Sunday, June 5, 2011

So this is kind of a catch all for the last few days.  First off, walking and driving in Kenya is flipping crazy.  No rules. None. You can do whatever you want. No repercussions, except possibly death.

Not a matatu but we saw this on our way to the Island Camp.

 There are no traffic lights, well technically there are traffic lights that they put in about 2 years ago but stopped using them because people driving couldn’t understand what they were supposed to do and the lights actually led to more accidents. Most of the roads are unpaved, combine that with the rainy season and it makes for a good time.  Corruption is too big of a problem to enforce speed limits so they put speed bumps to slow the pace of traffic.  I don’t think I have ridden in a van that has shocks yet. 
My walk to or from work almost always involves walking through or around a herd of cattle, sheep goats and/or chickens.  
My walk home.

 I discovered that a short horn blast means get the hell off the road, while a longer horn means “I am going to hit you with my motorized vehicle, you may as well accept it”  And since they are dirt roads for the most part, the road sometimes is the same as the sidewalk.  Forget about parking spots, just stop somewhere, get out do what you need to do and pray that you aren’t boxed in or now part of the sidewalk.  Also there are these yellow striped vans that are called matatus, they are slightly smaller than a conversion van and pack literally 20+ people inside and eloquently call themselves taxis.  It is extremely cheap to go anywhere in one of these but literally you have people laying across, sitting on top of and hanging out the window or door just to squeeze in.  I haven’t been hit by a moving vehicle yet, but in due time my friends.  
He still supports the Sen.
Walking through town is always an adventure.  There is little to no infrastructure for water or waste.  It is common to see people passed out along the road (high rate of alcoholism in Kenya), orphaned street kids sniffing glue to get high….it is really sad to see but they don’t stop.  Even when playing soccer or offering to trade for food or candy, the glue bottle doesn’t leave their hand.  It’s also nice to see that one of the most corrupt countries in the world roots for one of the most corrupt teams in college football.  (Gotta be a little self deprecating after the Senator took the fall this week, thanks for all the FB comments and e-mails, assholes)

I broke my own rule about not eating at restaurants that don’t have running water.  I was working at a satellite clinic in a town called Turbo with the Watalamu Repair and Maintenance business to gut and remodel an old office to turn it into a pharmacy.  Around lunch, which it turns out can be anywhere between 9am-4pm, the supervisor of the remodel group asked me to join him for lunch.  He’s an American that has been living in Kenya for 5 years and eats pretty much only Kenyan food now.  After washing my hands with clothes detergent and a kid pouring water out of oil can over the sink basin that drained into a bucket, I sat down to eat something that resembled collard greens and Beijing street meat.  I survived, and it only cost 90KES ($1.02 USD) including drinks for the two of us.  It would have been cheaper but our skin color usually adds a little bit to the total bill.  The Kenyans I was working with ate at the same place the day before and paid 25 KES each for the same meal.     

This past weekend, we went to Lake Baringo about 3 hours east of Eldoret.  Some new medical students joined and a total of 9 of us went to Kokwa Island to camp.   

 And by “camping” I mean an all inclusive resort and this was my view from the “tent”, 
and I was awoken each morning by birds and had coffee sitting outside my door 15 minutes before sunrise.  It’s owned by some kooky old Englishman who takes great pride in top level service and making sure his guests are having a wonderful time.  The resort was really well run and had a sunset booze cruise that ended with a short hike to the top of another island just across the lake from us. 

Sunset at Lake Baringo
The resort is on a peninsula but the Kokwa Island is also home to 750 villagers after you pass through two security gates and 15 foot high security fences.  So I decided to hike around the local village and had a man named Jonas take me to the top of the extinct volcano.  Pretty tough hike in 95+ degree heat over loose lava rock but really interesting to see how primitively people still live.  Unemployment is 95% in the village and most people are sustenance fisherman/farmers.  The few people on the island who have jobs work at the resort or at the boarding school home to 215 students.  I was in awe that people still lived without electricity, running water and essentially cut off from the rest of society.  Now, of course I realized that people lived like this but reality hit me when I met some of the villagers.  The tribe in the village has been there for thousands of years and the people don’t seem to want it any other way.  Their chief and council of elders settle disputes and the share of profit they get from the resort is divided evenly.    Jonas introduced me to his family and asked for me to take a picture with them and send a copy when I return home.   

Good thing I dressed to blend in.  It felt like I stepped back in time, had it not been for the resort less than a mile from where I was standing, I would have guessed I was in a whole different world.  

The island is known for its variety of birds.  We went on a boat tour one morning after breakfast and saw crocodiles, hippos and about 30 different types of birds I had never seen before. 

After we checked out Sunday morning we went to Bagoria National Park about 45 minutes away from Lake Baringo, Holy Flamingo.  Not kidding, over a million flamingos.  It smelled like it had no less than 15 million but that’s beside the point.  I felt like I was in a National Geographic article.  Combined with the boiling-hot hot springs, zebras, baboons, dik-diks, gazelles, ostriches and impalas this side trip was pretty impressive. 

I tried to keep this blog light and include some humor but I would be remiss not tell you about the horrible moral hangover I had after leaving the resort at Lake Boringo.  To get there, we traveled over, through and back over the Rift Valley upon which Eldoret sits on the western edge.  Lake Baringo sits at the bottom of the Eastern edge of the valley and suffers from severe drought.  We passed barren fields, dust storms, dry river beds and desolate people all along the way.  One sign that sticks out in my mind was a primary school’s road sign.  Right below the school name and information, it stated “On Earth, we struggle” This was a primary school’s motto?  Holy crap.  Reality sets in when you see something like that.  

Our safari van had to slow down to go over a rough patch in the road and a group of kids no older than 10 or 12 ran out to our vehicle and shouted through the open windows.  Now, I have grown accustomed to children asking me for money and food, but this was the first time I had someone ask me for water.  WATER!  I just spent a weekend at a resort gorging on food and drink and these poor kids ask me to spare some water.  I felt like a jackass.  Our driver handed them an extra bottle and continued on.  We all sat there in the van a little distraught.  There we were, each of us having come from not only 18+ years of outstanding education but also a great life in the greatest country in the world.  Everyone in that van will make 6 figures in the near future and we were just asked by a CHILD for a little bit of water.  We had lunch in the van with us and had food in bags “just in case we got hungry”.  Our next stop, everyone loaded up on bottled water, saved what wasn’t eaten at lunch and packed the food so we could hand out along the way.  Eventually we found some other kids looking just as desolate, playing in polluted water and walking down the busy two lane road without anyone looking out for them.  Our driver stopped and we handed out everything we had.  The kids were shocked that mzungus stopped and were giving all of these things to them.  We handed out maybe 5 liters of water, some sandwiches, chips and a few loaves of bread.  I know I am here for the overall experience, which includes these weekend getaways and opportunity to travel in Kenya.  I don’t want to get self righteous and condemn American imperialism and consumerism.  But goodness gracious, you don’t realize how bad it is.   I also know I have to face reality and recognize that poverty is real.  It is ugly. It is not going away anytime soon.  Aid alone is not the answer.  

I felt terrible today. I wondered what was going through the heads of the 6 year olds walking alone on the highway.  I wondered what the kids who asked us for water thought when the white people in the bus didn’t give them water but the black Kenyan driver did.  I was sickened by the condition of the towns were drove through and the lack of any semblance of health standards.  I was astonished at the reality of poverty.  No Paul Collier, Jeffrey Sachs, Tracey Kidder or Peter Singer book can prepare you for the reality of seeing it firsthand.   

At the same time, I was relieved by the fact that nearly everywhere we went, we received smiles and waves.  Children shouting “How are you, I am fine” as if it were a question not needing our participation.  I am glad we got the opportunity to shake the moral hangover.  I know everyone in the van wanted to do the right thing and anyone would help a child (or anyone) in need. It was a split second in time that we all froze.  I think it was overwhelming and juxtaposed with our weekend trip, it was too much to handle.  Hopefully I can rest a bit easier after making amends.  Hopefully we filled the bellies and warmed the hearts of those kids.  They probably have no idea how much they actually helped us.       


  1. Keep up the good work, Nick. Just reading your blog is eye opening.

  2. Nice posts. This one especially reminds me of an article by Peter Singer (below). It's tough and I'm not sure how to resolve it.