Monday, February 18, 2013

Tea for Two

I knew we'd crossed some line the day I heard Matthew call his zippered sweatshirt a "jumper".  He's even taken to calling England "the U.K." It all sounds quite fancy, but rest assured he's American through and through.  I took him to a Tea Farm today.  Amidst our discussion of politness over lunch on the lawn, he decided to show me where you're supposed to put your cloth napkin when you're eating with good manners...
Polite placement of the cloth napkin

Matthew taming the local Wildlife
It was a good day overall.  Since I had off for President's Day, I assumed it only natural that Matthew's American school would, as well.  With Matthew and I the only members of the family who didn't get to visit the Kiambethu Tea Farm when Oma and Opa were here, it seemed like the perfect Mama/Son day out.  Course, after we both got excited for our adventure, I learned that he didn't have the day off afterall, so I made the responsible decision to keep him out of school.  Heck- I haven't had alone time with him since we got to Africa, and we've both missed that. 

Serious Nature Walk with Kikukyu Elder
Truth be told, despite the possible enrichment possibilities one might imagine justifying for a day playing hookie in the Kenyan countryside, it wasn't the most riveting or educational experience for a 7 year old boy with ya-yas.  He seemed much happier playing with the tub of legos on the front porch or petting the dogs than listening to Fiona talk about her Grandfather establishing the tea farm in 1910 or how Kenya's the 3rd largest exporter of tea around the world.
Tea Pickers in Limuru
But, maybe there's something to be said for making sure to carve out time with your old Mum (achem, I mean "Mom"), who works a lot and barely remembers to remind you of your homework.  We made sure to do lots of math problems on the drive back through the rolling tea farm hills (Matthew's idea, not mine actually).  And, Matthew made sure to tell me at least 3 times throughout the day that he was excited to go to the tea farm, but he's most excited to spend the day with me.  :)
Tea Picker Apprentice
I do hope he remembers the donkeys on the side of the road, the tea pickers dotting the countryside, the funny Banana-related names of the banks and sidestreets in the small town called "Banana Hill", how you pick only the tender tops of the tea plant and it grows back more fully like we picked basil back in Nyack, the taste of freshly squeezed passionfruit juice.  But, I hope he remembers most of all to throw it all to the wind once in a while and just enjoy your life with someone you love.  I hope I can remember, too.
Matthew and Mama Together

Friday, February 8, 2013

New Chapter

Yup, one week down, 25 to go!  Started working this week, first full week of work since August. Also today signed the six month contract, so I won't have vacation until July.  Seems really far away, but I am looking forward to this next step.  The job seems very interesting and right in my field and interest.  Also, I am looking forward to working in a different culture and see what is the same and what is different.  So far, not much is different, there are emails, powerpoints, spreadsheets, Visio process charts, etc.  Pretty much the only different thing is a lady brings me lunch every day, kind of weird but eh, I'll take it.  Oh and almost forgot -- I have been fortunate enough for work to provide a taxi to bring me back and forth, it is such a stress reducer to not have to deal with Nairobi's road madness twice a day.  Also of note, is an office mate is going to Paris next week for training and he is freaked out by the cold.  Seems he has never been out of the tropics - I didn't know what to say - I can't imagine what it must feel like to never have experienced winter before and then be thrusted into it.  Actually at first I thought he was kidding with his concern, but then I realized it was genuine fear. 

On the home front, Ruby got sick last night and Rhonda was up with her a lot.  They both stayed home today and went to bed early.  I used the time to catch up on some final season of Entourage episodes.  Good stuff, and the music is always spot-on.  The episode tonight ended with this great song - when I looked it up I couldn't believe it was the Stones....

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Visit to a school

Our friend Francesca had told me a couple weeks ago that she volunteers at a school - Jukumu Letu -for disadvantaged youth in a town just outside Nairobi.   As I wanted to experience and see this side of Kenyan life, I asked if I could tag along on one of the days she was going there.  Luckily she went last week (my last free week before f/t work) so I joined.  The trip out there was an experience in itself.  We had to take a matatu about a quarter of the way, walk ½ mile down a busy highway, then catch a bus for the final part of the journey.

Once in the town, we walked through the muddy dirt paths to the school.  The staff were very welcoming and eagerly showed me around. It was intense to hear the stories of the children and mothers and see the little ones.  Seems the kids are from the local slum and the moms have to make a commitment to better themselves (Jukumu Letu means 'your own responsibility' in Swahili) to have a chance to enroll their children.  The school provides daycare for the toddlers and early primary education for the older ones.  It was very clear that there is high demand for their services and I asked how they choose which kids can enroll.  They explained that the moms need to commit to working at the school one day a month and pay a very small fee per day for their kids to attend (about 11 cents). This still leads to a waiting list but one of the key other factors led me almost to get emotional.  Seems many moms who don’t have this day care as an option would just lock their kids in their shacks for the day.  If the school hears about this then they will do everything they can to get the child enrolled.  This was not even enough in one recent event, one of their pupils was not in school last month due to illness but still the mom had to work, so when the child was left home alone, something caught fire and little one was killed. 
Obviously it was very tough to hear this when looking at all the smiling and happy faces surrounding us and then thinking of all the other kids that don’t have the opportunity to come to the school. 
The staff also explained that kids live in very basic homes and come to school filthy, so the first thing the staff does when they arrive in the morning is clean them up and then put them in clean clothes that have been donated.  The toddler section was very basic with a nursery for the youngest, a simple library, and a couple very small classrooms where they do some basic instruction.  On the grounds was also a workshop where some of the moms work doing sewing projects.

Down the street is the elementary school for the older kids (5, 6, & 7 year olds).  This location was even more simple than the kindergarten, just a small common area and two very small, basic classrooms.  The staff explained that they make sure the teachers are qualified and these instructors are highly committed to the project since they do not earn as much as if they worked in a more mainstream school.  I cannot begin to explain how excited the kids were to have visitors, they were bubbly with joy and their smiles resonated.  Francesca works with these older kids on art projects.  As there is no money for arts and crafts she brings some basic supplies and leads them through projects that allow them to express themselves.  I put together a video showing the school, Francesca’s project, and the kids’ reaction.

While the physical setting and stories of the children were not so much of a surprise, since we all have seen and heard news reports and documentaries on how education is in the developing world, still experiencing it first-hand left me deeply moved. 
The commitment of the teachers, staff, and volunteers to these children and how happy the kids are with just the smallest amount of care and affection was beautiful.  Of course, I could not help but be thankful for the privileged life we live as Westerners and how lucky we are to be born into our circumstances.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Northern Kenya

Last week I went on a trip to Mt. Tiati in northern Kenya.

I had expected to be starting work, but since my company had not secured the appropriate visa, I found myself with another week or so of time to do a multi-day trip.  Luckily, the Mountain Club of Kenya was sponsoring a trip up to Mt Tiati.  The posting on the website looked very enticing and I signed up.  There was an organizing meeting beforehand and I met some of the people going.  It was a good mix of some living in Kenya long term and others who were only here for a couple months.  Seems the inspiration for the trip was an English fellow who had surveyed the area in the 1960's and was returning to Kenya in his retirement to see how the area had changed (or not).  The trip was being led and organized by a German chap who also runs a tour company in Kenya and everything was wonderfully organized

We left in a caravan of three Land Rovers/Cruisers on Thursday afternoon for the trip up to Lake Baringo where we would spend our first night. After a drive of four hours or so we arrived at Roberts Camp.  It was nice to enjoy a cold beer on the front lawn.

The surrounding area was an environmental disaster area, however. Seems a combination of very wet rainy seasons and silting in the lake has caused the water levels to rise so high that half the Camp was underwater.  It was very hard to even see the lake since the water was into the trees and there was much debris floating around.  Matter of fact, at least three or four buildings were underwater.

Nevertheless, we camped there for the night and at about 4am a hippo had his dinner of grass right outside my tent.  I didn't dare leave the tent for a bathroom break - hippos are actually the most lethal animals in Africa.
The next morning we got an early start for the four hour drive to our next stop, Barpelo.  Quickly we left the paved road and entered a long construction zone.  Seems this road corridor is just starting to be developed as it leads eventually to South Sudan and there is oil up yonder.  Here is a video of one of the climbs the 4X4s had to navigate.

descending Skatkat
Once in Barpelo we hiked a small mountain called Skatkat.  Oh my was it hot!  Our guide told us it was a half hour climb - about four or five hours later we made it back down, all out of water!  Also, since we were now in such a remote location, there were not even trails, we just followed the ridge of the mountain and animal tracks.  Seems the last time our guide had been on the mountain was three years ago - when he was looking for his lost cattle!

Next stop was the village of Kapunyany at the base of Mt. Tiati - our ultimate destination.  To get there we left one bumpy, dirt road and turned onto another, even more bumpy dust road. For about 10 miles we traveled further and further into the bush, over and down dry river beds.  It was fascinating to be so far off the grid and see a side of Kenya that is so far removed from the modern world.

Some women still wore traditional dress and many people do not even speak Swahili. The Pokot tribe inhabits the area and life centers on goat herding. We stayed at a small clearing outside of the village, met some of the locals, and enjoyed a roaring camp fire.

The next morning we were supposed to load donkeys to transport our gear and water to our camp high on the mountain where we were going to spend the next night.  Unfortunately, the villager in charge of the donkeys reneged on his agreement and we were left high and dry.  Many of us in the group began to doubt if the climb would happen.  Seems it would be very difficult for us to hike up since there was very little water on the mountain itself and we would have to carry all of it up, plus since it was so hot and dry were going through copious quantities of it.  Others in the village including the chief came to our aid and suggested we hire about seven local teenagers to act as porters.  We jumped at the chance and began our trek.

The hike began by walking through the village.  It was eyeopening to see the traditional structures used as homes.  After about six hours of tough climbing we arrived at camp just below the peak and enjoyed a beautiful sunset and a good meal over a campfire.
campsite on the ridgeline

In the morning we summited and enjoyed miles of unimpeded views in all directions.

On the way down I shot a video of Pokot teenagers who acted as our porters.  It was neat to see them joking around with each other.  Truth be told we were all a bit worried how it would work with them as porters.  We only had enough food, shelter, and water for ourselves, so they had to fend for themselves.  In the end we did share a small amount but it was touch and go for awhile. But as they were in their home territory it all seemed to work out.

By about 2pm we made it back to the village.  There we rested and had a interesting chat with the chief about his domestic life.  We then high-tailed it back to Lake Baringo - we were all keen to enjoy a cold beer after two days in the bush!

Then next morning, after a final night of camping back at Robert's Camp, some of us went on a boat tour of Lake Baringo.  This was a wonderful experience.  We swam in the lake, bought fish from a local fisherman and used it as bait to see a fish eagle take a dive for it, wandered past crocs and hippos and basically enjoyed a relaxing morning on the water.  Our boat guide also took us past another hotel on the lake which was flooded out.

This trip will stay with me for a long time.  The group I went with were all quite interesting and easygoing.  We got to see wonderful things and experience a side of Kenya not easily seen.

Click for here for some more pictures.