Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The ritual of contribution and significance

I cannot believe the purpose of life is to be happy. I think the purpose of life is to be useful, to be responsible, to be compassionate. It is, above all, to matter: to count, to stand for something, to have made some difference that you have lived at all.

Leo C. Rosten

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The man eaters of Tsavo

A little bit of Kenyan history for you which I learned enroute to Tsavo National Park last weekend:

In March 1898 the British started building a railway bridge over the Tsavo River in Kenya. The project was led by Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson. During the next nine months of construction, two maneless male Tsavo lions stalked the campsite, dragging Indian workers from their tents at night and devouring them. Crews tried to scare off the lions and built campfires and bomas of thorn fences around their camp for protection to keep the maneaters out, to no avail. The lions crawled through the thorn fences.

After the new attacks, hundreds of workers fled from Tsavo, halting construction on the bridge. Patterson set traps and tried several times to ambush the lions at night from a tree. After repeated unsuccessful endeavors, he shot the first lion on December 9, 1898. Three weeks later, the second lion was found and killed. The first lion killed measured nine feet, eight inches (3 m) from nose to tip of tail. It took eight men to carry the carcass back to camp. The construction crew returned and completed the bridge in February 1899. The exact number of people killed by the lions is unclear. Over the course of his life, Patterson gave several figures, once claiming that there were 135 victims.

I have learned to be aware of abrupt movements in the wild (including Nairobi). The animals which you are viewing are shy and watchful. They have a habit of evading you when you least expect it. When bending down to reach for your camera, the animal has slipped out of view and skipped into the high marsh away from voyeuristic eyes. The stillness of their movements has a noble quality. We humans have lost the ability to be still, domestic animals too have lost this ability.

The elephant matriach has mastered the art of stillness, moving to the top of the herd and then stopping completly still to watch her human stalkers. The herd behind her, imitate every movement, trusting her movements and waiting in stillness to anticipate her next move. Movements are repeated over and over, a rhythmical tempo that blends in with the sights and smells of the landscape.

I was in awe of the majestic stilness of these great beasts, moving and stopping, moving and stopping across our path, reacting with stillness to our abrupt movements and the sound of the engine. They may not see very well but can certainly hear the slighest sound, even our whispers.We continued talking so as to keep the disrupted equilibrium going.When we spoke in whispers, the elephants stopped as if confused by our silence.

On our return to Lion's Bluff camp, we spotted two lionesses and seven cubs, on the path. The lionesses slowly moved aside while the cubs cowered in the high grass, staring at us while we stared at them.

And there were others; prancing dik dik, the Oryx, mongoose,and the sad sight of a dead elephant sprawled near the path, possibly due to drought, the corpse left alone without a vulture in sight...

One feels like a novice in the wild, the rules of the wild do not register easily for me. I grew up on a farm but even then, the only predator animal to be found was a lonesome bull, lurking in a field full of cows, and one would have to really upset it in order to get a reaction. I live by the safari rule- do not get out of the car and perhaps a survival strategy- throw myself into a thorn bush if chased by a wild cat or run up a tree, if there are trees nearby.

My friend, understands the rhythm of Africa. He has fallen in with the wind, and the colours and smells of the landscape. He has fallen into the tempo of the wild where stillness and movements are repeated over and over. There is much to be learned from the silence and stillness of the wild

as karen Blixen wrote in 1937

when you have caught the rhythm of Africa, you find it is the same in all her music

Friday, June 3, 2011

Navigating Nairobi in a small yellow car

It took a long time to find the right car; months of bargaining, mechanical examinations and bullshit. Poor Saed, my mechanic, examined about 20 Rav4s from November last year till Feb this year. Papers were not in order, bits were missing from the engine, one car had different registration details to the details mentioned in the log book-stolen in other words

Anyway, now that I have my lovely car, I am learning to drive on pot holed roads without rules or regulations. No traffic police nor signs nor traffic lights. I am learning the hard way.

The post office in Karen lost my Irish driving licence, which I had sent home to be transferred into an international licence-never never try to do things the right way in Kenya, it only leads to more trouble!

So I decided to sit the Kenyan driving test. How hard can it be, I thought to myself. I had seen how others drive in this city-not great. At night,some people don't bother to turn on their lights and on Fri and Saturday night, most people are drunk and swinging wildly across the road.
One night, when driving on a highway to Thika, a car was driving on the wrong side of the road with no lights! So you could say, that some drivers appear to be drunk, or stoned or both..hard to tell really but there is something wrong with the way people drive here

Anyway, the driving test was in Karen. I got there early because I am a Mzungu and I always forget that none else believes in punctuality. The police man had already assembled some hopefuls.

You will not be be able to bribe anyone here, he says.

I started laughing-no bribes at a Kenyan police station. Was I in the right place?

I managed to get in line after the speech and in I went to the police station, to be tested on British signs which are actually not displayed on any roads I have seen since I moved here 2 years ago.

A cattle sign
cows crossing, I answered eagerly

I had seen Masai warriors taking their cows for a walk on Bagathi road but there wasn't a sign there.

There were several other signs which I did not recognise. This was not going very well

A railway sign- we have them in Ireland but there is only one train that leaves Nairobi for the coast and that isnt anywhere near Karen

Next came the toy car test. He placed a fisher price car in front of me and asked me to drive around a toy roundabout and park ahead of a car he pointed to.

So thinking I was in Kenya, I drove the toy car the reckless way, overtaking on the roundabout and swerving in front of the parked car

There were no matatus on the toy roundabout so rather an easy task, I thought

no- you have failed

Can I get in a real car and show you what I can do?
I have been driving in Ireland for 10 years with no penalty points (only a few parking tickets and and well, that court appearance)

No- you have failed. You need to take some lessons and come back again

How embarrassing- noone fails a Kenyan driving test but I had.

NowI am driving on my Irish licence and with few police on the road, its no problem

Driving around Nairobi, I have noticed how Kenyans like to drive-crazily

On a real actual roundabout, there are traffic lights which do not work . The red light can mean go and the green light, stop so best ignore them.

No-one gives way to the right on roundabouts, so you find yourself stopping halfway as others push past you and then beep at you, because you happen to be following rules of the road

I drive through pedestrian crossings - spotted 2 some time back. If a pedestrian puts a foot on road to signal intent at crossing, it could be swept away

Flashing lights here seems to signal the drivers intent to cross right in front of you. In his way, he is saying 'I'm coming'.

Beeping the horn is reserved for me, I love using it, also the Italian gesture for 'whats your problem'- hand cupped and waved up and down. Some yelling inside the confines of your own car lets off some steam too.

Never leave a space between you and next car unless you want matatus squeezing you up against the missing pavements.

Bigger cars like pushing in front of smaller ones so if you drive a small car, beware. Its survival of the fittest here!

Its a tiresome adventure everytime you get in your car, the wild west..

.and filling up at a petrol station is also amusing.

There is no self service so you sit there and watch carefully as the petrol cap is taken off and hopefully put on again before handing money out the window. A friend of mine had her petrol cap stolen because she was not watching carefully. Damn, you can't relax even there.

Most cars overtake on the left so watch out. Matatus overtake on the left, right, or drive through you. They enjoy driving on footpaths when there is a jam. Its funny to watch but not for the pedestrians who compliantly move away into the flower beds for safety. They don't even appear disgruntled, everyday life here

The traffic police are usually found right outside the station as they have few cars.

On the way to Kilifi airport last weekend, my taxi was stopped by that rare policeman who has left the station in search of money or food for the day.

nina ngoja uje unipe chai

meaning I am waiting for you to return and give me tea

Always a stomach reference here, money related directly to what it feeds

We all laughed at his brazen shameless request and drove on.

Anyway, that's all for now on my adventures in my little yellow car..more later

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Kenyan English

As a Speech & Language Therapist in Kenya, I am a keen observer of Kenyan English. Working alongside children with speech and language difficulties, I find it is I who is learning new interesting words and phrases. Though I haven't mastered Swahili, I listen constantly to different word meanings of English.
I hope I don't offend anyone here but I am only having a little fun with the words and phrases I hear so please do not take me too seriously. I find Kenyan English rich and interesting, borrowing from local languages and creating an exciting new language Cheng. This is what I hear on the streets of Nairobi...

Let me confirm is a common answer to most questions in Kenya

Can I have my change?
let me just confirm
meaning: haven't a clue, need to ask someone else

Just wait
Common answer to inpatient mzungu requests of which there are many.
meaning: just hang on and wait patiently without talking for a long time like the rest of us

I am alighting
I am getting off the bus, matatu now not in a few minutes

Dangerous mode of public transport which overloads to 20 people with place for only 14 small people under 5 ft with slim hips and behinds. The ride is pimped with trinkets of Barack Obama, Jay Z, Beyonce and unfamous and unrecognizable pop stars from the eighties. The floor is usually wide open, the ceiling is low. You hit your hard hard if you sit in the back. Increased risk of petty theft in the back also. No one talks except drunks, foreigners, and matatu touts who usually just poke and say mzungu, 40 (when it should be only 20).
Common robbery tricks include dropping your change so you bend down to pick up your change and then... there goes your wallet and your phone. When you ask for your things back, don't expect help from others. Yelling thief however, prompts a different response- please see my blog on mob justice. And don't forget to say let me alight when you are getting off or Ume nilipishi kama Mzungu (don't charge me mzungu prices) when you are ripped off (sorry for crazy Swahili spelling! )

We have reached
This sentence is never finished. It means we have reached our destination...and survived

Please and thanks not usually used to request things
give me a coke/burger/Ugali
get me
When you say thanks, people reply you're welcome

Mzungu- foreigner
The word replaces your name. In fact, you do not have a name. If you are white and you live in Kenya, you will be called Mzungu often. Don't get angry, just accept it. You can always reply with Mwafrica meaning African person... if you feel like getting a laugh out of people or a cold hard stare of confusion. Apparently as a mzungu you are expected to be over demanding, panicky, inpatient, with oodles of money and ready to give a job to someone who asks at any time

thrice- 3 times..haven't heard that in a long time

cali- angry...a cali dog

used all the time to mean I am sorry that you are complaining so much and I have to listen to it
I just got ripped off-

I feel sick-

I've just been bitten by a large black spider- like insect with claws, help! (it really happened to me in Naivasha one night)-

It doesn't matter the enormity of the devastation to you, the response will always be-

fizzy Kenyan light beer with a lovely picture of an Elephant on the front, gives instant hangovers after 2

Guinness served cold in a bottle- just don't drink it.I have seen people add coke- sacrilege

Nyama chama- barbecued meat including goat, chicken, beef. Tasty

clean heart
Used when bribing someone. Please give with a clean heart, meaning you will suffer always in your heart if you do not give me some money now. Used by police officers

Please add something
Used in negotiation meaning you are so stingy, add more money

also I have to survive
meaning I am getting a salary from the public sector but I want to earn more on the side, for example facilitators fees at meetings where people are paid to sit around on committees and cause more indecision by never deciding on anything except to arrange more meetings, but you will have to pay facilitators fees for the privilege. We have to survive!

pole pole
slowly slowly- don't rush. go slow and just wait...for a long time

a collection of money for people getting married or dying or dead already. There is no social welfare just harambee

any person working in a hospital including occupational therapists, speech and language therapists (all 2 of them), physiotherapists

what religion are you?
a common question to mzungus. warning: you must have one. you must worship. you cannot answer no religion as you will be called a pagan or atheist- worse than the devil himself
The reply to atheists and non- believers is usually non verbal- shake of head in dismay

polygamy and general infidelity
For men only. If you try this and you are a married female, you risk being divorced and ostracised from your family. Men have biological needs after all which women do not have

I end now, as I'm sure to offend someone
but there will be more later...

Saturday, January 29, 2011

public transport in Kenya

Buying car in kenya

After a long break from my blog, I've decided to take up writing again. The title will have to change as I've now been in Kenya 17 months. I have made the transition from VSO volunteer to a speech and language private practice in a few months and well, it's been a lot of hard work and uncomfortable travel by matatu.

I have learned to "just wait" in Kenya but sometimes, there seems no reason for waiting. For example, waiting 5 months to buy a car...and still waiting

This is the story of a woman so tortured by waiting for a car that never existed, she had to navigate the city of Nairobi by matau...

He promised to transport the Prado Landcruiser fromJ uba, Sudan to Kampala and then on to Nairobi...The Prado was impounded along the way as it was a stolen vehicle
Meanwhile, back in Nairobi, my deposit of 1000 euro lay in the hands of an unscrupolous kenyan who wrote a blank cheque when I demanded my money back...which sent me to the police...

With no contact from my conman, I stood tto loose all the money untill I remembered I had met a friend of his at a barabeque and still had her number...
I rang his friend who has a physical address for his parents. I rang another contact of his who mentioned that my conman had studied in the UK for several years and now made a living making opportunities for himself....

Straight to the police station I went with the blank cheque and the parent's address. 2 police officers agreed to make a visit to the parent's home and they accompanied us, with 2 AK 47s ...no police vehicle as they cant afford them

In fact the inside of a police station in Kenya is very barren, only an outdated picture of Kibaki, no photocopier or stationary of any kind...few filing cabinets..or furniture

Just several hungry looking police in dark mouldy rooms

We made our way past the parent's guards and landed on their front porch, with the police...The father was old and frail, one legged , having lost the other to illness. The mother seemed shocked to hear her son was involved in this scandal and promised to beat him when she caught up with him

He has learned many bad habits in the UK, she said

He was no longer in Kenya..hiding out in Tanzania. He had accompanied his father for medical treatment to Arusha and decided to stay there as he was wanted by several people in Nairobi, people like me who were stupid enough to get involved with him

I will pay you,she said

You will get your money back before Christmas if I have anything to do with it

I waited....and sure enough, true to her word, she rang me the day before Christmas eve, to arrange a meeting at the police station. She was going to pay back all the money her son owed on the condition that I drop the charges

I agreed and popped into the police station alone, or should I stay waited in the police station for several hours and endured ingenious requests for money and emotional blackmail

While I waited for the parents to arrive, I was invited into one of the dark mouldy rooms and offered a seat

You will have to give us a Christmas present since its Christmas and we have worked so hard getting your money back

O, I don't think there is a need for that since you have a salary

besides Kibaki ensures you are looked after

I have used my mobile phone to arrange this and we are given little money for that,
says the frustrated female police officer

I'm sorry, its just that I'm Irish and in Ireland, we don't pay extra to people who are paid a salary to do their job

The 2 other piped in, realising that their colleague was failing to extract the bribe

It is not like corruption, you give a gift from your heart for a job well done

Really, I said. I visited another police station when my IPOD was robbed and no one assisted me despite presents

Well now we will assist you and you will get your money back....just a little from your heart

I have nothing in my pocket...you can ask the parents for money if you like

We cannot ask the parents

Well it is against my values to give bribes

just a little gift

I'm going to wait outside under the tree until them come

An hour dragged by..and then the father was wheeled in to pay his son's debt. My heart sank when he was unable to sign his signature due to his hand tremor...

Then the counting of the 1000 shilling notes began.It takes a long time to count out all the deposit money,all the while surrrounded by greedy police requiring gifts

I gathered the money after recounting and ran out to the nearest taxi and straight to Barclays bank as fast as I could...

So no car, but my deposit back.....and what a cost

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

My 12th month in Kenya

Its my one year anniversary in Kenya so time for a quick update. This month has been interesting. I met a guy called Johnnie who whisked me away to the Masai Mara for a weekend..The photos will explain all. It is a pity however,how little respect safari vans have for the wildlife.

At one point, several white vans surrounded wildebeest who were about to cross the river. One van completely blocked the access site for the animals. When we drove past the Wilde beast, they were moving back and forth, dazed and confused by the white vans parked in front of the river, blocking their crossing. Instead, they attempted to avoid the vans which was impossible as all van drivers communicate by phone and meet at the same point, as if there are no other wildebeest to glare at in all of the Mara

Despite the harassment of the animals, I enjoyed nights sitting around a cosy bonfire, listening to a man on a guitar sing about the stars, making it up as he went along.And of course Masai warriors with advice for me on what to do if a wild animal approached.

This is what he said:
If a buffalo charges at you, lie down on a flat piece of ground and stay absolutely still as the indented buffalo horns cannot pierce your body.
If a wild cat approaches, do not run, they will outrun you. Best stay still and hope they get bored of the stillness. Zebra are relatively calm so don't fret.

I can't remember the rest, a lot of it involved staying calm and not moving.

My birthday was on the 21st. Johnnie and I headed to the Ngong hills which can be seen in the distance from his house. while I was on the phone home, three boys approached the jeep. Johnnie brought a football along, so the four of them played together at the top of the hills until the ball slid off the ledge and plunged to a lower level.

Amazingly, one of the boys ran all the way downhill to try to retrieve the ball, with no success. We then drove in search of their ball. All scampered out, and returned quickly when they discovered the ball. We then played a quick game of football on a rough piece of ground, their school grounds. I stayed in goals as didn't feel like running around. One boy complained to me that the oldest boy was claiming the ball for himself. Johnnie had a word with him later

That night, we celebrated with drinks in the Brew Bistro, followed by a night of dancing in Nairobi's biggest and most famous brothel: Florida. We dominated the dancfloor and didn't seem to notice just how sleazy Florida actually is. Great music but the place is full of whores

I have decided to extend my time in Kenya so 12 months in Kenya is no longer an apt name for this blog...perhaps the land of highs and lows..life without ups and downs is such a bore. Thats why I came to Kenya afterall.