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snapshots from the road

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.

eating at the carwash

Trips with Ambo tend to be front-loaded, with most of the visits taking place on the first day while the rest of the itinerary allows for more downtime. Thus, on Monday, Ambo visited five different sites in the Rift Valley in addition to the above-mentioned activities. You can only imagine D’s relief when Ambo’s motorcade pulled into Kisumu at 3:30 on Tuesday afternoon, an hour ahead of schedule and with no more activities planned for the rest of the day. It was a rare moment of calm that left D feeling at a loss as to what to do with himself. Unlike the previous road trip, during which Ambo stayed at game lodges, this time D found himself in the middle of an unfamiliar city. S had given him contact info for several people she had met during her visit to Kisumu and D made dinner plans, but that still left him with several hours to kill.

Fortunately, D spotted a familiar face in the hotel lobby. The motorpool drivers work in shifts and the group of chauffeurs on this trip was different from the ones who worked the previous one. However, other agencies typically send support staff for the various sites, and the driver for the USAID car happened to be one of the ones D met on the last trip. He offered to take D on a walking tour of Kisumu, and after ambling through Kenyatta Park, brought him to the shore of Lake Victoria, which was lined with questionable-looking shacks. “This is where we come for lunch,” the driver said, “I don’t feel like I’m in Kisumu unless I have some fresh fish from the lake.”

It was 4pm, but Ambo had decided to drive straight through without stopping for lunch; fresh fish sounded like a great idea to D so he offered to treat. The fish is fried and then left on a table for the buyer to choose – the driver bargained for one of the larger ones and then led D to a table that was right at the water’s edge. D thought that the fish would simply be reheated and was pleasantly surprised when it arrived on a platter heaped with cooked kale and tomatoes and accompanied by the obligatory portion of ugali. There were no utensils, but a girl came by with a pitcher of hot water, a basin, and a bar of soap. Stuffing handfuls of steaming fish and kale into one’s mouth while watching the sun set over Lake Victoria seemed like a perfect way to cap off the day. It was during one of these handfuls that D noticed an old yellow tractor sitting in the lake. In response to D’s quizzical expression, the driver exclaimed, “Didn’t you know? We’re eating at the carwash!”  Sure enough, when D looked closer,  he saw several people scooping water from the lake and scrubbing the old tractor clean.

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3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Daniel #

    Thank you for being eternally informative! It’s great to share in your experiences and learn about the country at the same time!

    August 28, 2011
    • When I stayed in Zimbabwe their main staple was a boiled maize porridge called sadza — I think it might be the same as ugali.

      August 28, 2011
      • There are a lot of similar staple foods in various parts of Africa. According to S, there are three such foods eaten in Ghana: fufu, made by pounding cassava and plantains together; banku, made from fermented cassava and corn dough; and kenkey, which is like banku but without the cassava. In East Africa, in addition to ugali, there’s isombe, which is made from mashed cassava leaves, and matoke, which is made from baked or steamed plantains.

        August 28, 2011

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