Archive for June, 2011

Divine Love Roaring Down the Highway

June 28, 2011

Dear friends and family,

“Divine Love” is roaring down the Nairobi-Mombasa Highway. It’s the name
printed above the dashboard of one of the many trucks coming from the port
town to Kenya’s capital city. Many of the trucks down this road are
tattooed with such names. It’s Friday afternoon and I am on my way to
Lion’s Bluff eco-lodge nestled in Tsavo West National Park to enjoy a
safari adventure. Windows are rolled down and the wind and dust are
blowing in my face and hair. I love the open spaces, but here the eyes
itch because of the dust peeling off the unfinished shoulders of the road.
I am happy until we hit a town called Emali, about two hours into our
trip. There some vendor transporting his ration of onions decides to bolt
in front of our vehicle, unexpectedly, to cross the highway. William, our
driver, acting quickly, hits the breaks and spares the vendor, but the car
behind us (an aid agency vehicle at that) was travelling to close, so in a
blink of an eye, our vehicle is struck and our rear window is no more.
Luckily no one is hurt, but we are all a bit shaken. We end up waiting for
William for close to 2 hours on this stretch of highway while he sets off
to the previous town to find a police officer who will come and sort out
this mess. During this time, a woman with a young child approaches us and
introduces herself as William’s cousin. What are the odds of this
happening in this exact space? Her little boy is called Elvis so we
delight ourselves feeding him banana and playing some games as we wait for
the police. Kenya is not known for efficient bureaucracy and I get to
witness this first hand when the police officer decides to show up. Kenyan
police are corrupt, and this one is no different. He can sniff cash so
bribes William and the driver of the other vehicle roughly $25 each to
avoid having the vehicles impounded. This doesn’t make any sense at all,
and soon I realize this isn’t the point. After that drama, we set out
again, but our vehicle has taken a beating. We have taped a plastic sheet
on the back of the car and now we are ready to finally hit the road again.
At this point, I am feeling impatient and just want to get to our
destination. Well, the remainder of the journey takes another 4 and half
hours, with the last two hours on very rough gravel road. By the time we
get to the lodge at 10PM, we’ve been on the road for 10 hours. This for a
400 km trek. Anyhow, all of this is forgotten once I get a look at the
panoramic view from Lion’s Bluff. It is expansive African savannah until
the eye can see. It is quiet and the air is fresh. I find my inner zen

Two herds of elephants grace us with their presence the next afternoon. We
are on a game drive, and we witness one herd of 40 elephants vying for
water from this pond in the middle of the bush. Once they have their fill
of water, they gradually move their way out to make way for a second and
smaller herd. We spend about an hour watching these creatures spoon the
liquid into their trunks. At one point, a couple catch a glimpse of the
tourists with their cameras, and stare at us straight on. No one moves or
utters a word, and soon the elephants have lost interest in our presence
and return to their watering hole. As the elephants move away in search of
their new pasture, I admire their sense of order in their movements and
cohesion, all lined up in a logical line. Once the elephants disappear
from view, the game drivers open up the cooler and we relish in our own
liquid. Beer and wine.

My accommodation is a thatch roof tent hut elevated above an escarpment
overlooking the savannah with the Taita Hills and Mount Kilimanjaro way
out in the distance. It is overcast so the view of the iconic mountain
range is faint, but nonetheless there is something magical in the air.
There are lizards all over this place, and I am afraid to step on them as
I walk down the steps to my hut. The frame of the hut is wood, and the
canvass supports the walls. They are built to blend into the natural
environment. We set out on a bush walk yesterday morning at 6AM to explore
the land of the lions, gazelle and water buffalo. We see gazelle from afar
and luckily we don’t come across any lions. About an hour into our walk,
some of the lodge staff have set up a breakfast table. It is coffee, eggs
and toast in the middle of the African bush! Surreal and I think to myself
the lions don’t have it this easy.

Back to Nairobi last night and I am now into my last week here. On
Thursday, I have a farewell diner with High Commission colleagues, then on
Saturday morning (very early!) I set out for a climb up Mount Longonot, a
dormant volcano that reaches closes to 3,000 metres, before enduring a 24
hour journey back home late on Saturday night. Le temps passe. And soon, I
will be back in my Ottawa cocoon. Until then, take it easy and I look
forward to reconnecting with you all very soon!!



Week 4: the week that was

June 28, 2011
Dear friends and family,

I slept in a treehouse last night. A house built on stilts above the
ground in Malu forest reserve about one hour and half from Nairobi, near
Lake Navaisha. I woke up this morning to the sights of colobus and syke
monkeys dangling from the trees surrounding the treehouse. Their dance was
amusing to watch. At the same time, there was a chorus of birds, which
produced an orchestra of sounds I'd never heard before. I swear one of
them was playing a pan flute. Yesterday afternoon,  I had endeavoured a
hike in the reserve with my friends, an hour's walk from the treehouse to
a natural hot spring in the forest. The walk to the spring was sublime.
The sun was shining and hot, the sky blue, cattle and horses grazing on
the lush green grass. On the return, however, the heavens turned on us and
down came the heaviest of downpours. Needless to say we got wet, and I'd
say I've never been so soaked in my life. We made it to the reserve's
restaurant, a quaint thatch roofed hut with tables and chairs with
fireplace in the middle, before too long and warmed ourselves with hot
tea. As we waited there for a driver to take us the 5 km to the treehouse,
it was clear after about a half hour there was no driver coming, so we
decided to keep warm and keep moving. The rain had more or less stopped,
and the more we sat the more we got cold in our wet wardrobe. Away we went
and a about 10 minutes later the guy with the safari jeep showed up to
take us home. Dry we were soon enough and laughing out loud at this

On our way home, we stopped by Hell's Gate National Park, an overtly
volcanic landscape with tall cliffs and beautiful rocky outcrops. There we
visited the Obsidian Cave, which is named after a black indigenous type of
rock. This glassy rock was used by early man to create cutting tools. I
took a few so I could show my kids.  Although one can walk and ride bikes
in this park, we drove through and witnessed a number of wildlife: zebra,
gazelle, buffalo, warthogs, giraffe. As we picnicked on one of the hill
tops overlooking the grazing zebra on the ground, I was caught by surprise
by the sight of two giraffe above us on close by cliffs hovering among the
trees. Africa knows how to do wildlife!

Back to the week that was. The streets on the way to work are littered
with newspaper vendors. They stand in between the lanes holding out the
local dailies, the Standard and Daily Nation. Every morning, I ask
Kennedy, my driver from the High Commission, to stop and pick up the Daily
Nation for me. These guys are skilled at giving you your paper and taking
your 40 shillings (about 10 cents). It's dangerous as there are cars
whizzing by in both directions, but these guys seem to know what they are
doing. I try to read the paper before getting to work so that I can then
give it to Kennedy, but the ride is bumpy so I end up only reading the
headlines. On the way home, it's the same deal, but now the vendors are
selling other goods, clothes, cards, electronics, puppies (you read
right). It's a hard life for many in this town. On Thursday, I went to
Carnivore, a famous Nairobi restaurant and concert hall to hear a
legendary South African artist Hugh Mesekela. He is a trumpet player, and
plays a fusion of jazz and traditional African beat. I'd never heard of
him before, but I am now a convert and plan to buy some of his music.

Now you may be thinking it's been all fun and play this week. It has not.
I worked every day at the Canadian High Commission and continued with my
refugee interviews. I am getting more and more the hang of it, feeling
more confidant and efficient by the day. I was invited to meet the High
Commissioner this week. He likes likes to meet all staff at the office,
whether they are there for a short or longer stay. He is a very nice
fellow and appreciated meeting him.

Enough said for now. Please write me and let me know what's up with you.
It must be preety these days in Ottawa as summer takes hold. Thinking of
all of you!


Bye bye Kampala, hello again Nairobi

June 28, 2011
Dear friends and family,

I am now back in Nairobi after two wonderful weeks in Kampala. What a
quaint little African city. They call Kampala the pearl of Africa and one
can see why. It is tucked into a valley surrounded by seven hill tops, so
the views are breathtaking from all the vistas. The city is lush with
green vegetation and beautiful flowers, and is quite walkable, once you
work out your sense of direction. Going out in Kampala traffic by foot,
you must have your wits firmly in place. There is traffic, and by traffic,
I mean boda bodas (motorbike taxis), matatus (mini public buses), private
automobiles, trucks, and pedestrians, all vying for the same scarce public
space. The absence of traffic lights and presence of roundabouts make it
challenging to cross the street. The fact that they drive on the left here
furthered my disorientation. Just to be safe, I would look in all the
directions. Motorists will do anything to get ahead of the pack, including
driving on sidewalks! A pedestrian in Kampala has as many rights as those
hideous birds I told you about last week, the marabout storks. It's
survival of the fittest, forget about justice and right of way. Ok, enough

Let tell you about the Owino Market. It's Kampala's largest and liveliest.
You've never seen so many wall to wall stalls in your life selling
everything you can think of: clothing, electronics, shoes, belts, jewlery,
food. All these goods are stacked on high to the ceiling. The stench of
the place is a mix of urine, rotten food and body odour, not the best
elements for putting you in a buying mood. However, I felt I had to
experience it if I really wanted to experience the real Kampala. As many
vendors were vying for my attention at once, I didn't know where to look.
It was overwhelming. It didn't help either that the path to the stalls
were muddy and full of holes. Luckily I enlisted the help of Frank, my
driver in Kampala, who helped me enormously with the bargaining. In the
end, I made out with some good deals and didn't feel too ripped off.

There was massive PR campaign going in Kampala while I was there meant to
educate Kampalans of the dangers of the "sexual network." It's code
basically for groups sharing sexual partners. In Uganda, the sexual
network is loosely referred to as "sides dishes" or "spare tires"! Last
time I was in Kampala in 2008, the campaign was against "generational
sex," a trend of much older men being sugar daddies to much younger women.
Seems like Ugandans have trouble staying home.

Leaving Kampala yesterday, en route to the airport, I had to get out of my
vehicle to go through a security check about five minutes away from the
airport. It was pure security theatre as some cars just rolled on by
missing the check, while others were forced to get out of their cars to
pass through. While I had to go through the check, my driver did not. Go

Back in Nairobi and spent the afternoon at a music festival called
"Blankets and Wine" with my friend Carol and some of her local Kenyan
friends. It was a place where people could bring their picnics and wine
and listen to great live music. Felt like the folk festival back home. The
crowd was a mix of young and old, but most were young looking hipsters
garbed in traditional African dress with a dash of Californian hippiness
of 70s. Lots of flip flops and tank tops. I discovered a great local band
who was playing, called Sauti Sol. Check them out on the web if you have
the chance and interest. Their music is amazing!

Enough for now. I hope you are well and enjoying the Canadian heat.
Starting week four...time is flying!

Take care all,

Kampala, 1st week in

June 28, 2011

Dear family and friends,

There is a gentle and cool breeze entering my Kampala hotel room at the
moment. Up in the skies, there are these massive marabout storks in search
of food or pests. These birds are massive, I’d say 5 times the size of
your average seagull; they are ugly and uninviting. I pray they don’t
decide to perch themselves on my balcony, as the door is open. Should one
decide to do so, it would be a bad scene, both for me and for them.

I arrived in Kampala last Monday, and have another week until I return to
Nairobi. Kampala has the same traffic chaos and pollution as Nairobi, but
one can at least walk around with more ease. There are police everywhere
in this city armed with large rifles. Whenever I return to the hotel after
work, the car I’m in must be inspected by a team of security guards before
entering the hotel gate. The scene is funny as there doesn’t seem to be
any order to the way the guards will inspect the car. Sometimes they check
the back of the car only, sometimes they look through your bags, sometimes
they check nothing at all. Most of the time, they will look in the glove
compartment. One thing that is constant is the guards always look surprise
to see you there in the first place. One endearing quality of Kampalans is
that when you order something or ask a question, they inevitably answer
“yes, please.” At first, I was confused, but now I get it.

I had the chance to walk around a bit today. There is the Garden City mall
about 20 minutes by foot from my hotel where one can get groceries and
funky Ugandan crafts. Uganda is known for its hand woven baskets and trays
made of raffia, part of the palm leaf, so I bought a few. As I walked
back, the boda boda drivers (men on motorbikes) hollered “muzungu muzungu,
taxi, taxi.” Muzungu is the not so endearing term for white person. I
wouldn’t mind so much but the walk was good for me, and besides it would
have probably taken longer than walking considering the traffic. It’s all
hussle here though and many vie for your money.

The work has been interesting. I’ve interviewed up to 7 refugee families
per day of various sizes (some can be extended families of 20!). These
are refugees from Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan and the Congo, most
with harrowing stories, some with imaginary ones. It’s an intense and
exhausting process, but the look on their faces when you approve their
application, is well worth the effort.

Tomorrow I hit some of the markets and catch a show of traditional Ugandan
music and dance.

That’s it for now, I hope this messages find you all well and let me know
what’s up with you when you get a chance!

Good bye in Luganda, Ugandan language

Nairobi: 1st week behind

June 28, 2011

Dear family and friends,

I write to you all on this fine Sunday afternoon from the home of my hosts
here in Nairobi, Carol and Michael, good and long-time friends from Ottawa
who have been residents here for 6 years now. They have been the most
gracious and hospitable hosts to me my first week here, easing my
integration and accelerating my comfort level in my new and strange
surroundings. Although, I’ve been here before, back in 2008, I was mostly
sheltered in my hotel, and ventured little beyond going to work at the
Canadian High Commission, and going on safari in the Masai Mara. This
time, being with residents, it will be different and I will come to
appreciate this place more as I visit places a little more off the beaten
path. Other than starting my first week with a terrible cold, I’ve
adjusted well to my new reality.

Although the air is polluted due to the diesel fumes, the flora is lush,
the trees green, and the insects abundant! I wake up to the sounds of
calls for prayer from a mosque just stones throw away from the house and
to chirping birds. In fact, the calls for prayer precede my alarm going
off for work at 6AM, so it is an early start for me here. Kennedy, the
High Commission driver, who picks me up every morning and who drops me off
every evening, is here at 6:30AM sharp. It must be this way for security
reasons, and also because Nairobi has no reliable transportation system.
Don’t even think about biking! You take your life in your hands if you do.
The early start is to avoid getting stuck in any traffic, which happens
with as much prediction as in Los Angeles. The roads here are very narrow,
twist and turn, and are in very bad shape (one needs to constantly watch
for walking pedestrians who have no sidewalks and to the endless
potholes). They weren’t build for the number of cars now on the road. So
to get to the High Commission from my house is about 7km but that can take
a half hour in the morning, and almost an hour in the late afternoon.

I’ve learned a great deal from Kennedy about life here in Nairobi during
our daily rides, the fact that many people come here to work from the
villages and endure long separations from their families, that Kenyans are
very religious (already been asked on many occasions what is my
religion!), that Wednesdays are “ladies night” (self-explanatory) and that
Fridays are “members’ night”(friends go out for drink at bars, they don’t
use the word “pub” here I’ve learned). As we drive to the High Commission,
I observe the people go by and wonder where these shadows, beyond reach,
are going.

My first week at the High Commission has been rewarding, but what a
gruelling schedule! I had very little breathing space and little time for
lunch. One must manage and learn the ropes quickly. Luckily I’ve had some
refugee families not show up for their interviews, which allowed me to
finalize some earlier interviews and get prepared for the next ones. Also
an asset was access to colleagues who could provide some context as to
some of the trends in our refugee program here in the Horn of Africa. All
in all first week of interviews went well, and now feel more confident to
do the others.

Over the course of my first weekend in Nairobi, I’ve managed to cover some
interesting terrain. We attended a fantastic art exhibit yesterday of
local artists that was a fundraiser for “Art Without Borders,” an NGO that
promotes the arts for the disabled and children living with HIV. I bought
a beautiful tableau for about 18,000 shillings (about $250) and some
paintings for the kids painted by kids here in Nairobi afflicted by
poverty or illness. Onwards from the exhibit, we hiked in the Arboretum,
not far from the house, but lovely wilderness right in the centre of the
city. It is good to exercise, and I am grateful. Today, I placed an order
with a local Ethiopian carpet maker, from whom I purchased two small
carpets in 2008. This time the order was more ambitious as it’s for my
living room. I look forward to seeing the final product and ultimately
seeing it on my living room floor. Abraham, the carpet maker, was a
genuinely positive individual (helps sales I suppose) and often when I
would ask him if we could move carpets around his shop so I could compare
them and get a better sense, he would always respond: “why not?” I’ve
decided to adopt that mantra as my own from now on.

Nairobi is a place of contrast. The rich live well, and the poor live
poorly. The well off Kenyans or working expats live on compounds, securing
their possessions from the masses. I am getting used to living behind a
locked gate, barbed wire, and guard, but it’s an uneasy existence.

Tomorrow, I leave for Kampala, Uganda, where I will stay for two weeks.
More interviews. I promise to write from there, please write to me if you
have time.

Hope this message finds you all well and in good health.

Kwa heri! (good-bye in Swahili)