coast.

Rosemary has also welcomed me into her home, saying she will be my surrogate mother. She has offered to let me stay with Dan and her two teenage children for my entire seven months here, if I like.

That decision, I think, can wait for now.

So, practicing KiSwahili... asante sana, Rosemary, for saying �Karibu a Kenya.�                                                                                                                                                


Airport sentiments



Standing in lines in the Dubai airport, I listened to Small Explosions That Are Yours To Keep and Henry Miller reading Black Spring. Waiting at the Emirates counter for yet another A irbus extravaganza, I was struck by this fitting Miller quote...

If I was unhappy in America, if I craved more room, more adventure, more freedom of expression, it was because I needed those things. I am grateful to America for having made me realize my needs. I served my sentence there. At present, I have no needs. I am a [wo]man without a past and without a future. I am. That is all.

OK. That's enough about my internal life. If you want more, you can ask for access to the uber-secret blog. If not, stick to this. You'll get more than enough travel titillation here.