For some reason – probably slow internet connection- uploading pictures of our trip has been kind of difficult. Here are just a couple that I got to upload after a couple of tries!
For some reason – probably slow internet connection- uploading pictures of our trip has been kind of difficult. Here are just a couple that I got to upload after a couple of tries!
Grace takes my small tablet and pen gingerly, looking me right in the eye. She looks a little nervous.
“I’ll ask the first question, then you can go from there,” I tell her.
We are sitting with Tina Hagen, one of the founders of the Olooloitikoshi Girl’s Rescue Center, and Grace is about to interview her. Grace is 14 and wants to be a journalist. I just finished interviewing her about her time at the center and when I asked her what she wants to write about she said the history of the center. After I ask the first question of Tina, Grace is off and running with her own curiosities: When was the center started? Is there ever a shortage of funding? Did the founders have to seek help from other people in starting the center, or did they do it on their own? What is expected of the girls there?
The list goes on. I am impressed with Grace! When I was 14 I probably would have been too intimidated to sit down with an adult and inquire about their work. This girl is curious and contemplative, sometimes looking away to think up the perfect way to phrase her question. She is articulate, especially for someone who is speaking English as their second language.
At the end of her interview with Tina she is quietly proud. I tell her I will help her write a short story about Tina in a couple of days when we have a freer schedule. She nods, smirking up at me. I look away and look back to find her gone. She’s gone to the open computer lab to type up her notes. She’s so eager to get started. Or maybe this young journalist has a deadline I’m unaware of!
We are in the middle of the Nanyuki matatu station, where we had eager ticket salesmen coming at us for at a moment. Luckily, we had a helpful Kenyan with us. The receptionist at our hotel had offered to walk to us to the station and was now, in aggressive Swahili, finding us a good bus and negotiating the price for us. She turns to us and smiles, gesturing into the matatu with an open palm.
“You will just wait for it to leave,” she says slowly. “Just take a seat and relax.”
Relax we did…for two whole hours until all but one seat was filled. During this time we saw the same vendors pass our window twice each. We had a short Swahili lesson from one particularly entrepreneurial vendor. He was trying to sell me jewelry, but I ended up paying him to teach me a few phrases that I don’t even remember now. Then, because he was loitering at our door (because I kind of hired him for a few minutes), the ticket salesman accused him of blocking customers and a fight nearly broke out (oopss…kind of my fault). We then saw chickens being carried into the station by the bundle—who knew you could bundle chickens by tying their feet together?
Finally, the driver was starting the matatu. Ahhh the sound of that engine turning was the sweetest sound in the world that day!
This was not our first matatu ride, but was the most interesting so far. As our clock tick passed the two hour mark of waiting, I was beginning to feel impatient. But I think about all the things we saw at the station that day, just looking out our window, and I remember that getting there (or waiting to get there) is half the journey. It just so happens that in this case the waiting to get started getting there part took twice as long as getting there. With patience and creativity there are many ways to get where you’re going in Kenya:
Matatu/Minbus: There is a saying about buses in third world countries, and it certainly applies to matatus in Kenya: How many passengers can you fit on a Kenyan matatu? One more. Just when you think that one more person could not possibly fit on the matatu…one more person gets on. This doesn’t apply to longer rides on direct lines as much…you might cram a few extra passengers in for a couple of miles. But on shorter rides, there is always room for one more. I have not seen a driver or ticket salesman turn down a passenger because of space constraints yet. Additonally, matatus are hot and dirty, the seats are shaped for deformed bodies (seatbacks seem to curve in all the wrong places), and seat bottoms are made for people with either a) flat butts or b)lots of extra padding. On the upside, matatus are cheap and they go everywhere, and many times a day at that!
Bushcar/ Maruti: So, how many passengers can you fit in a Kenyan Bushcar? One more. The saying also applies here. If you read about our DIY Safari in Samburu, you read about Bushcar. Bushcar is a small jeep-type vehicle that we borrowed from a Colorado friend who does work in Kenya. Bushcar doesn’t really have shock absorbers or taillights, the back bumper is falling off on one side (what’s a bit of extra rattle anyways?), and the driver’s-side window crank is optional. Or detachable. Whatever you want to call it. This vehicle is made to seat five…or 8…or 13. It depends on how many eager Kenyan children trample you to get in for a game drive. Our max was 9 kids and 4 adults. Did I mention that the area behind the seat (some call it the trunk, we can refer to it here as the standing passenger zone) fits about 5 primary school kids? We took Bushcar on many game drives, rattling and bumping and shaking so vigorously the whole time that none of us really tried to say much; We couldn’t hear each other over Bushcar anyways. Mostly what we said to each other was, “You have to speak up.” Eventually we just stopped trying and, when in motion, resorted to tapping, nudging, pointing, and even the occasional gentle kick when a hand just wouldn’t reach where you needed it to. With Bushcar, we also got to experience the Archer’s Post Town Gas Pump: purchase 6 one-liter water bottles full of fuel, dump into tank, and rock the car back and forth to slosh the fuel to where it needs to be.
Piki Piki/ Motorbike Taxi: Before today, I had never ridden a motorcycle! We are now in Maasailand, Kenya, south of Nairobi. We don’t really know where we are—we’ve been told it’s betwee Kiserian and Kajiado. We are doing work in the area, at the Olooloitikoshi Girl’s Rescue Center, which is 5km from our hotel. So, we hired a piki piki. I was a little nervous at first, but once I got on that motorbike and felt the wind in my hair I was worry free. Just kidding. There was no wind in my hair because we were only going about 15 mph down a dirt road the whole way there. And I’m not just saying that to make our parents less nervous about the motorbike thing either! Even at 15 mph it was fun. And yet another first for me.
On foot: We were in Archer’s Post for a couple days before we retrieved Bushcar from the mechanic. Without the modern automotive convenience we are used to, we had to walk places. One thing to know about walking through bush country in Kenya is to wear thick-soled shoes. On our first walk I had thorns sticking me in the foot more often than I would have liked. Another thing to know, if you’re a woman, is to never let leg show above the knee. The wrap skirt I was wearing on one of our walks had a tendency to slip around and cause the inch above my knee to show. Never again! As if I don’t get enough stares here! I’m telling you, a Kenyan man can see a white woman’s thigh from a mile away! Luckily, I was with two males—one of them being our best Kenyan friend Apin. Lastly, mind the beggars. There are many. They can follow you more easily on foot than any of the abovementioned transportation methods. And follow you they will!
“Give me a pen (Geev me ay pen),” one kid begged us as we walked by.
He and his friends followed us and after a few more tries for a pen, they decided they wanted a lollipop, then my sunglasses, then our money. At this one, I couldn’t contain my laughter. These kids followed us for about ten minutes, despite our giving them nothing and telling them we had nothing.
‘Geev me yo money’ will forever be stuck in my mind, each word pronounced slowly and individually.
Private Car Hire: Private car hire is glorious. In a private car with shocks and clean seats I can take a nap. And that’s that.
Colorful seed beads are puddled on cow hide mats, and strands of curly wire sit around the Samburu women like tumbleweeds around Kansas fences. They work quickly to get the beads on the wire, bending and smoothing it as they go and chattering all the while in Samburu. The small loop at one end of a bracelet clasp is made by wrapping the wire around a stick, any stick; the other end of the clasp they shape using their teeth to bend and cut the wire. Many of their wares are on display and on sale outside the beading hut. The beadwork contributes to the livelihood of the Umoja Women’s Group.
It is dusty here and nearly everything is brown: the dirt, the trees, the shade hut in which the women sit. Traditionally dressed, the women stand in stark contrast to their plain village. They wear bright fabric and many thick, beaded necklaces. Their wrists are wrapped tightly in metal bangles, and on their ankles are more beads. In this enclosed manyatta (village) there are no men. At Umoja it is only women and their children, and has been since 1990 when 17 women were chased away from their villages after being raped by British soldiers. They walked for a full day, some with small children, and gathered together to decide what to do. What was birthed was a village where, as they say, women rule.
Now there are 48 women who participate in the Umoja Women’s Group. Some of them live in the enclosed manyatta and others live outside of it, coming in to do beadwork to earn an income. The village is well-established: well-crafted huts with mud roofs, cows and goats with pens, a chicken house, a nursery school with a playground for the women’s young children, a small outdoor shop area for their bead work, a water tank, a cultural museum, and, a five-minute walk away, a tourist camp.
While in the Archer’s Post area we planned to stay at the Umoja Tourist Camp, visit the women, and help out in the nursery school. When we arrived at the entrance to the women’s manyatta they greeted us with Samburu song. As a group and still singing, they turned and led us into the village where they continued to sing and grabbed my hands to bring me into the dance.
Up the road a couple of kilometers, we had a similar greeting at the Unity Women’s Group. This group is much newer; they used to be part of Umoja but after some disagreements there they broke off in November 2011 and built their own manyatta. It is clear at first glance that things are different here than at Umoja. Their huts do not have solid mud roofs (something of a luxury for a Samburu hut, from what I understand), but have roofs made of various flattened cardboard boxes that are tied down. There is no nursery school here, no playground, no water tank, no cultural museum, no beading hut, no cows, no goats, no chickens, no distinguished outdoor shop area, no tourist camp. The roadside sign for this women’s group is painted on thin, chipping wood. In fact, it reads ‘Unit Women’s Group’ on one side.
Despite all these have-nots, the women are smiling and are proud of their manyatta and homes. They pull up a cow-hide mat on our first visit, we all sit down, and they give both me and Alex beads to work with. Both the Umoja women and the Unity women know other people from Colorado who have come previously. Immediately, we are welcomed like old friends, rather than visitors. Only one woman at Unity speaks English, but language is never all that matters.
For five consecutive days we gathered children from Umoja and Unity to take with us on game drives in the nearby Samburu National Reserve. Each day the kids at Umoja were waiting outside the village gate to be picked for a game drive, but we never saw any of the women at these times. Each day at Unity a few of the women brought the children out, greeted us with handshakes, and chit chatted with us for a few minutes. They did the same when we drop the children off after game drives.
I also visited the Umoja women occasionally to interview them and sometimes work on bead projects with them. I worked for a couple of hours in their nursery school, teaching eager kids their ABC’s and trying to figure out how to say ‘sit down’ in Samburu (none of the little ones speak English yet). We did not visit the Unity women formally again—they weren’t quite as accessible, as we were staying at the Umoja tourist camp—but still we felt like we saw much more of them.
The morning we were leaving Archer’s Post we visited both villages to say goodbye to the women. At Unity we were adorned with beaded gifts –I was given a traditional Samburu necklace with my name beaded into it, told to greet the other Colorado people the women know, and were given a musical send-off. At Umoja, we were unfortunately only able to say goodbye to a couple women and a lot of kids because many of the women were away at a ceremony.
The differences between these two villages are stark. One is not more right than the other. One is not better than the other. But they each definitely have their own personality. Both are genuine examples of women creating opportunities for themselves and working toward gender equality in Kenya. Both are amazing displays of community: everyone works together on everything from chores, to beading, to childcare. Both groups showed us the Kenyan fundamental of sharing; if Kenyans have they will, at least in my experience, usually give.
Next up: educating Kenyan girls at the Olooloitikoshi Girl’s Rescue Center!
1. Go somewhere with good safari opportunities: We arrived in Kenya 9 days ago and, after a couple of days in Nairobi and a couple of days in Nanyuki, we finally got out into rural Kenya. We are staying just outside of Archer’s Post now at the tourist camp of Umoja Women’s Village. Archer’s post is the gate town for Samburu National Reserve. Safari opportunities abound!
2. Get a bushka: As noted in a previous post, this is not to be confused with Babushka—the Russian word for grandma. Rather, this is a bush car. But when said by a Kenyan it is a bushka. We are using a friends’ bushka for our game drives in Samburu and had to wait two days after our arrival for bushka to be ready at the mechanics. We then had to travel to the nearby (and extremely unpleasant) town of Isiolo to retrieve our bush car late last week. Lucky for us, we have five days with the safari car.
3. Wrangle some kids: One thing there isn’t a shortage of in rural Kenya is kids. When our friend told us to bring kids on our game drives to get into the reserve at a discounted rate, we were a little nervous that wrangling kids would be challenging. It isn’t. All we do is drive our bushka to the women’s villages in the area and we practically get trampled with kids climbing in for a game drive. They see bushka, they know the drill. Yesterday we had 9 kids and 4 adults in our five-seater SUV. Success! Aside from getting a discount at the gate, bringing kids is extremely fun. Most of them have lived only a couple of kilometers from this reserve their whole life, but have never seen the animals that live inside. It is so cool to see their excitement!
4. Finally, commence game drives: Since Saturday we have seen a plethora of wildlife in Samburu. Elephants here are like elk in Rocky Mountain National Park or Bison in Yellowstone: plentiful. T We’ve seen a variety of monkeys, including baboons that threw things at our car from above. We’ve seen zebra, oryx, impala, dik dik, and the amazing gerenuk (like a cross between an antelope and a small giraffe). We’ve seen a few Lion King characters: Pumba, Zazu, and even Nala (3 of them) on Easter evening. Besides watching animals and watching Kenyan kids watch animals, we’ve had additional adventures on Samburu drives. On our first day we came across two families and one of their cars was stuck in a rut. We helped them push it out and the next day they help us push bushka out of some very deep sand. Today I drove in Samburu for the first time, up and over and around bumps in our stick shift, rattling bush car! I have only driven a stick shift 2 or 3 times before, so I am learning in Samburu!
5. Drop the kids off at home: I swear I’ve never heard quieter kids than the Kenyan kids on safari. They are told not to shout because it will scare the animals away. They are, apparently, extremely obedient because, if they are talking at all, they do nothing but whisper for these hours-long game drives. But we have had a couple of groups that break into song after we exit the park. So, in our extremely loud and shaky bush car we go driving down the dirt roads with a bunch of kids sticking out the sun roof singing loudly in the Samburu language. When we drop them off at their villages all the other kids are there to greet us, high five us, and ask us when the next game drive is.
As we pulled into our spot at the Isiolo matatu station I could see a tall, gangly Kenyan staring very seriously into our windows. As we prepared to exit the matatu with two bags each, I was thinking I should be cautious of this man waiting there.
“Cece?” he asked with a smile, as soon as I stepped off the bus.
My worries melted away. It was Apin! We have a friend from CSU who works in Archer’s Post (where we were heading) often, and Apin is a friend and employee of his. Apin checked in with us via text message the day we arrived in Nairobi, just to make sure we were comfortable, and has been nothing but a huge help since then. He helps us buy things at the store so we don’t get ripped off as tourists. He helps us find fuel at 7a.m. for our early game drives. He helps us wrangle local kids to take into Samburu National Reserve. He helps us cook on a charcoal stove every night. He translates for us.
Since we arrived to Archer’s Post on Wednesday, Apin has been at our camp each day when we wake up and stays until we are going to bed at night. He is there pretty much every moment to help us with anything that might come up, to chit chat with us and share meals with us. Apin is 19 and just graduated secondary school. He plans to go to college to study biology or ecology; Oftentimes I am just staring out at the river while he and Alex chat about Protista and kingdoms and phylums and other scientific matters. He is jovial almost all the time, lighthearted and teasing. He just opened his first bank account and is saving to build a house in this area. He loves Facebook and our MP3 player, and he we give him one of our point and shoot cameras to use on every game drive. He is one of the most grateful people I have met, and has a great sense of humor.
We are infinitely happy to have Apin with us in Archer’s Post. In only half a week he has become a friend of ours and it will be a little sad to leave him.
Over dinner tonight Alex and I got to talking about our trip so far. We’ve been here only four days –although it seems like longer—and there have been some nervous moments. We’ve travelled together before in Costa Rica and, although it is also a developing country, we both agree there is something very different about travelling in Kenya. Maybe it’s a new world vs. old world thing, we decide. People have been living in Kenya for thousands of years. Maybe that has something to do with its different feel. Maybe it’s because in Costa Rica we at least spoke a little bit of the language. Here, we know nothing more than yes, no, and greetings. All day people are talking around us and we don’t understand a word that’s being said. We’ve discovered this is exhausting to the brain. Plus, we never know if their talking about us! Lastly, Alex points out, we are the only travelers in this town right now. Everyone has been friendly to us so far and we haven’t encountered any problems (other than knowingly getting ripped off a little for our bus ride up here), but in Nanyuki we really, really, REALLY stick out. In Costa Rica, we blended in a little more, as there were a fair amount of tourists and travelers everywhere we went.
In this place that is foreign in pretty much every way, we sometimes find ourselves putting on a façade of confidence. We have brief moments where we both look at each other and can see our nerves are knotted, but we are trying only to exhibit confidence to the Kenyans. Everyone is friendly and helpful and I think our nerves come mostly from confusion, from many stares, and from hearing ‘mzungu’ (white person) everywhere we go. We are a bit of a novelty in Nanyuki in April; they see many more tourists in the summer months. Like almost everything in life travel confidence is a growth process. We are at the beginning of the journey. We are infants. Undoubtedly, this trip will teach us a lot. We have been on our own for a couple days now, and are excited to get to the more rural areas of Kenya. Not only do we tend to enjoy rural and natural areas more than cities, we know people in these areas that can help us, show us around, and teach us. Tomorrow, we head further from the city still. On to Archer’s Post!
Five women are pumping their feet steadily on the wooden pedals of their wooden spinners. They are mostly silent, occasionally speaking quietly to each other in Swahili. The room smells slightly of coal fire; in one corner water is being boiled. One employee, Mary, is showing us around and explains now how the yarn is made. First the wool of the sheep is combed so it is softer and stretched out for spinning. She shows me a hand-spinning machine: as it spins, the wool is pinched on to the existing yarn and spins itself in, making a longer and longer piece of yarn. I have a go at it; it’s difficult, but I am able to complete a short piece with Mary’s help! After the yarn is made it is washed in warm water multiple times to remove oils and dust. On its last washing a non-detergent soap –the equivalent to Ivory Soap in the U.S.– is used to remove bacteria. Next the yarn can be colored using natural dyes from plants grown on the organization’s grounds.
As we walk to the weaving room, Mary tells us that the Spinners and Weavers is a women’s self-help project. Women work here so they can raise and educate their children, she says. The Nanyuki Spinners and Weavers have been here since 1977 and currently have 137 women employed. In the weavers room the women are making placemats with zebra, giraffes, and elephants on them. This size project takes about 4 days, Mary tells us. The looms are floor to ceiling and the room is spacious. On one end is a woman weaving a shawl out of thin yarn on a horizontal loom. The women are proud of their work; they are beaming as we walk through and ask questions.
We finish our short tour at the showroom, where the women have placemats, rugs, shawls, and some jewelry for sale. The items are beautiful and well-crafted. I am wishing I had more room in my backpack so I could take one home. Space stops me from buying anything, so I settle for making a small donation and letting the women know they are doing great work!
Colobus monkeys are slinking at the top of a tree by the river, oblivious to us below. They are black and white, and long-haired. Our guide, Lawrence Kariithi of Montana Trekks and Information Centre, tells us the monkeys travel in families and that their babies are born in December. After watching a few minutes a baby comes out on the limb and we can see it clearly. Lawrence tells us the monkeys are only found in two areas of Kenya, and before long the family is leaping between branches and away from us. We move on too. As we walk toward the forest, we stop at trees and Lawrence explains the medicinal purposes of each. The people in this area still use the bark, leaves, and flowers of various trees for many medicinal reasons: malaria, stomach problems, removing human scent while in the forest. My personal favorite is the Sandpaper Tree, which is used to clear up congestion and soothe breathing problems. Lawrence plucks a handful of leaves off and grinds them up in his hands. He gives me a handful of leaves to try and I grind them up and breathe in the scent. It is much like eucalyptus and clears my sinuses and cough immediately. Ahhhhh!! Next, he points out a poisonous tree in this forest; the live roots and leaves secrete a milk-like substance that will dry up human blood and disintegrate the skin in seven minutes. I try not to even breathe in the presence of this tree! As we get a little deeper into the forest he plucks the leaves off a plant and explains that it is used for natural dyes. Rubbing the green leave in his hand turns his skin orange. After taking the leaves, he explains, they are boiled for a certain time to get certain colors.
We walk on for quite a ways, heading to the Mau Mau caves. The Mau Mau Rebellion took place before Kenya gained their independence from the British in 1963. Freedom Fighters in the rebellion were from three of Kenya’s 42 tribes; the rest sided with the British, Lawrence tells us. The Freedom Fighters in this rebellion lived in the forest we are hiking in today for 17 years after leaving their families in order to fight the British. Before we reach one of their caves, we are shown the site where new fighters were initiated- which was done by having them drink goat’s blood and swear a secrecy oath- and we see a thin waterfall in the small canyon-like banks of the river. The cave is large, but not much of a cave anymore because it was bombed by the British in the 1940’s. There is a tree that grows down instead of up here, and a few of these hang in front of the cave. Climbing the vines was the only way in and out of the cave when the Freedom Fighters occupied the area, Lawrence tells us. I am under them, reaching up to grab them and try to figure out how people would climb up and down on these. Lawrence says he can do it and, after a little convincing, up he goes…and with little effort!
After a quick lunch at the top of the waterfall we begin our hike out of the forest, stopping every now and then to look for animals. I am hoping more than anything that we will see a leopard snoozing in a tree, but we just don’t have the luck today. We don’t see many animals on this hike: colobus monkeys, dik diks, and a lot of unique butterflies. At the end of our 16K hike, we catch a crowded matatu to the equator, which is about 1 km south of Nanyuki, where we are currently staying. Here we are shown a quick demonstration of the Coriolis force: north of the equator water in a bowl rotates clockwise, south of the equator it rotates counter clockwise, and on the equator it is still. We spend the next twenty minutes being hassled by various shopkeepers here at the mid-world curio shop, although we’ve admitted to bringing no money along (we have a little, but not for souvenirs).
“Come see my shop,” a shopkeeper says as I leave the one next door.
“I have no money,” I tell him.
“Then free looking, free looking today,” he replies.
This happens about 4 times before Alex and I can get away and back to our guide and Nanyuki.
For a person who thought she’d never ever ever in a million years go to Africa (that’s me!) I sure have fallen in love with Kenya. Sure there’s corruption, crime, heat, bugs, snakes, pollution, dust, and traffic, but the people in Kenya are the reason I love this place. They are some of the happiest and most welcoming people I have ever met.
Today we spent the day with the girls from the Olooloitikoshi Girl’s Rescue Center in Kenya’s Kajiado District. These girls have all run away from home or been taken out of their homes to avoid female circumcision and early marriage. Since I first met these girls on my visit in 2010, they have occupied a large part of my heart, mind, and curiosity. So much of what I have learned in the past two years is because of the doors they opened by sharing their stories with me, a struggling writer. Seeing them today felt like coming back to good old friends. Seeing a couple of them in particular felt like coming home to sisters. In addition to seeing all the girls I met in 2010 I got to meet a couple of new ones, including the girl my family is sponsoring through secondary school!
Along with the team of people from Greeley that Alex and I are working with for part this trip, we surprised the girls at church today. Although I rarely go to church at home, church in rural Kenya is where you see rural Kenyans at their best I think. And I just can’t help but share that with you here: