Monday, May 6, 2013

Kibera Slum

While in Nairobi, I got the chance to visit Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, and the largest urban slum in Africa. Population figures vary drastically—reports claiming anywhere from 150,000 to 2 million in this “neighborhood.” Few, however, will argue that Kibera is not overcrowded and in serious need of help.

I feel extremely fortunate to have visited Kibera with a friend of a dear friend. Khohot, a recent graduate of the University of Nairobi, had worked with a small, grassroots HIV/AIDS organization in Kibera, and knew the area well. Organized tours of Kibera are available, and if you’re in Nairobi you can easily arrange for someone to act as your guide, although I personally would not have felt comfortable with such an arrangement. I will be the first to admit that I was still very much a Western tourist in the slum, not unlike those who pay for organized tours.  What makes me feel like my experience was somewhat different (and you are free to disagree) is that I went with a friend, to visit a friend, whose name and story I was excited to hear in exchange for my own. If you consider paying for a slum tour (in Kibera or elsewhere), I recommend leaving your camera in it's bag until you make a real, human connection with someone whose name you learn and who learns yours. People of a lower income status or education level are not less of people, and they are most certainly not tourist attractions. 

Kibera is known for it's "Flying Toilets"-- without any type of plumbing,
people relieve themselves into a plastic bag and throw it out the door.

Khohot invited to me join him on a visit to his good friend and community social worker, Josephine. We took the bus from downtown Nairobi only ten minutes to the edge of Kibera, where we got off and walked into this city within a city. I smelled it first. Piles, no, mountains of trash lay everywhere. I’ve heard and read of various projects and programs aimed at improving life in Kibera. Some are health, others education, even more involve economic development. What I think Kibera needs are some city planners. I’ve heard time and time again Kibera’s problem is overpopulation. It’s just too dense, too overcrowded. Well, so is New York City, but that doesn’t stop the city from running, or people from paying absurd amounts of money for closet space they call bedrooms. Mayor Bloomberg, I think Kibera could use you and some of your advisers.

Khohot’s friend Josephine invited me into her one-room home and told me about her work assisting those “infected and affected”. Her clients are eighty plus children under the age of 18 who are living with HIV and hundreds of adults also infected with the virus. She checks in with people on a weekly or monthly basis, monitoring their anti-retroviral drug (ARV) compliance, as well as their general emotional and physical health. Josephine was diagnosed with HIV in 1997, and since then has been preaching, in her own words, the “gospel of AIDS” to others. She told me in Kibera the stigma of getting tested for HIV, and of being positive, has died down a lot. She said the people who were least accepting were the medical nurses and doctors, who are prejudice towards infected people. She told me her community was strong, and that’s what kept her strong.

Josephine asked Khohot and me to go with her to visit another two friends and clients. The first was her next door neighbor, a fourteen year old girl named Jen, who had been diagnosed with HIV only weeks before. Josephine had urged Jen to get tested when Jen came to her complaining of constant illness and infection. Jen’s parents (who likely transmitted the HIV virus to her) died in her rural village, leaving Jen to live with her grandmother, and putting her in charge of two younger brothers, who died shortly after their parents. Jen had moved to Kibera to help her older sister take care of her own two children. When Khohot asked Jen how her sister earned money, she looked towards the door and said “she’s gone in the night”.

Despite the incredible hardships Jen lives with, I saw in her eyes, and heard in her voice, a determination and passion for something big. She spoke of her good grades in school, and dream to one day open a safe place for HIV positive orphans, like her. Jen did not ask me for money, for gifts, for school fees, or for a ticket to America. She thanked me for visiting and apologized she had no tea or food to offer. I told Jen she had given me inspiration for a lifetime. 

Kenya Burning

With the March elections quickly approaching, several friends and family members expressed concern over my traveling to Kenya this past November. Given the violence and chaos surrounding the 2007 elections (which left over 1,200 people dead and thousands more displaced), prospects leading up to this year’s elections were quite grim. Luckily (and much to my pleasant surprise) this year’s elections were relatively peaceful, giving me and many others lots of hope for the future of Kenya.

Downtown Nairobi
While in Nairobi, I had the opportunity to see “Kenya Burning”, a photographic exhibit of the 2007 electoral violence that was traveling the country. The exhibit’s creators, and various national and international sponsors (including USAID), hoped that by reminding all Kenyans of the atrocities of 2007, people would reflect on the dangers of highlighting ethnic divisions and act differently in the upcoming elections.

Kenya has approximately 44 million inhabitants, with four distinct ethnic groups making up approximately 60% of the population. Coming off two years in a country devastated by civil war and genocide, I know better than to pretend to understand the complicated relationships and tensions that divide ethnic groups in East Africa. An attempt to summarize the history of the conflicts, or interpret the grievances of Luo, Kukuyu, Kalejin, or any of the other seventy plus ethnic groups that live in Kenya, given my cursory readings and informal conversations on the issues, would probably do a disservice to all. For those interested, I highly recommend Michela Wrong’s It’s Our Turn to Eat, a fantastic and very accessible account of the corruption and events leading up to the 2007 elections.

The photos and video on display in "Kenya Burning" were graphic and gruesome. As I walked through the exhibit, I realized how much my experience in Rwanda fundamentally changed the way I think about conflict. Staring at images of dead corpses and severed limbs, my mind wandered and thought not about the photographed victims or their perpetrators, but about the families, who fifteen and twenty years from now will still live in the aftermath. Children who have not yet been born run the risk of years later, still be defined by conflicts they have no first hand recollection of. I felt sick to my stomach as I thought about the Rwandan government’s “Never Again” slogan. If the horrors of Rwanda’s 1994 ethnic genocide, which killed nearly one million people, serve as no warning to Kenya, only 300 miles away, what can?

The most disturbing images I saw in the exhibit were video images filmed in Nairobi’s largest slum, Kibera. A man, with blood and brains flowing from machete wounds to the head, stumbled down the street. His delirium was evident as you watched him fall to the ground and try to lift himself up. Each time he tried, young men appeared from the sides and kicked him back to the ground.

Most upsetting, for me, was not the poor, gory man, who was only hours (if not minutes) from his death; or the unemployed, poor, young men with knock-off sunglasses and second hand Western clothes, slugging machetes and sticks (no doubt provided, along with some petty cash, by an elite politician) at their helpless neighbor who happened to be from a different ethnic group.  What continues to haunt me today, as I think about the exhibit, are the images of the “innocent bystanders” in the video. The men and women within arm’s reach of the unfolding events; these people are what scare me the most. 

I am not arguing that each individual who witnessed violence is guilty by association. No doubt, a majority of these people were simply trying to save their own lives and those of their families by avoiding violence. I am sure many (or probably, most) did what they could behind the scenes to help others. And yet, failure to stand up to violence, to watch passively from the sidelines (be they five feet or five thousand miles away), is what allows violence like that of the 2007 Kenyan elections, and in its extreme form, the 1994 Rwandan genocide, to go on. After violent events like these occur, those who bore witness will be fundamentally changed forever. 

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Sightseeing around Nairobi

After a week of living the Peace Corps dream in the mountains of Kenya, I traveled down to Nairobi for what is probably best described as the exact opposite of Peace Corps life. Through a friend-of-a-friend, I was warmly, and extremely generously, invited to stay with some U.S. Foreign Service Officers living in the capital.

I’ve already described Kigali as clean and quiet (perhaps too much so), and Kampala as real and raw (which you can also interpret as dirty). Nairobi is cosmopolitan, and adds a whole new flavor to my experience in African cities. The streets of Kenya’s capital are busy and lead out into various suburbs where you can find a little bit of everything. From luxury malls to dirt cheap (and delicious) Indian food, Nairobi really does have it all.

My first full day in Nairobi I spent exploring the southwestern suburb of Karen. If you find yourself in Nairobi, I recommend taking a day to explore this neighborhood, as you’ll find all sorts of fun (and very touristy) activities. 

The suburb is named after the Danish Baroness Karen Blixen, also known as Isak Dinesen, author of the famous memoir, Out of Africa, about running a coffee farm in Kenya in the early 20th century. Since I had read the book and seen the Meryl Street and Robert Redford movie, I felt compelled to visit the home-turned-museum, and the restaurant next to it, which were interesting, although if you’re not a must see. 
Famous view of the Ngong Hills, so often mentioned in the book from the Blixen home. "Ngong"  means knuckles in Massai. The four hills stand alone in the plains around Nairobi and do in fact look like knuckles. 

Finding True Love in Nairobi
My first stop in Karen was to the Giraffe Center, where I fell in love with a giraffe named Daisy. Luckily for me, she reciprocated my feelings and showed me by landing me a kiss! The African Fund for Endangered Wildlife Kenya, which runs the operation, does a lot of great work educating visitors, and youth around Kenya, about wildlife, and giraffes in particular. While visiting the center, I learned a lot. Fun fact: a giraffe’s tongue grows to be almost one and a half feet long! In addition to several giraffes, the center is also home to many warthogs.  Giraffes and warthogs enjoy each other’s company, providing one another with extra security, since giraffes have excellent vision, while warthogs have excellent hearing. 

Because giraffes and warthogs alone don’t fulfill my daily wild life quota, from the Giraffe Center I headed to the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage, where I watched elephants as young as three months get bottle fed (their bottles were only slightly larger than the bottles of my three month old Rwandan neighbors). The Trust running the operation is doing really wonderful conservation work, rescuing baby elephants who are found abandoned in the wild, their mothers often victims of poaching, which continues to be a problem acrossthe African continent.
Orphan Elephant being fed by a caretaker at the David Sheldrick Center 

Nairobi National Museum
My favorite tourist activity in Nairobi was the Nairobi National Museum, which I can confidently say is the best museum I have visited on the continent. The museum holds the greatest collection of early human fossils in the world, many of them discovered by the Leakey Family. If this doesn’t excite the paleontologist in you, know that the bird collection includes hundreds (if not thousands) of specimens from across East Africa. I’ll stop here and pretend like I haven’t just outted myself as the world’s biggest nerd.

Nairobi is a huge city with lots to see and tons to do. The nickname “Nairoberry” has stuck, in my opinion, more for its catchiness than truth. Like any other city in the world, there are security issues. As a young, clearly foreign, solo female traveler (and recent victim of a robbery), I took extra precautions, particularly in the way of not being out at night downtown. Still, I was able to enjoy the bustling city, in no small part thanks to the incredible generosity of various friends of friends and relatives of friends, who took me out to delicious meals, and so generously hosted me.  

Friday, March 22, 2013

Meanderings around Mount Kenya

From the soda lakes, I traveled west to visit some friends living near Mount Kenya. This was my first of many stops to Peace Corps Volunteers in other countries, and it was wonderful. Two friends, Andrew and Carlos, from Peace Corps Niger are now posted in the beautiful Kenyan highlands. Our catch up involved a lot of trying to remember bits of Hausa and Zarma, and comparing our experience in East Africa to those in Niger. We even celebrated a belated Thanksgiving with a few other Americans, enjoying all sorts of goodies- including cranberry sauce!

It was great to see Andrew, who had been in my Niger training class and is now doing a fantastic job as a health volunteer and life skills teacher to secondary students in Kenya. Carlo, a small enterprise volunteer, partners with a local non-profit, Village Hopecorps International, that provides business training, health education, and micro-loans in the area. While visiting, I was fortunate enough to attend the graduation party of a Village Hopecorps colleague and friend. It was great fun to meet so many new people at such a celebratory time. I couldn't help but compare the ceremony to the ones I've attended in Rwanda over the last two years. The differences and similarities were quite striking. My very professional anthropological notes have been taken, and I would to inform interested parties that rushing the buffet table, and piling on as much starch as possible onto a plate, is as equally acceptable in Kenya as in Rwanda.

I was moved by the custom (I'm not sure if it's widespread in Kenya, or particular to this area, or this family) of introducing guests. In Rwanda, guests of honor sit at the front of the venue, facing all other guests, and are expected to speak (which they take liberty doing, for very long, extended periods of time) to the masses. At this graduation ceremony, all the guests sat in a (rather imperfect) circle and Moses, the graduate, helped introduce every single person who had come. Beginning with his family, Moses passed the microphone from guest to guest, who introduced him or herself, and sometimes included some words of praise or advice.

The venue for the graduation party had excellent views of the beautiful Mount Kenya, which I hope to climb on another visit. 

Friday, February 8, 2013

Kenya’s Soda Lakes

After a lovely two days in the Kisumu area (special thanks to Zool and his friends, as well as PCV Stacey, who hosted me at her site right outside town), I headed to Nakuru in hopes of  seeing some of the famous flamingos that habitat Lake Nauru and the surrounding, smaller soda lakes.

Unfortunately, I committed a terrible solo-young-white-female-backpacker faux-pas in Nakuru: I arrived after dark. There are a million obvious reasons why this is a bad idea, and I paid for my slip of judgment with my amazing camera. As I exited the minibus, I was swarmed by five or six call boys all wanting to get me a taxi and carry my bag. Distracted by the obnoxiously loud voices and very pushy physical behavior of these young men, I failed to notice when one of them slipped open the front pocket of my backpack (which mind you, I was wearing on my front) and stole my camera. For this reason, Nakuru town has left a very bad taste in my mouth and I will not recommend you spend time here.

Where I would recommend you spend time is in one of the many soda lakes that surround the bustling city that took my beloved camera away. Lake Nakuru National Park is the obvious choice, although its hefty entrance fee (70 USD) kept me away. I have had several friends and Kenyan residents recommend the park to me, so if you find yourself in the area and have the money, definitely take a day or two—but stay at a lodge outside of town, where hopefully thieves will not steal your camera.

Even National Geographic only captures a portion of their beauty
Eager to get out of Nakuru, I traveled south to Naivasha (taking in spectacular views of the Rift Valley I could not photograph) to meet up with my friend and former Peace Corps Niger volunteer Andrew, and two recent RPCVs from Cape Verde, traveling down Africa on a route very similar to mine. Naivasha is a much smaller town, surrounded by greenhouses full of flowers that get exported all over the world.

At Fisherman’s Camp, while staring out onto a lake full of beautiful birds, enjoying cold beer and good company, I was able to put my camera incident into perspective-- realizing how lucky I am to have this experience, and get back to enjoying myself on this once in a lifetime trip.

The staff at the lodge explained to us that the famous flamingos popularly known to habitat Lake Nakuru were not, in fact, on Lake Nakuru at the moment. The next day, a local guide/driver took us on a mini day safari of sorts. First stop was Lake Oloiden, a very small soda lake where we took a nice boat ride and saw lots of beautiful birds, hippos, and most importantly: tons of spectacular flamingos. After our boat ride, we headed to a small lodge for a walking safari, which was nice despite the overcast weather. A delicious lunch buffet on the water helped end the day perfectly.

A note for those of you who think only of ugly plastic garden decorations or old ladies with cheap umbrellas when you hear the word flamingo: these birds are spectacular, absolutely majestic. Not only are they absolutely beautiful in their colors, shape, and general presence—seeing a flamingo in flight will make your jaw drop. Flamingos stand perfectly straight and tall on the water, but when they fly, their body, and their wings in particular, arch into a gracefulness that is beyond my limited writing abilities to describe.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

When getting in cars with strangers turns into the best decision you’ve ever made

From Uganda I made my way over to Kisumu, my first stop in Kenya. A lovely town on the northeast tip of Lake Victoria, and Kenya’s third largest city, Kisumu has received some negative press in recent months due to violence associated with the upcoming elections—but my visit could not have been more relaxing and enjoyable.

Giraffe at Nairobi's Giraffe Center
I arrived late on Saturday and checked into the Duke of Breeze, which was nice; although for backpackers passing through I would recommend looking elsewhere (best bet is further down on Oginga Odinga Road) for cheaper accommodation.

The next morning, I treated myself to a fancy buffet breakfast at the Imperial Hotel and headed out to take in the town. Having said goodbye to Rita and Sera in Jinja, Kisumu was my first solo stop on this trip, and I have to admit I wasn’t feeling all too comfortable just yet, particularly on this sleepy Sunday.

It didn’t take long for an obnoxious (and very possibly crazy) young man to start hassling me. Although not immediately disturbed, my discomfort must have been pretty obvious on the deserted main street, because before long a car pulled over.

“Miss,” an older man called from the driver seat, “is this man harassing you?”. “No,” I said as the smelly man next to me started screaming louder, jumping up and down. “Miss, please, where are you going? I can take you!” said the friendly man. “Really, it’s ok,” I continued to lie, despite the crazy man’s increasingly loud voice and decreasing respect for personal space. “Just get in the car! He could hurt you!” I hesitated for a moment, but as the man on the sidewalk went in for my arm, I made a quick move for the car.  

“Where are you going?” asked the driver, clearly relieved I had avoided further confrontation with the sidewalk dancer. Since I wasn’t going anywhere in particular, I told my new friend to drop me off on the next block, where he was stopping for some groceries.

National Museum in Nairobi
As we pulled into a parking spot, Zool explained he was buying ice cream before meeting up with some friends for their traditional Sunday grill. “Would you like to join us?,” he asked. Once again, since I couldn’t think of a good answer to my now staple “you’re here, so why not” question; and because food was involved, I enthusiastically responded, “sure!”

The following few hours made up what is now one of my favorite memories of Kenya. Zool, Kenyan of Indian descent, retired businessman, and President of Kisumu’s Rotary Club, introduced me to his friends, who work in the Nile Perch and Talapia export business, and entertained me with stories about Kenya and his family, while feeding me the most delicious fresh fish and chicken, all garnished with exquisite Indian spices, accompanied by cold Tusker beers, and topped off with some delicious ice cream.

In some cases, getting into cars with strangers isn’t such a bad idea after all!   

Monday, February 4, 2013

Tips on Travel in Uganda

Having spent time in 4 of the 5 countries belonging to the East African Community, I can confidently say that Uganda is my favorite. Granted, I spent less time in Uganda than Rwanda, Kenya, and Tanzania -- and it’s likely that my euphoria was as much influenced by having just finished Peace Corps as it was by Uganda itself—still, I found most Ugandans I met to be very friendly and welcoming; the views and activities to be some of the most interesting; and the experience in general to be one of the most raw and exhilarating.

Alma’s Adventure Highlights—

If you have more time/money –
  • GORILLA TREKKING is possible to do in Uganda’s Bwindi National Park, and the park permit is cheaper here than in Rwanda.
  • QUEEN ELIZABETH NATIONAL PARK lies north of Bwindi and straddles the equator. Friends we made on the Murchison Falls safari told us they were able to see big cats here. Red HotChili also offers a budget safari, if you’re interested.
  • The shores of LAKE VICTORIA and islands in it are apparently beautiful and easily accessible if you fly into Uganda-- the main airport is Entebbe, right on the lake and a short drive from Kampala. Careful with schistosomiasis!
  • MOUNT ELGON, near Uganda’s border with Kenya, has made it onto my to do list after discovering how much I enjoy climbing and how many others enjoy this mountain.

If you have less time/money – Do not leave Uganda without rafting on the Nile, walking down Kampala’s busy streets, and doing a bit of bird watching —which can be done almost anywhere.

From Rwanda to Uganda- we picked up the Kampala Coach bus in Kigali, which dropped us off in Kabale. In retrospect, we probably could have done it more cheaply (we paid around 16 USD) by taking a small matatu bus to the border (Cyanika/Kisoro), crossing over by foot, and then taking another matatu bus to Kabale. Still, Kampala Coach was comfortable, although a friend who met up with us in Kampala later had less pleasant things to say about it after some 14 hours, the problem here being…

The road from Kabale to Kampala­ – it’s awful! Lonely Planet claims 6 hours; people in Kabale claimed 7… it took us 15, including a really long stop in Mbarara to fill the bus up again. If you are trekking gorillas in Bwindi and want to go all the way to Kampala, also be warned. Start as early in the morning as you can. I heard the official Postal Services bus is the safest.

Within Kampala— transportation is plenty. Minibuses were easy to take. Taxis were also easy, although expect the drivers to always need to stop for fuel. The motorcycles are really fun and easy, if you don’t mind near death experiences. Careful trying to get around in the evening (between 5 and 7 PM), the whole city is in standstill traffic.

From Kampala to Murchison Falls – Here we were in private transport thanks to Red Hot Chili, but I can tell you the road isn’t too bad, just long (six hours on private transport).

From Kampala to Jinja—Again, we were lucky to have private transportation thanks to Adrift, but this is a very easy and quick trip (an hour and a half or so on tarmac). If you’re passing through Kampala anyway, I highly recommend this option as opposed to finding your own public transportation. It’s easy, and included in the price of rafting.

From Jinja to Kisumu – The EasyCoach bus (16 USD, around 8 hours) was absolutely luxurious compared to most of the other buses I’ve taken in East Africa. The border crossing was very fast and simple as well.

All you need to know about Uganda is that their street food is delicious. Don’t leave without ordering a Rolex—a greasy omelet made with tomato, onion, and green pepper, all wrapped into a chapatti. It’s easy to find fried chicken and delicious fish (Nile Perch and Talapia) also on the street. Ugandans seem to really love their plantains, so if you want another local staple make sure to order some matoke.

My previous posts about Uganda all include raves about almost everywhere I stayed. Guest houses seem pretty prevalent across the country. If you are coming from Rwanda, notice that most places charge by the room instead of the number of people.

Helpful Hints
  • If traveling the Kabale-Kampala road, leave as early in the morning as possible, or break it up into two days.
  • Try not to move around Kampala around rush hour-- it's crazy! 
  • Make sure you bring snacks, cash, and entertainment if spending a couple days on Lake Bunyoni. 
  • If you do a Red Hot Chili safari, bring snacks/food for the trip, the food at their camps is good but can get pricey. 


Giles Foden's novel The Last King of Scotland, has won several awards and was also made into a movie of the same name, which is very good. The book (and movie) cover Ugandan president/dictator Idi Amin's rise and fall during the 1970's.

I’m dying to get my hands on a copy of The Worst Date Ever. Written by Jane Bussman, a British celebrity reporter turned foreign correspondent, where apparently corruption, child soldiers, and humor mix together.

For those more inclined to academic reading, Aili Tripp has done extensive research on women and politics in Africa, Uganda in particular.