Wednesday, April 30, 2008

April 29, 2008 - SURPRISE!

SURPRISE - I am home in America! I didn't tell my parents that I was coming home and when I showed up at their front door yesterday afternoon (after travelling for 25 hours or so) they could not have been more (happily) surprised. A special, special thank you to my friend Kate for picking me up at the airport in Boston and driving me to Plymouth.
I basically came home for this visit on our tax rebate (thank you, George W., never said that before) and because I have a few weeks of nothing to do in between my volunteer contract at UNICEF and my paid contract which is scheduled to start on May 19th. I think I win for best early mother's day and father's day gifts! I will spend the next 2 weeks visiting my family and friends in Boston and New York. I'm quite sorry that I won't be able to travel more and see everyone I know and love in the US, but hopefully I can at least talk to many people on a much cheaper phone call. My trip was very smooth - from Nairobi to London, a 6 hour layover in London, and then from London to Boston. On my second flight I was upgraded to Business Class which was SUCH a treat! Let's hope that happens again :) Kristoffer is also really, really busy at work so, while we will miss each other, he was extremely encouraging and supportive of this trip (he even talked me into it!).
The other amazing news I can very happily report is that yesterday I recieved a final judgement from T-Mobile regarding the phone bill for $7,000 that I have been protesting because my sim card was stolen in Nairobi. T-Mobile agreed to absorb the entire bill!!! The battle is over, thanks to many, many people in NYC who were petitioning T-Mobile on my behalf, and I have never been more relieved in my life. It was a hard lesson to learn, but believe me when I say that we are a lot more cautious in Nairobi since that happened.
Kristoffer is back in Kenya working hard and I am on a very happy vacation here. If you want me to call you, please email me your phone number because I lost all of my numbers when my sim card was stolen. You can also call me at my parents' house if you have that number, or email me and I will send it to you!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

April 27, 2008 - American Religion

The weather in Kenya has become sort of interesting. It is raining more than it was before and not only at night, so that usually it is cold and rainy in the morning, sunny and warm/hot in the afternoon, and then cold at night with rain again. You sort of need to be prepared with layers and rain gear at all times.
Kristoffer and I are feeling better this weekend. I seemed to recover much more quickly than he did, and he actually had to see a doctor to get some antibiotics for his infection. Our week was not a normal week because of getting sick - we didn't go to the gym or eat too much, and we were both pretty tired at work. For me, I finished up a big project I had been working on for my boss at UNICEF. I am happy because even though I am a volunteer, my name is going on the project as the editor (and partial writer, to be honest). I am told that is a big deal and will help me secure future work there. My new paid contract - after all this time - was sort of stuck and not going anywhere, and last week my boss started the process again and I am told it will go through in the next few weeks. For Kristoffer, rising global food prices are making his job very difficult these days.
I had a funny experience at work this week. One of the women in our office, a program administrator, was singing at her desk, apparently a Christian song. I must have been bopping my head along to her music or something and she said, "I like to sing Christian songs; they make me feel very calm," and I said, "That's really nice." Then she said, "Oh! Are you a Christian? Do you go to church?" and I said, "Yes, I am Catholic and I do go to church," and then she said, "Oh. I thought all Americans were Jewish. I didn't know any of them went to church." Isn't that so funny? She didn't think in a country of 300 million people, that there were any Christians? I think she forgot that we were colonized by the same people.
Sorry there isn't too much else to report. Hopefully next week we will have more to say now that we are feeling well again.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

April 22, 2008 - Misery Loves Company

I have recently realized how little I have posted on the blog this month. The thing is, once you have lived somewhere for awhile and are into a life/work routine, it seems a lot less interesting to write about! Do people really want to hear about the mundane details of our life?!

Things in Kenya are pretty calm these days – the political agreement has been all sorted out and now the government needs to get working to help all of the displaced Kenyans living in horrible camp conditions. Otherwise, we are really enjoying our recreation center membership – the pool is really nice and relaxing! We are watching a lot less TV because of the time we spend there (except for American Idol on Tuesday and Thursday nights for sure). I am sure you know that a Kenyan won the Boston Marathon yesterday – no surprise there! There is one particular tribe that Kenyan marathoners usually come from, called Kalenjin, and they are amazingly fast!!!

The only other news I have to report is that Kristoffer and I have both been home today with a stomach bug. It is hard to tell whether it is something we ate or if one of us picked up a bug and gave it to the other. The reality, though, is that we have only moved from the bed to the couch back to the bed back to the couch (with a lot of complaining involved) and both still feel pretty crappy at the end of the day. We’re hoping that it is only a 24 hour bug and that we are okay tomorrow. Today is the first day we have been really bummed that we haven’t hired a housekeeper – it would be really nice to have someone take care of us since we have never been sick at the same time before!

Kristoffer says:
Since we have nothing new to report, let me tell you about my driving experience on Saturday. Saturday morning I left the house at 9:30 and went to the UN to meet up with 2 drivers who were taking a World Food Programme Toyota Land Cruiser to the WFP’s mechanic on the other side of Nairobi. I wanted to use that mechanic because I am tired of dealing with sketchy characters and I thought this would be a guy I could trust if the WFP uses him. I was supposed to follow them and they were taking a shortcut through some dodgy neighborhoods of Nairobi so they specifically reminded me to lock my doors and roll up all of my windows, which we always do anyway. I thought it would be a piece of cake following the Land Cruiser because it was quite old – but boy! Those Toyotas can really move! The female driver drove like she was competing in Formula One! The 45-minute drive really pushed my driving skills to the limit. I didn’t want to be lost in the middle of some sketchy slums so I drove cow-catcher to cow-catcher (that is a joke for the Danes), which means I drove bumper to bumper no matter what it took. I cut off a thousand other cars and didn’t lose sight of the Toyota. When we finally arrived, the Kenyan driver stepped out of the car and said, “Wow, Kristoffer! You can really drive! You drive like a matatu! I am very impressed. The Mzungu [white person] can drive!” That is when you know you’ve been in Kenya too long – when you start to drive like the insane mini-buses! It was a milestone for me having always stood in the shadow of my brother, who can master driving any vehicle known to man. It was also probably a good thing that Lisa wasn’t in the car with me clutching the dashboard and gasping with every turn.

Also, Lisa and I have officially come up with a system for categorizing the ever-growing potholes around us on the streets of Nairobi.

1. Pot hole – not deeper than 1 foot and can be passed by a skilled driver without any major damage to the car and/or passengers in the car.
2. Ditch – not deeper than 1 foot but very wide and takes up the entire lane; cannot be passed, the driver must drive through it. The ditch will always get a huge gasp out of Lisa when we are in it.
3. Crater – unlimited depth and extreme width; it takes up most of both lines and however the driver chooses to handle the crater will be at extreme risk to vehicle, passengers, pedestrians, and other vehicles as well.
Good thing I am such a good driver! –KW

Ok, so that’s all the news from Nairobi. Writing this blog is officially the most activity we have had all day in our stomach-flu state. I think we need to take an evening nap now.


Wednesday, April 16, 2008

April 16, 2008 - Belated Easter Weekend Pictures

I have been trying to post these pictures for a few weeks now, but the internet always ruins my intentions. Today, however, the internet at the UN is fast enough to upload them - so here are belated pictures of our Easter weekend. Sorry there aren't more pictures of us, but we don't really look any different than we used to and it is more interesting to take pictures of animals than of each other! Hopefully the formatting posts correctly - sometimes blogspot gets a little crazy. Enjoy :) LMW

All around the Mt. Kenya region you can find signs like this telling you that you are on the Equator. I think it is very cool to be directly standing on that imaginary line!

This is a beautiful view of Mt. Kenya from our room at the first lodge we stayed at over Easter weekend. It doesn't look like an easy climb, does it?

Horseback riding in the forest - believe it or not the pictures from this angle came out better than from our other side!

Kristoffer was a little bit better at horseback riding than I was, but neither of us are yearning to do it again any time soon.

This is an eland, the largest antelope, which I fed at the animal orphanage we visited. I forget how long he had been at the orphanage; most animals are reintroduced into the wild but he has a bad leg and, therefore, will remain at the orphanage. There is a lot of space there and he is well cared for.

This is a Mountain Bongo - the most endangered antelope found in the central region of Kenya. They are known for their enormous, twisted horns and their white stripes. In person, this animal is quite striking.

Obviously, I am riding an enormous turtle here. I tell you, it was more comfortable than you'd think! He didn't seem to notice I was even on him because he was after the corn-on-the-cob that the guide was feeding him. Not only was he the oldest turtle (approx. 150 years) I've ever riden, but also the fastest (approx 1/2 mph - just kidding)!

These chimpanzees live in an enormous conservancy after being rescued from Burundi and Rwanda; they are not native to Kenya and this is the only place in the country to see them. They are fascinating!

This chimp looks like he is just waiting for someone to bring him a drink before settling in to watch football or something! We laughed so hard when he assumed this position; we were betting as to whether he would put his hands behind his head, but he never did. Following his rest, he start grooming a friend.

Here are two rhino we saw grazing. They are such huge really don't want to get in their way! When we were in Naivasha in December we learned that rhinos have no perifory vision - so they can only charge in a straight line. If they are coming at you, step aside and run in a different direction!

Our Easter Elephants! Our camera died while we were watching them so we don't have too many pictures, but believe me when I tell you that they were so, so beautiful. You can see part of a baby elephant behind the big one on the right.

We are so happy that we finally saw them. Now all we need to do is see some lions and we will have covered "the Big Five". I think we both felt that these elephants are the most amazing animals we have seen.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

April 15, 2008 - Action!

So there has been a lot of action in Kenya in the last week. First, Kristoffer and I have taken action at the gym! Other than the mistake we made of sitting by the pool for 15 minutes without sunblock (can you say Lobster #1 and Lobster #2? - we forgot that we are nearly on the equator!) our experience at the gym is going well. I am enjoying aerobics classes and Kristoffer really likes to swim. We are sort of in training because before this year is over we intend to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro (and I, for one, definitely need to be in better shape to do that!). It is nice to have a routine of going to the gym after work.

We also took action to be more social! We are pretty much home-bodies over here, but that is doing nothing for our social life. On Saturday night we went to a really fun party thrown by a Danish guy Kristoffer knows (it was actually a birthday party for his wife, but we didn't know that). There were a lot of Danes there - I think they are taking over Kenya! And when you meet new people in the expatriate community you ask them their story (why they are here, what agency they work for, etc) and then you tell yours, so the time flew by as we exchanged stories a few times and learned about other people's experiences here. And the party was so fun that I spent most of Sunday recovering from it :)

On Sunday, the government finally took action and came to an agreement on a Cabinet of 40 ministers (plus the President, plus the Prime Minister). It is good news that they agreed to something, but it is not good news that the Cabinet is so bloated and that the government seriously increased its own paycheck. People have mixed emotions and I think there is a lot of distrust between the government and the people now. Only time will tell if this arrangement will work.

Yesterday we woke up in the morning to hear of violence in the city; we first thought it was in reaction to the new Cabinet, but in fact it was not. There is a large gang in Kenya called the Mungiki; they are essentially the Kenyan mafia, are known for doing the government's dirty work, and are loyal to the largest tribe in Kenya, the Kikuyu. Their leader is in prison and last week his wife was unexpectedly and brutally murdered. They claim she was killed by the police and so they launched violent protests yesterday in certain areas of Nairobi and elsewhere (although nowhere near the UN so we are safe). They blocked roads, killed a random driver on the road, burned tires, shot at and stoned cars, etc. The police killed 11 of them yesterday and so far two of them today. They are not only protesting the wife's death but are also hoping to force the release of their leader from prison. They are an extremely dangerous group here in Kenya and some people with whom we work were actually unable to get to work yesterday because of the trouble they caused; people are afraid of the Mungiki to the degree that one of my colleagues is not staying at her home anymore because she lives in an area with a lot of Mungiki activity and she doesn't think she is safe. They don't seem to be targeting anyone in particular, they are just angry at everyone in general. Now, I am not writing this to scare anyone - please don't be worried about our safety, we take every precaution we can - but rather to show that life in Kenya is action-packed and changes constantly. Every day there is something new to observe or learn!

My job is going well and, while it is taking longer than hoped (no surprise there), some progress is being made towards processing a consultant's contract for me at UNICEF. Kristoffer's job is also really good these days; it is hard for us to believe that we have been here for over 4 months! We are very happy that we get American Idol on Tuesday and Thursday nights, although we are weeks and weeks behind the live version in the US (and, of course, I love it a bit more than he does), but yesterday was a true highlight when we flipped on ESPN after work to find the last 2 innings of Sunday's Yankees/Red Sox game! It didn't matter that it wasn't live, it just felt so good to watch the Red Sox play, especially because they won - it was almost like being at home!
The rains have started again, now later at night and throughout the early morning, but our afternoons are quite lovely. We hope this blog finds you well and that spring is beginning wherever you are.


Tuesday, April 8, 2008

April 8, 2008 - Political News

You may have heard in the news today that protests and demonstrations took place in Nairobi. I just wanted to assure you that they took place in Nairobi's slums and we were not close to them at all, and also that we have not heard any reports of fatalities. The situation is getting more tense, though, and the country is fearful of what a continued political deadlock will mean for the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) who want to return home, and for possibly renewed violence.
The issue at hand is this: Kofi Annan brokered an agreement between the government (PNU) and the opposition (ODM) at the end of February, and the agreement implied that there would be equal power-sharing between the two parties. There has been significant difficulty, however, getting both sides to agree to the make up of the Cabinet. Already, President Kibaki had the largest Cabinet in Kenya's history at 34 ministries (with 34 ministers, 34 deputy ministers, 34 permanent secretaries, and 34 of many other positions). In order to reach an agreement last week, a "bloated" Cabinet of 40 ministries (et al) was agreed to. The public has been very upset about this because taxes will need to be raised in order to pay the salaries of all of these new people, and because it makes Kibaki and Odinga (the Prime Minister designee) look like they are just fighting to give all of their friends important jobs (which they are). So everyone thought that they had this agreement of 40 ministers in the Cabinet who would be announced two days ago, but then everything fell apart when both sides started accusing each other of changing the composition of the Cabinet and changing their public stance, etc. At this point, ODM has refused to continue talks with the government until they meet some demands (firing the 17 ministers appointed in January and starting the Cabinet negotiations fresh) and the government is bad-mouthing ODM all over the place.
So here we are: deadlocked once again.
We are watching the situation closely, and are otherwise doing well. Kristoffer returned on Saturday night from his week in Rome, when he finally got to see the Sistine Chapel, and bearing appropriate gifts for his wife who was left to fend for herself all week. And fend well I did! This week we have joined the United Nations Recreation Center (gym/health club) because the stationary nature of life for us here is driving us crazy! I have never been one for the gym, but I really feel the need to move so I will give it a try and, lucky for me, I have a very enthusiastic partner. The center has a gorgeous pool, nice equipment, and a variety of classes - hopefully it will become part of our routine here and maybe we will make friends there too (friends? what a concept!).

Thursday, April 3, 2008

April 3, 2008 - Working (for free) and Paying Bills

Happy April and Happy 7th Birthday to my nephew, Michael. I called him for his birthday and he asked me if I was coming home for his party. When I choked back tears to tell him that I was too far away to come to his party, he was like "Ok. Bye." Clearly 7-year olds have bigger fish to fry than aunties who live in Africa!
Since my last blog some interesting things have happened. First of all, it hasn’t rained once in Nairobi since I wrote the all about the “long rains”, mutant-sized pot holes and my rain bug enemies. So weird! The weather has been alternately cold and hot this week so I almost feel like I am in New England! Other parts of the country, though, are having serious floods which are really bad.

Yesterday my boss brought me with her to a really important meeting; in fact, I would say it is one of two supremely important meetings for education in the country. It is a three-day budget workshop for Kenya’s public education system (K-university) for 2008-2009, attended by government officials, development partners (such as UN agencies, USAID and the development organizations of other countries like England, Canada, Switzerland, and Japan), and other education stakeholders like the teacher’s union. There were close to 200 people there, not including the press, and the Minister of Education opened with a lengthy speech about Kenya’s achievements in recent years, such as increasing the number of children enrolled in primary school, as well as its upcoming challenges, such as the fact that there are 1 million Kenyan children who do not attend school at all. All Kenyan speeches are lengthy, by the way. I learned a lot about the system and the fiscal policies supporting it here. Specifically, the country faces the challenge of quickly rebuilding 38 schools that were burned to the ground during the recent violence, 65 schools that were completely looted/devastatingly vandalized, and over 40 educational offices that were looted! That is in addition to the fact that over 100,000 children and 1,350 are displaced, living in camps, and in desperate need of support. By the end of the conference tomorrow, the budget will be tightened up and expanded to meet these needs.

I met some really interesting people and got some political “gossip” during my lunch with a UNICEF colleauge and two people from the Ministry of Education. They were discussing the stalemate over Cabinet positions for the Coaltion and which members of government funded the post-election violence. The Cabinet dilemma was subsequently resolved today after Kofi Annan - “Kenya’s Daddy” – lectured the President and Prime Minister to make decisions like adults. I was interested to learn that my colleague, who is Somalian-Kenyan, is married to a Harvard-educated lawyer (also Somalian-Kenyan) who was just elected to Parliament for the first time in this past election – a very interesting time to be a newcomer! It was a little bit hard to follow the conversation in a noisy cafeteria because Kenyans talk so softly and have very thick accents to which I am still tuning my ears, but I did my best and found myself understanding some of what they were talking about. After my political orientation at lunch, the conference was broken down into groups. Unbeknownst to me, my boss had signed me up to keep minutes and produce a final document for one of the them. This would have been fine if she had told me that she signed me up for this job…but she didn’t! So, I didn’t know that I was supposed to be doing anything for the group and this led to a very awkward misunderstanding between me (lowly UNICEF volunteer) and a high ranking government official from the Ministry of Education. Whoops! While I appreciate that she has a lot of confidence in me and trusts me, I did ask my boss not to secretly sign me up for anything again! The conference continued today but I had work to do for her back at the office so I did not attend. I did really appreciate the opportunity she gave me though; it was both a professional and a cultural experience for me.

As for today, before going to work I had to pay our bills. This may sound strange to you, but here in Kenya we don’t get a bill in the mail and then send a check back to the company or have the funds electronically taken out of our account. Oh no, the country is not quite there yet. Some people go to the post office and pay there where they have an electronic way of transferring funds to different companies. But since we all know how I feel about the post office, Kristoffer and I usually go door-to-door to the electric company, water company, and cable company to pay our bills (luckily, the internet company will come to us to receive payment) as most Kenyans do. Even though Kristoffer is away this week the bills are still due! So I called a taxi this morning and went door-to-door paying bills for 90 minutes before going to work. I even paid for next month in advance just to save us a Saturday morning of sitting in traffic to pay bills! It is so annoying!

Because I use the same taxi company all the time, all of the drivers know be my name. Every time I call for a cab the guy answers the phone with “Good Morning Lisa! How are you?” This morning there was some kind a mix up and 3 taxis showed up at our apartment at the same time to pick me up! It was really funny and I have no idea how they figured out which driver “got me” because they were speaking in very fast Kiswahili. Anyway, I thought it was really funny that my driver really likes Kenny Rogers and we listened to a Kenny Rogers tape as we drove around paying my bills before going to the UN. He rewound the tape three times to listen to the song “Lucille”, which I didn’t realize was such a popular hit over here in Kenya (considering I have never heard in the US!). He didn't seem to like "The Gambler", my personal favorite, that much.

I had a really busy morning and attended my second meeting for UN Spouses (aka “the wives club”). I tried to recruit more people for Book Club and everyone seemed to just love the idea, but we’ll see how many of them actually read the next book! Then the meeting sort of took a dive for me because the topic was MENOPAUSE, which is not something I can really identify with just yet. They even brought in a nurse to make a presentation and some of the women shared their menopause stories. I am sure this was useful to many 40+ year-olds in the large group of 26 women, but I was also relieved that there were more non-menopausal faces in the crowd than at the last meeting and they also seemed at odds with the presentation.

I am really happy that tomorrow is Friday! I am attending a different meeting on behalf of my boss where I will give a brief report on the state of post-election violence education in the country. I will be supported by two colleagues from Save the Children (United Kingdom) who will report on their activities in the field. Should be interesting! I am trying to make myself indispensable to my boss, so as to secure my future at UNICEF for as long as I want one. At least I hope that is what I am doing!

The best news is that Kristoffer comes home from his amazing week in Rome on Saturday night. I can’t even remember the last time we went an entire week without talking on the phone, but this week we did it. Thank God for email! And I am sorry that we’re still having problems uploading picture but someday you will see our Easter Elephants – I promise!