Thursday, February 24, 2011

Running with the Crocodile

On my way home from Ngong town on Tuesday evening, nearly everyone in my path said hello... this is very unusual. People don't usually greet me unless I greet them. I wasn't much in the mood to chat, so most of these greetings I barely acknowledged... but then a woman asked me if I lived around... I explained that I did. Then I ran into a man who was obviously a runner. He wanted to know if I was married in Kenya (I was carrying shopping bags), I said no, that I worked here. I mentioned that I liked to run too and before I knew it we were making plans to run the next evening. His name he said was Crocodile. Well his nickname. This is the first message I received about my first "training session": "My pace to you would be 1 km at 5 or 6 minutes per km and we will cover only 6 km for today. So, prepare yourself and then call me."

Hehehehehe! I wrote him back and said that was a bit fast for me! We met at my gate and headed out at 5 p.m. We ran through a field that is supposedly government property. We ran on paths for about 45 minutes. When we were almost done, I asked sheepishly what my speed was... about 10 minutes per km - we went almost 4 km, Crocodile said. And then he said, "It's your first day. You did good." We got back close to the main road and Crocodile led me in stretches. All I could think is - This is SO cool. I just hope I can keep up with this guy.

I felt pretty good and all things considered not even very sore. So we made a plan to meet the next morning at 6 a.m. - it doesn't get light until around 6:30 - not sure what I was thinking agreeing to meet at 6. He said today we would walk. Ahhh, walking I thought, I walk with my mom all the time... this will be cake... he had said we would only do 2 km.

At 6 a.m. he was at my gate. I could make out the road and shapes of rocks but seeing them clearly was impossible... we started out toward the hills and then Crocodile said, "Today we walk the climbing circuit." About 5 km into the walk my thighs were burning and I asked sheepishly again... "how long is this circuit?" "Oh about 7 km," Crocodile said. When we got home, he said, "so what time do I pick you this evening"... "oh, no" I said... "I only want to train once a day!!!"

It's mid-afternoon and my legs are killing me... granted I didn't stretch after we walked this morning, but I plan to have a long stretching session at home this evening!

Now let me tell you about Crocodile... he's about my height, but has the build of about a 13 year old. He's SO thin! And he tells me he is not in marathon shape yet that he will be even thinner when he is ready to run. The best thing about Crocodile is that he is 40 years old and still racing! Gives me hope that I can whip this nearly 40-year-old body into shape.

We had a good talk on the downward slope of this mornings walk. Crocodile is married and has 5 children all in primary school. His wife has a small business. He said Kenyan runners come from very poor families and they run not for the love of the sport but to support their families. "Why would a rich person run," he said. "They have everything they could want. Why would they waste their time with all this practice."

At one point Crocodile asked me if I was a Christian. "Yes," I said. "Good," he said. "I'm Catholic," Crocodile said. "I'm Presbyterian," I said. "One God," Crocodile said. "One God," I said. It seems we are truly on the same team now.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Whirlwind Weekend

There's no better way to start a weekend than with a clean house. My friend Rose came over around 8 a.m. I had met her a few days before (she's actually a family friend that I had been introduced to many times... but I didn't actually have a conversation with her until Wednesday).

She is about my age and has had a pretty rough life.So we struck upon a deal where she would wash my laundry and help with housework and I would pay her. She does hair for a living and I told her she could do my daughters hair when she got home from school too.

We had tea on Friday morning and then I turned on the iTunes and she did laundry and I swept the house. Then she mopped the floors and collected her $3.75 (300 KSH) and left. I know it doesn't sound like a lot but her husband (when he's around) leaves her $1.25 (100 KSH) per day for food for her and her four children.

Rose's faith in God is amazing, especially considering that her husband is unfaithful and any day she could contract HIV.

After Rose left I went to Ngong to run a few errands. I also met with Kim, the houseboy of my friend Mercy in Meru. He left her employ (on good terms) and ended up here Ngong. Last week when I was coming into town on a piki piki I thought I saw someone who looked like Kim and it was him! Too funny! Anyway, he is doing fine... but of course needs a better job and do I know anybody who might employ him... of course I do... have to call her and see if she is still in need of a gardener/guard.

Then I rushed home and packed a bag quickly and was out the door to Nairobi. I met with Geoffrey and his friend Elias in Nairobi. Geoffrey works in Nkubu on the way to Meru and runs a microfinance NGO. I met him in 2006 when I was living in Chogoria. He wants me to come work for him, but the job he wants me to do is one that a Kenyan with a journalism degree could do... so I would never get a work permit to do it. He's a bit weird besides. So am taking anything and everything he says with a grain of salt.

As I was walking to Tusky's (a supermarket chain) to meet Amina (Judie's best friend Hodan's mother - hope you got all that), she walked up along side me. I said goodbye to Elias and Geoffrey and Amina and I went into Tusky's to pick some treats for Raymond who I was going to visit at Machakos Boys High School the next day.

If you think American supermarkets are crowded on Friday evenings... you should have seen this Tusky's. Now the aisles are narrow anyway... but the place was like a beehive. We fought our way through the crowd's to purchase juice, lemon cake (like bread), toilet paper and soap. Lucky Raymond!

We then headed to the Railways Matatu Stage, it's a big bus stop in front of the Kenyan Railways Depot. You need to keep your wits about you or you will definitely be run over. There are many mats that go past the development where Amina lives but she wanted a specific one that would let us off close to the development. It took us an hour to get to Amina's. We then had some tea and bathed and watched an Egyptian revolution on CNN. Amina and I slept in her room. She on a mattress on the floor and me in her bed. Somalis are nothing if not generous to a fault. We told each other our stories in the dark. Amina is a Kenyan of Somali heritage. She was born in Kenya. She told me about her divorce about the toll it had taken on her children, but mostly she told me how happy she was. I started thinking about Rose and how unhappy she was and how scared she was to be alone. And I wished I could introduce Amina to Rose.

The next morning Amina was up early making chapati for Raymond... like I said generous... and Raymond is lucky because Amina makes some mean chapatis! Amina and her friend Halima took me to the bus stage near their house. It was wicked hot at 9:30 in the morning! I had to fight a crowd to get into the mat... as there were many people waiting to go to Machakos and no matatus.

The ride took almost an hour and I had no idea how far it was or where exactly I was supposed to alight, so I had to pay attention to every road sign after the first half hour. I saw a school gate that said Machakos School and conferred with the conductor and some of the other passangers that this was in fact the school I was looking for and then walked up the 300 meter path to the school. I was half an hour late and waited another half hour for the meeting to start. The meeting was held in the assembly hall and there were rows of benches for the parents and guardians to sit on.

I had never been to a parents meeting at a Kenyan school so I had no idea what to expect. But had expected a chair with a back. Eventually, I guess after boys started getting out of there Saturday morning classes they started to bring in chairs from classrooms, so I moved to a chair. Minor relief as I was wearing a black polyester skirt and it was about 80 degrees in this room.

After two hours we were given a soda. I left after 3 1/2 hours to get some air, but the woman I struck a conversation up with outside was a doctor and had sent for her son... who happened to be in the same section of tenth grade as Raymond and went to call him for me. So instead of staying in the meeting Raymond and I got chairs from the library and sat under a tree and talked about school. Then he gave me tour of his school... when we walked past the assembly hall, the meeting was still in session - it was almost an hour later!

Raymond walked me back to the matatu stage in town and I headed back to Amina's. I had left my bag there because I had a date, yes that's what I said, a date... and I wanted to shower and change before meeting Valentine Gandhi. Yes, that's his name. Val facilitates the Nairobi branch of InterNations, which is like a networking/social website/gathering for expats. He's 32, and originally from India. He's running a huge research project for UNDP on the moneymaker pump that is made by Kickstart.

I took a mat back to town and then a taxi to Westlands. The taxi driver told me the fare was 800 KSH ($10), I talked him down to 500 KSH ($6.25) which is the actual fare. I met Val at Westgate a fancy mall in Westlands and we went to a Japanese restaurant, which was nice but the food was just so-so. We then went bar hopping and because I wasn't going to go back to Ngong at midnight I stayed at Val's. He has a huge apartment with a couple of roommates in a posh Nairobi neighborhood. As posh as it is, it doesn't have a generator so had to do without drying my hair. I know it's short... but it looks far better when it's blow dried!

Val and I got up and went to breakfast and picked up his friend Micah who goes to an evangelical church in Karen. It was a pretty diverse church, lots of interracial marriages and expats with adopted children, but Kenyans and Sudanese and Koreans. We did figure out that Val was the only Indian... anyway the message was good and I think I could be persuaded to go again.

Then we went to Que Pasa in Karen because Micah was starving. After, she and Val headed back to Nariobi and I jumped in a mat and headed for Ngong. I suddenly realized I had forgotten my bag in Val's car. So after a few missed communications we met up at a gas station and I got my bag back and got another mat.

As I got off the mat, the rain started. Drizzling at first... so I bought milk at a kiosk on the way home. Almost as soon as I walked through my front door the sky opened up and poured all it's pent up water in my backyard. NO MORE DUST! But alas I had forgotten to fix the water tank after having it cleaned so that the rainwater would actually run in it. I stripped and wrapped a leso (kanga - a triangular piece of fabric that Kenyan women use as a skirt or an apron or a towel) around me and ran out to the tank and adjusted the pipe so the water from the roof went in the tank. Then I came in took the leso off and dried myself off with it.

Whirlwind weekend over, I sat down to read a book and then the lights went off... ahhh, Kenya!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Posting for the sake of posting

Fine Mike, here is a blog... I know it's been a while but nothing exceptionally fun or exciting has been happening. That's the problem with living in the same place and not moving around a lot, sooner or later life becomes routine.

I've been working on the business plan for Wezesha By Grace. They incorporated in 2006 and this is the first business plan they've ever written. It's a lot of work and I'm not usually with Grace and getting her to sit still long enough to ask her a laundry list of questions is unbelievably difficult. For example, we were supposed to meet at 1 p.m. today. I called her at 12:50 to see where she was and she asked me to give her another 40 minutes because she had something else to do. So now it's nearly 2 p.m. and we have a few hours of work to do together... and I'm betting she hasn't budgeted that kind of time for me today.

I went to get my hair cut on Thursday (the first time since a week before Christmas, so you can image how short it was as I usually get it cut every four weeks) and my hairdresser Freddie, who I was sure was gay, asked if I wanted to eat Nyama Choma with him on Sunday. (He lives in Ong'ata Rongai where Judie goes to school). So I met him in Rongai... with his cousin Newton and we went to his house where these two 20-something men proceeded to cook the best Nyama I've ever eaten! Talk about being treated like a princess. It was lovely! Then they took me to see Judie, who was overjoyed as she forgot I had planned to come that particular Sunday.

On Monday I went to Nairobi to turn in what I hope is the very last form we have to take to the Kenyan NGO Board. The board requires a name search to make sure the name you have picked for your organizations is not being used elsewhere. I arrived early around 9:30 and was told I could return around 2:30 in the afternoon to pick "the results." So I had a lot of time to kill. I went to see my friend Frances (Grace's nephew) and picked up some copies of the electric bill because Grace has been unhappily wondering why it has been increasing steadly.

I went back to pick the results at 2:30 and at 3:15 after about six rounds of questions and explaining that we had already done all the things they were asking me to do... I was successful. Our name was found to be okay and "reserved." Whatever that means. The Kenyan NGO board will meet sometime in March to decide whether we can change our name. We have jumped through all the hoops so I see no reason for them to not approve the change... but this is Kenya. So we will pray and cross our fingers and whatever else we think might be helpful.

On Wednesday, I went to get a quote to build a choo (latrine) for a Masai boy whose legs have been amputated. He also has no control of his bodily functions. GUW wants to get him prostethics but they also need to deal with his bowel control issues. He lives in a mud hut in what I loving refer to as the bush. In the many years I have been visiting him at this home there has never been a choo. His sponsor came with the most recent group of GUW volunteers and it was decided one of the most immediate ways to help him would be to build a choo. The commode was built and now sits in my living room, and as rainy season is right around the corner the choo needs to be built soon. After running around with a fundi most of Wednesday, visiting the site (Joseph's house) and my house to see the commode and the hardware store and the lumberyard and the stone/sand/ballast/truck place and telling everyone we would start promptly Thursday morning, I emailed the quote to GUW, who promptly told me that the sponsor had not left that amount of money and I would have to build it with 10,000 Kenyan shillings (KSH) less. The fundi the hardware store had found for me basically didn't speak English so I called the fundi I'd used in Ilkiloret. We knocked off about 4,000 (KSH) but we are still 6,000 KSH (that's about $90) short of the money needed to build the latrine. Now, I'm not trying to be contradictory here... but why did no one ask for the quote before the donor gave the money?

Anyway, I'll let you know if the choo is ever built. In the meantime if you want to admire a nice commode, your welcome to my living room!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Ruminations on the Kenyan Postal System

I had a three missions today.
1. get the Orange modem for my computer to work.
2. find the package my mother sent me in November.
3. pick up a commode from a shop on Ngong and take it to Joseph, the Maasai boy whose legs were amputated, who lives in Kibiko (translation the middle of nowhere in the bush).

Waited for a matatu going down a particular street in Nairobi and then got on one that took the scenic route through Kibera and then Hurlingham (for anyone who knows where the 111 matatus are supposed to go, this is no small detour.)

It turned out okay because I found the Orange office I was looking for fairly easily. Within 20 minutes, Walter, the techie at Orange, had gotten me straightened out. Now mind you when I tried my modem later in the day it still gave me some issues but I eventually got online. One mission accomplished.

Then I put my excellent directional skills to work and made my way to City Square where there is a massive POSTA location. POSTA is the Kenyan equivalent to USPS. I use the term, equivalent, loosely here. If you'd like to step back in time a few centuries without getting in a time machine all you have to do is enter the City Square POSTA. Stacks and stacks of paper, filed by... hmmmm... date, tracking number, color of senders hair...

I am now coveting the spy pen/camera that I saw a few weeks before I left the US. I'm seriously thinking getting one. An expose on the Kenya postal system would make a killer documentary!

Now before I go any further, let me confess that my package(s) got lost because they did not have a P.O. Box in the address. Never mind that it was supposed to be delivered to an office building. Everything mailed to Kenya must have a P.O. Box. So there was no sloppy postal work involved here.

But rescuing said box from the clutches of the POSTA was tantamount to trying to pay taxes in three states in the same year (yes, I've done that too).

The first interesting thing about the City Square POSTA is the bridge that you cross to get to it. It's a bit sci-fi, like it could be used in a Mad Max movie. On the other side of the bridge is a maze of post office boxes. Millions of them. Then you go down the other side and enter the building and take a lift to the second floor. On the second floor you go down a flight of stairs and enter a massive room (the size of a football field) with a long counter and offices in cages along the walls and in the center. Most are filled with packages.
I went to the counter and told them I was looking for a lost box. They asked if I had the tracking number. I said yes. (Mom had scanned her receipt and emailed it to me.) My instructions were to go around the end of the counter and down the hall to the records office. Kenyans aren't big on labeling things... so I had to hunt a bit, but I was eventually told to go up the stairs, first door on my right. I went in and handed my receipt to the lady who told me to wait. Ten minutes later she me back my receipt with a internal tracking number on and told me to take it to the supervisor down there... the first person I asked happened to be the supervisor. Lucky me! She gave me a small yellow piece of paper that they track packages internally with and told me to take it to the window marked "AM" (airmail) to pick up my package. By this point I'm thinking, wow this was easy. The lady at the window finds my package and tells me to take it to customs. The proceed to open it to verify the contents. And then charge me customs duty, insurance and tax. They have a nice formula. First they charge you the highest exchange rate 81 (the highest I've gotten in Kenya is 80), then the add 1.5 for insurance, then a 25% customs charge of the total value of your package plus insurance, then they charge VAT tax of 16% on that total. My total for a package valued at $75, was an additional $34. Ahhh, but there's more. You can't pay the customs fee at the POSTA, you have to pay it at the bank. But you have to go to the POSTA cashier so they can print the form that you take to the bank to pay with. The cashier types in the info and then you go back up the stairs to the next office where someone else prints out the form. To get to the bank you take the lift down and cross the bridge and walk 4 blocks down the street and queue at window 13. From there you go back to the POSTA with your receipt from the bank, you go back to the long counter where they tell you to go to the cashier who gives you a duplicate of the yellow piece of paper you were given way back when. Then you take that back to the counter, where you are then given a postal receipt, because you are charged for the time the POSTA has kept your package for you. When I got a bit hysterical about having to pay an additional $20 holding fee. I was sent to the postmasters office. A nice lady explained to me the necessity of P.O. Box numbers in the Kenyan postal system. To which I replied that I now realized that fact, but that I had no idea the package was there and that someone from the company where the package was sent had come to look for it but had been told it was lost. (Okay, so I don't think that person actually looked very hard or maybe was not nearly as tenacious as I am.) Anyway, we agreed that $5 dollars would suffice and I went back to the man with the receipt book and was given a receipt that needed to be taken to the cashier to pay. I paid and was sent to pick my box! Finally, my box is safely with it rightful owner. Two hours and countless postal-paper-pushers later, box and recipient are able to leave the POSTA. NOT! A man with a ledger motions for me to step over to his section of the counter. "We have to register all the packages that are claimed," he says. Seriously!

Okay, so a lot of people have jobs because of this antiquated, utterly un-efficient system...but seriously, two hours to pick up a box! The rant is almost over... one word of advice for POSTA ... computers... maybe you didn't hear me... COMPUTERS!!!

Mission two accomplished... and no one died, or was severely injured in the process. Nice!

Mission three should have been easy. Meet David at the bank (same bank)and go to Ngong Road (on the way home) to pick up a commode. Oh, when I went to the bank to pay customs, I met Anika from GUW to pick the money for the commode and directions as to where it was. (multi-tasking in the midst of my postal misery).

David showed up quickly and we headed to pick up some parts for his girlfriend Jackie's car (which he was driving), then we headed to Ngong road where he had new tires but on Jackie's car. That took about an hour and a half. We had lunch with our friend Paul, who had brought David's van... too complicated to explain. David and I start out again on Ngong road and eventually found HighTech Furniture and gave the carpenter the balance for the commode and put it in the back seat of the car and headed for Ngong.

We make it home, Grace is at the city house and is holding court with her niece, Rachael, her daughter-in-law, Gladys and her cousin's daughter-in-law, Hannah. Issues I won't go into were discussed. Then David, Gladys and Rachael left. And Hannah and Grace and I loaded a sewing machine into the back of a taxi and headed into town. I checked Grace's mail while she and Hannah went to buy some fabric.

Hannah is going to make aprons that I will bring back to the states to try to sell. We won't be shipping them!

Mission number 3 is only partially accomplished as it is now 6:45 p.m. and I'm at the cyber. Joseph's commode will have to be delivered to Kibiko tomorrow. It's pretty big, but I will see about attaching it to the back of the piki piki. There's no mission impossible here.