Friday, September 30, 2011

Hello! Can You Hear Me Now?

On my third trip to Ilkiloret (we went late to avoid the goat jam), I only had three students, but I did have some other work to do.

Mainly, I needed to meet Pastor Johnson to talk about the meeting I’d had with the fundi (contractor) the day before in Ngong. A classroom cum community center is being built by a NGO that is phasing out their partnership with Wezesha By Grace. The project has been problematic because GUW did not have the money to complete the project when they started it last year. So we are hopefully starting again, but with a new fundi hand-picked by the community.

Said fundi greatly reduced the amount of cement that the first fundi had said was necessary, so we were a bit concerned. Pastor Johnson met me after class and we decided to call the fundi. He and I piled on Njenga’s motorcycle and bumped off across the way to where the local shop is in search of the cell phone network, which miraculously appears… a bit like manna from heaven…just in certain spots.

Along the way we run into Mama Semarian, who is on her way to the school to see me. She is supposed to go to a meeting at her daughter’s boarding school the next day and wants to know about logistics. She was supposed to travel back with me to Ngong on Thursday afternoon… but I am not staying overnight this week as I have too much work to do, so I tell her to go in the morning by public means. This is all well and fine and we continue on our way.

We get off the bike at the shop, walk around the water storage tank and climb a hill. We get to the top and Pastor Johnson sits down on a rock and wipes the dust off the rock next to him and I take a seat.

Pastor Johnson sits in the presence of network.

He then has an animated discussion with the fundi in Swahili…and hangs up and says, smiling… he doesn’t think he needs anymore cement but has agreed to 10 extra bags. “So we order 15,” I say. “Yes, 15,” Pastor Johnson says. We both like the current fundi, but we don’t want him to skimp on his mixture of cement with sand to save us money…we want a building that will be there for a while!

We leave Pastor Johnson at the local primary school a few meters from the shop, where he is the chairman of the PTA. Another NGO has brought maize and it is being distributed. I see some of my students (which explains the low attendance), and some other women from the community.

As it is mid-day there are no more livestock jams on the way home. After about 20 minutes we are back in consistent network range. Njenga’s phone rings. Mine Blackberry beeps with emails coming in. Njenga says in English into his cell phone, “Can you hear me now?”

All too familiar words, but so seemingly out of place…or are they?

Goat Jam

The title sounds a bit like a music festival…but in reality (my reality) it is dangerous traffic jam.

Since my students don’t exactly arrive to class on time in Ilkiloret, I decided I did not have to leave Ngong so early on Wednesday mornings. This however proved problematic as it seemed every pastoralist within walking distance of the road that leads to Ilkiloret was driving his/her herd on the road that morning at precisely the time we had chosen travel. We encountered no less than eight “traffic” jams involving large numbers of livestock.

After about the third jam, the situation became comical. The pastoralist believe, probably rightly so, that they have as much right to the road as we do, so they don’t bother to move their cattle or sheep or goats or donkeys out of the way for a car or motorbike to pass. Therefore every time we meet, for instance a cow jam, Njenga has to start whistling and hollering while maneuvering his way through the rather stinky herd.

Having just passed through cow jam number four coming down the back of hill number one (remember there are three, two being the worst), I looked ahead to hill number two and saw a huge herd of goats making their way up the hill. Hill number two is the worst because it’s the longest and has the most stones…as Njenga would say…”this is not a road.” However, there is very little that slows Njenga down and goats or no goats we were going up this hill right now!

Njenga’s motorcycle does not have a lot of horsepower. It really has to work to get up this hill. As we begin our ascent the motorcycle is revving and fishtailing a bit because of the layer of silt covering the sand, Njenga begins to whistle and holler at the goats, and I begin to giggle, because instead of parting so we can pass, the goats, being not the brightest animals in the world, begin to run ahead of us. Njenga says between whistles, “Ah, the goats are confused, they’ve never been herded by a motorcycle before.”

Well, of course…why didn’t I think of that?

We’ve talked, Njenga and I, and we’ve decided to avoid the goat jam…from now on we travel at 7 or after 9.

Timing is everything, even on a dusty “not a road” road in the middle of the Rift Valley.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Ilkiloret: Part 3

Part 3: Abbreviated Version!

After lunch Joel (yes, that’s his name, pretty cool huh?) took me around the MIDI project. He is a neighbor to John and Grace in Kimuga but he works with the MIDI project in Ilkiloret. The have bees, a hay storage facility, water harvesting hole in the ground, a tree nursery, a demonstration farm, and they are the people who drilled the well. Good stuff lots of good pix. Will post them soon.

The trek – I got home just in time to gear up for another walk, this time to James’ home compound. After walking for about a half hour I venture to ask… how far is it? “Oh, about two kilometers.” It wasn’t a bad walk. I got to see the house Rebecca and James are building and the “church” James has planted. By church I mean two big trees and some stones laid out to form a square. At the moment we are passing by, the church has other guests, mainly a family of goats.
We stop in the eldest brothers home and rest for a bit. That’s when I ask Rebecca about the note she had given me the night before… I didn’t understand it but her nephew Silas is with us and he wrote it so I ask him to explain. He says that Rebecca wants a market to sell her jewelry. Since Give Us Wings doesn’t come anymore and they have taken down the stalls where they used to sell their jewelry in Karen, they are without a market. I said I would do my best but I didn’t have any immediate answers for them.

However, on FB just a few days later a friend in Maine emailed me and asked for some Maasai collars. Wahlah! It’s a start! I will be posting photos of Maasai jewelry on FB if anyone’s interested let me know.

The Rain – The storm we watched go around us the night before, found us on Thursday night. I had washed my sandals after the trek and left them on the roof of the manyatta that serves as a kitchen… and forgotten until about 10 minutes into the storm – so the next day I wore my toe socks and flip-flops home on the motorcycle… I told you toe socks come in handy!

Hitching – Getting home however proved problematic. I had hoped to catch the public vehicle that goes to town once a day in the morning around 8 a.m. Rebecca brought me to the road at 7 a.m. We waited for awhile and then a neighbor, Pastor Johnson, came to the stage, also on his way to Ngong and said we might have missed the vehicle. He had heard it had gone early to take a cow to market … he went off to find network for his cell phone so he could confirm the rumor. He came back out 15 minutes later and said that we had missed the vehicle – he would try to call a motorcycle. Rebecca and I went back to the house to wait, about 10 minutes later a cattle truck rumbled up to the stage and honked its horn. I took off running for the road. Sure enough Pastor Johnson was in the cattle truck. He got out of the front seat and climbed into the front. “This vehicle is going to Saikeri, but we can pick another vehicle from there,” he said, as he motioned me to get into the front seat that he was vacating that was already occupied by two Maasai men. I crowded into the front seat. The next stop was to pick up a goat at the neighbors place. Then we headed for Saikeri, along the way we took a detour to the driver’s house and were basically force fed tea. At this point my hour ride home had already taken almost two and a half hours and we weren’t even to Saikeri, which is still 45 minutes from home!

Breakfast – Its market day in Saikeri so the normally deserted hamlet is filling with people from the surrounding barren landscape. We call Njenga on Pastor’s phone because mine is dead. We watch a goat being butchered for a few minutes and then find a place to wait for Njenga. The New Blue Hotel is a small restaurant with an uneven dirt floor and benches with slates that wide enough to fall through so that you have to balance to sit on them. Pastor Johnson has a kiosk a few doors down where he charges cell phones and cuts hair…turns out he’s a barber too! Helen is cooking in the kitchen of The New Blue Hotel. I ask her if I can take a picture of her kitchen, she says yes, if I bring her a copy of the photo. I then have a chapati that she has just made fresh. The New Blue would not pass any health inspections in the states but I’ve see worse!

The New Blue Hotel and Helen it's proprietor making chapati!

Home – after making a quick stop at the farm Njenga and I head for home. I’m exhausted and so filthy! I finally reach home around 12:30.

I’ve decided from now on to leave Ilkiloret on Thursday afternoons on the back of Njenga’s pikipiki – hitching is an adventure I don’t need to experience twice!

Ilkiloret: Part 2

After class around 1 p.m. we go home for lunch. The first day we had green grams and rice for lunch (I’d brought those from Ngong). It was delicious. I ate a Maasai-sized serving. In fact I ate Maasai-sized servings for two days. Rebecca is a good cook and there is not much else to do in the bush. I was tired after a big meal and without shade from the steaming afternoon Rift Valley sun; I was growing sleeper by the minute. Rebecca noticed that I was fading fast and motioned that I should take a rest. I went inside and lay down on her bed and tired to read my Kindle, but between the heat and the flies, rest was impossible.

Janet had a meeting with the MIDI groups after lunch. While the meeting was taking place a dust storm blew through. It missed the meeting which was taking place under a tree about 100 yards away from us, but blew right threw Rebecca’s yard. I cracked the door to get a shot of it.

Dust Storm! Only a few minutes long, but you wouldn't want to be without shelter!

Janet came over a while later and we went to visit her compound. Janet’s father is the chief. He owns 600 acres of land. I guess this is why Maasai compounds tend to be isolated. They own a lot of land. Ilkiloret is an area, not really a village. People sort of materialize from the horizon around class time. For example, Hannah walks 2 km to class, small baby in tow.

Janet had polio as a child and when Grace met her she was 6 and still crawling. Grace took her to a special school where she received occupational therapy and was eventually fitted with braces and crutches. She’s a force to be reckoned with now. Not much happens in Ilkiloret without advice or approval from Janet. Her father, the chief, is quite old now and I think is enjoying figurehead status.

Janet and another woman lead the way to her families compound.

On the way to Janet’s manyatta, I notice a woman standing on the roof of her manyatta repairing it. I don’t think about this again until the next day when it pours rain. I hope she finished!

Manyatta roof repair!

We spend a lazy hour or two sitting in Janet’s manyatta. Someone makes us tea and we sit in the dark and chat. It’s dark until your eyes adjust to the light – I still haven’t mastered the Kenyan’s ability to see in the dark. I think it has to do with evolution. If you grow up in a place like the US that’s lit up like a Christmas tree your eyes don’t need to adapt to darkness. In Kenyan when night comes that’s it – lights out. I walked home from town last Saturday after 7:30 p.m. (there was a major traffic jam – I normally don’t walk around after dark), and as soon as I got out of town I had to pull out my flashlight. Lots of other people about – none with a flashlight!

Back to the manyatta. Janet and I lay on her bed. Rebecca sat on a stool. I asked a lot of questions about Maasai culture, like “Who lives in this compound?” and, Why do Maasai elongate their ears?” Answer to question one is: Janet’s father, his four wives and their children. Answer to question two: Janet didn’t quite know. “Just for beauty, I guess,” she said, “Something about traditional beliefs. Most educated people don’t have them.” Janet’s ears are normal. Rebecca’s are elongated. I also took some photos out the small circular hole in Janet’s wall. We could hear thunder in the distance and was time to start preparing dinner so we headed home. While preparing dinner we watched the storm dance on the horizon.
We had dinner around 8 p.m. and then Rebecca said, “To bed?”

Truly, there is nothing else to do, so at 8:30 p.m. we went to bed. Rebecca asked if I wanted to sleep with her and 3-year-old Eliza on the bed, but I politely pointed to my mat and to the floor, indicating I was set. There is not actually a mattress on Rebecca’s bed. They put blankets on top of the boards that make up the base of the bed. So my mat on the floor is just as comfortable and less crowded.

Accomodations in Ilkiloret.

I got some sleep, not tons, but probably four or five hours. The problem is that I almost always get up twice in the night to use the toilet. The choo - I’m just happy there is one – is a good hike from the house. It’s not like I’m afraid of wild animals, although now that I say it, there is always that possibility or even the bats. There are lots of bats. I’ve even gotten rather adept at the choo squat. The best thing to do when you leave the house at night to dismiss any fears is look up. As long as there are no bats, you’ve got front row seat to one of the most amazing sights EVER… the Rift Valley night sky. Even on a cloudy night, the sky is magnificent.

Morning finally arrives, I crawl out of my sleep sack, take off my toe socks (best invention ever), slip into my flip-flops and my clothes. This is a world with no mirrors and no makeup! And no showers until after lunch or before supper. Nice!

My second day of class is much like the first. I have nine students, two new women. Rael didn’t return. Rael is also known as Mama Laton. Laton is sponsored through Wezesha to go to school. She’s in her first year of high school.

Class goes well. In two days we are through letter H and I can already see that we will have to learn them all over again next week!

And then it hits me. I’ve just taught my second class and I’ve got another 18 to 20 hours to spend in Ilkiloret…hmmm. What will a busy-body like me ever do? Answer: Walkabout. (See Part 3)

Monday, September 19, 2011

Ilkiloret: Part One

I woke up Wednesday morning feeling basically how I’d felt all day Tuesday – like crap! My stomach ached – or actually I should say my sternum hurt on Tuesday but on Wednesday it had moved down a bit but still felt sub par. I’d talked to my friend Laura from the states on Tuesday night and she had advised taking a stool sample and taking it to the doctor Wednesday morning. What’s the rush, you ask? Well, I was supposed to start teaching English on Wednesday morning in the remote Maasai village of Ilkiloret. I didn’t want to miss my first day of school! I had already told my piki piki (motorcycle taxi) driver, Njenga that we might be making a detour to the clinic on the way to the bush. (Bush is a Kenya term that means anywhere remote.)

A quick aside about Njenga: He’s a classmate of one of the orphans that Grace supported. He’s about 25 years old and about the nicest guy in the whole world. Has been my piki piki driver for about 5 months now, beginning when I was here last fall. He’s got a wonderful sense of humor and doesn’t bat an eye when I ask him to take me to Ilkiloret. The road to Ilkiloret is - let’s put it this way, Njenga says, “this is not a road,” repeatedly while he’s driving me there!

When Njenga finally arrives – he has overslept - we head off to the clinic, chilled poop in a sterilized baby food container tucked securely in my bag. And a big red duffle bad strapped to the back of the bike. Oh – and a three liter jug of drinking water secured under Njenga’s jacket.

Omondi took this photo thus the fuzziness!

The clinic is open 24-hours, but it’s really operational from 8a.m. to 6 p.m. I have forgotten my patient card, but I was there a week before so we looked back in the log and find my name and patient number. After a thorough examination, during which my temperature was taken and I was asked a few questions, I was told I’d need to give a stool sample but that it couldn’t processed until the power came back on and the lab tech arrived. We decided the quickest course of action was to leave the poop in the frig and I’d return for the analysis on Friday. In the meantime, the doctor would proscribe a broad spectrum anti-biotic and send me on my way.

I left the clinic and walked across the alley to the supermarket and picked up a few supplies while calling Njenga to come back and pick me. He had been fueling the bike and having breakfast. We packed up and headed out…only to remember that I needed tomatoes and onions – the Kenyan base for cooking just about everything. In Maasailand there are not many gardens – thus almost zero vegetables. If I wanted tomatoes and onions in my food, I would have to carry them.

Loaded down we head out. First stopping at the farm to say goodbye to Grace and John. But of course it was breakfast time so we had to take a quick cup of tea and eat a pancake (like you would eat a donut in the US – without all the sticky stuff that requires that you eat it with a fork and knife). Finally, we wave goodbye and are off. It’s about a 45-minute ride from the farm to Ilkiloret. Njenga and I have numbered the big hills (more like mini-mountains along the way). On hill number one we have a minor spin out of the back wheel…the silt in the road makes it really slippery. Hill number two doesn’t present any problems, but with all the weight behind me on the bike, hill number three makes me feel a bit like I’m the hero in the “The Man From Snowy River”, when he’s riding his steed down the cliff almost vertical – man and horse are one. Really I’m just trying to ensure that Njenga doesn’t get pushed too far up on the front of the bike. He has a habit of driving with his hands on the sides of his handlebars so that just his palms touch the bars. With that little control…I don’t want to put him off balance.

We arrive safe and sound and I ease my sore body off the bike. I say hello to Janet, the Maasai woman who is my co-teacher, and Rebecca my host takes me home to change clothes and put my things away.

The last time Grace was in Ilkiloret (without me) she told the assembled villagers that I would be coming to teach English to adults. She asked how they would accommodate me. Rebecca stood and said, “Jessica is mine.” Meaning that she will house me and cook for me.

Rebecca as she prepares to cook dinner.

I think if Rebecca and I spoke a common language we might never stop talking to one another. We have been friends for 10 years. She was 16 when we met. She was not married. Now she is married and has three children and cares for an additional three children. We communicate – it’s a mix of Swahili and English and 10 years of getting to know each other. The rest of the village is a bit in awe of our relationship. They really don’t understand it or how with so few words we can speak volumes to one another. I like to think of it as a big of God’s grace. I would not feel nearly so comfortable in Ilkiloret without Rebecca.

Rebecca and her husband, James, are employed by the MITI project that has land adjacent to where the classroom is. This is due to the fact that all the land in the area is owned by the chief, Janet’s father, and he has given land to both Wezehsa and MITI to do projects that empower the village.

The best part of this sign is the Yahoo! email address.

James tends the projects cattle and Rebecca does some of the milking and cooks for the other project workers. The biggest plus to their current living situation is that MITI has drilled a well and one of the taps is few meters from her front door.

This cow is tied to a tree, but they have a chute they sometimes run the cows into too.

They do not live in a traditional Maasai manyatta. THANK GOODNESS! It’s really hard to photograph the inside of a manyatta – they are mud and stick and dung construction and they are usually very hot and they cook inside them too so they are also very smoky. Rebecca has a two-room house with a cement floor and iron sheet walls and roof. It is hot too or cold depending on the temperature outside and their house faces the cow enclosure so there are TOO MANY FLIES!

My sleeping quarters. I share the room with Rebecca and Eliza who sleep in the bed. The rest of the family are boys. Thus the spacious accommodations! God Bless REI! My sleeping mat is my salvation!

The flies seemed to have multiplied since the last time I was in Ilkiloret, but everyone just said there are flies because they the cows were near and there was milk. So my one issue with the MIDI project is this – why would you build the house of the workers 10 feet from the cow enclosure? I know the answer, and it’s my very western thinking that even made me ask it. You keep the cows close to the sleeping quarters to protect them from predator animals and thieves. And maybe someday I’ll cease to be bothered by flies swarming my body…that’s a big MAYBE!

First class went well. Janet had told me that class started at 9 a.m. and went to 12:30. What I know about attention spans, is that they don’t last that long, so I was interested to see this phenomenon. I arrived about 9:30 on the pikipiki from Ngong on the first day. Janet and Rebecca were the only two in the classroom. Rebecca and I went home unpacked and returned to school around 10 a.m. and Janet was still there alone. By 10:30 most students had arrived and by 10:45 all 8 students who attended class the first day were present and accounted for. Now that’s more like it… two hours is much more manageable than three and a half.

I had no idea where to start. Most of my students have never been to school. But two of them James and Moses are pastors. The men wore suits or nice shirts to class. The women came in their traditional Maasai attire or in skirts and tops. I have one baby so far. She’s about three months old. And two of Rebecca’s children, 3-year-old Eliza and 5-year-old Ezekiel are in and out.

My class! (L to R) Simon, Rebecca, Isiah, James, Moses, Rael, Eunice and Hannah and Hannah's baby! Those are Janet's arms in the right-hand corner.

Our chalkboard is a piece of plywood painted with chalkboard paint. Between the chalk dust and the flies I’m either sneezing or swatting when I’m not extracting responses from the students.
“What is your name?”
“My name is …
This simple drill took a ridiculous amount of time. They know the alphabet, but they need to practice writing. So we wrote it down.

Janet is a wonderful help. She explains everything I say in KiSwahili and when necessary in KiMaasai.

My students affectionately call English, KiZungu. From the KiSwahili word “mzungu” which means white person. I’ve actually caught myself saying, “it’s okay just try to say the word in KiZungu.”

These students, just like my Somali and Sudanese students in the states, have no patience for process. They want to know how to speak now – they want to know the names of things in English, so we are working our way through the alphabet with vocab words they use everyday, like airplane (many fly overhead) and amen (most of them are Christians), bed and banana, cow and cook, dig and door.

What I discovered from this exercise is that very few of them can sound out words. So we put up the vowels and go through pronunciation. There are two distinct levels of comprehension in the room and probably many more in the eight students present, but they’re excited and Janet and I will find a way to help them all learn.

…I think you might need a break, we are only through the morning on day one and I was there for 48 hours!

Whew – I’ll try to make Part Two shorter!

Photos from the Maasai village of IlkiloretA

A Maasai kikoy blanket hangs over the cow enclosure outside Rebecca and James' home.

Eliza, 3, loves to play in the water...

Color-coordination is not a high Maasai priority... so I had Rebecca pose in her purple ensemble.

My first night in Ilkiloret a storm passed around us...


I have a neighbor literally next door that I discovered goes to the same church I do. So I called him Sunday morning and asked if he'd like to walk to church together. He's 31 and owns a small shop down the street from our compound. His name is Antony Ndungu. But I call him Dumo. As we walked to church he said hello to literally everyone. They all had to comment about his white friend, even though they see me all the time.

We got to church a few minutes after the service had started so Praise and Worship were in full swing. Now you have to understand that large groups of Kenyans don't sing with any particular pitch, but believe me when I tell you they can raise the rafters! And it's a Presbyterian Church! Even though there is a lot of procedure in this church, just like at home, there is none of the reserved Presbyterian worship style I've grown up with. This is a purely African service!

Before the children head off to church school they amass in front of the congregation. There were probably 150 kids up there this week. They sing a couple of songs and say memory versus. These little tiny people in front of a congregation of hundreds, speaking clearly into the microphone memory versus longer than I can remember! They worship leader asks for volunteers and hands fly up! That in and of itself is miraculous!

I've talked about the Enchorro Emuny Presbyterian Church Choir before - they are AMAZING! I'm going to a wedding this weekend that they will be performing will try to record for your listening pleasure! This Sunday the second song had a bit of a rocky start so the conductor stopped the choir and had them start again. The second time they nailed it! It makes me shiver even to write about it now. I'm thinking of auditioning. Only problem is I don't read music and they only sing songs in English every once-in-a-while and I've noticed that sometimes it's hard to sing in other languages.

Before the presentation time ended, they called up a man from the congregation. He very humbly told the story of how the past Tuesday he'd been awakened very early in the morning by a voice and he'd answered the voice. Then he woke up his wife and told her he had accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. She started crying and told him she had been praying for him. He said her had attended a funeral that week also and the parish pastor had said that if there were people there who were not saved, they were just as dead as the person in the casket. "I started thinking about living life as a dead man," he said. "And then Jesus spoke to me. And I said yes Lord, I believe. And I gave my life to Him." Then all the pastors and elders who sit on the stage came down to congratulate him and the evangelist prayed for him and the music leader started singing... it was really moving!

The evangelist preached because the parish pastor was away on presbytery business. He preached on empowering the church for mission. This is already a very mission-minded church, but he was challenging individuals. "Has Christ been heard in the places where you've been this week?" The scripture was Ezekiel 47:1-12 which talks about the water getting progressively deeper until you have to swim to cross the river. "God wants us to swim," he said.

I went to the farm Sunday afternoon to have a business meeting with Grace and John. We talked for more than three hours...setting priorities, making to-do lists, assigning tasks...the next two weeks will be busy beyond words!

Can't wait to start swimming!

Monday, September 12, 2011


People have asked me what an average day is like for me in Kenya. The truth is, there is no such thing as an average day. I’ve learned to embrace the unexpected, because there is nothing else. And by embrace, I mean live in the moment and fully engage the people you meet along the way.

One 24-hour period in Nairobi (Friday evening to Saturday evening):

I met a man the other day whose mother is Kenyan and father is Indian. His name is Salim. He manages an electronics store in downtown Nairobi. Friday evening I met him in his brother’s electronics shop (yes, they both manage SONY shops), and ducked under a hole in the back wall where the office is. I interrupted some Mira chewing and general Friday evening hoopla. As it was Sept. 7, the conversation soon turned to 9/11 and a host of conspiracy theories and what did I think really happened. Was the whole thing really planned by George Bush? Seriously!

Later Salim and I we went out to Art Café. Which could be confused with a NYC-sheek eatery in Westlands. We had cappuccinos and people watched, surrounded by well-to-do Kenyans and tourists or all stripes. The women sitting next to me, most likely a mother and daughter, ordered a burger and fries and some kind of pasta that smelled heavenly. I leaned over as we left and said to her, “Enjoy your dinner it smells divine.” She might have been Middle Eastern, I’m not sure, but she spoke English because she smiled and thanked me.

We strolled around the Dubai style mall called Westgate where Art Café is located and found a Safaricom Customer Service Center and were able to get internet put on my Blackberry. I’d been trying to get it unlocked to work in Kenya and get internet on it for three weeks. Salim had been part of the original adventure in the back alleys off on Accra Street in downtown Nairobi getting it unlocked! Finally – success! Thank you Miranda, whom I hope becomes the Safaricom employee of the month! Customer service is not held in particularly high esteem in Kenya. So when I am served well – I shower praise on the unsuspecting and very deserving giver of service.

Salim wanted to take me to an Indian restaurant in the Nakumatt Ukay Plaza next door to West Gate. We walked across the parking lot and entered another world. Populated almost exclusively by Indians and Middle Eastern Muslims. The restaurant is run by a band of brothers, can’t remember where Salim said they were from. There are mostly long tables and mostly Muslim clientele. My head felt very bare in comparison to the majority of the women in the room. Most of the men had beards, some had on the long shirt that men usually wear to go to the mosque on Fridays in St. Cloud. The food was a mix of Indian and Middle Eastern. We are sitting on one side of a glass barrier. A man and his wife and their infant daughter sat at a table on the other side of the glass. The stroller faced the window. I’m soon busy chatting with the baby. At one point I go around the glass barrier and ask to hold the baby, who immediately begins to cry. I hope I haven’t lost my touch with babies! As we’re leaving I stop and tell the couple I hope they enjoy their dinner. The man stops me and asks me where I’m from, England…Canada. “No, actually I’m from the US.” Oh, the man says, “We’re Iraqi.” And looks at me very closely expecting it seems a frigid reaction, I smile a reassuring smile and say, “I have nothing against Iraqis.” We exchange a few more pleasantries and say goodbye. It doesn’t strike me until later, how interesting the exchange was… how important. Did they not expect to see an American in a restaurant surrounded by Muslims, dining with one? What did they think? I hope they thought, “Well, she seemed nice,” because that’s what I thought of them. Really nice actually, I wish I could see them again and hear their story.

Salim had called his taxi driver friend Solomon, who is a Rastafarian. (Yeah, it gets better!) Salim talked on and on about Solomon once we got in the car. How Rastafarians didn’t eat meat, etc. etc. I asked Soloman how he liked being talked about in the third person when he was sitting right there. Solomon said as long as he was speaking the truth it was okay with him. Then he countered saying some Rastafarians ate meat and that he ate chicken on occasion. Good to know! I actually couldn’t hear much of the conversation because we were on a bad road and Solomon’s taxi had a hatch back with a bad latch that made a deafening racket. I would love to do a photo essay on Kenyan taxi drivers. There are even a handful of women taxi drivers in Nairobi. (That’s a story for another day).

I spent the next day with Salim’s sister Nisha. She is 35 and a hoot. She has three children of her own and cares for two more. The youngest is in 9th grade, so she has a lot of free time on her hands. She sells second-hand clothes sometimes, but she doesn’t have a 9-5 job. Salim got her an apartment in his building and pays her rent and she cooks and cleans for him. She and Salim both have a gold eyetooth on upper right side of their mouth. I finally got the nerve up to ask Salim why they both had gold teeth. “I had a tooth knocked out in a fight in form 1 (9th grade), Nisha just did it for beauty,” he said. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder of course. And gold tooth or not Nisha is SO BEAUTIFUL! But she is divorced and wants to get married to a foreigner. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that gold teeth aren’t in the top ten of the western beauty scale. Besides if the right man is out there waiting for her…the gold tooth won’t matter one way or another!

I mentioned the first time I met Nisha that I liked the henna designs on her hands. That supposedly sealed the deal, because Saturday morning we were off to downtown East Leigh (Somali enclave of Nairobi) to be inked! And boy was I! See evidence below!

Even getting there was an adventure! The streets of East Leigh have been completely destroyed… so that with the rains the streets become more like a river, which means constant traffic jams. The matatu we are riding in decided to drop off all its passengers 10 blocks short of its intended destination to avoid the jam. We therefore have to walk to through the muddy crowded bustling sidewalks to get where we’re going. I see no other white people in the 15-minute walk. It’s hard to see anything really. The sidewalk, when there is one, is so uneven and muddy that you have to look down continuously to not stumble and fall. Which is a pity because East Leigh is a people-watching extravaganza! There are anthills that are less busy than East Leigh.

We duck down an alley and climb a rickety metal staircase to the first floor, where there is a small beauty salon. Inside are two very large Somali women getting their hair done. One is already under a dryer so they are talking very loudly in rapid fire Somali….ah, I think to myself, sounds like home!

The hairdresser is a Kenyan woman with short dyed orange hair. Her expression is blank with concentration or maybe boredom most of the time I’m there. A Somali woman on the small bench by the door motions me to sit down when Nisha tells her I want henna put on my hands and feet. She asks if I have lotion on, I say yes. So she motion me to sit in another chair and the hairdresser begins to wash my hands and feet with warm water. Everything at that moment becomes kind of surreal. I don’t spend a lot of time in beauty salons so I didn’t have a good notion of the bonding or care that is doled out to relative strangers. But it is an oddly intimate act. And as the first hour rolled into the second hour, and having nothing else to do, I observed the women interacting and caring for one another – ritual behavior really. One of the Somali women got out a prayer rug and said her prayers in the middle (there was no where else) of the shop. A woman came by selling second-hand clothes. Items were tried on but she left without making a sale.

The application of the henna is amazing to watch, the woman putting it on is so adept, it looks completely effortless. Henna is a plant based semi-permanent dye. She rolled a piece of plastic bag that once contained food of some sort. The writing on the bag was in Arabic, so I couldn’t say for sure what kind of food. The plastic is flattened and then rolled into a cone shape – as if you were going to write in icing on a cake. The henna is put into the cone and then the end is tied with another piece of plastic bag. A wonderful example of recycling!

When the henna is dry the excess is brushed off the skin with a dull knife blade or a fingernail. It was a big knife too, maybe five inches long…I wish I had brought my camera!

While they were working on removing the henna, the hairdresser, who by now is smiling and engaging me a bit, came over with a comb and started working it through my hair. As we were leaving Nisha said, “the hairdresser said she couldn’t resist touching your hair.” We laughed. Almost everyone I meet, if I get to know him or her, at some point or another is touching my hair.

We head back to the Park Road neighborhood where Salim and Nisha live. Nisha says we will eat lunch (it’s nearly 2:30) at the Ethiopian restaurant. I love Ethiopian food. We walk into a very hip place that is crowded even at this odd time of day. We order what looks like an incredible amount of food and eat it all! Again I am the only white person in the room…although now they are staring at my hands and not just my whiteness.

We return to Nisha’s apartment where her daughters carefully examine my inked hands and feet. A while later Nisha’s cousin shows up and doesn’t stop talking from the moment she walks in the door. She plops down on the sofa next too me. She is so animated; you can almost feel her energy. She pulls from her purse two black plastic bags of Mira (also called Kat), it’s not exactly illegal in Kenya but it’s a plant with the opposite effect of marijuana. It’s illegal in other countries, so selling Mira across the border would get you thrown in jail. I had never seen women chewing Mira before. It was quite the education. You basically just chew on the plant until it becomes like the cud of a cow. They also take little bites of Juicy Fruit gum – which I’m a guessing mask the taste of the Mira.

I didn’t ask too many questions…will save those for another day. I think I had pretty much used up my quota of cultural experiences for a 24-hour period.

The Cheese Man Cometh

In the US we used to have milkmen who would bring fresh milk to your door every morning. In Kenya milk comes fresh from the farm in the morning in every kind of container imaginable on a motorcycle in the back of a truck to a local dairy – kisok with a big refrigerator - and is immediately dolled out to the first comer.

Yes – you can buy packaged milk in “plastic bags” too, but wheres the fun in that. In the Masai village of Ilkioret, where I teach English, you just stick a kicombe “cup” under the utter of the nearest cow and wahlah - Breakfast!

In a country where milk is this fresh you would think they would have amazing cheese. Being that I consider cheese a major food group, the fact that cheese is not anywhere to be found in the staple diet of Kenyans, brings me close to tears. Nearly all the cheese in the country is imported or made with an expatriate consumer in mind. They do have pizza here… but the cheese is subpar at best.

So when I was in Kisumu a little over a week ago and “The Cheese Man” was mentioned, my ears perked up immediately. I was attending a bible study of expat women. Kisumu is fairly cosmopolitan city due to the abundance of NGOs and private international businesses and missionary ministries with bases there. It was an interesting mix of women, some single, two missionary wives with small children, two women whose husbands work for the CDC, and a woman who is married to a Kenyan. There were about 15 of us in all. I broke my gluten-free diet to eat a homemade cinnamon roll. I don’t know how long it’s been – maybe years since I’d eaten one (even in the states) and while it was delicious, it wasn’t a particularly good idea… the sugar buss left me with tremors!

When the Bible study was over, the hostess announced the cheese man would arrive momentarily. CHEESE MAN! Mind you, I’m leaving Kisumu the next morning and where I’m going there is no refrigeration so it will have to be a one-meal binge!

A block of Mozzarella about twice the size of my fist was handed to me from a cardboard box in the back of the cheese man’s station wagon. It’s still cold. “How much,” I said, thinking it would be more than I could afford. “Three hundred shillings,” said the cheese man. At the current exchange rate that’s about $3.30! A whole lot less than I would pay for a chunk of cheese that size in the states! “I’ll take it.”

I bought tomatoes in the market, went back to Anika’s and made caprese (tomato and mozzarella slices drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with basil and kosher salt! I can’t recall having such an enjoyable snack since I arrived in Kenya.

As I took my last bite I uttered this simple prayer: "May God Bless the Cheese Man and allow him to prosper and franchise so that an enterprising youth in Ngong will desire to follow in his footsteps! Amen!"

One can always dream!