Sunday, March 30, 2008

March 30, 2008 - The Long Rains Have Come

I am so sorry that I have not posted our Easter pictures yet, but the rainy season has started here and when it rains (usually from about 6pm through the morning) our internet connection does not work! Also, since the rains started our internet connection has been much slower, even when it is not raining, and the website has not been able to upload the pictures. I will try to post them on the UN compound sometime this week because some of them are really great! In addition to slowing down our internet connection, the long rains are absolutely destroying the roads of Nairobi. There have always been pot holes in the roads here, which we have learned to navigate well because we mostly drive the same roads, but within the last 2 weeks of rain the number of pot holes has more than tripled along with the size of the pre-existing pot holes. Now everyday is like an obstacle course as Kristoffer navigates the new holes in the road (some of them are 3 ft. wide!). And if we thought it was scary to drive in the company of Kenya's crazy matatus (mini buses) in good weather, believe me when I tell you that the fear is amplified while driving in torrential rain! The final thing to report on the long rains is that with them have come this crazy type of moth - which I unaffectionately call "rain bugs" - whenever it rains. They have long papery wings, they are attracted to light during the rain, they have somehow managed to get into our apartment even when we don't have any windows open, they die very quickly and leave their wings all over the place, and when we leave the house in the morning our stairwell is covered in them. ICK! I am not a fan of these rain bugs and hope that maybe they are plentiful at the start of the season but will all die off and leave me alone!

On Thursday of last week we received a yellow slip in our mailbox telling us that another package was waiting for us at the post office. Of course our previous experiences left us pretty jaded about going, but we also knew that the post office was charging us for storage so on Friday afternoon we headed into Nairobi's busy downtown during a torrential rain storm. I am very happy to report that we had our best post office experience to date! They quickly found our box of Easter goodies from Kristoffer's mom and we breezed through the following layers of bureaucracy very quickly. Kristoffer practiced his Kiswahili on the postal workers, which they found very entertaining, and we were out of there in 20 minutes. Of course, with the rain and the Friday traffic, it took us over an hour to get home...but at least we had Easter chocolate to eat on the drive!

The other event of this week for me was my first book club meeting yesterday morning. Four women had committed to participating but on Friday three of them cancelled on me, so I went to coffee house hoping that someone showed up! To my delight, one woman did come and we ended up having a lovely conversation about both the novel we read and being a "UN Spouse." The woman is very involved in helping UN spouses find work in Nairobi and she was really impressed that my volunteer work at UNICEF is so quickly turning into a paying job. She is Bulgarian and her husband is German, so she has 20 years of experience in what people here call an "international marriage"; she could really identify with the challenges, sacrifices, and compromises that are unique to international couples and she shared her experiences being in Nairobi for the last two years. I think in the end it was a blessing for me that she is the only one who showed up, but we are hoping that next month we have a better turnout!

Kristoffer left for his week-long WFP conference in Rome at 1am this morning; I have the week to remember what it was like to live alone! In NYC, where I lived alone for the better part of 4 years, I was always so busy with my work that living alone never felt too lonely, and I always had the telephone to keep me constantly connected to my family and friends. Here, I don't have any lessons to plan, papers to grade, or people to call so I think it will be a more solitary week than I am used to. But I am sure that will only make me more grateful for Kristoffer's normally-constant presence in my life and I will be happy to welcome him home next week.

On the political scene in Kenya, the new "coalition" government made up of PNU (the President's party) and ODM (the government's opposition) members with power-sharing between the President and Prime Minister-designee is at a stalemate one month after Kofi Annan brokered the power-sharing agreement. Both sides cannot agree on how to share the many ministries in the country and have not made progress in days, even going so far as to ask Kofi Annan to come back to help them. I think he turned them down, because really he cannot rescue them every time they disagree on something - these are big boys who need to grow up and become the leaders they claim to be. While the violence is at a minimum in the western part of the country (and there is always some violence over land and cattle at this time of year) and Nairobi seems very much back to normal, there is a lot of tension about the delay in true power-sharing. Sadly, there are still hundreds of thousands of people in IDP camps throughout the country and last week 3 women died from exposure to the cold and rain. The sooner the government gets its act together, the sooner they can increase aid to IDPs.

Hopefully I will get new pictures posted on here soon. I hope you have a good week!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

March 26, 2008 - Easter Weekend

Our Easter Weekend was pretty interesting. We had some really great moments and added to our collection of Kenyan experiences.

On Friday morning we drove from Nairobi to a town called Nanyuki at the base of Mt. Kenya. It was about a 3 ½ hour drive to our hotel called the Mt. Kenya Safari Club. We didn’t know (because it is not on their website!) that the resort was being renovated, nor did we know that all of their activities were not included in the cost of staying there. So…our first impression was that it was over-priced. We didn’t realize how rare it is to find a lodge with rates that are inclusive of safaris and other activities like the one we stayed at in Naivasha after Christmas. Anyway, we decided to give it a try. The food was good and our room was beautiful, with a big fire place that you really need because at 7,000 ft it is very cold! What I really loved was that we were staying exactly on the Equator – so cool! We made the most of our time there, including early morning horse-back riding with some other guests (a nice Iranian family) and a visit to their animal orphanage. Both this hotel and the orphanage were founded by the American actor William Holden and the orphanage, unlike the one in Nairobi, actually does release rehabilitated and orphaned animals back into the wild. I rode and fed a giant 150 year-old turtle (over 360 lbs!), fed an eland (the largest type of antelope), an ostrich and many monkeys! Kristoffer fed the turtle and the monkeys but was not as into the eland and ostrich (I agree with him that ostriches are super freaky). The orphanage was such a great place for little kids to interact with animals – the few little ones we saw there were super cute. I should also mention that the snow-capped Mt. Kenya is one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. Another time when we have 5 days to climb up and come down, we hope to have that experience. It is the second highest mountain in Africa, at over 17,000 ft (5199 meters), and does not look like an easy climb...but perhaps it could help us “train” to climb Kilimanjaro. In the end, we had a nice time at the Safari Club (but still think it was over-priced).

After our orphanage visit on Saturday morning we headed to another lodge about 30 minutes west of the first place, still near the town of Nanyuki, straddling the Equator and in view of Mt. Kenya. It is called “Sweetwaters Tented Camp” and is located on its own game reserve, made up of about 30 really nice tents furnished like hotel rooms with a restaurant, bar, shop, etc. in a regular building. Unfortunately, because we weren’t exactly ahead of the game when it came to planning our weekend, they didn’t have any available tents. They did, however, have a random room (dare we say staff quarters?) where we were able to stay inexpensively. The food was pretty good but the best part of this place was that we could go on as many game drives as we wanted! We spent about 4 hours on Saturday driving around the park enjoying the animals and hunting for two in particular: elephants and lions. This was the first place we have been in Kenya where there actually are elephants so we were really psyched. Sadly we had no luck finding them on Saturday, but did enjoy some cool birds, tons of baboons, 3 rhinos, many types of antelope, and zebras and giraffes galore. They also have a Chimpanzee Sanctuary which is hundreds of acres of land for about 50 rescued chimps; there are no chimps in Kenya as they are native to Burundi and Rwanda. We could have watched them for hours – they are amazing and SOO much like us!

Sunday morning and Happy Easter! We decided to get up before everyone else and started on our game drive at 6am. By the time we needed to head back for breakfast around 8:15 we had seen more of the same, not to mention a breathtaking sunrise over Mt. Kenya, but no lions or elephants. Especially because it was probably our 7th or 8th game drive with no lion sightings, I was so frustrated! Luckily, as we were almost back to the camp, Kristoffer noticed down the path to our left a herd of elephants! Easter Elephants for us! When we got closer there were about 15 elephants, including 3 pretty small babies. They were enormous and amazing and completely made our weekend. Two of them crossed the road behind our car so close to us! We watched them eating for a while, completely fascinated by their interactions with each other, before we headed back to eat a champagne Easter breakfast of our own.

And of course, what would Easter Sunday be for me without going to church. Luckily, the lodge advertised that it had a 10am “mass” on site; I was happy about this because the closest Catholic Church was at least an hour’s drive away and I assumed it would a non-denominational Christian service of some kind, which would perfectly suit my needs. While Kristoffer worked on changing a flat tire, I headed to the “chapel” (also the pool house). I found myself with 15 Kenyans (3 of them preachers/ministers) from a nearby town and no other hotel guests, although one man did briefly join us a little later on. As it turned out, it was a Born Again Christian service that I attended. With such a small group, it was one of the most joyful church services I have ever been to with A LOT of singing and dancing. At first I sat on the outskirts of the group mostly watching and listening, but at some point one of the women came and took my hands and started dancing with me. Then, she led me to the center of the circle where she and I danced in the middle of the group. I know this sounds a little strange, but it was actually pretty special and didn’t feel uncomfortable or weird. The part that was awkward for me was later in the service, after all of the preachers had talked for a long time, members of the congregation were asked to “testify” and after a few women had gone I was asked to speak. Yikes! Of course, there was a translator going back and forth between English and Kiswahili, but Catholics do not usually get up in the middle of mass and testify so I was not quite on my game! While the other testimonies involved singing and a lot of passionate talk about being saved by Jesus, mine went a little something like this:

“Good morning…Happy Easter…my name is Lisa and I live in Nairobi…I am a Catholic Christian…Jesus has been very good to me…thank you for letting me be part of your service…Asante Sana (thank you very much).”

As lame a testimony as that was, I did receive a round of applause. After the testimony came gospel readings and sermons. I lasted a total of 1 hr. and 45 minutes before I had to go to the bathroom (and didn’t quite make it back to the service) but I know that it went on for at least 2 ½ hours. They were the most energetic Christians with whom I have ever had an experience, and it was actually pretty nice for Easter Sunday. Let me tell you, they could not have been more thrilled with Christ’s resurrection! Anyway, after church Kristoffer and I took another short game drive before lunch (sadly, no lions) and then decided to go back to Nairobi.

The rest of our weekend was very relaxing with some movie watching, good food, and generally enjoying not having to work! We saw “The Bucket List” with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, which we would highly recommend. Yesterday and today have been really busy at work for me (which is why it has taken me longer than usual to get this blog up!) and Kristoffer is getting ready to leave on Sunday for a week’s conference at the WFP headquarters in Rome. Sadly, I can’t go with him so I will be all alone in this big country (hint hint: if you want to visit next week that would be OK by me).

We are happy to have expanded our view of this country and hope that everyone else had as nice a holiday weekend as we did (although you probably didn’t see any elephants, so probably our weekend was a little bit better than yours). Pictures of our weekend will be in the next blog!


Thursday, March 20, 2008

March 20, 2008 - Mount Kenya

I would like to say that we are going to climb Mt. Kenya, Africa's second highest peak, this weekend, BUT it takes 5 days to go up and come down the mountain and we only have 4 days this weekend. So instead of climbing it, we are just going to go stay at a resort near it. As I mentioned before, our hope was to go to the island of Lamu in the Indian Ocean, but we tried to make plans too late last week and all flights in and out of the island were already booked! So a resort near Mt. Kenya is the best we can do on short notice, and we are looking forward to an Easter weekend of relaxation, beautiful scenery, and great animal watching.

We have had a busy and interesting week at work. Kristoffer's office is working on their "Country Programme", which is their strategy for the next 5 years. It has been a difficult and drawn out process but is pretty much done now. Kristoffer feels like it is a boomerang - every time they send it on to a higher level it comes back to them with more comments and changes to I should say that they hope it is done now! Kristoffer and his colleagues have been dealing with a difficult manager as well; it would be safe to say that he is learning a lot about working with different people in addition to his WFP-specific knowledge. As for me, I have developed a really great working relationship with my boss, Aminata: a Malian woman who is American-educated and has worked at UNICEF in Nigeria and Kenya following careers at the both the World Bank and the University of Illinois. She trusts me and respects my views, even though I am very new to the world of UNICEF, and she takes every opportunity she can to teach me all the things I don't know. The job she wanted to give me, unfortunately, needs to be filled ASAP and my paperwork is taking too long to be processed in NYC. So...that job is going to someone else and when my paperwork is complete Aminata will create a position for me based on her needs and my skills. She believes there is room for growth for me at UNICEF, which is nice for me to hear.

Based on my work and recent conversations with Aminata, I have decided not to pursue teaching in Kenya at this time. I was officially offered a position at the international school here, but the workload was more than I desire right now and the position would definitely be for one school year only. I know from experience that the best part of the first year teaching some place is when you can use everything you developed in your second year at that place! I also feel really attached to the post-election crisis, and working to improve education for thousands of displaced children in the country. I am getting to know more people at UNICEF, which makes me feel more like I belong there, and so I think I will try it for a bit longer and see where it takes me.

The other aspect of this week for us has been dealing with "customer service" issues. Basically, we feel as though we can't trust anyone we deal with in Nairobi because it seems as though everyone is out to take advantage of us in some way. First there was the phone repair-guy(remember he stole my sim card and left me a $7,000 T-Mobile bill?) and then came our carpenter, who built us 2 bed frames 6 weeks ago that our beds did not fit in and since then has not followed up and fixed our bed frames. This week we took our car to be serviced and the manager at the car place was extremely skeezy, leaving us with scratches on our car and indicating to us that he was barely paying his workers anything. It took us three visits before he followed through on all of the work we agreed he would do. At the same time, we bought a printer from a computer store at a local mall. We were sold a "brand new" HP printer that had empty ink cartridges and no installation disc. When we brought it back to the store, we were given new, in-the-package ink cartridges that turned out to not even fit the printer! They also gave us a bootleg installation disc that still did not work. They clearly sold us a "brand new" lemon! On our 3rd, or was it 4th?, trip to the store, we exchanged it for another printer. I have not been brave enough to try to get it to work but I might go somewhat postal if it doesn't! It is also hard to barter here for goods - just the fact that we are white, not to mention that we drive a car with diplomatic license plates, means that all sellers increase their prices for us by at least 300% and it takes FOREVER to haggle them down to prices that are only 100% inflated. The place we discovered that sells the best fruit, for example, will just not give us a good price!

We are having a really hard time accepting the fact that we cannot trust people here until they really, really prove to us that they are trustworthy. We are open-minded and accepting people, which has not previously been a negative quality, but here it is something we really have to watch.

That's all of our news from this side of the equator. Now you won't hear from us until after the holiday weekend so we wish you an extremely Happy Easter weekend if you celebrate it, and a really nice long weekend if you don't!


Monday, March 17, 2008

March 17, 2008 - Happy St. Patrick's Day!

"If you're Irish, step into the parlor, there's a welcome there for you...and if your name is Timothy or Pat, as long as you come from Ireland there's a welcome on the mat..."

Ok, so there aren't that many Irish people here in Kenya and I did not hear one mention of St. Patrick's Day at work today, even though I was wearing green pants (well, army green...but still green). I am sure that my mother made corn beef and cabbage, as she has done every year of my life, while listening to Irish CDs, which luckily my sister's kids like to dance to because I know she is babysitting them. Today I fondly remembered St. Patrick's Days in college: friends of mine doing "car bombs" at Faegan's on Marshall Street (I won't name names, you know who you are), and my one day a year to drink Guinness. I remembered the year I lived in Cambridge and my friends Joanna, Erin and I spent St. Patty's Day dancing and cracking each other up at "the Black Rose", my favorite Boston bar. Finally, I remembered 4 years of dressing up like some kind of new-age leprechaun, dancing around my NYC classroom to my own version of the Irish jig, and offering extra credit to students who brought me green presents (gum, socks, pencils, air freshener, un-ripe bananas were a few of my favorites). Today didn't quite compare to any of that, at least not in the Irish sense, but at least my memories kept me company.

Kristoffer and I are doing well here in Nairobi, gearing up for a 4-day Easter weekend. We hope to go away to an island called Lamu, but we waited too long to make our plans and as of last week all of the flights to the island (no cars allowed!) were booked. We are hoping that somebody cancels tomorrow and we can get their plane tickets! If not, we are thinking of going to Mount Kenya, just a few hours north of Nairobi. My sister, Christine, went back to Washington, DC on Saturday night so we are now family-less in Kenya. She was really thrilled about sleeping in her own bed after 2 months of being in Africa and dealing with her own cockroaches instead of ours (yes, there are cockroaches in Kenya). We believe that our next visitors will be Kristoffer's mom and step-dad for 3 weeks in July and we are practically counting down the days!

I have two websites to share today that I have been meaning to post. The first is a charity website connected to the WFP. If you go to it is a vocabulary website: for each synonym you correctly identify, 20 grains of rice will be donated to the World Food Programme. I do it almost everyday for a few minutes - some of the words are REALLY difficult! A friend of mine in the US told me about it months ago (thank you, Kathy) and a friend in Denmark recently made a comment about it on our blog (thank you, Peter), but I haven't remembered to post it until now. It is a specifically great tool for English teachers/tutors: SAT prep while giving to charity!

The second website is something that one of my NYC students (thank you, Scott) emailed me when he found out I was moving to Kenya. It is this completely ridiculous and silly song about Kenya (ridiculous because it talks about tigers in Kenya and there are obviously no tigers anywhere in Africa). Sometimes I have hard moments here; for example, every time we have a power outage - which always happens when I really need or want the electricity to be working (when I am baking or doing laundry or paying a bill online...or watching a critical moment of "24") - I am known to shout, "Damn you, Kenya!" But then when the electricity turns back on I will click on this website and literally crack up for a few minutes and then I will feel better. I hope it brings a smile to your face too:

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

March 13, 2008 - Merry Christmas and Happy Easter

Kristoffer and I were thrilled that last week we received a notice in our mailbox of a package from Denmark waiting for us at the post office! This week we were thrilled again to have a package from the US waiting for us. Two packages!! Because he was away all last week and because the post office closes at 5pm, we were not able to get to the post office until yesterday when we left work early to make it in time.

When we arrived at 4:40pm we thought we had won the jackpot; because it was so close to closing there was nobody else waiting for a package and we thought we could breeze right through the bureaucracy. This feeling even lasted for a few minutes when we didn’t have to show each item in each package because they really wanted to close the post office and nobody wanted to bother with a full customs investigation.

The package from Denmark was our CHRISTMAS package from Kristoffer’s mom and step-dad mailed to us on December 12th. Kristoffer’s mom had already filed an insurance claim with the post office, assuming our gifts were stolen. As it turns out, the package from Denmark arrived a long time ago and was sitting in the post office for weeks and weeks, but we never got any notification until last week. The package from the US was an Easter package from my parents and my sister Meghan mailed around February 12th.

This is probably a really boring story so far, but the fun began when they told us our “storage” fees for not picking up our packages “on time”. The post office claims to have sent us many notifications of the Danish package, which we never received, and they were charging us Ksh 2,650 ($43 USD) for their trouble to keep our package sitting on an old shelf in their mail room all this time. Are you kidding me?!?! For the American package, which we had only received notice of 2 days earlier, they were charging us Ksh 350 ($6 USD). Now…we are not cheap people, we don’t like to cheat anybody on paying what we owe and we even believe in financial incentives for people to behave correctly in society, but $48 to pick up two packages of presents that people sent us?!? No way. That is just not fair.

Kristoffer had a very polite conversation with a nice postal woman about how it was not our fault that we didn’t receive notice of the package and that Kristoffer’s mom thought the package was stolen. The woman wondered who should take the blame then, because she could supposedly prove that they sent notices to our UN mailbox well before we received them (although she couldn’t show us the notices in that moment because, of course, the office was closing). I mostly stood or sat with steam coming out of my ears, trying not to say something inappropriate.

In the end, because everyone was done working and the woman clearly didn’t want to deal with us anymore, she knocked the charges down to Ksh 1,100 ($18) and let us take our packages. Granted, it was still SO CORRUPT that we had to pay anything at all (it really felt like paying a bribe) but she would not let us take our packages without paying something AND they were nearly locking the doors with us inside.

Luckily our bad mood ended when we got home as we celebrated both Christmas and Easter, laying all of our treats out on our coffee table to admire and eat and enjoy (books! cd! linens! candles! Christmas ornaments! Easter decorations! candy and food and more candy!). Thanks to our families for being so generous, and for providing us with another fabulous experience at the post office for us.


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

March 11, 2008 - Pictures from Kristoffer's Mission

This is Kristoffer scooping bowls of food (rice and split peas) for children at one of the schools he visited. They eat out of these bowls every day with their fingers. The food Kristoffer is serving is cooked in an energy-efficient stove, which is still very rare here. They are expensive ($1,500) but the WFP is trying to find resources to put them in every school because they can save up to 70% of the current fire wood used for cooking in schools right now.

This is Ikeny, a SFP Field Monitor who trained Kristoffer on his first monitoring mission to Garissa, Kenya.

He is holding a bag of "wheat soya milk" which is a fortified morning snack for pre-schoolers. This particular bag, as you may or may not be able to see, was a donation from the government of Switzerland.

As opposed to the energy saving stove above, this is a three-stone jiko which most schools have and which is very inefficient. In many schools, children are required to bring a piece of wood to school every day to cook the food and, believe it or not, this is a huge burden on their families. Even when they do have enough wood, having enough water is an extreme challenge in the arid districts of the country.

This is a classroom in a mixed-gender Muslim school. You can see some teaching materials hung on the walls and that the classroom is very crowded.

This is a classroom at an all-girls Muslim primary school. Classrooms as full as this, or more ful, are very common here with a teacher shortage of 60,000 teachers between primary and secondary schools. This classroom is well-constructed and textbooks are available to the students.

This is also a classroom in a mixed-gender primary school. You can see on the blackboards in the back the students are learning basics such as days of the week, shapes, colors, and months. All teaching in Kenya is conducted in English, except for language classes in high school (obviously).
Much to Lisa's dismay, the back left part of the blackboard has the word "Wednesday" spelled incorrectly (Wensday)...but Kristoffer has reminded her that it is a really hard word to spell!

At the all-girls school, the children are lined up to receive their lunch. At this school and others, the children were fascinated to see a "Mzungu" (white person).

Here is a "water donkey" making 4 trips a day to provide water from a bore hole 2 km away to one school at the cost of around $8 a day.

Here are Kristoffer's new favorite animals - camels! It is hard to imagine that another animal could rival Kristoffer's passion for giraffes, but it seems that the camel has become a strong challenger. In Garissa, and other towns near the border of Somalia, Kenya is like a desert and the camels are many among its inhabitants. Too bad we can't have pets in our apartment!

Last but not least, this is our favorite picture. Look at these pre-school boys! Kristoffer showed the smiling one in the green and orange his picture on the camera. He was fascinated. It is likely that he had never seen a picture of himself before! He is just so cute :)


Monday, March 10, 2008

March 10, 2008 - Donate to the WFP

Somebody (my friend Joanna, thank you) asked on our blog recently how people could donate to the WFP in Kenya like Drew Barrymore did. Don't worry, you don't have to donate $1 million - any and all donations make a difference!

If you would like to make a donation to the WFP go to this website: US citizens can make a tax-deductible donation right on that page and non-US citizens will be directed to's online donation site.

On the website, there are is a drop-down menu that lets you choose where your money will go. If you don't choose "greatest need", which gives the WFP discretion to use your funds, one of the options says "School Meals/Fill the Cup" which would direct your donation towards school feeding programs in Africa, possibly Kenya. There is another option on that menu that would feed internally displaced people (IDPs) from the Kenyan post-election crisis with your donation. There are other options, such as Darfur, as well.

About 7% of your donation will go towards overhead/administrative costs and the rest will actually get to WFP programs. Our next blog will include pictures of the children that the WFP is feeding here in Kenya from Kristoffer's trip last week (there is a teaser below). Maybe you will be inspired to donate - it takes only 25 cents a day to give one child a meal.

This picture was taken at an all-girls Muslim primary school on the border of Somalia. For many girls whose families may not value their education, the main reason their parents send them to school is for them to be fed. These girls are lining up to receive their lunch which, depending on which part of the country you live in, consists of either rice or maize. Because this part of the country is completely arid, when the WFP cuts the budget they are not at risk of losing their school feeding. Schools in parts of the country that are only semi-arid, however, are in danger and it is likely that enrolment will drop if children aren't provided with food, especially for girls whose parents will just keep them to home to work or contribute to the household in some way.


Sunday, March 9, 2008

March 9, 2008 - At the End of the World

The road is as red as the dust in the air. The dry season has left all rivers as san dunes, few remaining water points are attracting caravans from a far and we see hundreds of camels gathering at a dried-out lake where two people are digging for water at the deepest point for their animals. We continue on the rust-sand road which seems to continue forever. People holding several camels along side the road signal to stop but our security vehicle continued; we are in UN Security “phase 3” areas and this is no place to stop. The people did not want a lift, they did not want money or food they wanted water - a highly valued commodity in this part of the country. We are moving along the Somalia boarder where we reach our final destination about 22km from where the US bombed last week; a school supported by the World Food Program (WFP).

Last week I monitored schools in the totally arid district of Garissa, 6 hours east of Nairobi. This was a monitoring training for me as I was accompanied with WFP’s field monitor for the North Eastern Province, Mr. Ikeny Kapua, a Kenyan from the Turkana region of Kenya where the people live as pastoralists similar to the Masaai. Ikeny taught me every aspect of the school feeding monitoring process and a great deal about the life of a pastoralist. Every day we were escorted by security, including our own driver and the area educational officer of Garissa. Driving through the most remote places of Kenya, I learned all the challenges of the school feeding program and primary education in Kenya.

Our visits are surprise visits and the Head Teacher (Principal) is not informed in advance. This sometime means that the Head Teacher will hide or leave the school immediately when he sees the UN Land Cruisers approaching. On average, the schools are not keeping their feeding records as they are supposed to and both attendance and hygiene are major issues. Attendance records are not kept on a daily basis and in some schools even the Head Teachers haven’t kept attendance records since December. This makes it very difficult to track if the right amount of food is being consumed everyday and it confirms that the national attendance produced by the Kenyan Ministry of Education is not adequate. The good message is that feeding is ongoing, children are being fed, the schools are trying to cope with all of the issues on their level and I think they are doing an ok job. We have to keep in mind that lack of teachers is the overarching issue, with a shortage of at least 60,000 primary and secondary teachers nationwide. One school we visited had over 550 students but only 7 teachers! This factor alone explains a lot. So we speak nicely to them and try to show them respect. The challenge is that there are so many issues we should address: records, attendance, storing of food, measuring food, kitchen cleanliness, the cook’s hygiene and procedures, the feeding of children and more.

The school feeding program is a reason for parents to keep their children in school, especially the girls. The daily feeding is known to increase enrolment, stabilize attendance, and therefore increase learning. Moreover, the food is an essential nutritional supplement for the children. When we are at the school we speak to the students and I had a chance to ask them a few questions. So what did I ask? I asked how many of them where sleeping under a mosquito net, and while only about half of them answered yes there was a definite awareness of malaria among them. Garissa is very prone to malarial mosquitoes and I, of course, was on malaria medication all week. I got about 15 bug bites so I’m really glad I took the medicine! The second question I asked was how many of them children had eaten breakfast in the morning. Not one child raised his/her hand. I realize now how humiliating these two questions were for them to be asked but, in my defense, it is important that I understand the living conditions of the people of Garissa. These people live in huts, some of which are built of clay but more than 75 percent of them don’t even meet this standard. Normally they live in a space with sticks in the ground and very little roof or shelter.

After spending a week in the Garissa I have also become fascinated by camels. They are amazing animals with a constant grin on their faces. They looked to me like they were royalty as they walked in silence moving one row of legs at the time. When they get scared they run in a crazy way moving their legs in what seems to be a completely random way. It looks very funny. And, by the way, camels don’t carry water in the hump. The hump is pure fat, very tasty and doesn’t need to be cooked (spoken like a true vegetarian!). The hump is a real treat for children, so I am told by my Turkanan colleague.

The training from Mr. Ikeny was excellent and I really enjoyed spending time with him. We spent three nights at the Dadaab refugee camp (made up of mostly Somalian refugees) where I played volleyball with our Kenyan colleagues. I was the only white man in the staff camp and they tried to teach me some Kiswahili. I am determined to master this language but it will take me a while to engage in daily conversation. Right now I can only pick out a few words here and there.

My white skin was of particular interest in the schools we visited. I asked Ikeny several times if this attention was normal because all of the children were surrounding us and staring at me. He said that no, they normally pay attention to the car. Some of them looked at me like they had never seen a “mzungu” before, or perhaps it just happens so rarely. The children looked at me as I have never been looked at before. There was an incident where we where interviewing the Head Teacher outside the clay kitchen because water was just delivered by donkey. The cost of the water for the school is close to 10 dollars per day, which is a lot of money in that region especially. Ikeny was asking the Head Teachers questions as I filmed her and during the interview the children had recess. They all came storming to the kitchen and surrounded us. So I was holding the camera with about 300 children starting me down.

I had a great time and I am so happy about DREW BARRYMORE, who donated one million dollars to the Kenyan school feeding program on Oprah last week (I know Lisa already wrote about that). With the rising oil and transportation costs, not to mention the inflating food costs, the WFP is struggling and if we don’t experience a considerable rise in donations we will need to decrease the number of children by at least 200,000 in 2009.

Note to my father: an armed UN convey such as ours hasn’t been hit by bandits in years so I felt and was very safe. We only traveled during the day and reported to the radio office via our huge antenna every 30 minutes.


Friday, March 7, 2008

March 7, 2008 - It's Official!

It is a little weird to put it in writing, but we received documentation today that we are now legal diplomatic residents of Kenya. I suppose renting an apartment and buying a car and having furniture made and all of the other things we have done should have tipped me off that this was for real, but for some reason the two little stamps in my passport have really made all the difference. I'm not totally freaking out about this, but maybe a little bit.
To help the reality sink in even more, my boss, who is the Chief of UNICEF's Education & Youth Services Sector, asked me to apply for a short-term consultancy (that means a paying job) after only one month as a volunteer. My work permit will take a few weeks to process but, if all goes well, I will start as soon as that is taken care of. Right now I have been collecting data from field officers on education services in displacement camps and schools hosting IDP children and then I analyze the data, write reports on the data, and attend meetings about the data on a daily basis. I also do A LOT of editing of other people's work. For my new (paid) position I will become one of the field officers! I will be working in Nairobi and Central Provinces (Central is a small province north of Nairobi) and, basically, will visit slums and IDP camps to monitor and evaluate the education situation as well as the UNICEF education interventions in those places. For one week a month I will travel with a driver security and a security officer (but usually no other UNICEF staff), and Kristoffer hopes to arrange his monitoring and evaluation (M&E) at the same time so that we aren't missing each other at home. Part of my job will be to recommend what actions the UNICEF Education Sector should take in the future, and to correct any mistakes that have been made. I expect to see a new side of Kenya and feel great about the prospect of directly impacting the education of some of the poorest children in Kenya.
Assuming it all works out, it is an exciting and interesting opportunity for me to learn new skills and broaden my experiences here. I will work on a 3-month contract first so that if I don't like the job or it isn't a good fit, I can still get a teaching job for the fall. If I do like it, then the contract will be extended and I will increase my chances of getting future consultancies at UNICEF. I am happy that my boss has enough confidence in me to think that I can do this job well, which is a very new kind of work for me to do. I also consider myself to be pretty brave in taking this job because it is definitely outside of my comfort zone.
Kristoffer has been on his field visit since Monday and comes home tomorrow (Saturday) night. I think he has seen and learned a lot more in this week and I am really hoping that he will write a blog to share his experiences and pictures. Christine and I did pretty well without him this week (taking lots of taxis!) and it was really nice for me to have her here. She will actually be here for one more week.
The saddest news is that we bought "24 Season 5" on boot-leg DVD from the Indian market here in Nairobi. We got through the first 23 episodes with NO problem...but then episode 24 was all screwed up so that we could hear the episode, but the visual on the screen was actually the first episode of the season. SO FRUSTRATING! Christine even went back to get another copy, but it had the same problem! So this afternoon we actually sat in the living room with our eyes closed listening to episode 24 and trying to figure out what action was happening during all of the music. I suppose when you buy a 24-episode bootleg DVD for $5 you have to be willing to accept that the disc is not perfect, but I will admit that it would have been really nice to see the episode!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

March 4, 2008 - Drew Barrymore

So you may have heard by now that Drew Barrymore announced on Oprah yesterday that she is donating $1 million to the World Food Programme's (WFP's) School Feeding Programme (SFP) in Kenya. This is where Kristoffer works! He is actually out on his first "field visit" to eastern Kenya for this entire week (not too far from the Somalia border where the US launched a missile attack yesterday - "Have a good day at work, honey. Watch out for missiles!"). He will be meeting with District Education Officers and visiting schools where WFP feeds children to evaluate how the programs are going, where the needs are, etc.

Barrymore's money comes at a really crucial time for the WFP because the powers-that-be have cut the SFP's budget for next year so that instead of feeding 1.2 million Kenyan children, they will probably only be able to feed 850,000 or 900,000 at most. Her money, hopefully, will be able to offset some of the budget cuts. I think the idea behind the budget cuts, although the current administration doesn't seem to value the program as much as other programs, is that the government should be increasing their spending on the program as the WFP decreases its investment. Unfortunately, since the SFP began in Kenya in the '70s, the government has not increased its role and is not giving any indication that it will do so at this time.

The reality is that hundreds of thousands of children in Kenya, especially in the Arid and Semi Arid Lands (ASALs) of the country, attend school because that is the ONLY place they get fed! We aren't talking 5 course meals here - they get rice or maize! If the SFP is cut and schools don't have money to feed children, enrollment will drop significantly as more parents keep their children home to work. I believe the WFP is one of the, if not the, largest humanitarian organizations in the world and they do so much good work; but it will be truly devastating for the poorest children in Kenya, and for the education system in general, when the budget is cut next year.

Maybe Drew Barrymore will inspire more people to donate?! She has actually been to Kristoffer's office twice in recent years to meet with his office mate, but sure enough that was before we got here. Maybe she'll stop by again :)


Saturday, March 1, 2008

March 3, 2008 - Flower Pots and Scaffolding

A lot of people have emailed me that they love seeing pictures on our blog, so here are a few more random ones. This is our apartment building and we live on the top floor. Our car is the white one parked in front of the camera.

This is a beautiful sunset from our balcony. We do have a very nice view, but because of the "u" shape of the building it isn't very private to sit out on the balcony so, sadly, it is an under-used feature of our apartment (although we do have comfortable balcony furniture).

This is some of the furniture we had made; obviously for our living room (we also had a kitchen table, chairs, bed frames, and a desk made). It is pretty bright fabric, our second choice because our first (somewhat less bright) was not available. The cushions are a bit too soft for my bad back, but we are otherwise happy with it.

This picture was taken from our kitchen window of the construction behind our house (causing our apartment to be SO dusty!). I took this picture because scaffolding here in Kenya cracks me up. They are just long tree branches tied together - it looks so unsteady and yet everyday there are guys sitting out there on the scaffolding painting or something. Scaffolding is like this is everywhere, not just in our back yard. It is totally crazy.

This is an infamous "matatu", as it passes us into on-coming traffic on a major road in Nairobi. You can see 3 people sitting across the back of the bus - most matatus legally seat 11 passengers (9 in back and 2 up front) but will ride with 14 or 15. Most traffic accidents involve a matatu in one way or another, and in fact just driving yesterday we saw an accident that looked like a matatu ran over and killed a little boy.

This is a picture of a flower pot "store" in Nairobi near our apartment. Because there are so many outdoor nurseries, there are a lot of places to buy various pots outside as well. The part that cracks me up is that at night they don't put any of the pots away. I wonder why people don't steal the pots every night! Kristoffer says they have security at night to catch thieves, but I have never seen security so they must be really well hidden. In a city where there is a lot of crime, I wonder how the flower pots stick around for so long!