Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Final update from Nairobi

The people downstairs in the center lobby of Hotel Terminal in downtown Nairobi are being rather rowdy for a Monday evening. It is my final night in Kenya, and I lie comfortably full after delicious Ethiopian meal of doro wat and injera. After leaving Malaba on Friday, our group managed to make up for some lacking culinary options by feasting on Indian, Chinese, and Lebanese cuisines in Kampala. Now in Nairobi, I’ve substituted the Malaba staples of instant coffee and beans and rice with Nairobi Java House cappuccinos and tuna salad on a baguette. An ode to cosmopolitanism.

“Who is afraid of big bad Nairobi?” is Lonely Planet’s corny opening remark in their section on the capital city. Well.. I was. After having my dear friend robbed at gunpoint in one of the safest sections of the city earlier this year, I was more scared of Nairobi than I had been of Khartoum or anywhere else I have been. Having a bomb go off last week at a taxi stop nearby a popular hotel was less than comforting as well. Alas, Ryan and I had a pleasant day in Nairobi after getting off the bus at 5 30 this morning, having left the others in Kampala and traveled 12 ½ hours. We crashed for a bit before embarking on a massive walking tour of the city center. As the National Museum is closed, other than a few markets, government buildings, and the former US embassy memorial site, there was little we set out to see other than getting a general vibe from the city. We got lost a few times and enjoyed wandering. I’ve discovered that when traveling I often remark, “What is that familiar smell?” That would be the smell of burning trash.

Nairobi is clearly a different world from tiny Malaba, and its mix of African peoples I found most fascinating, as Ryan and I tried to discern the Somalis from the Sudanese from the Ethiopians. Most Africans would probably laugh at our struggle, but then again I’ve been asked if I am Japanese by Moroccans so I’m not too hard on myself. Overall, Nairobi commercial center was more organized and cleaner than Kampala, though we saw some pretty rough areas on the outskirts. Plus, Nairobi has Kibera, the largest shanty town in sub-Saharan Africa, a few kilometers west of city center. I would have been really interested to visit Kibera, but without a true purpose to visit I wasn’t comfortable going to gawk at people’s poverty. Living in Malaba we weren’t exactly surrounded by the normal tourist bubble anyway.

Backtracking, skipping Kisumu which was a great time of fresh fish on the shores of Lake Victoria, an amusing attempt to listen to some live music, city exploration and indulgent sun soaking by a hotel pool. We also spent an afternoon wandering around Kakamega forest for some needed outdoorsy-wanerings. Last Wednesday Colin, Tihtina, and Steve came to Malaba to log some footage and regroup for some final documentary brainstorming. And of course experience the wonder that is Malaba nightlife. We brought them to the usual urine-smelling bars and restaurants with nonexistent service that actually have nothing listed on the menu besides beef and chicken stew and ugali. We spent a few days last week in the field and the last half of the week finishing up writing/posting Kiva journals we had collected and composing profiles for more potential borrowers that PEMCI may post in the future. The PEMCI staff threw us a final going away BBQ of nyama choma, featuring roasted goat (after seeing a goat’s neck slit and its innards roasted on sticks next to me in the Maasai village in Tanzania I can barely stand to smell it) and chicken, ugali, and kale. The SOW team and a few of the field officers went out together afterwards for one last hurrah. The next morning we said our final farewells to the staff of Taifa Country Inn and PEMCI and walked for the last time down Uganda Road, past the lines of freight trucks, around the women selling roasted maize on the side of the road, dodging the swarms of boda-boda (bicycle taxis), up to the immigration offices to purchase a Uganda visa. We boarded a matatu and after a bit of a delay until it sufficiently filled, we were on our way to Kampala, a last minute travel change in an effort to stay together as long as possible. After five or so hours and one Nile crossing, we made it to the central matatu station for a rather chaotic introduction to the capital. We spent two nights at the Backpackers Hostel, which was full of guitar strumming, cigarette smoking, country-bragging backpackers.. not surprisingly. Saturday we walked for hours around the city, exploring random neighborhoods. Overall, Kampala commercial center was chaotic and stressful, especially in the transportation department, but had a nice selection of restaurants, many UN and NGO headquarters, an impressive university, and a great nightlife. We spent Saturday night listening to a very enjoyable band with a sexy, hip shaking dance trio. Next we moved to the popular discotheque Agnes Noir, for some reason pronounced by locals as “Angenoa.” A series of dance-off style circles ensued with our team, Kampalans, and some people from surrounding Rwanda and Kenya. The bar area had groovy carpeting that I’m pretty sure matched a bowling ally I frequented as a child. It was a solid night, our last together as an SOW team.

The next day Ryan and I left, while Max, Tihtina, Colin, and Steve stayed in Kampala and hopefully will be traveling to Kigali. I am extremely jealous as I have wanted to go to Rwanda very badly for a few years now, but I am also excited to go home. I haven’t been home for more than ten days since last July and I am anxious to spend time with my family, especially my sister who had been in Thailand for a year and got home just days before I left. I have a lot to think about this summer concerning a thesis topic and plans for next year, post-graduation which freaks me out more than I can express. Fulbright applications are due all too soon, and it seems like some big decisions need to be made before I’m quite ready to make them. In exactly a week I begin my internship at Equality Now in NYC doing fact-finding legal research on international women’s human rights issues.

I knew this month would go by in a flash, although it does seem like quite a while ago since my first night in Kenya, spent a few kilometers away in the outskirts of Nairobi. There is still a lot to do for the Clinton Global Initiative documentary on Kiva, as well as a longer movie we plan to make for PEMCI and a short film on the Maasai Mara Free the Children project. Still, one chapter of the SOW project and the summer has come to an end and I am so thankful for having another incredible experience on this continent. I have learned the enormous benefits of having a support system while abroad, having friends with whom to laugh over scary toilet experiences, complain about Internet connections and power outages, experience uncomfortable and unreliable transportation and help get through the sometimes frustrating times of working for an organization in a developing country, which functions on a different pace than most American organizations. Most especially, I have had the chance to share incredible landscapes, moving personal interviews, and humorous nightlife happenings with five remarkably talented people. The SOW team made all the difference in the best and hardest of experiences in this trip. Together we have seen the challenges Kenyan people face, but also the magnificence of the country and the hope and dedication of many people to improve their lives and the wellbeing of their families. My final hope is that our work with PEMCI and Kiva and the resulting documentaries will make a positive, empowering difference in their lives, as their lives have already so greatly impacted and inspired our own.

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