I am back in Nairobi after a few days in rural Kenya near Lake Victoria. Here’s what’s been going on.
I arrived in Nairobi after midnight last Wednesday and after clearing customs, waded into a sea of taxi drivers and safari touts. Safari companies give a commission to anyone who can find someone who will come into the office and book a safari. Since safaris are quite pricey, this commission, even if small, can represent more than a month’s wages. Given this, and the high unemployment rate, the economic incentive is there for these people to try REALLY hard to get you to go with them to the office and hear about safaris. I am certain that Come To Africa must offer the highest commission rate, because every single safari tout on the street starts by pitching that company. That tells me that if there is any company I shouldn’t book a safari with, it’s that one.
Anyway, after fighting my way through the gauntlet of touts, I took a taxi into town. Normally I would take the bus, but Nairobi’s nickname, bestowed upon it by its own citizens, is “Nairobbery,” for the extraordinarily high rate of muggings that happen in it, particularly at night. And, the airport bus is famous for separating people from their things. Of course, the taxi drivers are aware of this, and so I was forced to pay nearly $20 to get into town.
I spent a few days exploring Nairobi, which was nice, but there really isn’t a lot to see in the way of tourist attractions. Mainly I’ve just been getting a feel for what life is like in urban Africa. People are generally friendly and helpful, but if they’re too friendly then it’s only a matter of seconds before they reveal themselves to be safari touts. The street musicians are some of the best I’ve ever heard; the music is joyous and infectious and makes you want to just stop walking and start dancing in the street.
While in Nairobi I’ve been staying in the Youth Hostel, which is located on the far side of Uhuru Park, on a really obscure street. This means I have to be careful to get out of town and back to the hostel before nightfall because Uhuru Park is like Central Park in New York City: even the locals don’t want to be anywhere near it after dark. Yesterday the bus conductor had no idea what street I was talking about when I was trying to get home (with everything I own on my back since I was en route from Lake Victoria) and a passenger had to advise me when we got to my street (Ralph Bunche road). But, he turned out to be mistaken, and so I found myself dumped out of the bus right on the border of the park, after dark and with minimal idea of which direction the hostel was in. There was no hope of a taxi, because taxis in Nairobi don’t drive around looking for people; they just hang out on street corners in the city center talking to each other. Fares are high enough that I guess there’s no need. There are virtually no streetlights in Nairobi, presumably because the electricity is too intermittent to bother. So, I walked half an hour in the dark along the road, with only an occasional bus coming by, going what I correctly guessed to be the wrong way, and no light except for those occasional headlights and the light from the small fires that groups of people were huddled around.
When I was 13 I went through a period of a couple years where I was convinced I was an atheist. But it’s times like these when you find out if you really are or not. If you find yourself in a situation where you’re seriously concerned about personal safety, and your reaction is to spend your mental energy working hard on negotiating with God, then you’re not an atheist.
It turns out I am not an atheist.
Anyway, I eventually did find my street, and reached the hostel unharmed, and a lot more willing in the future to just pony up the fare for the taxi (50x more expensive than public transport) when it gets too dark.
Speaking of public transport, the next exhibit in my inadvertent tour of the World’s Quirkiest Public Transportation comes from Kenya: the matatu.
Let’s say you want to start operating a matatu. Here’s what you’ll need:
To find the ideal matatu vehicle you will have to shop around people’s backyards, probably in rural places, for an early 70’s Toyota minivan that hasn’t been operated in years. Upon procurement, roll the vehicle down a steep embankment once to add the appropriate level of dirt and dents, and to render the sliding door appropriately inoperable. Fill the interior with seats. Lots of seats. More than you thought could possibly fit. You now have a ready vehicle.
Virtually anyone off the street will do for this … what’s important is that you keep them adequately supplied with marijuana-laced cigarettes. The first time I rode a matatu I didn’t ask for my stop in time, and we had already passed it, and this caused quite a fuss which ended with the matatu driver volunteering to let me keep riding until we passed the stop going the other way. And I didn’t have to pay the fare. But my penance was to sit in the Death Seat right next to him (right next to him, there were 3 of us in front), where I learned firsthand about the marijuana. He even offered me a drag. From the Death Seat I got to see up close when we almost got hit by a bus.
At this point I would like to explain that when I say we almost got hit by a bus, I’m not kidding around. Over the course of my travels I’ve really come to redefine what it means to almost get hit by a bus. If I were still using the old American definition, I’d be forced to describe whole sections of my trip as a near continuous state of being almost hit by a bus. You couldn’t have fit a hydrogen atom in between the front of our matatu and the rear side of that bus.
In Egypt, that bus could have been 10 times farther away and there would have been a lot of honking and yelling and waggling fists in the air. But Kenyans seem to be a much more stoic lot; even all the people who weren’t smoking marijuana were visibly unaffected by the whole experience. I think it’s considered to be the way of things.
The Cowboy’s function is to round up people on the street and herd them into the matatu. Like Egyptian civilization, Kenyan civilization has not yet discovered the capacity limit, so it doesn’t matter how many people are already on, if there are a bunch of people standing on the side of the road (this defines a matatu stop) then the matatu will stop and the Cowboy will get out and grab a few people at random and start pushing them toward the matatu, while shouting out the general route the matatu will follow.
Usually, at least a couple people will get on, though not necessarily immediately. Public transport in the Third World is approximate, and I think people take a moment to decide if the matatu will pass close enough to their destination to make it worth going or waiting. So, the Cowboy will trawl around the crowd, repeating the route, while the driver gets bored and starts drifting forward, which causes the Cowboy to have to run back to the matatu and bang on the side, saying “Riba, Riba!” (Stop, stop.) Banging on the side is also a method of helping convince people that this is definitely the vehicle to take, even though passengers 20, 21, and 22 are already hanging off the side, and two quick bangs on the roof are the signal to start moving again.
That’s really all you need to start your operation … of course you will also have to decide the appropriate range of fares. Matatu fares seem to vary from 10–20 shillings based on a number of factors, including time of day, weather, and the mood of the Cowboy.
While staying at the hostel in Nairobi I met a Christian minister who was in town for a regional conference. He and I were roommates, and had lots of good discussions over the course of two days. Finally, he invited me to visit him and his family near the town of Rongo, which is near Lake Victoria. So, wanting to see rural Kenya, and having a good vibe about him, I went with him to Rongo.
The trip to Rongo involved a 7-hour trip on an intercity bus. Kenyan intercity buses are similar to Egyptian ones in some ways, and different in others. As in Egypt, there is always room for more people. As in Egypt, it is not possible to discern why we stop for some and not for others. As in Egypt, there are a thousand things which can delay the bus, including police checks along the road.
But there are differences. Crashes are at a much lower speed. You see the evidence periodically along the side of the road. The low speeds are because the large stretches of lunar surface that function as roads in Kenya limit the speed drivers can attain. Nevertheless, they do drive as fast as they can manage, and this produces the most bone-shaking, internal-organ-bruising rides I’ve ever experienced.
Police checks are shorter in Kenya than in Egypt, because they only involve two things: peering inside the bus, perhaps to verify that the bus is as crowded on the inside as it appears to be on the outside, and negotiating the bribe.
The bribe is negotiated by one of the members of The Posse. The Posse ranges in size from three to five people. They function along the same lines as the sidekick on Egyptian buses, except on Kenyan buses people actually respect the No smoking sign, which is really nice. I don’t know why you need a whole Posse, but what’s a few more people on the bus?
Sometimes the police actually don’t stop the bus; in fact they don’t even look up from the paper they are reading. These must be the honest ones. The driver will still honk his horn long and loud, presumably to let the officer know he’s not trying to sneak by, inasmuch as any large, extremely overcrowded vehicle belching big clouds of black smoke and sporting an engine that sounds like it may at any moment disintegrate into its constituent parts could be said to be sneaking by anyone.
The one thing on the bus that is in good shape is the stereo system, which is played at very high volumes to distract from the engine noise and the bone shaking. There aren’t many radio stations, so we listen to whatever is available, or, if nothing is available, we listen to static. Loudly. But I did have the most educational half-hour on a bus in my life when we listened to the French Radio Programme. I learned a ton:
The pen is on the table. Le stylo est sur la table.
The book is in the bag. Le livre est dans le sac.
And so on.
(Note: French speaking readers who are having fits about my spelling should just chill. It was a radio program, for Pete’s sake.)
The minister I was visiting, Charles Ochieng Mboya Gor, lives 5K outside of town, but the bus guys were nice enough to let us off on the side of the road past Rongo, and that trimmed it to a 1K walk. It’s extreme rural Kenya. Charles lives in a house made of marra (a particular type of mud mixed with small stones) on a wood frame, with some aluminum sheets for a roof. He has built the house on his own over four years, and is saving up for the inch-thick layer of concrete that will go over the mud and complete the house. I met his wife and six of his seven kids, and his wife made a delicious meal of rice and chicken. It was probably the best food I’ve had on this entire trip. I ate and ate.
After dinner and conversation, we hitched a ride on a flatbed truck into town, to find a hotel room for me. Charles’ house is not finished, and hence is not mosquito-proof, and the Lake Victoria area has the highest malaria infection rate in the country (as well as the largest concentration of population and the largest HIV infection rate in the country).
Now, Rongo gets zero tourist traffic, because tourists either go to Kisumu in the north or Tanzania in the south. So the hotels in Rongo only cater to Kenyans. Charles knew the owner of the New Junior hotel, so he got me the nicest room in the hotel. It was large by Kenyan standards, and it had its own bathroom. Things it didn’t have included running water of any kind, and 50% of the time, electricity. It didn’t have a toilet seat either, but I’m getting used to that. The thing about having your own bathroom but no running water is that after a short while, you realize what you effectively have is an open-pit latrine in the room. I took to sitting in the doorway with the door wide open, reading, and ready to kill any mosquito that came by. I often had to sit in the doorway to read anyway, due to the lack of electricity. I actually slept quite well that night, which surprised me a little because even though I majored in math and took a whole semester of Topology, I still couldn’t classify the topology of the mattress I slept on.
The next day Charles and I went down to Lake Victoria, to the town of Homa Bay, where his oldest son is training to be a mechanic. The lake is pretty, and the views of the islands in the lake and the hills on the other side, in Uganda, are impressive. We hiked over to see his son (a long hike in the first sticky heat I’ve experienced on this trip), and then found out his niece was sick in the hospital. And so I got to see a rural Kenyan hospital.
It’s probably true that the hospital has the highest level of hygiene in the area. The restaurant we ate lunch in was in the nicest hotel in Homa Bay, and I had to shoo away a roach on the wall menu to see how much boiled rice cost. The conditions were such that I really wanted to take pictures to show people, but everywhere I went all eyes were on me, since the majority of the people had not seen in person a mzungu (foreigner) before. This is true even in the hallways because only the really sick get beds. The rest just take up a spot in the hallways somewhere. It just didn’t seem appropriate.
Charles’ niece had a bed, which before we even saw her I took to be a bad sign. And sure enough, she looked really bad. She was sickly thin and she was breathing fast and shallow. I think that I will never forget her eyes, which were an unnatural milky blue. Charles later said they had changed during a recent severe case of malaria, which supposedly was unrelated to this illness. The one time I saw a crack in Charles’ relentless Kenyan cheer was the moment he first saw her: I saw him quickly wipe away a tear. Then, barely able to talk, she asked him to pray for her, and so he steeled himself and did. I have never seen anyone pray so hard.
I felt quite out of place watching all of this. It was hard to look at her and worse to look around the room and see the others: old people, kids, all looking like they were not going to get any better. I felt vaguely ashamed of how relieved I was when we left. Not long after we said goodbye to Charles’ son and went back to Rongo.
Back at Charles’ house, we had another fabulous dinner and a more philosophical discussion. I was amazed by Charles’ resiliency, as he was already back to his cheery self, but he said that it is part of life, to be faced with difficult circumstances. I suppose that’s true. I took pictures of Charles and his family outside in front of the house right before the rains hit. I helped the family prepare for the rains by helping gather and bring inside the corn that was drying on the grass. Charles thought this was amusing, since evidently this is not considered men’s work.
Note to women readers: I watched with great interest the work Charles’ wife was doing, and while I’m not going to say that the conclusion is that a western woman’s life is easy (since I don’t know much about what it’s like to be a woman in the West or anyplace else), I can say with certainty that watching her would change your perspective.
Eventually Charles took me back into town to my hotel, which was nice because it was twice the walk in the pouring rain for him, since he had to go back home. The good news about the rain is that after a few hours, they were able to get pumps going and pipe in some running water! It was so exciting: my first shower in three days! There wasn’t much pressure, and the water was so cold it made my scalp hurt, but it felt great to be (relatively) clean. And, I even got the toilet to flush sort of a little bit, which helped the air quality considerably.
The bad news about the rain is that it seems to create mosquitoes out of thin air. I spent an hour killing the ones in my room. But, I didn’t get bit and as far as I know I still don’t have malaria.
The next morning Charles came on his way to a seminar on AIDS education and showed me the intercity bus station (that is, the particular group of people that were waiting for an intercity bus). The bus came around 8, and since it was raining all the way back it took 9 hours. The trip back was made a little less eternal by the Kenyan sitting next to me, who taught me little bits of Kiswahili. He started us with “mzee kipara,” which means “the bald head.”
It turns out that the more literal translation of it is “the mosquito airport.” They’re funny, those Kenyans.
Anyway, I eventually got to Nairobi, and after last night’s little fiasco getting home I passed out early. Today I rested, and looked around at safaris, but now I’ve decided that I am going to go down to the coast and see Mombassa. I’ll probably be gone a week or so, and then when I get back I’ll use whatever money I have left and go on safari.
I hope everyone is happy and healthy … so far I am and hopefully it will stay that way, at least until I have access to American medicine again.
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