East Africa:
Kenya and uganda
 
 
 
I woke up this morning in a sleepy haze.  I thought I had beaten the grasp that jetlag held over me, but when I looked at my watch and realized that it read 12:30 in the afternoon, I had to second guess that assumption.  I rolled out of bed to find Chelsea reading on the porch with her half eaten pizza from last night next to her and her running shoes she tossed sprawled out under the chair.  Well at least one of us had been productive this morning!  I joined her on the porch, looking out over the lake and watched the men below milling about carrying pieces of wood and dirt in wheel barrels.  They were quite noisy, but not the same mechanical construction noise I am used to in America. Here, I woke to the noises of the soft grunts of the men as they lifted heavy objects, the thwacking sound of an ax, the jumble of mixed languages, and the sound of the crackling fire below which was occasionally stoked to ward off mosquitoes. I went inside to retrieve my book and joined Chelsea on the furniture outside, thankful for the shield that the rising smoke offered us from the bugs.  
 
After reading a few pages, we decided to explore the town.  I secured my money belt around my waste and filled it with its usual contents, including my travel debit card and a few hundred shillings. As we ventured out, we walked past the guard who we made it a point to be friendly with as he was the only thing separating us from the outside world. Nyanza Club, where we were staying, was located on a side street off of the one of the main roads that would lead us to ‘downtown.’  We started walking as there were no other apparent sources of transportation.  Only after a few minutes of walking did someone on a boda boda (bicycle) come up to us. “Boda” he merely said, patting the little makeshift seat on the back of his bike.  Chelsea gave me a look and I simply shrugged as she hopped on.  Excited to have secured a passenger, he quickly called his friend over for me to ride with.  We told them that we were interested in going into town to “Tilapia Beach.” Without have to say anything more, the man kicked the ground with his foot and started pedaling.  My ‘driver’ followed suit and we quickly sped off as he tried to catch up with ‘Team Chelsea.’ We whizzed down the road and we increasingly gained speed as the road started to slant downhill.  We made our way down the dirt road, passing Nyalenda, one of the many slums in Kisumu, waving to children as they ran out of their little shacks that were pieced together from a random assortment of tin which they fashioned into a make-shift roof and slabs of dried mud for the supporting walls. “Mazungu,” they yelled.  Chelsea and I had done our best to get used to this new nickname that almost everyone identified us as; “white person” quickly became our new identifier.  
 
Ahead of us I saw the roundabout quickly approaching.  I silently begged my driver to slow down especially when I wasn’t even sure that he had brakes on his rickety old bike.  We soared past cars but failed to make the tight turn down to town. We continued to go around the rotary till we could safely make it through the wall of cars and tuk-tuks (three wheeled vehicles) and ended up getting off a stop too late.  The drivers didn’t miss a beat as they discovered a small side street that was lined with little stands and blanketed goods.  We dodged shoppers left and right as we raced down the street.  I quickly pressed my legs closer to the bike after I almost knocked a pair of shoes out of someone’s hands trying to decide whether to buy the pair which were missing the laces or the one with a hole in the front. We skidded around the corner to be met by another roundabout (those darn British) on the main street that we should have been on in the first place. My driver stopped suddenly as a car cut in-between my bike and Chelsea’s, leaving only a trail of dust between us.  I watched as the distance between Chelsea and me grew greater as more cars cut in front of us.  It would have been silly for my driver to confront one of the speeding cars that continued to race past us.  Finally there was a break in the traffic and my driver scooted after Chelsea.  Pumping up and down, we finally caught up with Chelsea and her driver just as the lake started to become visible through the mess of stands and little shops that littered the now dirt road.  We reached the end of the road and jumped off the bikes to begin negotiating with the drivers an appropriate rate to pay them.  They first started with an insanely large figure but luckily we had gotten from one of our fellow “Mazungus” a good sense of how much it should have cost and was able to barter them down (Chelsea did most of the talking and proved to be triumphant) at 20 shillings a piece (roughly 30 cents).
 
Almost instantly, a hoard of women came up to us, trying to get our attention as they took our arms and tried to lead us towards their respective shops.  We kindly refused and told them that we were meeting a friend and tried to get directions from them to Tilapia Beach. Reluctantly, someone finally pointed down an extremely muddy path that ran parallel to the lake.  “Asante” we said as we thanked them and began our trek through the newly formed puddles made of a combination of mud, garbage, sewage, and…we dared not let our imaginations continue to wander to what exactly was the composition of the gucky mess we were trudging through that would occasionally grab hold of our flip-flops and refused to let go without kindly spraying up a shower of mud at the back of our heels and covered our pants. Finally after a curve in the road, we were able to make out a little sign that read, ‘Tilapia Beach.’  We passed a small congregation of older men who showered us (mostly Chelsea) with kind catcalls, referring to Chelsea as ‘baby.’  We were not sure if they were commenting on our quite visible facial expressions as we wadded through the mud or meant it as some sort of compliment.  
 
We ducked under the thatched roofed doorway and made our way to an open table that was only a few yards away from the lake. The waiter came up to our table and presented us with two options, fried fish or fish stew.  Eyeing a gloppy mixture on the table next to us, I decided it was best to go for the fried option.  We also ordered our accompanying drinks at the same time.  As we waited for our fish to be cooked, we watched two men casting their long lines into the water ensuring that the fish that the restaurant served was extremely fresh.  In no time, the waiter brought out several large plates.  On one of them was ugali (a mashed corn meal mixture that has absolutely no taste), another was filled with a chopped stringy kelp-like vegetable dish, and yet another dish of diced tomatoes.  The last serving platter was the largest by far and to our surprise a humongous fish covered the entire plate.  To our delight, they decided to cook the fish whole…leaving that loving face and all.  You could see the hole in the fish’s upper lip from the fishhook.  The waiter returned with a little plastic teapot and a bucket to wash our hands since there weren’t any utensils. After cleaning off all the mud from the previous trek from our hands we literally dug into the fish.  I can honestly say it was one of the best cooked fish I have ever had, especially since it was so fresh and cost only $4.  We were both glad that we had only ordered one for both of us since this was also one of the biggest fish I had seen come from a lake; it was well over a two feet in length!
 
Once we finished our meal and left nothing but the bones and the untouched face (neither of us were adventurous enough to tackle navigating through the skull in search of a little more meat), we made the hike back up to town.  We both had bought local SIM cards when we were in Nairobi, but were running out of credit since cell phone service was pre-paid.  We searched the town for someplace where we could “top up,” but found that we didn’t have to look far as we found that literally every 5 feet people were selling the scratch cards one could buy for more minutes.  I approached a man who was sitting in front of a blanket full of necklaces and other homemade jewelry:  “250 shilling Safaricom,” I asked the man, and sure enough the man whipped out a stack of cards and shuffled through them until he found the right one. I made the exchange and we continued are way through town.  
 
While Kisumu is the third largest city in Kenya, one wouldn’t think so by the looks of it.  The ‘downtown’ area was relatively clean with two to three story buildings lining the main road off the ‘highway’ that ran the course of Kisumu. The town area was mostly where the ‘department’ shops were situated, along with the local Barclays Bank.  It was more of a Western haven than actually a useful town for the locals (and where one of the few internet cafes is located).  The real ‘downtown’ area for the Kisumu local was a little farther down the main road towards the center of Kisumu where a large market and the matatu stage were located.  On Sundays it is said to become one of the largest open-air markets in all of Eastern Africa and where people from all the surrounding neighboring towns can come to do their shopping and exchanging.
 
Tonight we had a meeting with Joseph Thuku, the director of all the VCT (Voluntary Counseling and Testing) centers in West Kenya for the CDC (Center for Disease Control), and we were invited over to his house for dinner. We cautiously made our way back to where we saw a gathering of boda bodas (I’m not really sure if there is a more appropriate term for a group of these ‘transportation vehicles’).  Instead, Chelsea and I eyed the motorbikes across the street (which I made sure to check to see if they had the proper braking systems) and agreed that they would not be only be faster but it might be safer to trust someone who is at least certified to be driving on the ‘roads’ of Kisumu.  We were able to negotiate our way down from the exorbitant ‘Mazungu’ (white person) price to something that more closely resembled what a Kenyan would pay.  Still eyeing the lovely roundabout we had to navigate, I asked the driver if I could wear the helmet he had safely secured to his handlebars.  With a rev of the engine we broke our way through the traffic of boda bodas and sparsely placed cars and raced down the road which was riddled with speed bumps every 50 meters or so.  Luckily I had learned the ‘trick of the trade’ of how to safely ride as a passenger on a motorbike from my ‘adventures’ in narrowly escaping death on the busy highways and crowded back roads of Chennai, India, and was sure to lean my body weight the opposite of the direction we turned as we zipped around turns and to keep my leg a safe distance from the scolding hot exhaust pipe. After several eye clenching moments, I was able to relax my whitened knuckles as the sign for our hotel came into sight.
 
While we had tried our best to get on “African time” (and no I’m not talking about the time zone change) of viewing scheduled meeting times as more of a suggestion rather than an actual appointment, we started to grow a little impatient as I double checked my watch to make sure that Joseph was really more than 45 minutes late from when he said we would be picking us up. Finally around 8, we heard a knock on the door.  We followed Joseph to the road and jumped in a matatu, a rickety old van which tries to cram in as many people as possible and is the preferred method of transportation for Kenyans.  We tried our best to chat over the pounding of the squeaky speakers that were trying their best to produce a sound similar to what Celine Dion’s songs actually sound like and over the squawking of the chicken that was in the lady’s lap next to me. I think Joseph was trying to say that he was ‘happy to meet us’ or was it that he was ‘happy to beat us!’ By the newly forming bruises on my head (the lack of shocks on the van was causing my head to repeatedly slam into the rusty ceiling), it would have made some sense if he really were saying that latter!
 
Within a few minutes, Joseph was yelling “hapa, hapa!” (here, here), alerting the driver that we were reaching our destination and to use his discretion as to where exactly Joseph meant when he had told him to “please stop the van here in front of this gas station where our house is near.”  The driver continued to travel down the highway until the sound of Joseph’s knuckles on the metal roof of the van was difficult for even the driver to ignore.  Once we stopped, the driver graciously accepted our shillings as we ‘thanked’ him for the extra tour he had given us and started walking back in the direction of Joseph’s house.
 
As we approached Joseph’s house, we went through a series of padlocks, metal gates, and doors with prison-like windows. Joseph explained that one could not really rely on the police to come to one’s aid in Kenya for the system is so corrupt that if you call to report the fact that your house is in the process of being broken into, the police will claim not to have enough money for gas to come to your rescue and will not come until you agree to pay their demand for a bribe (aka ‘gas money’) for them to come and even then there’s no guarantee they will come within the hour…so people take it upon themselves to secure their house with as many gates, barbwire and steel reinforced windows as it takes.   While the exterior of the house screamed inhospitality, that feeling was instantly dissolved as the final steel door was unlocked and we were greeted by a very welcoming and exuberant young woman who introduced herself as Joseph’s wife, Joyce.  Following close behind her was Nancy, their 2 year-old daughter, who was sure to hide enough of herself behind her mother’s legs to feel safe from these foreign intruders but expose just enough of her head to fully examine these two strange creatures.
 
Joyce was almost finished preparing dinner and our curiosity to see how real Kenyan food was made enabled us to accept her invitation to join her in the kitchen.  To our surprise, we were welcomed by two American faces who introduced themselves as Jessica and Casey, recent graduates from Western Washington University, who were completing their graduation requirement of an internship working at a local community health center.  The 5 of us squeezed into the small kitchen and washed our hands to help with the cutting of the many vegetables we saw on the counter.
 
After a great dinner with the ‘extended family’ (which included not only the immediate Thuku family, but Joseph’s sister, an adopted child (Anthony), Brian (a young man who they are supporting through school), the two college students, and Chelsea and myself), we spent several hours discussing everything from our hopes for the success of the half Kenyan US presidential candidate, Barack Obama (who recently visited his father’s home town right outside of Kisumu), to varying differences in the Kenyan culture, to the current state of the growing country.  Once the dishes had been cleared and Nancy had been put to bed, Chelsea and I met with Joseph in the living room to ‘get down to business.’  With his connections and resources at the CDC, he offered to provide us with a list of VCT clinics in all of the regions where Opportunity International is operating and which would be willing to test and educate current clients.
 
Soon after we finished going over the specifics of the work we are currently doing for OI, Joseph gave us a quick tour of his one floor house.  At the end of the tour, he showed us two empty beds and said then made the very gracious and completely unexpected offer to have us live with them during our stay in Kenya.  While it was hard to contain our excitement, Chelsea and I thanked Joseph and Joyce for their invitation and told them that we would think it over and let them know by the end of the weekend. Later that night after returning to our lonely hotel room, we gave them a call and accepted their offer!
 
 
Life in Kisumu, Kenya
Friday, July 6, 2007
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