Thursday, February 28, 2008

February 28, 2008 - Big news in Kenya!

In the "Emergency Operations Center" where I do my work at UNICEF, there is a TV that we keep on news channels like CNN, BBC, or Al Jazeera throughout the day. I suppose that during the first days of the emergency it was extremely necessary for updated news as the situation was changing so rapidly, but now it is just sort of for our own convenience, entertainment and distraction. Four of us were sitting at our laptops working while the news buzzed in the background a little after 3pm today when the "breaking news" music started playing. We all turned our attention to the TV as soon as we heard the word "Kenya" because Kofi Annan had just announced that the government and the opposition had reached a power-sharing agreement!

They finally made a deal! That's right! We had to wait 2 hours more, but at 5pm we watched it live on TV as President Mwai Kibaki and the Honorable Raila Odinga signed a power-sharing agreement to end the political stalemate. In the last few days it has been so tense here, and it truly could have gone either way (the other way pretty much being civil war). Kofi Annan had given up talks with party negotiators in favor of dealing directly with the two leaders, and the media has increasingly reported on militias being trained throughout the country to begin fighting as soon as the talks break down. Needless to say, with the news of an agreement we could almost hear a collective sigh of relief throughout the country.

The agreement essentially gives Raila Odinga the position of Executive Prime Minister and establishes that he will be Head of Government while Mwai Kibaki, as President, will be Head of State (I am not yet sure which one is Commander in Chief). It established a 50/50 Cabinet giving both parties equal power. There were lots of details about how the Constitution will be amended, Parliament's role and how the government will be structured in the future. The bottom line, though, is that progress has now really begun.

The negotiations are not over, as tough issues of land and equity still need to be addressed, but the most immediate problem between these leaders, who many people felt were holding the country hostage (Kofi Annan included), has been addressed. Now we just need to see them implement the agreement as it was intended. The press conference was sort of funny because Kofi Annan and the President of Tanzania, who is the new Chair of the African Union and had arrived yesterday to support Kofi Annan and put additional pressure on the leaders, gave comments congratulating everyone on their hard work and leadership. Leadership?!?! Are you kidding? If they were real leaders, these old men and their cronies would have put their selfish interests aside and resolved the issue 4 weeks ago! I suppose Annan had to say such niceties, as he must be so thankful that the country didn't plummet into total chaos again, but I did find the camaraderie somewhat comical. Kristoffer says that it feels like that Southwest Airlines commercial in the US which says, "You are now free to move about the country."

That doesn't mean that all violence is over and the country is back to a normal level of security, but it certainly gives us hope that we are heading in that direction. All 4 leaders who spoke today encouraged people around the country to support the agreement, remain calm and not to act on any disappointment or anger they might feel about whatever their party conceded to reach this agreement (remember that Kenyans have extreme party/tribal loyalties). I suppose time will tell if the people heed these guidelines and begin the healing process.

We have seen no dancing in the street yet, but Kristoffer thinks our guards were smiling a little wider than usual when we arrived home tonight. It was actually very cool for us to sit with a random group of people (the office became crowded because of the TV!) and watch this pretty significant moment in Kenya's history as it happened live. In the room there were: 4 Kenyans, 2 Americans, 1 or 2 French guys, and a Dane. Not too shabby, eh? I think the best reaction out of anyone was from this one Kenyan guy who walked into the room and said, "What's going on?" When someone told him, "They're signing an agreement," he responded, "Oh Shit! That's serious!" Serious indeed!

The next few days will give us a better picture of how this power-sharing government will play out in real life, as opposed to just on paper, and how the people of Kenya will respond to a coalition government. For us, if this agreement makes everyone safer and facilitates more and quicker assistance to Kenya's displaced population (estimated at UNICEF to be well over 1 million people, despite the media's figure of 600,000), then we wish for nothing but its success in the coming months. Cheers to Kenya today!


Monday, February 25, 2008

February 25, 2008 - Daily Life

Happy Monday to you.

Kristoffer’s Uncle Gert recently commented on our blog that, while he likes all of our big stories about safaris and politics, he is really curious our every day life here in Nairobi, all the small stuff. So here I go to answer his questions and add a few more details about daily life in Kenya.

Nairobi is a high city – actually called Denver’s Sister City, I believe – a little over 5,000 ft. above sea level. When we first arrived here we were really, really tired and we were told that was because of the altitude. Even now, when something goes wrong or we are feeling lazy we usually blame it on the altitude. In the very downtown of Nairobi, called the Central Business District (CBD), there are tall buildings and it is mostly concrete like any other city. There are some public parks in that area as well. As you get away from CBD you see more green around you; the further you get out the more rural it becomes. Driving around, even though the roads are often full of pot holes, ditches, traffic or accidents, the view is usually scenic and beautiful. There is one strip of road on the way from our apartment to the UN that looks like a beautiful jungle. I half-expect to see Tarzan swinging through on a vine each day. At this time of year, the country is pretty dry. The Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (ASAL) of the country often experience drought when it is not the rainy season, as now, but here in Nairobi we get a little rain at night every few weeks. The long rains (rain all day every day) are supposed to begin in March and last through May and the short rains come in November and December, which means mostly brief showers and often in the evening. I have heard from people here that global climate changes are affecting the seasons here and there is more overlap than there used to be. As of right now the weather is quite beautiful – it is basically spring all the time. One morning a week it may be overcast but by the afternoon the sun is shining. I do find it chilly in the mornings and usually wear a jacket or sweater that I take off late morning, but Kristoffer loves it and it is always comfortable in his usual work attire. About clothing in Kenya: people wear very bright colors here, women and men tend to get pretty dressed up for work (at least at the UN people are nicely dressed, women often wear African dresses or skirts), and Kenyans never, ever wear shorts – no matter how hot it is. Maybe that is an African thing, but it is a sure way to identify yourself as a foreigner (in case skin color doesn’t give you away!) to wear shorts. Usually wearing pants of some kind and skirts once a week (never jeans) to work, I am often underdressed compared to Kenyan women. Kristoffer, wearing a shirt and nice work pants, is dressed pretty much like all the other men (especially the other white men).

What else? Traffic here can definitely be a nightmare – we time where and when we drive certain places for that reason. The city does not have the infrastructure to support its population, and because of the weather and the infrastructure the roads are terrible. Traffic accidents are the leading cause of death here, I believe, and most of those involve the crazy matatus (mini-buses) in some way or another. There are a lot of cars on the road, and some bikers, but Kenyans do a lot of walking (not advised for white people). People walk to and from work because matatus might be too expensive for them as well as city buses. Bikes are also expensive to buy, and those who do ride them have old, heavy bikes and do not wear helmets. It is very dangerous! As for walking, our day guards, for example, say that they leave their home at 4am to walk to work for 6am. There are not sidewalks in most places, just dirt paths next to the road, and people don’t usually wear reflective gear or anything so at night it is really hard to see them! In the evening you see a lot of women, domestic workers, walking home. Every day coming home from the UN, we see old women carrying extremely large loads of wood on their backs. Kristoffer says it is the worst part of his day, every day, because it kills him to see these old women laboring so.

I will be honest and say that we eat out a lot; we have found the following restaurants that are good and safe to eat at: 2 or 3 Italian places, 1 specific pizza place, 1 Thai place, 1 Chinese place, 1 Lebanese place, 1 fondu place, and a couple of places for brunch that have assorted menus. We are trying to eat more at home, but when we first moved here we sort of got into an “eating out” routine. Because we are vegetarians (yes, me too now) we mostly eat rice, pasta or quinoa with different vegetables in different sauces, potatoes, bread and cheese, and a lot of fruit. I am also a fan of pancakes for dinner (thanks to my dad) but Kristoffer isn’t quite so into that. We haven’t had a hard time finding fresh fruit and vegetables, as long as we wash them well with filtered water. The one I guess that proves to be a bit tricky is tomatoes, because in stores and markets they are often not handled well and so they are often bruised or smooshed – for me that has been the most annoying because I typically eat a lot of tomatoes. We have also discovered, much to my horror and dismay, that ice cream here in Kenya isn’t very good. I will greatly look forward to going back to the US for the first time and getting a big mint chocolate chip ice cream sundae! We buy lunch at the UN Compound every day; there is a food court with an African booth, an Italian booth, and an Asian/Indian booth (from which we usually eat). It is extremely cheap to eat here, costing about $6 or $7 total for two people to eat a full plate of rice and vegetables with juice and water.

As for animals, hopefully you could see from our pictures that animals are very close to us in Nairobi. Day to day in the city, though, we don’t really see them, unless we go back to that park with all of the monkeys. In our apartment THANK GOODNESS we have only had one small gecko lizard, mosquitoes and ants. I will be none to happy if we get any other visitors where we live.

Something that we have recently found to be a crazy phenomenon here is the major problem, also because of infrastructure, with street lighting. There are street lamps installed all over the place, but they are not always, or even often, working. There are a few roads that we drive each day that have street lamps on DURING the day but then if we drive them at night it will be pitch-black with no street lamps lit at all. As someone in my office said today about that very thing, “Welcome to Kenya.” Living in a developing country, it is extremely easy to realize all of the small things at home in America or Europe that we (Kristoffer and Lisa) take for granted, like street lamps and being able to easily buy tomatoes.

Some things that I don’t love about Kenya:
1. We have to use bottled water to brush our teeth.
2. We have to boil water to wash the dishes and then boil more water to rinse them (otherwise, why clean food with filtered water if you are going to prepare/serve them on dishes washed in bacteria?),
3. We don’t have a clothes dryer, which I know a lot of people don’t have throughout the world by choice, I am just very spoiled and miss being able to get my clothes dry very fast. Especially because there is a lot of construction behind our apartment building and our open-air laundry room is exposed to all of the dust, I actually think our clothes get dirty again when they are hanging out to dry!
4. There is so much poverty here.
5. Its proximity to the US and Denmark.

Some things that I really like about Kenya:
1. Weather makes us feel great (at least until the long rains come)
2. It is a beautiful country with amazing landscape and the animals, it is a really special place
3. We get very good, fresh fruit juice here
4. Kenyans are typically very friendly and nice, at least most of those with whom we have interacted (even the guy who stole my sim card was very nice before giving me a $7,000 phone bill!)
*I am sure this list will get longer as we live here longer and as I get more used to being so far away.

To mention briefly the political update, media reports in the last few days have indicated that the politicians are very close to a final political agreement, but ODM and PNU members are individually reporting that this is not so. Yes, progress has been made in getting both sides to agree to a power-sharing government, but no details have been agreed to. Talks were resuming today after a break over the weekend, and ODM has threatened more mass action on Wednesday if the deal is not done. Kenyans are equally hopeful and terrified that this week will bring great news or more violence; I would say Kristoffer and I feel like Kenyans in this regard.


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

February 19, 2008 - Safari Pictures

To the left is a picture of the city from inside the park. When you are really inside the park you can't really tell that you are also on the outskirts of a major city but from the edges of the park it is obvious.

This is a picture of a guinea fowl, which are very common birds here and are very funny. They run around like crazy.

This is the stunning view from the observation point where we ate our picnic lunch.

To the left, you can see the baboon around the other car that was there. We were driving away at this point, having just shaken a baboon off our side view mirror, but you can see there is still one large baboon on the back window of the other car. It was really loving the back windshield wipers. You can see 3 or 4 others on the ground, and there were 2 or 3 really large ones that had already moved further away.

This is one of the beautiful zebra we saw up close.

This is the mother monkey who is holding her suckling baby. This tree was very close to the road and our car, and she was definitely starting us down!

I left my animal book at home but I think this is an eland. If it isn't an eland, than it is some other kind of large antelope (of which we saw many!).

I always think that each giraffe I see is the biggest one I have ever seen, but that can't possibly be true. We watched this one walking around for quite awhlie. He walked to us from much further away and eventually crossed the "road" behind our car.

Giraffes are funny because when they see you they will often stand completely still. This giraffe is thinking, "If I don't move, they'll never know I'm here!" I think they don't realize how tall they are.

One of these days we will figure out how to put video up on the blog. It will be cool to share the footage of the crazy baboons and some of the zebra.

Monday, February 18, 2008

February 18, 2008 - Nairobi National Park

The past few days in Kenya have been really nice. The weather has been good and there has been an absence of violence throughout the country, although not necessarily an absence of tension. On Friday I had my first doctor’s visit at the Nairobi Hospital. Don’t worry – it was not an emergency! My pacemaker has been misbehaving and I visited a highly recommended doctor (he is the President’s doctor, actually!) who is one of 4 doctors in Nairobi with the technology to service the old ticker. He was really nice and has American credentials, a Canadian (possibly upstate NY) accent, and a Jewish last name. In Kenya. Very diverse. Anyway, I brought him instructions from my cardiologist in NYC which he happily followed. Since then, the problem has not been completely solved but has been improved and I am seeing him again on Wednesday. I have been told that Nairobi Hospital is the best private hospital in East Africa and my experience was very pleasant; just like in an American hospital I had a 45 minute wait to see the Doctor.

The big excitement was that on Saturday Kristoffer, Christine and I took a game drive through the Nairobi National Park, which is about 25 minutes from our home and is 75 square miles of land. We woke up at dawn and filled our new cooler with snacks: bread, fruit, cheese, chocolate chip cookies, After Eight mints and lots of water. What more could you need on safari? In addition to everything we saw, the trip was exciting because Christine and I both drove for the first time here. It was a little strange to be on the left side of the car, but because there isn’t traffic in the park it didn’t have the same feeling as driving on a main road with other cars. And because the roads were so bad we weren’t staying to the right or to the left, but to whichever side had fewer holes or bumps! We were so happy to be in the Wizard because the Toyota Corolla we had before would never have survived the rocky terrain and off-roading required. We got into the park at 7:00am and we left at 2:15pm. It was a long day!

Obviously, the best part of the trip was seeing all of the animals! Most often, we saw Eland (the biggest antelope), impala, and gazelles. We also saw a lot of zebra throughout the whole day, but at one particular point our car was almost completely surrounded by them, probably 75 in total. We saw them playing with each other, rolling around in the dirt, and even a few expectant mothers (we think). Baby zebra are adorable…their stripes are more brown than black and they seem to stick close to their elders. They were really fun to watch for quite a long time.

We also saw a few monkeys in the trees near where the zebra were surrounding us. They were a relatively small kind of monkey, but one of them was clutching a teeny-tiny baby monkey who was suckling. The baby almost looked dead because it was so small and was a different color than the mature monkeys – but we saw it move so we knew that it was alive. The mother was staring at us hard and, if I hadn’t rolled up my window quickly, she looked like she was going to jump right in!

While the monkeys were cute, the true entertainment came after we ate our picnic lunch. We stopped at a beautiful observation point and enjoyed the food we brought. When we were done eating, another car arrived and we packed up our cooler and got into the car. Pretty much the second we closed the doors, a large family of baboons appeared, we believe because they smelled our food (apparently they also like bread, fruit, cheese, and chocolate!). We rolled our windows up very quickly but the other people who had arrived were standing outside with the baboons romping around them. They climbed all over the other car, playing with the side-view mirrors and the windshield wipers. One of them jumped from the top of the other car to the top of our car and parked himself on top of the driver’s side mirror. They were crazy! We learned that baboons are easily aroused, and trust me when I tell you that the baboon on our mirror gave us quite the show! The man in the other car had to activate his alarm just to be able to get inside, but the baboons still did not go away for quite a few more minutes. We even started to drive away with the baboon on our mirror for a few feet before he jumped off.

Throughout the day we saw many giraffes, including a beautiful baby, some buffalo, and very cool birds. Sadly, we did not see any lions, rhinos, cheetahs, or leopards. The park doesn’t have elephants because it is not big enough to feed them! Probably our last two hours were spent just looking for lions and rhinos, but we were so exhausted that we finally left. The new binoculars we bought last week were awesome! And hopefully you can enjoy some of the pictures we took. We know that we will go back because the park is extremely beautiful and so convenient for us to see wildlife whenever we want. We are determined that we will see lions eventually! For Kristoffer and me to enter the park in our car, as residents, costs $40 which is not an expensive way to spend a beautiful Kenyan Saturday!

Saturday night we were exhausted and, even though we probably would have gone to sleep really early anyway, we had a 5-hour power outage starting at 7pm and were sort of forced to go to sleep very early. Yesterday we had a nice afternoon dessert with Christine’s friend from work Joyce, who is Kenyan, and her two children. In Kenya, and probably all of Africa, children call adults (their mother’s or father’s friends usually) “Auntie” or “Uncle”. Both of Joyce’s kids absolutely loved “Uncle Kris” and her 3-year old daughter told “Auntie Lisa” that when I meet her daddy I can call him “Uncle Jimmy”, which was hysterical because it wasn’t that obvious to her that I am a grown-up!. The other accomplishment of our weekend was finishing Season 3 of 24 on DVD that my sister brought me. We have to finish Season 4 before she goes back to the US…and then I wonder how I will get Seasons 5 and 6?

As you probably know, “Condie” is here in Kenya right now. There has been a mixed reaction to her presence and to Bush’s statements at the end of last week telling Kenyan rivals to strike a power-sharing agreement. One Kenyan at work today said, “Well the whole world can’t be wrong…” about all of the suggestions for a power-sharing government, but other people were saying the US should mind its own business and nobody asked them anyway. We’ll hope that her presence and Bush’s comments don’t hinder the progress Kofi Annan’s team has made. This week Kristoffer and I are just working and Christine leaves for 10 days in Sudan tomorrow. We are thinking of going on a little vacation to the Coast of Kenya this coming weekend (which is very calm these days and very cheap because they really need business!) and we will keep you posted if we do so.

Right now our internet connection is too slow to be able to load many pictures (unless I stay up all night!) so I will leave you with one from our safari and will upload more pictures tomorrow when I get a faster connection at work.

Can you spot the giraffe in this picture below?


Thursday, February 14, 2008

February 14, 2008 - Happy Valentine's Day

So Valentine's Day is big in Kenya this year. Very big. Perhaps because of the crisis, people are eager to spread some extra love around and, I have been told, there has been more attention to Valentine's Day than in years past. So Kristoffer, who did not grow up in a Valentine's Day culture, and I will go to a really nice restaurant for our first married Valentine's Day. We also bought ourselves binoculars today for going on safari this Saturday...not the most romantic gift, but certainly something we will enjoy. Hopefully, the next few days will show that Valentine's Day helped the Kenyan economy; as one of the world's greatest flower exporters they were really relying on this holiday to recover some of the country's recent financial losses.

The last few days in Kenya have been pretty quiet. The Annan talks have been moved to a sequestered location with a supposed media blackout until they come out with an agreement to resolve the election controversy. He estimated that there might be something to announce tomorrow, but we'll see. The only blip on the screen has come from a leading negotiator for the government, who is the only woman significantly involved in the mediation and who made some very nasty statements in a public letter to Kofi Annan. As long as the controversy has been going on, she has been the most obvious hardliner on the government side (far more so than the President, it is believed). She isn't very well-liked around my or Kristoffer's office and people seem to think that if the Annan talks do break down, it might be her fault alone. She actually seems to not want to reach a compromise or mediate a solution, and to quote one of my colleagues, "she would watch this country burn with no pain at all." Violence throughout the country has been suspended and it seems like the country is holding its breath, waiting for some news. People around the UN have fears that if the talks break down, or if one group is very unhappy with the negotiations, the violence will resume. We can certainly hope and pray that that is not the case.

Yesterday Kristoffer and I attended a security meeting with the Danish Embassy. We hoped to learn something new but, in fact, because we are so well informed at the UN we were mostly very bored. We did learn about the Danish Embassy's emergency evacuation plans, but also that at no point in Kenya's crisis have they been anywhere near evacuation (we've remained 3 entire security phases behind the evacuation phase, in fact). We learned that because Kristoffer is employed by the UN, by contract we have to follow the UN's emergency plans or else we will not be insured. It was clear that the embassies here typically follow the lead of the UN so that if the UN is evacuating the embassies are too, which means we are equally covered and secure from both sides. It was also confirmed that none of the violence in the last seven weeks has targeted or seen white people/expatriates as victims. The security guy said that he was even in the middle of violent skirmishes in Naivasha and nobody had a problem with him, not even a rock was thrown in his direction. Even though it was a boring meeting, it was reassuring to us that we know as much as, if not more than, other people and that we have been making good decisions. General crime throughout the country was at a low before the crisis began and is now at an elevated level; this is called "opportunistic crime" because people are taking advantage of the law enforcement and political institutions being so busy right now. We will continue to be very careful!

The sim card investigation is still under way and we have no other big news to report. A highlight of last night for us was watching Roger Clemens get grilled at the Congressional hearing on steroids in MLB live on CNN. Brian McNamee is a shady character for sure, but I respect Andy Pettitte (even though he is a Yankee, at least he was never a traitor to the Red Sox) and I believe his testimony, which definitely incriminates Clemens. Christine and I thought it was pretty funny that they discussed Clemens' injury to his "buttocks" on national television for so long. All of the articles online today (Boston Globe, NYTimes, Sports Illustrated) seem to agree that Clemens is guilty of both using illegal substances and of being a big liar!

That's all from Nairobi. Hope you have a Happy Valentine's Day wherever you are!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

February 10, 2008 - Church in Nairobi, take 2

Christine and I went to mass this morning at an Italian parish not too far from where I live. For the record, this was definitely a Catholic church and I confirmed that the one I went to before was definitely not. The church was more than full, standing room only! We managed to snag a seat in the back. It was a normal Catholic mass, with an occasional African drum and some clapping and swaying to boot. The biggest event of the mass for us was when we saw a woman leave the church towards the beginning of the mass wearing a t-shirt that read "Same Shit, Different Day." I kid you not! We could not believe our eyes and, in fact, we almost had to leave ourselves from a fit of the giggles! While her shirt was inappropriate for mass (and note that she did not come back in once she left), we thought that it was a pretty accurate statement for what life must feel like for Kenyans these days. Other than that, it was a perfectly normal mass and I will definitely go back there in the future.

The political news here is that at the funeral of one of the murdered MPs yesterday, Raila Odinga called for President Kibaki to step down and acknowledge that he stole this election. This was a big surprise, at least to the media, given that the day before Kofi Annan announced that Odinga and Kibaki were close to agreeing on a political solution. Odinga's tone at the funeral was not one that inspired confidence in his willingness to negotiate. I think it will prove to be an interesting week for the African mediators.


Saturday, February 9, 2008

February 9, 2008 - Progress in Kenya

We don't have too many new updates here, except for Kofi Annan and his team's press conference yesterday. They announced, as you may have read, that both sides of the political conflict in Kenya are close to agreeing on a solution to the election controversy. Before the press conference, the media went wild with rumors that everyone had agreed to a power-sharing government, which is actually not the case. The news now seems to indicate that Odinga is agreeing to legitimize Kibaki's presidency, but in exchange for what we are not quite sure yet. We remain slightly on the skeptical side but the people we have spoken to in the past two days are greatly encouraged by the prospect of political peace.

I really enjoyed working at UNICEF for the last three days and I think that everything I am learning will give me great perspective for future employment, be it in schools or out. I am learning so much and have already produced one useful document analyzing the overall picture of education for displaced children in Africa, inconclusive of the information UNICEF is missing and the challenges they are facing right now. I also received a call from the international school that interviewed me a few weeks ago; they've asked me to come in for a second discussion about available positions in the fall and so I am encouraged that it will lead to a job offer.

There is no news on "the Great Sim Card Caper of 2008", but we expect to hear from the Diplomatic Police next week. Kristoffer and Christine are both doing very well. We are going to give my back one more week of recovery before we go on safari in the Nairobi National Park next weekend; we are ready to see more animals but it will be a long day of sitting in the car and my back is not quite ready for that.

Lent began this past week and Christine and I weren't able to make it to an English mass on Ash Wednesday, which I think was the first Ash Wednesday of my life that I didn't go to mass. So weird! Tomorrow we are going to try going to a different Catholic Church, an Italian one with 3 English masses each Sunday, and they are also giving ashes for the first Sunday of Lent. Better late than ever I guess! We will eat a good breakfast and bring water in case it is a 2 hour ordeal again :) Kristoffer asked me what I was giving up for Lent this year; last year I successfully gave up using the elevator at work (a 14 story school building!) and the year before that I miraculously gave up ice cream (extremely difficult). The way I see it now, when I moved to Kenya two months ago I gave up living in my country, being close to and talking regularly with my family and friends, eating meat, and apparently my sim card! I think Jesus will understand if I don't sacrifice anything else for Lent this year...he will understand that I want to hold on to some selfish indulgences, like chocolate croissants and hot chocolate for breakfast and watching old episodes of "How do I Look?" on the Style Network.

The weather is beautiful in Nairobi today. February is supposed to be the hottest month here, which usually means sunny and in the 80s. Some days I feel challenged to be here, but there are definitely some perks to living in Kenya.


Thursday, February 7, 2008

February 7, 2008 - UNICEF

Yesterday marked two months in Kenya for me and Kristoffer. I suppose it is fitting, then, that it was my first day of work; after two months of getting settled I am definitely ready to do something! Being a volunteer is very similar to being an intern, which I feel is an interesting regression for me at this point in my life. I don’t have my own desk or computer or keys to anywhere…and I have to ask a million questions! Lucky for me, everyone at UNICEF is extremely grateful for anything I can do to alleviate all of their overburdened workloads and they have all been very nice to me. The work I am doing is not extremely difficult, but it is extremely interesting. So far, I have two major tasks:

1 - I read and edit grant proposals for education projects to help the current crisis (mostly for children in displacement camps) that would require UNICEF support or money.

2 - I compile and analyze education news and data from field officers and NGOs about the status of children, schools, and any education-related programs in displacement camps around the country. My reports are alternately distributed to all UNICEF officers, related NGOs, the Ministry of Education and other UN agencies over 4 days each week.

I have learned that among the hundreds of displacement camps around the country there is a range in the quality of the camps. Some of the camps are spacious so that well-made tents aren't too crowded, people have access to proper kitchens and toilets, and the grounds are well lighted for security. In other camps, however, people basically live under thick sheets with no toilets, kitchens, or security and, in many cases, little food. It has been documented that at least 19 schools have been burned in the violence, and dozens more have been vandalized or looted. Thousands of displaced people are living in police stations right now, because of a lack of camps or transportation to camps, and there is one police station just outside of Nairobi that has 7,000 people living there, including at least 2,000 children. While schools throughout the country have opened, obviously children in these circumstances are not regularly attending any school and UNICEF cannot set up learning centers in police stations.

The most interesting statistic I have learned is in regards to Kenya's economic situation: for every tourist who cancels a trip to Kenya or decides not to book a trip at all, 7 Kenyans will lose their jobs. So the bottom line is that you have to visit us! Soon! Kenya needs you!

I am really happy to have something to do besides be an internet junky and watch TV/DVDs. I think that as I get more knowledgeable and comfortable at UNICEF my boss (the Director of the Education Sector of UNICEF for Kenya) and her colleagues will be able to benefit even more from my skills and, perhaps, will find me so indispensable that they will have no choice but to offer me a job. J

In other news, our "sim card theft" investigation is going as well as can be expected, and in fact the diplomatic police are doing more than we expected. In the last two days they have investigated colleagues and even the boss of the guy who was using the sim card. My parents received a T-Mobile bill in the mail and scanned/emailed it to us so the police can see the call log. This was very helpful but there are a few factors working against the case. First, the sim card has not been found yet; mostly likely when T-Mobile eventually suspended the account the guy tossed the sim card. If they could find the sim card, which the police have not given up on yet, it would be an open-and-close case in terms of prosecuting the guy. The second problem is that if they don't find the sim card, they would need a representative from T-Mobile to present and authenticate the call log in a court of law in order for it to be accepted as evidence. We're thinking it might be a bit tricky to get someone from T-Mobile to come over to Kenya (they don't like me too much and it is pretty far!) but if we could get a subpoena than maybe T-Mobile would just wipe away the charges to avoid the hassle. It is still a frustrating situation, but the initial shock has worn off and we are doing everything we can. We are also hoping that some legal help in NYC might make T-Mobile slightly more sympathetic to the situation than they have been so far. I’ll definitely keep you posted.

The political situation in Nairobi is very calm, while terror reigns in the Rift Valley. Ten people were killed last night, houses and churches continue to be burned, and yesterday two teachers were shot by police during a protest of the arrest of 4 local leaders who were charged with inciting violence. With two teachers killed, it could present problems for the government if they want the teacher's union (KNUT) to be an ally in the future. The police manning the protest were supposed to fire only rubber bullets and, obviously, the union is up in arms that they actually fired live rounds.

Kristoffer continues to like his job and this week has learned how important it is that each person at WFP does their job well. If anyone makes a mistake it means that hundreds or thousands of children might actually not receive any food, which lowers school attendance and is obviously not good for their health (this happened this week, but it was not Kristoffer’s mistake). It is critical that the WFP gets food to the children for the school feeding program, in addition to the fact that they are now also providing food to people in displacement camps (there is a lot of collaboration between UNICEF and WFP in regards to the current crisis).

We look forward to a short Friday work day tomorrow (in Africa Friday is always a short day!) and a relaxing weekend.


Tuesday, February 5, 2008

February 5, 2008 - Lisa gets a job and really hates T-Mobile!

There is a lot of good news to report today. Violence in Kenya seems to be calming down since the rough weekend we had. Between yesterday and today we haven't heard any reports of political or ethnic violence. I think that the situation is still very volatile in the Rift Valley but certainly around Nairobi people are of the opinion that the situation is on the mend, although there is a lot of work that the mediators have left to do. I neglected to mention in my last blog that when Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary General, visited Kenya last week, Kristoffer stood two feet away from him when he was greeting people before addressing UN staff. I don't know that Ki Moon's visit had a direct effect on the situation here or if it is the combination of his appearance as well as the other mediation efforts between the opposing sides. Whatever it is - keep it coming!

I also start to work tomorrow! My back is doing well enough that I turned in all of my paperwork today and they were begging for me to start right away. UNICEF has a lot of work to do, charged with protecting and educating all of the displaced children in the country. I look forward to becoming involved in the organization and hopefully helping the healing process.

The bad news is that I have been the victim of a crime. My American sim card was stolen out of my cell phone almost a month ago and, naively, I did not know this happened until yesterday. It is a long story which, if I wrote it all out, indicates that I am guilty of being too trusting. It is something that over here, especially, I have to work on. The bottom line is that we paid a guy to repair my cell phone and in the process he stole my sim card.

I didn't know my cell phone was stolen and so did not report it to T-Mobile, so T-Mobile is holding me responsible for thousands...I repeat thousands...of dollars in phone charges in the last month. You see, T-Mobile's roaming charges in Kenya are $5 a minute. when someone steals your sim card and doesn't know this...and he or she talks for over 13 leaves you with a pretty hefty bill. The real kicker is that T-Mobile didn't even contact me to tell me that they finally suspended my account after several thousand dollars or that there was suspicious activity on my account. I accidentally found this information when I called T-Mobile to get their fax number for sending proof of our address in Kenya so that we could finally cancel our contracts without penalty. If I hadn't called, I would still not know!

What I am going to do about this, you ask? Today Kristoffer and I visited the Diplomatic Police Office here in Nairobi. We explained our situation which, of course, sounds ludicrous at first. Until the police heard the dollar amount, I know they thought we were crazy for complaining about a stolen sim card. They did take us seriously though and mobilized to action right away. I went with two diplomatic police officers to the place where the man worked on my phone. After his co-worker caused some delay and tried to alert him to the police's presence, he did show up and confess to "accidentally" keeping my sim card. He made one attempt to contact me, by calling my parents in the middle of the night, but the situation was very unclear at the time and I did not end up getting the message that he had my card. So he kept it and used it for a few days, and then supposedly "lost it”. The police and I took him back to the police office for further questioning and scrutiny of his cell phone. They seem to think that he probably sold the card to someone else after he used it, but he had not confessed to that when Kristoffer and I finally left.

While they are collecting evidence on their end, the police asked us to get a call list from T-Mobile because the serial number of the handset used to make a call is attached to each phone number it calls. This would help them determine if the guy is lying or if they can identify other users. Sadly, T-Mobile refuses to cooperate. They will not release my call list because my account is suspended and because it is not the end of my billing cycle. Even when it is the end of my billing cycle, they will no longer allow me to access my account online because of the outstanding charges, so I will have to wait for my parents to receive the bill at their home and then send it to us here (which takes at least one month). It is so frustrating! T-Mobile will basically not help me in any way, except to keep reminding me that I am responsible for paying the bill because I did not report the sim card lost or stolen. I have spoken with 4 different representatives at T-Mobile, at various levels of their hierarchy, and they have the worst customer service I have ever experienced, without a doubt.

Their best advice was to give me the legal department's address if I wish to take legal action for T-Mobile to credit my account for the thousands of dollars that I owe, but they refuse to give me a phone number or fax number: snail mail only. Too bad that snail mail from Kenya to the States can take weeks or months! There is no way that my actual level of frustration can be conveyed in words, but if there is one message I hope you will get loud and clear it is that T-Mobile does not care about its customers at all and I do not recommend that you use the company as your cell phone service provider.

I will say this: the Diplomatic Police really impressed us! There is so much crime in Nairobi and very rarely are the perpetrators ever caught, especially those stealing something as insignificant as a sim card. They didn't seem to have any other diplomatic crime to be taking care of and we have their two best agents on the case, which is both a relief and a surprise to us. The problem we face now is that even if the guy is guilty or the police find others involved, none of them will have the amount of money that I owe because the amount is more than they probably make in several years! I can't sue them for money they don't have, can I? AH!

Ok...enough of that story. Share it with your friends...down with T-Mobile!

And I will happily go to work tomorrow and try to forget about it, until we speak to the Diplomatic Police again. When my instincts are to be an open-minded and fair person, it is a very expensive lesson to learn that I have to assume people here are trying to rip me off before I allow them to prove otherwise.


Monday, February 4, 2008

February 4, 2008 - Football and Theater

Hello hello!

I write my blog this morning a little bit sleepier than usual. Why, you ask? Well, the Superbowl of course! Christine, Kristoffer and I decided that not being in America was no excuse for missing out on watching the Superbowl live, especially since for most of Kristoffer's life he has been staying up really late to watch it live in Denmark. We all went to sleep sometime between 8pm and 10pm last night, and then we all woke up together at 2am this morning to watch the game on ESPN. We prepared ourselves to be very tired during the day.

Our plan was working great and we started to watch all the background stories at the beginning of the broadcast...when our power went out! This weekend we had more and longer power outages in our apartment than ever before, but during the Superbowl at 2am it is really inconvenient. So we waited and waited, pretending to be Jordin Sparks singing the national anthem and also playing a fun-filled round of "Name That TV Show Theme Song". By 3am the power was still on and we were falling asleep so we went to bed. The power threatened to come on a few times in the next hour and finally did so at 4am, just as Alicia Keyes was starting to play the piano (and before she started lip synching in those awful pants)!

We were so happy to have power and to be able to watch the second half of the game, sending all of our good energy to the Patriots. Well you know how much our Kenyan energy did for the Pats, and I went back to sleep for a bit at 6:10 this morning feeling sad and disappointed for the team (sorry Giants fans, I know you are thrilled!). Kristoffer hopped in the shower and headed off to work at 7am and Christine snuck in a few minutes of rest before she had to get ready for work too. What a night!

The rest of our weekend had some comical moments as well, although the violence in the western part of the country has not improved. The Peace Plan, which Kofi Annan brokered between the government and ODM on Friday, has not stopped the death toll from rising or the two opposing leaders from verbally attacking one another. The problem, in my opinion, is that the violence has become about so much more than the election controversy that it is going to take a lot more than a signed Peace Plan to stop the domino effect that is well in effect. Raila Odinga has publicly asked for international peace-keeping forces to stop the violence because neither the police nor the military (which has not been deployed at all throughout this saga) are neutral. I tend to agree with him and wonder how many more people must die or how many more homes, churches and schools must be burned before a new tactic is used to stop the perpetrators.

This weekend in Nairobi, however, things were very calm. Christine and I took in a movie - Atonement, based on one of my favorite novels - which was absolutely brilliant. We also tried to go to the Kenyan National Theater for a production called "Actors for Peace", with proceeds benefiting the Red Cross in Kenya. When I say we "tried" to go to the theater, I mean that we did succeed in physically getting there but we did not succeed in actually watching the show. There was a 2pm performance and a 4pm one, and we arrived around 3:30pm for the second show. We were early because traffic is completely unpredictable here. We waited around until 4:00pm, having a drink at the cafe there and listening to a fantastic men's singing group practicing outside the music conservatory. At 4:00, the first show was still not over! We heard that it had started late and, in fact, it wasn't over until about 4:20. By this time, our patience was waning because we hadn't eaten lunch yet! At 4:30 we finally went in and sat in the theater, but there were no signs that the show would start soon and the theater was almost empty. I decided we would leave at 4:45 if the show hadn't started...and, in fact, we waited until 5pm before we walked out with the theater now actually filling up.

In hindsight, we forgot that African time is not punctual at all, but we still couldn't believe that everyone else knew not to show up until 5pm - 1 hour late! It was an interesting venture in people watching, but we were grumpy and hungry and just couldn't wait any longer. One our way out to the car, a couple of people associated with the show stopped Kristoffer to ask him why we were leaving. He explained that we were used to things starting on time and that we were going to be late for another obligation (dinner!) if we stayed. It was a little awkward, but when we got home and devoured our leftovers from dinner the night before in an Italian restaurant, we were very happy with our decision.

My back has been getting stronger, although last night I had a bit of set back so I really just have to be extremely careful how I sit, lay, and move. I am ready to get to work with UNICEF and am just waiting on some paperwork to process before I can start.