Mini-Sabbatical 2007: First Weekend Back in Kenya

Last Wednesday evening, I left New York with my dear Catherine to embark on a very special voyage back to the African continent. It’s Monday, 4pm East Africa Time (EAT) and I’m sitting in the apartment reflecting on the last few days before I begin my first day of work tomorrow. Divine bliss, profound joy, mischievous laughter, and deep sadness have filled the space of the last few days, to the brim and very much over-flowing.

How I arrive to where I am in this moment is a journey in and of itself, which I will of course share, and accompany with some photos, and even a video, so sit back, relax, grab some joe, and read on.

But first, some statistics:

Arrests: 0
Police Searches: 1
Near Death Experiences: 1
Stomach Issues: 1

Also: A link to all my photos so far is here:

http://flickr.com/photos/paulkist/collections/72157600308001704/

Let’s continue on…

24 Hours in London


There’s not much that can be said about London without revealing a little too much, so I will suffice to say that these are the 24 hours that a human being lives for, and what a gift it was to have lived it with the special someone that I know and love.

Of course, getting buzzed on the flight to London and laughing at just about everything imaginable was a treat in and of itself, and it just got better.

Arrival In Nairobi


Friday evening we arrived at Jomo Kenyatta Int’l Airport (JKIA) only to be instantly smacked across the nose with the air, the sweet smelling, almost like incense, air that exists here in Kenya, finding its way through the ventilation systems, and into the hallways of the terminal.

After retrieving our baggage, we of course were greeted by the crew: Nadia (my sis) and our dear friends Mena and Grace; equipped with signs and all, causing the usual scene, and it wouldn’t be complete without it.

I’m here staying with Mena at his place. I can’t thank this guy enough for taking me in, this month. Shout out to Mena Attwa!!

The next morning we started relatively early, around 10am, to get some breakfast at Java, and then make our way over to the Giraffe Sanctuary.

The Giraffe Sanctuary


The Rothschild Giraffe, a species near extinction because of their use as “target practice” by the Ugandan Army, has been saved through the work of the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife (AFEW), who created a Giraffe Park and Sanctuary in the district of Langata in Nairobi. The woman who checked us in at JFK happened to be a member of the Board of the organization, and told us this when we told her we were going to Nairobi. Her name was Arlene, and she made us promise to go to the park and visit Arlene, a giraffe named after her, if she bumped us up to World Traveller Plus. We couldn’t refuse her!

So Catherine, Nadia, and I made our way to the park, and spent a good 30 minutes, feeding and yes, kissing the giraffes ( a tradition I started a year ago ).

Arlene (the giraffe) was a runt and was very ill and had to be kept separate from the rest of the giraffes, but one of the park workers named Samuel took us to some back trails that lead us to the area where Arlene lives.

As we took this short hike through a not-so-dense forest, every so often we would stop, and Samuel would tell us about the plant life around us.

Samuel took Catherine’s hand and cut a long green stem, and said “This plant produces a milk” and started letting it drip all over Catherine’s palm. She looked rather pleased at the coolness of a milk producing plant as he squeezed drops of this sap on her hand. Samuel then said “It causes blindness when in contact with the eyes.” The look on Catherine’s face was actually priceless. After about 10 seconds of awkward silence, Samuel stated “The only antidote is breast milk.”

Being that there were no lactating women around that we knew of, Catherine made sure not to touch her eyes with that hand.

We found Arlene, took a few snaps, and made our way back to the car, almost being trampled by a dominant male Giraffe that we crossed paths with.

The Dowry Ceremony


We went on our way to Bulbul, a district of Nairobi to the home of Grace’s family, where her sister Mary and her fiancé were celebrating a dowry ceremony for their wedding. The celebration also coincided with Mary’s daughter Njeri’s first birthday.

Basically from what I understand, Elders of the man’s community and Elders from the woman’s community negotiate, and deliberate, until they come up with a fair sum of money that the groom will pay to the bride’s family. This process may not always be an easy one, and in fact, a dowry can cost quite a sum of money. The elders arent necessarily relatives of the man or woman, but just people in the community who have gained the trust and respect of the people of that tribe within that community. The importance of elders on a community level does not hold the same weight in the USA as it does here in Kenya.

It was pretty friggin cool, to have been invited to such an event, as we got immersed real quick in a traditional Kikuyu celebration. We entered the borders of the home, to a big yard where many people were sitting around, chatting, eating. The smell of beef and cooked vegetables filled the air, and our stomachs were looking for some attention.

Of course every eye was on Nadia, Catherine and I. Everyone knows Mena, because he too will be joining this tradition, as he and Grace are gonna be married soon as well. We were the Mzungus (white-folk), and I guess not many mzungus normally attend a gathering like this. I definitely felt a sense of pride and privilege that we were there, and that we weren’t like those “other tourists”, but as history shows us, the gods will cut down those who are prideful, which soon followed.

Grace is always known to be playing tricks on me, and while I’m not usually a gullible person, she seems to succeed. As if it weren’t bad enough that she had me ask a waiter if they had “my ass” on the menu, a few years back.

Grace told me that the group of elders inside wanted a portrait taken of them, since Mary, her sister, did tell me she would like it if I could photograph the event. For some reason, I believed her. Not knowing I was about to enter a closed-door debate that not even members of the family were allowed to listen in on.

So after barging in and making a complete ass of myself in a very respected discussion amongst the most respected people of the community, they actually INVITED me back, and wanted the negotiation captured on film (digital, whatever) So, I stuck around, had some conversation with these men and women, and took a few snaps.

The combined wisdom, age, and experience in that room was enough to fill libraries. It was dark, and all you saw was shadows. I took a few non-flash photos, but then I took a few with flash, so they could have some clear shots as well.

The rest of the day was spent just meeting people, talking to both young an old, learning about the culture, eating some kick-ass food.

I did ask someone, where’s the drinks? To which they told me, that the drinks aren’t allowed to be served until after the dowry has been settled on. In the room with the elders were crates of beer and soda, ready to be opened upon a successful agreement. Once the dowry was settled, the bottles were cracked open. Fanta, Coke, and Tusker were passed around the entire party, and the music started, and the “Mamas” as they are called, the older women of the group, got up and started dancing to the Kikuyu music, doing the Mughithi, a kind of dance, I believe.

I was chatting with a new friend named Nick, Grace’s nephew, when I heard some cheering and clapping, to turn around to find Catherine had gotten up and started dancing (extremely well, I might add) with one of the Mamas. I was like WHOA! Quickly I went and took a few snaps, and everyone was just loving it. She picked up the moves in an instant, to the point where everyone naturally believed that she was familiar and had been practicing the Mughithi at the local pubs, when in reality, this was her first DAY in Sub-Saharan Africa. She’s a gifted dancer by nature, and she wowed everyone in the place. I couldn’t help but feel special myself, just knowing her.

In the meantime, Nadia was being flirted with by a man who I was not allowed to take a picture of, because of some military problem or something, he was in hiding. Apparently I blew her cover, with the fake name she gave him, when I walked over and said “Nadia!” To which she replied with an uncomfortable smile “My name is not Nadia” hahahahha oops? ☺

Since Mena had to drive a few people home, Grace, Catherine, and I walked through BulBul to the main road, at sunset, and just talked about how much fun we had.

The next day, we were driving home after church, when on the corner of the Yaya Center, a local mall, I saw a familiar face. It was Alex, one of the boys who lived on the streets who I befriended back in 2006. When he saw us approaching, he quickly put out a cigarette (like he even needs to hide that from ME, of all people). He took my hand and said he thought I wasn’t ever gonna come back again. He looked old. He was 17 years old, and had the face of a 30 year old. It had been 6 months since I saw him, but he carried a lot of weight with him…

He and 2 of his friends who had lived on the street were all given the opportunity to start anew, one of them took it, and is now in school up in Naivasha, getting ready to rebuild his life, but the other two refused. To leave the streets is to give up a sort of freedom that one gains by having no boundaries, but at the same time, it is a prison. The amount of young men, between the ages of 5 and 18, who have no homes, or families, is unfathomable. Many are beaten by cops, they’re shunned by society as druggies and wastes of life… yet they’re honestly no different than you or I. My heart goes out to these guys, and whenever I return here, mainly because they serve as a mirror to myself in some way. I find myself working with them in one way or another. I plan to find Alex again in these next few days…. I just wanna understand more, why he didn’t take the chance when he had it. Either way, I love the guy, and wish him the best, I just hope he will live to see another year.

A few hours later, my heart and conscious were to be tried even more.

Invisible Children


Catherine is on her way to Uganda at the moment, to work as a Teacher with Invisible Children, an organization to help the children of Northern Uganda, whose lives are threatened daily by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

Brief History: In the 1980s, a woman named Alice Lakwena felt overcome by a “spirit” which she called the Holy Spirit, that spoke through her, telling her the need for the overthrowing of the Ugandan government. One of her protiges, a man named Joseph Koney, began the LRA as a pseudo-spiritual military force whose purpose was to overthrow the government. The LRA is using some very sick and carelessly calculated strategies in order to accomplish this, and one of the most horrific means to their goal, is the kidnapping of BOYS from their homes in the villages of Northern Uganda, and forcing them into combat. The children are brainwashed, and taught to kill from a very young age. They are desensitized from violence, by being forced to beat, kill, and even eat one another. Families are ripped apart and these nameless children become killing machines on behalf of Kony. One ex-combatant said he suffers headaches until he sees blood. These children are victims of this twisted campaign, and their story was pretty much ignored by the global community until a group of 3 young men ventured into Sudan to do a documentary, and ended up in Northern Uganda, and happened upon the situation. They made a documentary called “The Invisible Children” which sparked a movement and an organization meant to help these kids who have escaped the LRA, as well as those who are hiding every night from being abducted themselves. Those who have not yet been abducted, can no longer sleep in their own homes as it is unsafe, so they commute every night, into the city of Gulu, where they hide in hospitals and empty buildings and verandas.

We watched the documentary last night, and were just horrified at the reality of something like this actually happening in our world, without a flinch from our world leaders, because more important issues are at hand. A Genocide is happening on our planet… Do we have to wait until this becomes another African Genocide like the killings in Rwanda, before something is done?

I was so proud of Catherine, as she is on her way to Gulu right now, to be part of the relief effort in helping to rebuild the lives of these kids.

Once the tremdous guilt passed on, I felt a sense of responsibility of my own in light of three men with a video camera that sparked a global movement that is impacting humanity. Catherine and I spoke this morning over breakfast, at the very fact that if we made an effort, we COULD impact lives. It seems there are infinite paths to take, as there are an infinite amount of problems that need solving, which is my calling? Which is yours?

I come here to Kenya so I don’t have to sit back and think and wonder, but I hope that by DOING, I will learn where I need to be, and what my role is.

This morning I said bye to Catherine, and wished her farewell on her journey. Knowing the next 5 weeks are going to impact her in tremendous ways, as she will impact the lives of many, as she usually does with those she comes in contact with.

Best of luck, ya Caty.

Which brings me to tonight, kinda sitting here, unwinding, thinking about the last few days and gearing up for tomorrow, where I’ll begin work at the Hope Center, working on a web-application with my friend Junae, who will eventually take over the project.

A solemn evening. I’ll probably sleep early. The net is down, so I’m writing all this in Word, hoping I can post it soon.

Net is back up! I’ll leave you with a video… Chau locos.

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