One of the perks of serving abroad is that in addition to American holidays, D also gets local holidays off, up to a total of 20 days. With Labor Day falling on Monday, we had already determined to take advantage of the upcoming long weekend to travel. Then late last week we got a pleasant surprise. With Ramadan coming to a close, the Embassy gets closed for Eid. The exact date of the holiday is determined by visual sightings or astronomical calculations of the start of the new moon, so there was some uncertainty whether this year Eid would fall on Tuesday or Wednesday. Late last week, the Grand Mufti declared Wednesday to be the day of celebration. D asked for Thursday and Friday off and because Fridays are half-days, he only had to burn a day and a half of comp time to get a six-day weekend. D’s predecessor told us that she didn’t take any vacation during the year she worked in this job, so we appreciate the opportunity to take a week off to explore the country a little.
This weekend we finally made it out to the Alliance Francaise for a play. More than a cultural outing, this turned out to be an anthropologically interesting experience. The play – titled Kenyan Playboy and conceived by Churchill, one of Kenya’s premier comedians – was absurd in every respect. Before the show started, the theater company entertained the audience by projecting its facebook page on a big screen and interacting with audience members, inviting them to “like” the page and tempting them with offers of free t-shirts, which were subsequently handed out during the performance. At the start of the show, the facebook page gave way to a giant image of the Kenyan flag and the entire audience rose as the lights dimmed and the national anthem blasted from the loudspeakers. The anthem transitioned into an oddly-remixed and entirely out-of-place recording of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5, which looped over itself while the photos and names of the actors were flashed on the screen.
When we shipped off our household effects from Chicago, Bangor, and DC, we could not be sure how long it would take or in what order the crates would arrive. We were told it could take anywhere from 2-4 months, and once it arrived in country, our HHE would still have to clear customs. While we waited longer than average to get our UAB, we lucked out and got our HHE almost immediately thereafter. The first Friday in August – the same day we left for Kampala – the Maine shipment, with a grand total of 6 boxes arrived. It did not contain the most practical of items, but at least it allowed us to start filling our bookshelves and glass cabinet, and provided a modest supply of Costco goods.
the forgotten people
On Monday, Ambo drove through several IDP camps, and hosted a dinner for civil society leaders to discuss what has become a taboo topic: Kenya’s forgotten internally displaced persons. Stoked by politicians who exploited tribal differences and organized criminal gangs to attack their detractors, the wave of violence that swept through Kenya after the disputed elections of 2007 left more than 1,300 people dead. Approximately 300,000 Kenyans fled their homes fearing for their lives, and while most of these people have resettled elsewhere, close to 7,000 families continue to live in semi-permanent homes in these camps. Interestingly, it has proved impossible to nail down anything close to a precise number. Politicians tend to downplay the issue, claiming that NGOs inflate the numbers just so they can continue milking international donors for cash. Civil society leaders, on the other hand, bemoan the indifference of Kenya’s leadership and fear that if the IDPs do not get resettled before 2012, the next election could open up old wounds and lead to a recurrence of the violence that engulfed the country in 2008. Read more
Besieged by vicious Tea Party rhetoric, Barack Obama may have his detractors in the United States, but few people are as popular in Kenya as our President. Obama gear is everywhere to be seen, remote village shacks that sell basic supplies bear his name, and a whole generation of Kenyans will grow up as namesakes to him. In fact, we’ve even heard people hoping that he will lose his bid for re-election and decide to come to Kenya to take over the political helm here. His popularity is so high that he wouldn’t even have to run a campaign to have a legitimate chance of sweeping an election here in a landslide.
Kenya has a robust free press. Unfortunately, it is of questionable journalistic quality, as the newspapers read a bit like tabloids, and reporters frequently misquote their sources. A lot of Kenyans get their news through the radio, which reaches a wider audience than print media. Without a cord to plug in our iPods while driving, we’ve gotten a taste of several radio stations and have heard quite a number of ludicrous things. For instance, there’s Dr. Love, whose call-in show would make both Dr. Ruth and Howard Stern blush. Unfortunately, there is also a lot of thinly veiled misogyny and hatred that gets broadcast through the airwaves. For example, when we were returning from Uganda, the cabbie who drove us home from the airport was intently listening to a call-in show whose host was bent on convincing his audience that women who collect child support payments only care about the money and don’t give a damn about their kids. That said, we did find a few decent stations, the most reliable of which is Hot96. It plays a lot of old-school hip hop hits and has made D rediscover his gangsta rap roots, which he claims to have left behind in 7th grade. It also seemed the perfect music for our monster 4×4, especially before we replaced the shoddy shocks.
After a drab week of cold and rainy days, we were rewarded with a gorgeously sunny Saturday afternoon. D had gotten back from Mombasa on Friday and was preparing for another road trip the following week, so we decided to seize the moment and go hiking. Mt Longonot is located about an hour west of Nairobi off the old Naivasha road. There was not much traffic to deal with on the weekend, and once we got out of the city, it was a pleasure driving through the countryside, particularly on the 9km escarpment road, which clings to the cliff-side while the Rift Valley offers up a stunning panorama a few thousand feet below.
On Thursday, D accompanied Ambo to Mombasa. Located on the coast, Mombasa is Kenya’s second largest city and its major port, linking not just Kenya, but also all of East Africa to the Indian Ocean. Most of the goods destined for interior countries such as Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda are shipped through Mombasa because Kenya’s road infrastructure, though far from perfect, is vastly superior to the roads one finds in Tanzania, Kenya’s southern neighbor. Though most Kenyans consider themselves Christian, about 10% of the population practices Islam, and these individuals reside predominantly on the coast. With the holy month of Ramadan upon us, we planned a trip to Mombasa so that Ambo could host an iftar dinner for the city’s key movers and shakers.
Once the stress of navigating the car purchasing process subsides, the reality of having to find a reliable mechanic and genuine parts for routine maintenance set in. The issue in Kenya is that there are so many counterfeit parts floating around that it is nearly impossible to know the quality of the replacements parts you are getting. The market is flooded with Chinese and South East Asian knock-offs that use the same encasing and packaging as the legit parts, down to the hologram that car companies have put on as a counterfeit deterrent. In the States, unless you drive a luxury car, there really is no need to get dealership manufactured original parts. Here, on the other hand, unless you order the parts online or go to physically purchase them yourself from a reputable dealer, you’re bound to get imitation parts even if you pay the marked-up price for originals.
Considering how pricey inter-Africa travel is, we decided to make the most of our trip to Uganda. D was able to get Monday off, but our flight left at daybreak on Tuesday morning, meaning that we could not venture too far from the Kampala – Entebbe area. Unfortunately, we were too tired to do anything Sunday afternoon after the games ended, which left us with just one day for sightseeing. We had read about a Chimpanzee Sanctuary that was located on an island in the middle of Lake Victoria; given Kampala’s other lackluster tourist attractions, we decided that it was the perfect day trip for us, and sought help from the hotel staff in setting up the trip. We might as well have asked them to arrange passage to Antarctica. Fortunately, we met some frisbee players from Kampala who were able to give us good advice and we managed to arrange the trip ourselves. The timing was perfect: 10:30am departure and 5pm return, allowing us to sleep in and make Monday an early night ahead of our 3:45am wake-up call.