There and back again…

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Looking out the window of this vehicle I see the plains of southern Kenya, mountains, acacia trees, and Masaai herders with their livestock. A week ago I was surrounded by something very different. 

A number of years ago, a woman began taking in children that were left on her doorstep. As the years went by, the number went from 2 to around 60. This woman was not a wealthy heiress, or a philanthropist who was giving back because she was given so much. No, she was just a woman who lives in the slums of Nairobi. She was a tough lady with years on her face, with a presence that is somewhat intimidating, and in her care were children from the age of 2 to 17. Through the kindness of the neighborhood, and other charities, she is able to put her kids through school. She calls them future doctors, lawyers, scientists, teachers, musicians, and she’s not joking around. And I was there.

We hung out with these kids for about 5 hours, just hangin out, playing games, being silly, and then some honest conversation with the older ones. In a dog-eat-dog neighborhood, where the task of feeding ones self is a challenge, let alone one’s own family, and confidently this woman seeks to feed 60 children and youth, daily, and for as long as her days will allow her.

Kibera Girls Write Love Songs

After 4 days hanging out in Kibera with my old friends at the Kibera girls soccer academy, I felt somewhat rejuvenated again. I learned some tactics at the orphanage which taught me how to diss someone 5 different ways in Swahili, which was a huge hit at the Academy. Someone would give me a pound (you know, bumping your fists together), and at the last second, retreat my hand, extending my finger and wagging it saying “masaa badu” basically saying “come back later”, would result in screams, giggles, and the occasional threat for retribution.

Seeing Pete walk through Kibera for the first time, reminded me of my first time going through there, and how I was without words because it was nothing like I’d ever seen before. As I walk through the streets which once burned two years ago at the hands of thugs, and violent men and women who were paid by their elected leaders to indulge in ethnic violence and the murdering and displacing of innocent people, and also knowing that as I write this, an arms race is underway to prepare for the 2012 elections, with access to Somalia’s surplus of automatic weapons, I wonder if we can’t learn from very (very) recent history. Kenyans are peaceful, but like most places that struggle in the developing world, many can be easily bought by the wealthy to commit atrocities so that the ruling elite can stay in power. But for now, Kibera is back to normal. It is a place I love. You can’t just see a photo of Kibera and know what is happening there. You have to walk on the streets, and talk to the people, and even then you really don’t know what is happening in this place. Fried fish, grilled corn on the cob, vendors of fruits and vegetables, and the smells of the open market are mixed with the burning garbage and open sewage. There are both smiles, greetings, and suspicious looks on every corner, But through the maze, behind the mosque, and next to the beauty parlor is a haven for education, personal development and equality. And here, the girls of the KGSA are working with my good friend Peter, who is teaching them about singing, and the art of songwriting and it was on Thursday that they wrote their first love song.

During one of the lessons, the news came..

“Paul, did you hear, Mercy died.”

I felt the loss of both meanings of the word. Apparently, she was poisoned, but most people believe it was a suicide. Mercy in 2007 was a girl who worried me, I met her, she was pregnant, and was attending the KGSA with plans to drop out. She was depressed, reserved, and couldn’t look me in the eye. In 2008, I was surprised to have seen her so happy. The baby was delivered, and yet, she was still in school! Getting help from relatives, Mercy was confident, happy, and doing great in classes, I told her I was looking forward to congratulate her the following year as a high school graduate.

The news of her death really broke my heart, as she was so close to making it.

There is no time to waste, we have to act while we have the time.

The weekend brought me to the wild, where I spent a few days with Peter, photographing animals as we drove through their natural habitat. It felt great to be there with the “good camera”. The clear night inspired me to ask a hotel manager if there were any darker spots around the hotel where I could take some star photos without the risk of light pollution.  The manager suggested that he could shut off the lights of one area of the hotel, so I could take a few star photographs. I thought that was a bit of an extreme offer and at first he made it seem like no big deal, and said he would see me the following night at 11pm to make arrangements.

At around 10:30pm, the F&B manager who I spoke with the night before, arrived, but things weren’t as simple as he made it seem the night before. He said he was going to have to call guards because of things that may or may not happen in 4 seconds of darkness, and when I inquired more, the only answer I got was a stern look and the statement “I do not wish to further divulge on this topic.” It was clear that his offer had some strings attached so I quickly rescinded. 

The following conversation with this man, led me to believe that I was dealing with an egomaniacal, but somewhat powerful man, who just made us feel very uncomfortable, making threats about cameras watching me that were bigger than the SLR i had in my hand, and he wouldn’t stop buying us drinks. He went on and on about people with small heads, and dark and shady behavior. He repeated time and time again that he is just a smalltime team player, yet, when he bought a pack of cigarettes, but had his underlings open the pack up for him. It just reminded me too much of Forrest Whittaker’s portrayal of Idi Amin but on a very very small scale. I’ve never seen anything like it before. We had a 2 minute break in the conversation when we thanked him and got the hell out of there.

Back in Nairobi and I have 4 days left. This one flew by.

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Beans, Sun, Jellyfish and Hope

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My neurotic fear of food poisoning has lessened in the last few days, as I’ve been here in Bagamoyo, TZ. A year ago, I was horizontal for 3 days with a nice case of typhoid, and amoebiasis. So far, my system feels ok. It costs only $1.00 for a plate of beans, beef potato stew in red sauce, and coconut flavored rice. Not bad, huh? But you get much more than what you’ve paid for at Baga Point, an outdoor / indoor eatery where the staff will join you for some pleasantries or even to bum a smoke. It was a lovely night, that was a bit stressed from counting every last Tanzanian shilling I had, since the exchange of money was not as easy as I would have thought, however, after the beer (Kilimanjaro brand, to be exact) and after the food came, the worries lessened, and as the stories were told, my own problems seemed somewhat less of a problem.

What caught my attention for the night was a story told by a new friend of mine, which involved the retrieval of a missing car in 1994 from Burundi, a country thousands of miles from his home on the coast of Tanzania, which took him through the path of bandits, goat accidents, the Rwandan Genocide, monkeys, lions, and the occasional flat. It’s been a while since a story had me at the edge of my seat!

I was definitely floored at every detail of this man’s story which actually had a few lessons:

1. If you love something, you have to fight for it, even if death may come your way.
2. Never carry a weapon, it shows you fear people.
3. If your life is in danger, don’t share your plans, just move.
4. Do good to others, because when you need it most, the same will be done for you.

I managed to find a routine here in Bagamoyo, each day starting with an early half hour swim in the Indian ocean, along with the Dows (fishing boats), crabs, jellyfish, seaweed, and the occasional great white shark. Afterwards, my swim is followed by some tea at Baga Point, then some food and getting ready for my day.

Fresh eggs, fresh everything! We call it organic, but they just call it food and it’s much more affordable.

Why Bagamoyo?

Many months ago, a colleague of mine said “Hey Paul, since you go to Africa, you should talk to my friend, he is involved there, too”. I was then introduced to the Josef and Anne Kottler, a couple from Massachusetts, whose daughter volunteers at an orphanage / youth center in Bagamoyo called IMUMA, and they themselves have been there, and have since been committed to supporting the work that’s being done there.

Little did I know that meeting the Kottlers would result in me being here, under the stars, in a small guest house where the power is in and out, and relishing the vibrance of the surrounding community, their songs, stories, faces, and wisdom.

Because Seeds For Hope, an NGO that I’m on the board for, partners with African-run development organizations, IMUMA’s story seemed very much in line with our own mission statement, so I had to check it out for myself.

Day 2 of my trip brought me from Dar Es Salaam to Bagamoyo. I’m surprised I’d never heard of Bagamoyo before this, being that it has such historical significance in Africa’s past. Bagamoyo (literally “Bwaga Moyo”, or “Lay down your heart”) was called this, because Africans would have to leave their heart there, as they would never see their homeland again, for you see, Bagamoyo was the first and also one of the major ports in the East African slave trade.

The remnants of the old missions, and European influence are very much hidden, but there is a section of town, where the ruins of colonial Bagamoyo remain, which I did not see until my last day there. Bagamoyo town is developing, I only noticed one or two paved roads, where the mode of transport is on foot, by bike, motorcycle, and the occasional car. I felt completely off the grid, and I could not have been happier.

It’s the kind of town where you can walk around, and have a conversation with practically anyone, of course people looked at me like “who the hell is this guy?”, not many non-Tanzanians in Bagamoyo, but I did my best to hold my own. Greeting the elders, laughing with kids, giving the tough nod to the tough guys, you know, as I would in Manhattan. I also learned that while language was a huge barrier, and my Swahili, as good enough as it is for Nairobi, was not good enough for Bagamoyo it helped me at least break the ice.

Besides language, humor goes a long way. A smile, and a clever remark, translates well into any language.

But for real, I became that guy, who, when I don’t know how to respond, i just responded with “cool”

Luckily there are like 10 different ways to say cool in Swahili:

Safi
Poa
Mzuri
Shwari
Fiti
Freshi
Salama
Simbaya

And if you add the word “kabisa” at the end of any of these, and you have even more permutations.

I’ve had 5 minute conversations with people where we just go back and forth asking each other “how are you” in the zillion different ways, as if we were going through the phrasebook line by line. And this happened with more than one person

Habari? Mzuri
Mambo? Poa
Uko freshi? Kabisa
Habari ya asubuhi? Mzuri
(Repeat for 5 minutes)

I wonder if this is acceptable for foreigners, because if someone did that to me in the states I’d probably be like “enough.”

But, back to IMUMA.

IMUMA, is the orphanage / youth center I became acquainted with. I met Sharrif as soon as I arrived at the Moyo Mmoja guest house in Bagamoyo. Sharrif is the founder and director of IMUMA, and has dedicated his time and his life to serving the underserved youth in his community. 

IMUMA is the combination of 3 Swahili words: Imani (faith), Upendo (love) and Matumaini (hope). The mission of IMUMA is to help children (ages 3-16), who have either been orphaned, abused, neglected, or have some situation that puts them at a disadvantage in regards to their peers. Their goal is to improve the lives of the children of Bagamoyo town, and to give them a chance at fulfilling the dreams of their future. They do this by creating a safe haven for the young people who are not in school during the day, where they are engaged in many activities from reading, writing, dancing, drumming, and craft making. IMUMA also offers a pre-school, and has provided a way for 33 children to attend primary school (while primary school is free, miscellaneous fees will determine who will be able to attend primary school, or not). In addition, 6 of IMUMA’s students are on the verge of beginning secondary school. 

The stories of these kids were heartbreaking (this is what you expected?), but it’s different when there is a face, and voice, to a story, it is real. It is us.

When I arrived at the IMUMA compound in the small neighborhood of Nia Njema, I knew something special was happening here. The place was just alive with kids, doing all sorts of activities, and plenty of community members and volunteers around, either supervising, or teaching, or feeding the kids.

During this time Sharrif and I spoke about many things, and we got to know each other. I was definitely glad to have met him, and his drive, sincerity and leadership was a huge inspiration for me. He introduced me also to his wife and his two beautiful children.

I also met a fellow musician at IMUMA named Major Drummer (Major D) and another volunteer named Hedi, who was on holiday from Japan.

These guys were practicing an East African traditional song and dance, with the kids 



Under a mango tree, Major Drummer (Major D),  Hedike, and I met to solve the worlds problems. I have found real kinship with these guys and glad our paths have crossed. MD has given me a few things to think about:

1. The mountain never moves, it is people who are moving, eventually, if you have lost someone, you will find them again.

2.The big fish eat the small fish (but this, I already knew)

3. At the end of the day, things will work itself out

There is a treasure of East African culture that you can find in a small town like this. The stories, the songs, the dances, and the wisdom from elders. Life in a town or village is much slower and more predictable than highways we drive on, but the relationships, and occasional power outage, keeps things interesting.

I’ve travelled many places, and I believe there’s nothing new under the sun. 

I feel my time here was way too short, and I wished I had more time to invest, but I feel I will return for sure. Bagamoyo will find me again.

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A Bus Named “Glory To God”

 

On the 3rd of 4 stops, on a 14 hour journey

The following words I write moving about 50mph in a coach bus, through the planes of southern Kenya, swerving around tankers and playing chicken with oncoming 18 wheelers, I’ve never seen a bus driver maneuver such a large vehicle as he would a motorcycle, with the amount of mud splashing everywhere from the puddles formed in the slippery wet, sometimes paved road, you would think we were on a mountain bike. Off-roading happens every few minutes and my stomach has gotten used to it as well. And for this reason, I am sure, is why there’s a large sign reading “Glory to God” on the front of this bus, for if it were not for divine intervention, things would probably look a lot different.

I chose a seat a bit further back, when I should have taken the front. It was available when I reserved but I didn’t want to be that guy. I’m looking at today’s “that guy” and he’s stretching his legs out enjoying a beautiful view, as i’m holding myself back from kicking the set in front of me if this guy reclines one more time.

I’ve been in Kenya for seven days, and I’m leaving the country for a few days to visit IMUMA, an orphanage / youth center in Bagamoyo, TZ. And because the flight from Nairobi to Dar es Salaam is about half the cost of my JFK to Nairobi ticket, it makes more sense to go by land. The difference in time: Air: 1 hour. Road: 14 hours

Coming back to East Africa, has been a bit different this time, as it usually is. I no longer feel the excitement of being a stranger in a new place, but rather I feel relaxed and at home. Of course I have a zillion things on my itinerary, sometimes I wonder if I’d be more useful doing 1 thing for the entire month, as opposed to multitasking that I do. 

I really need to use the bathroom and this bus is not making any stops.

To reference Maboyz (whom I wrote about in many previous entries) have come a long way since our first meeting, as we watched Lord of the Rings in early 2006 and had an inkling that maybe more was being called from these guys than what society had created for them to be.

Seeing them now, I no longer worry about them, which is a far cry from the words of an old friend who told me not to hope too much. It wasn’t an easy road. There are a few who have passed on due to gang violence and police brutality.

Its hard to on writing when there are such beautiful vistas outside my window. We’re approaching sunset, in 10 minutes we’ll have been on this trip for 12 hours. Imagine only 2 bathroom breaks, yet they keep giving us drinks.

Every stop finds us surrounded by street vendors, selling cashews, oranges, soda, water, biscuits, and candy. And my favorite, they get your attention by making kissing noises: “mwa mwa mwa mwa mwa!”

However there aren’t many bananas around here but as soon as I found one, I bought it.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one on the bus both fearing for his life and with an achey bladder. At one point during the ride, one of the rubber apparatuses attached to the window next to me fell off, causing the window in front to basically flex and bend in the wind, it was sure to be ripped out, leaving no window (its plastic after all) however, before I could notify, the driver’s assistant was climbing over me and holding the window in place (basically sticking his hand out and pressing the window in front against my window. I really was hoping that there were no approaching oncoming cars cuz that would have been a blood bath.

Eventually, we got the thing fixed with some masking tape and rope. 
Or maybe wire?

I’m not sure what returning to Tanzania will bring to me. Last time I was here, I was under house arrest by the immigration police who stole our passports. Hopefully things have changed since 1999.

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Jungle Trek Day One: They Say You Never Forget

1014051_10153081194825171_1550797856_nVery early Tuesday morning, waking up to the smell of anticipation, and dirty laundry, we were greeted by a man, whose name, till this day, I do not know. Yet this guy has been by our side for 4 days, greeted us with the news that we’d be going on a trek through the Peruvian jungle with a group of beautiful women.  He wanted to emphasize this point.

As the van filled up with passengers, we realized it was more like Sausage-Fest 2009. 

We made many random stops, to what seemed like people’s homes and other random spots, to pick up bikes for our trek. The van would stop, someone would emerge from a building with one or two bikes, and then up on the roof they went.  We continued on, up and down the slopes of the Cusqueñan streets, we all made it and we were on our way.

They say you never forget how to ride a bike, that much is true. The last time I got on a bicycle was in 1988, and I was 10 years old. When the opportunity came to bike around Peru, I took it. What better way to kick-start one of my favorite hobbies at the time, than by motivation. 

Looking back, maybe I should have done a bit more research, but in retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t, because had I done my research, it would have been clear that I would not have been prepared for such a bike trail, and I would have missed the opportunity to throw myself into it and just be in the moment. 

So the moment came, and myself, I threw! 

The van was pretty silent on the way to the starting point. The silence was broken however with a voice from the front of the bus:

“You know, I heard a girl died on our trek 4 days ago on her bike?
“Yeah?”
“Got hit by a truck.”
“Ouch! Awful” 


Denial set in. I decided to keep my ear on the humming of the motor and my eyes glued to the slopes around me. Eventually I turned to Joe and asked him, did you just hear that? He did and a look of concern emerged on our not-yet-caffeinated faces.

The trip had been pitched to us as a casual bike-ride through the forest, on dirt trails. Curiosity was burning, why on God’s green earth was there a truck driving on our trek through the forest. I asked the lady who shared the news, and she said “through the forest? No. Our bike ride is going to be on the main highway circling these mountains.”

Concern quickly became regret.

When we tested out our bikes, my confidence came back, cuz it all came back to me, you really don’t forget! Started riding in circles, a bit shaky at first, but I remembered. 

As soon as we started, my bike chain fell off. So I was already behind as I stopped to fix it. The road turned downhill, and I was pretty much riding the brakes. As the road turned and turned, we rode past some incredible vistas, in the rain, with my poncho draped over my body and wheels, i continued on, jumping over rocks, splashing in potholes, riding through mini-creeks made from falling water off the side of the mountain, dodging trucks coming behind me and in front of me. And every once in a while, a minivan with a family inside, would drive by with a camcorder and just videotape and cheer. I wasn’t as amused though. I was excited and terrified all at the same time.

After about 30 minutes of this, I started picking up some speed, as I felt more comfortable on the road. A truck came from behind and passed me, forcing me to the right side of the road (as the left side was overlooking a 1/2 mile drop), as the van passed and i tried to get back on the road i hit a rock, and the bike slipped from underneath me, skidding under me as i flew off hitting rocky pavement, square with my head, knee, and shoulder at the same time. thank goodness for helmets eh?

The shoulder felt sore, the knee was definitely not in good order as i started peddling again, i felt the cracking and creaking of something gone awry in that lower joint of mine but i kept on goin. The rest of the group (as I later found out) thought that I had either plummeted to my death, or was kidnapped by a family of monkeys. 

Joe stayed behind to see if I was still alive, and I did have good news for him.

That night we enjoyed a great meal and settled into a hostel, in a small town in the middle of the rain forest called Santa Maria. This was a family-run / operated hostel / car service / petrol station, and the entire town had only a few shops, in between vast expanses of dirt roads, forests, and hills. 

Rambo, the family Rottweiler, seemed to have a harem of mates, one of whom the family called “The Queen”. Rambo, often dropped a saliva drenched lemon in my crotch to let me know he wanted to play. but he was waiting for the thing to move so he could grab it. i had to be so careful, or else i would have probably lost something that I would definitely miss.

However, I was in so much pain from the fall earlier, and my knee had swollen double the size of the other.  One of our hosts saw me limping and when she saw my knee she was very concerned, asked me to follow her, and she pulled out a tube of some unknown ointment but had a horse’s image on it. She rubbed it on my knee, which became quickly numb, and felt a lot better!  

We settled in, had some coca tea, while some of us chewed on the leaves directly. We shared our bathroom with the largest cockroach south of the equator, and I’m sure he went home with one of us.

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Keep Sarah Palin Talking

1930954_87518945170_1392_nI finish my amoeba medication today. I won’t miss the acid reflux that it caused. Yesterday, I had my first full meal since last Tuesday, and I had meat for the first time today. I ordered grilled chicken strips. When I got the bill, it read “Chicken Chunks” appetizing, right?

So this is a story about a girl named Lucy, not the Lucy that I know here, but some girl named Lucy who lives in Mombasa. So apparently her old phone number expired, and Safari-com assigned me her old number. For a while I got lots of anonymous calls and hang ups when i would answer. Finally, the other day, “Where is Lucy???” “I said, excuse me”. He replies “Lucy – has she returned to Mombasa?” “i’m sorry sir, but you have the wrong number” “No! I do not. This is Lucy’s number and i want to speak with her… NOW

“DUDE this is the wrong number” 

“No! I WANT TO SPEAK TO LUCY

This continued for a while, and I had a few minutes to kill.

5 minutes later.

“Sir, you have the wrong number”

Him, in a very pleasant tone: “Oh ok, that’s cool”

So wow, the last few days were jam packed with some good stuff.

Today I went to the Kibera Girls Soccer Academy, one of the partners of Seeds For Hope, to check up on the girls and see how they’re doing. We had a blast. I had forgotten how to get there, since once you get to the main bus stop, it’s a series of twists and turns through alleys and side roads, going thru a few people’s backyards, and back again. Still, every step was familiar, and every face was loving. I love the people of Kibera. Hardworking, honest, and alive. 

The walls along the main road are spray painted with remnants of the post-election violence, as well new messages of a communal responsibility towards peace and unity, once again.

I arrived at the school and saw some of the teachers, and we had some great conversation. Many of the questions were around 1) Education in the U.S. and 2) The U.S. presidential elections.

After delegating the task of slicing cabbage to me, the teacher said:
“We love Sarah Palin! With every word she speaks, Obama gets more points. Keep her talking.”


I laughed as I sliced and diced cabbage.

Teka, one of the teachers, told me to leave the heart of the cabbage. So I did this, but Byron asked me why I left it behind? So he kept on cutting the hearts. Mixed messages!

I visited the 10th Grade (Form 2) class. I’m not a good teacher, so it took a while to warm up. By the time I got to the 11th Grade class, I was ready to go. It ended up being a Q&A. Some of the main questions asked:

- My position on the presidential elections
- What are the political issues I care about the most?
- Have I ever attended the Tyra Banks show as a studio audience member?

We got into a long discussion about Tyra Banks, actually. And then I taught them a little bit about ancient Egypt. 

Onto the 9th Grade (Form 1) class. They were so inquisitive about the curriculum structure of the American School system. After a description of my high school classes, and them telling me what they learn in class, the summary was that in Kenya they study way more subjects than we do in the states in any given high school year. 

The 9th graders alone study all four sciences, as well as 2 languages, history, math, and literature, as well as other subjects. The four sciences stood out to them the most as a big difference, when someone asked me:

“If we study so many things in Kenya, why are we struggling so much, compared to your country?”

It was not a question I was prepared to answer.  It got me thinking about global inequality in general. Volumes could be written to answer this question, in fact volumes have been written on this subject.

After some discussion about this, my main focus was not to bring the girls down. Their education is absolutely not in vain. They have to understand this. We started talking then about what each of them wanted to do. So many journalists, lawyers to be in the mix. One in particular, had a very serious look in her eye about her desire to end corruption and crime.

These kids have experienced it in a very blatant way.

The subject of foreign languages came up, and they got pretty stoked when I told them I learned Spanish in school, and before I knew it, I spent about 30 minutes teaching them Spanish from English and Kiswahili. Was hard to juggle all three but I managed to get the words in all languages on the board without much help. We got right into conversational Spanish and before long, the girls were speaking to each other in Spanish, with perfect accents. 

The day ended with the echos in my ear of the girls chanting the numbers in Spanish, from one to ten, as I left the classroom and proceeded back into town to continue with the rest of my schedule.

Afterwards we met with Maboyz, and we had a great meeting today. We saw some old faces and made some new friends. It was such a powerful time of togetherness and hopefully the re-ignition of something new.

Tonite, a buddy of mine and I saw a film, Taken, with Liam Neeson. I find out later on that this movie won’t be released in the USA until January of next year. I mean, come on. Am I supposed to believe Liam Neeson, as a kick-ass international spy, who kills everyone in sight to find his abducted daughter? My friend was suggesting maybe Arnold should be cast in this role. I’m pretty sure the film still isn’t even finished yet, and this was some sort of test audience kinda deal. There’s a whole section of plot that was just not there.

I mean this guy is searching for a man, he can’t find this man, he has no idea where to find him, then it fades out and fades back in, and not only has Liam Neeson found this guy, but has him tied to an electric chair and is using non-geneva-convention-approved torture methods to get answers to his questions.
Ok, it’s time to sleep.

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What doesn’t kill you…

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Been silent for some time, thinking that I had almost wasted another week, mainly because of my smart-ass tendencies. 

Tuesday night, a I recognized few visitors from the U.S., they a group of friends and acquaintances. Many of them were sick with various illnesses. So I reached down into that empathetic heart of mine… and made fun of them. I called them weak and soft, mainly in jest, but I reminded them that I had never gotten really sick while being in Kenya outside of maybe travelers diarrhea. 

Of course, karma is merciless with the merciless.

I woke up on Wednesday with a packed schedule ahead of me. In fact, Wednesday through Saturday were packed with activities and plans. Documentary footage for Seeds For Hope campaigns, follow up with many of our students in various locations, and a visit to MaBoyz were all on the agenda.

I woke up feeling kind of ill, and then “kind of ill” became “kind of achey”. Eventually  “kind of achey” became “kind of nauseous”.  Soon enough there was no more need for the use of the word “kind of”, because “really” and “totally” took its place. And before i knew it, within an hour of waking up, I was lying down on the couch, curled up, telling my sister “I don’t think I can go out today”, to which she responded with something along the lines of “suck it up.”

She can be sweet sometimes.

I took a deep breath, and went to take a shower. And with the advice I was given, I decided to try to “suck it up.”

If the symptoms I was experiencing were measured on a speedometer, suddenly things went from 20mph to about 100mph in seconds, and I knew if I were to travel like I had planned, I would really regret it. We went to the hospital and took a bunch of tests.

I had tested positive for two tropical illnesses: Typhoid Fever and Amoebiasis! Oh boy. Karma is a bitch.

The lady at the lab told me “You will never get rid of this, you will be fighting it for a long time” I asked the doctor if that was true, and he reassured me that she was joking.

‘How is that funny exactly?

He told me he thinks I might have malaria as well, but I think he’s just being slightly dramatic. I got back from the hospital, and my body basically gave up on me, and I was pretty much unable to move, I had a fever of over 102, shaking, dizzy, sweating, freezing, the whole 9. And I remained this way, until Thursday afternoon when things started to clear up.

Friday I woke up surprisingly well. I was on 4 medications after all. I decided to hit the town and run a few errands.  I should note that the medication for treating amoebiasis, involves a chemical that will turn into formaldehyde if the patient drinks alcohol of any kind. Pleasant, no?

So, I went out to run errands on foot in Nairobi. One of which was to deliver a laptop to a school, that was donated by my employer, Optaros. I wasn’t as coherent as I should have been when I got on the public transportation, as the rule is, the buses don’t stop, you kinda have to jump off running. I wasn’t strong nor coordinated enough to do this on Friday.  So that’s how I fell out of a moving vehicle with about 30 pounds of equipment on my back.

But I landed on my feet (after a backwards somersault on the pavement). Working out helps, let me tell you. No injuries, no scratches, no blood! Just some glass in my hand.

No biggie.

After a hellish few days, I was able to wrap up the week solving the worlds problems with a buddy over half-eaten Italian food, and it brought a lot into perspective, and I felt ready to continue on with this journey, because for a moment, I had that moment of “why am I here?”

Which takes us to today.

A Trip to Subukia


6:30 am wake up call, we are on our way to Subukia. Subukia is a town outside of Nakuru, on the other side of the Equator from Nairobi, to visit some students.

But these aren’t just any students, mind you. These are the dudes, that I first started working with when I began my work here back in 2006. They call themselves Maboyz.

For those who haven’t read, it’s too much to go into right now, but imagine an unlikely scenario involving a bunch of dudes from Kibera, 2 hours of free time once a week, and a copy of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Two years ago, these guys had a dream to accomplish something, and they went back to school, Jordan Polytechnic, to study Mechanics, Electric, Masonry, Carpentry, and be good to themselves. To learn and grow, and be apart from their friends and families to invest in something that did not come by every day.

We went today to see them, a month before their graduation, and I cannot begin to tell you how proud I am of these guys. The pride and joy they had in their eyes as they told me what they can DO, what they’re able to make with their hands, the ideas they have in their minds, and this hope they have for their future that they didn’t know was possible before.

I stood in gratitude as one of them, my man who we lovingly call “Jamaica”, pointed out the building that he built with his own hands. Such fine workmanship I must say, for someone to have built without machinery. Stone, cement, brick, he knows his stuff. He will play an important role in the development of his community, one that is much needed, I have a feeling.

And the rest, each of them, I’ve known for so long now, and the ups and downs we’d been through over the years, and the pain of having been apart, and not knowing where they’d end up next. One of them, had left the school, and ended up getting killed, as I’d mentioned in a previous note. These guys chose wisely, to stick it out, and here they are at the finish line.

It was pretty kick-ass!

I’ll have some photos and video soon. It was an awesome trip, and my stomach behaved well the entire time. The next few days are gonna be ridiculous, but heck, that’s why I’m here, I guess.

Missing home, but not too much at the moment. Haven’t eaten a meal outside of a few bites since Tuesday. I’ll be back soon.

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Poetry for Life

I attempted olympic lifts today at the gym for the first time in years thanks to the inspiration of my buddies Chris and Tony, and the good people at www.crossfit.com These people thrive on pain, and I’m starting to get it. No vomit yet, but I believe it’s coming.


I was waiting for Grace at the Yaya center for lunch, and I was seated near the entrance, when a guard came to inform me that I appeared too relaxed. And I asked if that was a problem, and he said “of course, we do not allow sitting here.”

We’re Not In Romania Anymore


Remembering my time in Romania, and the difficulty in finding electronic parts, I reserved the entire day to find a 1/4 inch to mini audio adapter for a balanced mic cable. I had my route planned, and the strategy was near perfect. I mentally prepared myself for the hours ahead of searching and bargaining. The 4 shops I had visited previously prepared me for the daunting task at hand, as items like this are not easily found, and this is why the entire day was booked for this cause.

My plan was simple, 5 locations, covering an area of 20 square kilometers, assuming the shops would be on a floor no higher than the 2nd or 3rd, I anticipated maybe 20-25 feet of altitude gains.

11:00 am: And so my journey began, and I arrived at the first shop.
11:05 am: They had the part and it was priced very well.
11:06 am: Journey ends.

It was anti-climactic to say the least.

No Love For Wes Anderson Movies


Last night, I convinced Mena, Grace, and Nadia to watch The Darjeeling Limited with me. I’ve been becoming fond of Wes Anderson films lately, Life Aquatic being my favorite. Grace loved the movie, but Nadia and Mena want their 2 hours back. While they curse me, today, they’ll thank me one day.

Poetry For Life


I am working now on selecting poems from the Kibera Girls Soccer Academy, (More Info On KGSA) in order to compile them into a book, where funds can be brought back to the school. Catherine Hanna, an educational theater specialist in the NYC area and my dear friend, was here this past summer, and held a workshop with the girls from KGSA, where she facilitated a poetry seminar, producing some fantastic works. Reading them in depth today for the first time, I have to say I was moved. Bringing in the elements from the post-election violence that was experienced back in the winter, and both the strength and struggle of the people of their community in Kibera, I want to share a few, hope you enjoy them as much as I have.

Where I am From


Elizabeth Muthoni “Queen”


I am from mud houses full of idlers walking around due to unemployment.
I am from love which brings me to a very hopeful dream to change my community, my school and my family.
I am from blue, that makes me wish to know about my wonderful excellent and enjoyable future ahead of me.
I am from Jamie, Shaun, Catherine, Ryan, Abdul and my Mum, full of encouragement, respectful, understanding, advises, deliberate, which direct me from the righteous path to my wonderful dreams.

I am from Kash, the late pioneer of Kibera Girs Soccer Academy, a life of an innocent person who was shot by the thugs in Kibera Community, always remembered by your people, especially in their hearts. You played a very big role to change our future.

I am from school, a center of education and full of encouraging teachers who urge us to work hard and hope for a lovely future after our studies.


My Community, My Kibera


Khadijah Abdullah


I see shops, I see beautiful people, I see leaders working together, eating together, playing together.
I hear hungry children crying. I hear sexually harassed women crying. I hear poor people crying.
I smell Busa, I smell cuauglaa. I smell sewage.
My love home, My lovely Kibera.
I hurt for better education fir the people of Kibera to get employed.
I hurt for the mud houses of Kibera
I hurt for a better future for the people of Kibera, so as to reduce poverty.
My lovely home, My lovely Kibera.
I love the people in Kibera because they are hardworking
I love the people in Kibera because they are united
I love children in Kibera because they are innocent
My lovely home, My sweet Home, My Kibera

I am From


Carolyn Akinyi Tirus “Shakes”


I am from a chair made of wool and cotton, which makes me comfortable.
I am from a tap of water that gives me clean water for life.
I am from George Tirus, the late, my dad, who used to discipline me if I did mistakes.
I am from “instructions on youth is like engraving of stone,” which my mother used to comment on teenagers.
I am from chips, chicken and fish, which makes me feel healthy and great when I go to hang out with friends.
I am from a song which goes, “what goes up, must come down,” by Mr. Luciano.
I am from Barak Obama who is vying for presidency and he also wants to change America.
I am from Cathy Hanna, the poetry teacher who is kind.
I am from the smell of lovely and elegant people like Abdul and Shaun.
I am from National Theater which makes me safe and secure.
I am from the saddest day of my life, which is when my father passed away.

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Kibera, Hawks, Browser Memory, and the F Train

I spent a few minutes on the balcony about an hour ago, just looking and listening. Bats flying overhead, and in the distance, cars, dogs, and the faint laugh of a hyena believe it or not. I didn’t think they’d be around Nairobi, but their call is distinct. 

After reassuring my parents that I didn’t need to take any Malaria meds because I have not seen a single mosquito in Nairobi, I woke up with both ankles eaten severely by what looked like one or two very selfish mosquitos. Yet, I remain stubborn.

Hawks


There’s actually a hawk’s nest at eye level with the balcony. Every so often, the dominant male leaves its nest, and flies right past my face giving me a thuggish look. I often return the look back, face stone cold. It flew by in response, and as it flew by it gave me the “W” whatever sign, and then put an L up against its forehead. I think that’s just cold.

Whenever I see a hawk, I think of my friends back at Plainview. It was our mascot. Don’t think I’ve ever seen a hawk in Nassau County, though I did spot one, right over the county line near Cold Spring Harbor once.

The last few days, I’ve been wrapping up some work for my company back home, and began preparing for the work I’m to do here. It’s actually the reason I flew over the ocean.

I’ve been a little moody the last few days, mainly because of the stress I feel and the work ahead of me in the next month seems insurmountable, but my friend Grace told me, I just have to do what I can, and pretty much just chill, what will get done, will get done.

Kibera


I went back to Kibera last Thursday to meet up with the MaBoyz! You may remember them from previous tales. Many of them have gone west to study and make a change for their life, and there’s a new generation of Maboyz, some I’ve known before, some I haven’t. There is one in particular who is a dear friend of mine, who has inspired me recently. You make me proud dude! However, amidst the smiles and embraces of reunion, there is a sadder story to tell. Two of the guys I’d come to know since 2006, have been recently killed. It was foolish, and unnecessary, but it happened nonetheless. It made me angry, and I wasn’t sure who to blame. Blame is the natural reaction, I think. Do I blame them, society, the cops? So many stories circulate as to why they got shot at point blank by the police, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. Choices we make sometimes can decide our fate.

I haven’t been to church in a long time, so waking up this morning to get to Sunday service was a good thing and it recalibrated me in many ways. Of course, I’m a music fiend, and nothing stirs my heart more than honest song. yes, a video is coming.

After the service, saw so many familiar faces, old friends. One guy in particular, has gotten acceptance to a flight school in the USA. This is a big deal. They’ve taken care of his visa and everything, yet, the school fees are tremendous! It’s beyond even our budget at Seeds For Hope. I’m looking into some scholarships or grants. If any of you know of something like this, feel free to pass it my way. He’s a smart kid and this is a rare opportunity.

So many things happening in parallel: Reconnecting with the Kibera Girls Soccer Academy, continuing the poetry workshops started by Catherine, and working on a book for them to take home. Continuing work on the documentary for Seeds For Hope, working with MaBoyz, and also finding time to learn and grow.

A good part of this trip is about documenting, and capturing. It’s hard to be connected behind the camera. I’ve only taken it out when absolutely necessary, mainly because my time here is so short and I want to savor every moment I get.

I write this somewhat melancholy for a number of reasons. But tomorrow is a new day.

P.S. I love Firefox. My browser crashed before I could hit save, and when I restarted and restored previous session, my entire post was in the text box. How do they do it?

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Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

When your travel agent changes your itinerary for a profit


Photo Credit: Damir Bosnjak

Originally published as “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” on paulkist.com on September 21, 2008.


As usual, the words come once I depart, and I’ve departed, and the words are coming. I haven’t written a true blog entry since my last journey out of the country, back in November 2007, and as I sit on Virgin Atlantic Flight 68 to London’s Heathrow Airport, eyes singed from an inconsistent 4 hour sleep, not sure if I was too hot or too cold. My face was cold, my chest was sweating, and my legs had goosebumps. It was really, really confusing. I always considered humans warm-blooded creatures, but I felt like a reptile for the last few hours. But I digress. I almost did not make the flight, why? Because I tend to never learn that if my parents recommend someone to get me a “deal”, it never works out the way I want, and sometimes, spending a few extra bucks up-front is worth saving high blood pressure in the end.


And I was also trapped with a full bladder, unable to find a way past the lady who wouldn’t have woken up if a piece of overhead luggage fell on her face. Finally when my kidneys were screaming for mercy I had to climb over her, which wasn’t an easy task. My yoga is paying off though.


It felt like a terribly-timed joke when the person at the check-in counter at JFK told me there was no record of me flying on the printed itinerary I had in my hand. This itinerary was given to me by a travel agent at St. “Mark” Travel. I’ve changed the saint’s name for anonymity purposes (and yes, naming your business after a saint is pretty common among us Coptic folk). The agency accepted payment and booked my flight for me. Must’ve been some mistake, I thought, between e-ticketing or something of that nature. I was directed to the ticket counter, which believe it or not, is a separate department. The agent at the ticket counter told me that I was not booked on this flight but after about 15 minutes of phone calls and green-screen searches she discovers that I was booked for a flight that left yesterday.


How could that be? My itinerary, confirmation number with the airline, all pointed to my flight being today. This didn’t make any sense. Until some new information surfaced…


The Virgin Atlantic agent discovered something very interesting. Apparently 2 days after I booked and paid for this ticket, someone at the travel agency actually cancelled my ticket, and re-booked me on a different itinerary and a return flight to a different city than what I had booked! They also let me know that there was a significant price difference, and that the money was refunded to the travel agency.


Of course, one could say that after years of practical jokes I’ve played on loved ones, that this was the ultimate payback. I was kinda hoping Ashton Kutcher would run out from behind the lady in red and let me know how punk’d I truly was.


However, that didn’t happen.


I do not hold St. Mark himself, nor do I hold any patron saint of a travel agency personally responsible.


So what were my options? Pay the 200 dollar change fee to get on this flight, and pay the full price of the return ticket to fly to Boston from the city I was now flying back to? I don’t think I had a choice because “your ticket has a restriction, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”


Deep breaths. About to call the travel agent…


”Paul, you’re a consultant”, I thought to myself, “you can totally be professional and get answers without getting flustered.”


When I told her what happened, she said “Oh yea? Your ticket is different than what we booked? Why did that happen?”


“I’m not sure why it happened, I was hoping you could tell me”


After 20 minutes on the phone, it turns out I wasn’t going to get any answers, because she asked me back the same questions I asked her. I guess they thought it would be ok to just change my itinerary and hope I’d just figure it out.


Believe it or not, I’m writing this with a smile on my face. Why? Well it’s because I’m going back to Kenya! And two, I’m sure the 400 bucks will find its way back to me, either via my friend the travel agent, or by some karma related act of the universe, or maybe St Mark himself will hand me a check,


I’m not sure of the details yet.

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Bound For Egypt

I landed in Egypt in a manner similar to how I arrived: blind. I had an aisle seat and could not see the approaching terrain, beyond the heads of my fellow window-seated passengers. I didn’t know how high or how low we were, all I knew is that I was on a plane, and eventually, without much warning, I would feel the vibrations of wheel and steel hitting concrete, with the jolt one feels, as the plane (and our bodies) absorb the shock of hitting tarmac, followed by the cheeky applause of a safe arrival. I refuse to participate in such things. But it was only in that moment, would I get the inkling that I was actually somewhere.  In a similar manner as I arrived, I’m here in Egypt, almost blind… not sure exactly why I’m here to be honest. For the last 3 calendar years, my time-off has been spent in East Africa, doing volunteer work. While this trip is going to comprise a portion of my yearly leave, somehow I found myself booking a trip to Egypt first.

I am Egyptian. Born in New York in 1978, to parents who had been in the USA almost 10 years already, with one uncle (my mom’s brother) in Ohio. I’ve made two trips to Egypt to visit family, in 1979 and 1981. My entire childhood was spent in Long Island growing up, feeling slightly as a stranger in his own home-town: Totally American, but kind-of not. My parents spoke a different language, and my house always smelled like all kinds of foods that my friends couldn’t pronounce. Sitting in the car with my father, windows rolled down at a red light, he would blast tapes of Om Kalthoum, and I would beg him to put on the radio (100.3 FM, Z-100, to be exact).  I didn’t want the society around me to discover how Egyptian I was.  And despite all attempts to be as American as possible, I figured that if my mom stopped feeding me Egyptian food, I would somehow morph into something similar to those around me, but that didn’t quite happen. Feta and pita was consistently on the menu. While my dad would proclaim his love for the tunes of his youth, my parents barely spoke Arabic to us, as in a brave and well-intentioned effort, they believed that when living in an English speaking country, one should do as the Romans do…. or something. My only real immersion in anything remotely Egyptian was on weekends  when we would take trips to Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue, to buy blocks of feta and bag-fulls of olives from crowded, aromatic marketplaces, which caused more fear than familiarity in me, but most of all was the church community. It was at church, where on on a weekly basis I was taught about what God wanted me to do, and what he didn’t want me to do.  I was told when to sit, when to stand, kneel, repeat, and where I was asked on a weekly basis why I didn’t speak Arabic.

I found more comfort and familiarity amongst my American peers in school than I did amongst the Coptic diaspora, until I started to find some real and true friends there, did I begin to integrate these broad and far reaching sides of my identity. I noticed that even as I am in most ways, culturally, an American, recognizing so many of the “brown people” sensibilities that I possess: a generous smile, a penchant to share my food with others at my table (soup included) insistance that someone else go before me, standing up to shake your hand, jealousy, passion, and stubbornnes, and of course.: the ability to laugh until I cry. I saw and embraced my Egyptian-ness. But still Egypt itself, was off my conscious radar, but not off the radar of my spirit.

So here I am, 2007, the fourth trip in my lifetime, and my first trip as a conscious adult to visit my home, outside the comforts of a tour bus, and honestly, I’m hesitant. I hope to find some deep connection, some sort of love that may not be reciprocated. My lack of fluency in the Arabic language, I fear may be a barrier in connecting with a family I love so much, even though I’ve barely spent time with them in my life.

It’s fitting that I read “Tuesdays With Morrie” on the flight over here, as in a way, I’m here for the same thing. I mentioned before that I had an uncle in Ohio. Last year he was diagnosed with a terminal illness, and wasn’t supposed to survive past Christmas 2006. Somehow he is alive today and planned a trip to visit the family in Alexandria around the same time I was planning to go to Kenya.This is the man that taught me many of the values I keep today. I see much of him in myself (and others have told me they recognize this as well). He has been a constant support and source of love and affection for me and my family. “Prince Paul” is how he addresses me, as his belief that a child of God, who is a King, automatically makes me a Prince, and in my less zealous late 20s adult life, that still makes me smile. I decided to change my ticket and spend a few days talking with the man that gave so much of himself for me, in a land that he came from.

Was this the reason that Catherine bought me “Tuesdays With Morrie” for our 1 year anniversary, or was it that it came up randomly in conversation just a few weeks earlier with my good friends Chris and Jamie? Who knows? But the parallels are striking. I relate to Mitch in one very important manner: how he turned out way different than he was “supposed” to be, based on his teaching from his mentor. In many ways, if there is an area of discomfort, is realizing that I am not the kind of devout Christian that I was trained to be. While I am a Christian still, my spiritual path has taken me places not easily found on the map.  My ideas and values have been shaped because of, and in spite of, the culture and life I grew up experiencing. I won’t get too much into my beliefs here, but feel free to send me a shout, and we can definitely talk about it.

But I am willing to put myself and my differences bare before the man who had a part in shaping me into who I am, to spend some quality time with him, asking him questions about everything … anything and everything. I look forward to a few good arguments as well, the kind that only certain people can have, that seem so heated and abrasive, but have an undercurrent of love and trust. I’ve had many of these lately, and have lead to some of the most wonderful expressions of love I’ve experienced so far in this lifetime.

I sit on a bus from Cairo to Alexandria. Briefly saw my cousin Maged, who once visited us when I was a child. Now I’m on my way to see the whole clan. I look out the window and I see people that look like me, and yet are so different. I look at other young men my age, and wonder if I was born and raised here, who would I be? How much of me would I be? I look out into the eyes of these strangers, and I wonder if I would be any more a culturally integrated person for the duration of my life, without the early struggle to fit-in. I wonder who I would have been…

So I try to make peace, right here, and now, as I write this, with who I AM, where I’m from, as an Egyptian American… emphasis on American… and emphasis on Egyptian. I am one…. ask my friends… check out my dinner table.

So I sit on the bus, not sure where I am in my journey, but I have decided not to brace myself for impact, but to experience every moment along the way, and once I land…. I’ll have landed… ready to take on a new adventure.

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