Archive for April, 2010

The Starving Dog, and other stories

April 20, 2010

The Starving Dog

Heading back home after a home visit in Kibera (home = 8 metres squared of dimly-lit space) we were walking past a bus terminus when I ssuddenly saw this dog… he looked more like a barely walking bag of bones… so starved it was moving uncontrollably, barely even managing to lift itself off the ground. Immediately us white people (Maria, Pauline and I) started pitying the poor creature in its death-throes and voiced it audibly. One of the students at St. Al’s looked at me and said “You feel pity for the dog?” She was laughing…” What about the people in Turkana? What about them?”… I was dumbstruck. How could I answer such a straightforward simple question? Usually my answer is that I feel terrible seeing ANY type of suffering. But in Kibera, such an answer would be ridiculous. I simply had no answer… that I should pity a poor starving dog in the heart of one of the world’s biggest slums is either one of the most ridiculous things anyone can ever hear, or else is just plain absurd. And very white! Although, I still pity starving dogs mind you..

But I’ve learnt my lesson now. Don’t be so white as to voice such things, when the very people around live in squalour that would make Oliver Twist turn pale.

Home visits

We have started home visits as part of our Kid’s Palace project – every Saturday we meet up with the care workers and head deep into the slums, visiting the shacks the children and babies we take care of live in. Last Saturday the day was HOT… it is pure torture to tread the streets of Kibera in 33 degree heat, drying mud, rubbish, sewage and an overwhelming stench everywhere you go. We headed off onto the famous railway tracks of Kibera (the “Main road”) into the area known as Soweto (there’s a Soweto in Kibera) and its neighbouring area called Raila. Our first stop was a tiny home just a few mtres from the river. A mud-hut housing baby Veronica and her family. This child had a sever bout of pneumonia a week before, and was recovering.

The first things that strikes you when you enter this house is the utter darkness of it all – it takes a couple of minutes before your eyes adjust to see the entirety of the home… well, room would be a better word. A tiny room, 4X3 metres housing 7 people including Veronica. Her mother, a kind-hearted woman who knew little English, had prepared us some Chapati with a simply DIVINE lentil soup which we took in eagerly, even after an oily Tumaini lunch. I have seriously never tasted such a good lentil soup! We set off conversing.. interestingly (and sadly) Veronica’s sister is deaf and she quickly started communicating in sign language – we tried our best to talk to hear (I only know my name in Sign language… and barely!).

After a few minutes the sky turned a dark purple and soon enough it was raining like crazy – the din was incredible – rain pouring on a tin roof is a VERY loud experience at best… painful is a better word to use in this context. And in an earthen-hut it doesn’t feel very safe either – you’d expect the walls to simply dissolve away (they don’t, mind you… but they need repairing quite often I guess). Soon after the rain stopped we quickly set off to another house, finding Kibera to have been transformed into a mudbath that would make Indonesia’s mud-volcano pale in comparison. Just mud, sewage and rubbish, mixed into one brown puddle of a street. Trying our best not to slip and fall into God-knows what, we visited a couple of houses, taking off our boots (thank God for them) at the front door so as not to mess their clean floors.

One house we passed by required us to cross a little wooden bridge, under which a river of grey-brown sewage flowed. I imagined children playing around and slipping into it, passing under houses and being carried away to a very toxic death… and then crossed over it, hoping Pauline wouldn’t fall in! No worries – we made it safely across, but I’m sure some children have met a very toxic and terrifying end in these Styxian rivers.

Nairobi actually is Masaii for “Place of sweet waters“… I’m sure it once was such a place, a world away from the toxic brew that is Nairobi’s free-flowing water today. One look at the black waters of Kibera makes you think you are in Tolkein’s Mordor on a bad day in winter.

All in all, these house visits are a good experience – it makes us feel part of the community of people which send their children to Kid’s Palace, and I’m sure the people appreciate it immensely… to see a Mzungu walk into these houses, I think, is quite a rare event. In the meantime, the government of this sorry country does close to nothing for this situation. Mafi ya kuku. Chicken Shit. As the President of the country affectionately calls his people. He really likes to see them that way, I guess. Bastard.

Rash Decisions

One of the graduate students we work with disappeared off the face of the earth – no one knows what happened to her… but from what I hear she has gone off with man and dropped out of the programme. It happens. And it is a tragic story – most of these graduate students put all their hopes on the KCSE exam results and should the results be disappointing they simply give up and go for the next obvious choice they see in their lives – getting married and having children as soon as possible.

I was very upset by this story. I only hope she is, perhaps, happier than she was in her student-graduate life. And I hope she will have more opportunities in the future… that she will not fall victim to the cycle of despair, poverty and hopelessness that seems to permeate the lives of so many in this terrible place that is Kibera.

Would you live in Kibera?

That is what one of the graduate students we visited today asked me.

How does one answer such a question? How can they even begin to understand that in our country we have social welfare, care from the government and the people to some extent – that on our tiny rock we have established a paradise, with barely any resources to export or boast about? And here, in what could be the Garden of Africa, exists such income disparity that is simply off the charts. Where Universal Primary Education is a joke. Where free healthcare doesn’t even enter the minds of these people. Where every day is a struggle to survive, against all odds.

We were honest with the students – we told them that if we really REALLY had to, that no other option existed (on the face of the earth) we would be forced to move there. But we know that we don’t have such an option, so the answer was NO. We told them how difficult it would be for us, who have water at the turn of a spigot, who have all the food they want, who have a 3 bedroomed -2 storey house to live in, or a very comfortable apartment. And that is the norm in our country, which has a very strong middle-class that is virtually non-existant in Kenya. And yet.. it makes you wonder. As Mrs Bucket would say “It is an accident of birth” that I was born on a small island called Malta instead of the squalor of Kibera. Can anything we ever do ever do justice, equate our efforts to the suffering of the people here? Not really – I don’t think so. At least we are doing something. But the task is so immense it makes one feels hopeless at times.

Would you live in Kibera?

No, my dear friend, I can’t. I won’t. But I wish with all my heart that you won’t either. At least you have been given a good education and a door has been opened to you. Let’s look to the light… maybe one day you too will live in a comfortable environment, and perhaps things will be better than they are now. You are the hope of your country – let’s not let the country down.. perhaps your progeny will have a better life than what you started with.

Would you live in Kibera?

How selfish I am. And how ungrateful I am for all I have.

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Mwangaza Visit

April 16, 2010

Last week we met Br Shim, a Korean Jesuit brother, who took us 3 to Mwangaza. Stopping first at Tokyo restaurant we were treated to an amazing Korean lunch (at discount price 🙂 ) and we then headed off for a 1 and a half hour walk around Karen to Mwangaza, the well-reknowned Jesuit retreat centre known for being amazingly beautiful, and the place that could have been our home were it not so far from Kibera.

The photos say it all- it is simply stunning… at the foot of Ngong Hills, in a VERY quiet area. And simply HUGE.

An amazing Coincidence

April 15, 2010

First of all I apologise for my not-so-frequent internet postings of late – the fact is that we have been 4 days without internet here, and frustratingly so! But anyways… let me not waste this window of opportunity!

Two days ago we were walking along the street in the city centre, amid the hustle and bustle that is Nairobi on a Tuesday afternoon. I forgot what I was talking about, but it was in Maltese, when suddenly we hear someone saying “Hey you – you’re speaking Maltese!”. And what a coincidence it was – a tall very white man with a Kenyan wife and kids, who suddenly started talking to us in Maltese! He was brought up in Malta, and goes there often… he even lived in Marsascala for a couple of years! I couldn’t believe it. His wife told us “We know Malta like the back of our hands!” – Woah! Quite a coincidence, considering we are about 5000 km away from home here, in the middle of an African metropolis! Quite the chance meeting! We said our goodbyes and went off, shaking our heads in amazement. Perhaps we should pay more attention to what we are saying, even here, lest we have dire consequences if the Maltese-language-shield is rendered worthless 🙂

PS: Don’t you just LOVE talking in Maltese about things, objects or people in front of them, without them noticing what you’re talking about? Just keep a neutral tone and voila – you have it, total (or perhaps NOT so total) freedom of speech! And then use codenames – Eg. Sr Onesmass to us is “Is-soru tal-Milied” because her name sounds like the latter in English… don’t you think? or “is-Soru tal-Hadd” as opposed to Sr. Domenica… thus we can complain to our heart’s content without them ever realising it 🙂

Come-back week

April 11, 2010

After a week of Nakuru and Runda weekend with Maltese friends we came back to the Nairobi we are used to by now – Kibera, Tumaini and environs. We had the usual weekly meeting on Wednesday, did the graduate journals on Thursday and had the meeting with graduates on Friday, as we usually do 🙂

Nothing much to talk about this week – except one big exception: God willing we’ll be moving to a new apartment on 1st May! Can’t wait! Don’t get me wrong – Tumaini is good enough for a month or two. But after 2 months of eating oily food one misses some pasta, or a bit of “Hobz biz-zejt! or a simple, nice salad on a hot afternoon… and also one wants a place that feels more like home…and we found the right place for that! A comfortable 3-bedroom apartment where an American friend of ours lives… just 15 mins walk away. What’s more – with Maria moving in with us (fingers crossed) it will be cheaper for us all, so that’s great! Can’t wait to learn how to make spicy Kim-Chi salad, or to have some Pasta with pesto!

At Kid’s Palace things are well enough – we yesterday visited the mother whose child died at 7 months ago, bearing a few gifts and the money collected by the parents themselves at Kid’s den. I spoke to her, and after telling her that I suspect there is sickle cell anaemia in the family I suggested testing – the mother asked me to take her to the hospital for that. I suggested she goes with the father as he too is likely to have SSA considering all the boys die at 7 months-10 months of age from the same illness, indicating a severe type of SSA. However she said he wouldn’t come… because he has no reason to, I gather! I couldn’t believe it… well one must adapt to the circumstances. IF her husband agrees (and that’s a big IF) I will take her to Kenyatta Hospital next week to be tested for the disease. It won’t change anything, but at least it might help their next child to be treated for SSA as soon as the first crises arises! Birth control, of course, is something one recommends, but cannot hope will be followed in the environment of Kibera 😦

An Amazing Week – Nakuru

April 5, 2010

Nakuru, 30th March-1st April

This week we barely had any work since most places close for the easter week, so on a whim we decided to leave Nairobi and head to Nakuru in Rift Valley Province. We caught a matatu (just 4 euros for a 3 hr drive) and headed off on Tuesday morning.

Few words do justice to the Rift valley. One moment it’s the highlands of Nairobi province and suddenly the earth opens beneath you and you find yourself at the level of the clouds, with the rift valley far below you, like a slice of heaven. The Greeks had Elysium. The Ancient Egyptians had the Field of Reeds. But the Africans, truly, have Bonde la Ufa, as they call the Rift Valley. As the matatu descended (at a frightening speed, of course) the vegetation changes suddenly into savannah – such that if you look back up, there are pine forests but down in the valley (which is VERY wide, by the way, not as the Lion King makes one believe it is) there are the Savannah trees, where, occasionally, you may spot a zebra or two by the side of the road chewing grass!

Once at Nakuru we headed to Mt Sinai Hotel, a cheap budget hotel to stay in with a bed, cold showers (freezing cold) and toilet and immediately set off (it was around noon) to find a tour to spend the afternoon around. Lake Nakuru is just 6 km away from Nakuru town. But, as we found out, it is prohibitively expensive… to enter Lake Nakuru National Park (abundant with wildlife and draped in beautiful scenery) – $60 every 24 hours!! Simply too much for our pockets at this point (when we get a resident visa that price should drop to 1000 shillings a day (10 euros a day). So after haggling with 2 different tour operators who, we are sure, STILL managed to get a rip off us (even when the price of the excursions halved with our haggling), we chose an operator who was to take us to nearby Lake Elementaita and Menengai Crater the following day.

Within an hour we were at Lake Elementaita… the least known lake of the 3 in the Rift Valley in this region, but probably the most isolated and hence the most attractive to us, as it is unspoilt. The road to it, once off the main road, was a disaster and God knows how many times the taxi scraped the floor of the car whilst driving down. But once at the shore Maria, Pauline and I headed off along the beach, mesmerised by the silence and beauty of it all. The photos say it all – stunning pink stains every part of the lake, and when they fly a curtain of black and pink soar into the air to the call of the Flamingo bird. We wandered along the shore for a couple of hours, simply mesmerised by the total quiet and stunning beauty of the place. A world away from Nairobi. The Africa that once was… a jewel of a continent.

That evening we went to a chinese restaurant nearby and after a good bottle of red wine slept, to the nboise and chaos of Nakuru at night, with dreams of Africa playing in our heads.

The following morning we headed to Menengai crater – it had rained heavily the night before, and part of the road had been washed away, but thankfully we took a long long side mud track (was going to write ‘road’, but it wasnt a road most of the time) and took some time to reach the summit. However it was a good opportunity to take amazing pictures of the scenery below – a simply amazing sight dotted with greenhouses growing flowers (don’t get me started on them… they are sucking lake Naivasha dry, but anyway..) and the Rift Valley below. But nothing, nothing prepared me for the summit… suddenly at the rim you see a HUGE crater, 90 sq km in area… the second largest volcanic crater in the world (after Lake Ongorongoro in Tanzania, 300 km away) – a simply stunning piece of geological art. Far below, 468 m below on the crater floor was a forest, covering a still visible ancient lava flow going to the north.

There on top we met a man on top of a flimsy lookout tower who, after asking me for some food (I gave him some crisps) asked me where I come from. The moment I said Malta he put his hand to his head and after a minute of thinking he spat out everything he knew about it – “St Paul went there, and you have a big statue of him on an island. I saw it in a book!! It is a small island, south of Sicily…” I never thought that here, on the equator, someone would know quite a few details on our little island, and a flush of pride swept through me – he said “One day I will go there” (Yeah right!) and we chatted for a little while until I decided to join the others for a picnic with some bread, oilive oil and vinegar, on the summit. It was a lovely day, simply lovely.

THat afternoon and night we slept like we hadn’t slept for months… I slept a good 3 hours and then a good 9 hours during the night, but not before we had gone to a nearby restaurant which offered cheap but very good food and football-game viewing for Pauline, who thoroughly enjoyed the match (I, surprisingly, enjoyed it very much too!).

Thursday morning came and we packed our bag and left the hotel back to Nairobi. We were all in a sour mood – we had had our first taste of the real Africa one sees on TV, and we didn’t want to leave it so soon. But so be it. As we climbed back the steep sides of the Rift valley in the matatu we took one long gaze upon Bonde la Ufa and then the pine forest covered the view. Within 2 hours, it was replaced by the chaos and din and skyscrapers of Nairobi… we were back home (*sigh*).

An amazing week

April 5, 2010

I have SO much to write about… I haven’t updated the blog in a while and I apologise for that – the reason is, I was away for most of the week 🙂

Thika – 26-28th March

Remember Marika and Malcolm? Two Maltese people who live in Nairobi? Well they invited us over for a weekend to visit Thika – a lovely place 1 hour away from Nairobi. I went there on Friday evening and slept over, and on Saturdya morning I had my first taste of Kenya as it really is (not Nairobi…). Here are some photos:

We first went to Thika falls, which were gushing out water like crazy after the long rains (here it is raining EVERY night). The children went crazy with excitement – I don’t blame them :p

We then headed off to friends of theirs who have a farm in Thika. Now here is where my prejudices where tested and where proved wrong… here most British settlers are snobs, and do not even participate in Kenyan life in general – they live sheltered lives in Karen and look down on the Natives. But these english people where LOVELY – down to Earth, kind – they took us for a picnic on their land by a lovely lake – it was an amazing afternoon. Breezy, relaxing and just beautiful, seeing Coffee plantations all around and the most amazing trees and wildlife.

Then, as evening came around we settled in for some toast with home made butter and honey (just divine!) and headed back to Runda (where M&M live)… we then had lunch on Sunday and returned to Tumaini.