A Close Call at Adams Arcade

Before I continue… let’s check in with the stats:

(Changes marked in Red)

Arrests: 0
Police Searches: 1
Near Death Experiences: 1
Stomach Issues: 3
Bandwidth: 1.4 KB/sec
Kilometers Ran Without Injury: 5km

My Face, My Hair


I was visiting the fiancee of a friend who was in the hospital today, and on my way down the stairs I hear “Eh ya 3am”, which is an Egyptian friendly greeting literally meaning “Hey, Uncle!” (yea, don’t ask). And I look, and I was surprised to see the man who said this was African. So I said, “do i know you?” and he said “No, but I am from Egypt too.” And so I asked him “What makes you say that I am Egyptian?” He replied: “Your face says that your Egyptian, but your hair tells me you may be something else, so maybe you are not Egyptian”.

What does that mean?!

Public Transportation


Today, I decided to use the matatus to get around. What is a matatu you ask? Here are a few facts about a matatu:

Seats: 18
Capacity: 18 – 25
Music Selection: Loud / Bass
Colors: Loud / Grafitti (but the standard is white and yellow)
Stops: Whenever you stick your hand out (but there are some designated stopping points
Routes: Designated and unchanging
Schedule: Every minute or so, more accessible than a NYC Subway
Staff: 1 Driver, 1 Driver’s Friend who sits next to driver, 1 Money Collector / Signaller

How it works: You stand at a designated matatu stop (or close by) – the money collector will stick his hand out as the matatu quickly approaches, and you stick your hand out to let him know you want to get on. The matatu slows down enough so you can get a running start and hop on. There is an aisle, but its only wide enough to fit a small child, so you sit in the money collectors seat while he hangs outside the matatu, and then once you’ve settled, you have to find an empty seat, and squeeze your way through… if you have a bag with you, you will be a nuisance. When you’re ready to get off the matatu, if the money collector likes you, you can get off anywhere, but if he’s not so crazy about you, you have to wait till the next stop. When its time to stop, money collector hits the roof with a coin, signaling the driver to pull over. The matatu slows down enough so you can jump off without stumbling and tripping into a drainage system and making a complete ass of yourself.

I used the matatus pretty much all day. Quickest way to get around Nairobi.

The Close Call


After work today I headed over to Adam’s Arcade, a shopping center on Ngong Road halfway between Junction and Mimosa (which probably means nothing to most people reading this) so I could workout at the gym. I sat outside for a bit to get some air before I went in to workout, when I noticed a very shady looking character staring at me from across the way. Many times I get stared at, I usually break the stare by saying “Mambo” or “Sema” (casual Nairobi-slang greetings) and the starer usually smiles and responds with a “Poa” or “Freshi” or something of that nature. This time, the “Mambo” was returned by a deep and angry stare, that seemed like it pierced thru my soul.

I started to feel uncomfortable.

I basically decided to ignore the guy. But he kept pacing around, and would not keep his eyes off me. I’m not one to go walk into a building to feel safe (when maybe I should!) But I like to resolve things, I wasn’t going to go inside until I knew what this guy wanted.

After about 10 minutes of staring and me feeling very uncomfortable, I went inside.

I worked out for about an hour, when I got out, he was there waiting again. Pacing, staring, looking very angry and menacing. So finally I just looked at him and said “what?!?” and he turned around and walked away.

Basically Mena told me that he was scoping me out because he was planning to mug me, and was waiting for the right moment to do so. I just heard a story today of a friend of a friend, a student, was mugged in downtown Nairobi, the guy took his backpack, then the guy stabbed himself, and then cut the student with the same knife, grabbed his arm and made his blood mix with the student’s blood.  He had to go on Post Exposure Prophylactic treatment for 3 months. That experienced rocked him, and rocked all of us who heard it.

You can’t live in fear around here, but you gotta be cautious. I love this country, and I love this town. One thing you can be sure of, if you shout “thief” against someone, everyone (and I mean everyone in the vicinity) will chase the guy you accused, and beat him till near death. Mob justice, is what it’s called, but I hope I never have to use it.

On that note, I’m gonna head over to Pavement, it’s salsa night, live music, and great food.

 

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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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Driving on the Right Side of the Road: Life is Possible

Hey everyone, It’s 9am, Monday morning, and I just got back to NY last night. I’m incredibly jet-lagged, sore, and tired. It was quite a few weeks.

The last few days especially were incredible.

Friday, Dec 1 2006, was World AIDS Day, and the Hope Centre held three simultaneous marches in Kenya. Two in Nairobi, and one in Maseno. Henry and I spent the few days beforehand making the posters that were to be set up by the candle table, where people can light a candle in memory of a loved one who died or who is living with living with living with, not dying from disease.”

The day itself was wonderful. We woke up bright and early and headed out in busloads to Kibera, where the march started. There were a few speeches of inspiration, and Maboyz got a special shout out.

The first 10 minutes were rather slow. We just walked. When after a few minutes a few of the ladies began singing, and it ended up with us singing for the entire march, through the streets of Nairobi. Many of the people didn’t know each other, but there was such a sense of camaraderie. Some in the march were people from the Hope Centre’s HIV support group, some were local youth groups, and organizations that refer people to the Hope Centre.We marched through Kibera, onto Ngong Road, people were directing traffic around us, the guys from Maboyz were handing out fliers to oncoming vehicles, reaching their hand over to the hands of passengers in buses and matatus who wanted a pamphlet, to know more about World AIDS day, and about getting tested and knowing your status. We drew quite a crowd by the end of the march:

We marched from Kibera all the way back to the Hope Centre. Nadia addressed the crowd and introduced a woman named Rachel, a member of the HIV Support group, who gave her heart, and shared how because of ARV meds, she was able to live long enough to see her grandchildren be born. It was such an inspiring speech. There was such solidarity in that gathering, to know that everywhere around the world, similar marches were being held. Just to know that there are victims of this terrible disease who are no longer labelling themselves as victims, who are standing up, to get people educated, inspired, and hopeful.

I lit a candle for Massimo. He has been adopted by a family in Rome. He is my hero. He is living, not just surviving.

After the march, we had some eggs, sandwiches, and Abouna put us to work :) By us, I mean, the whole group of Maboyz. We worked cleaning up a bunch of storehouses. There were about 15 of us altogether, working at what seemed to be an impossible job, organizing heavy medical machinery, donated by people in the US and Egypt. Much of it was unusable, but could be made to good use with some repairs. We cleaned up 3 storehouses in 3 hours. You should have seen these rooms before we began, it looked like days of work, but with 15 of us. These guys are amazing. Some of them had no problem jumping up balancing themselves on mounds of metal, knowing that one wrong shift in weight would cause them tumbling into what would be a painful visit to the ER, or worse, stacking things in high places. Me, the American, I’m all thinking about “hey be careful!!” But we worked, and worked, and worked, and by the end – we were exhausted but proud of a good days work. Here we are basking in the glory of a job well done:

But now I’m home, back in the USA.

I did leave out one important detail, however. Remember Tony, the young man I mentioned in the last post? He got accepted by the school! I am so proud of him, and I am so honored to have been his witness at the school, where he got accepted.

His whole life, from this point onwards, is going to be different. Please send him your prayers! Change is possible. Life is possible!

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The journey with Maboyz

Jamboni marafiki wangu! Hello my friends. It is interesting how my language changes when I am overseas. Certain nuances in the way we talk in the states are different than the English spoken here, and it takes a few days to get acculturated to these differences, but its great when I return, and I throw in a few Swahili words by accident when I talk to people ☺ If I speak to you in the week after, expect an accidental “sawa” or “sindyo” thrown in the conversation. I’ll tell you right now sawa means “OK”, and sindyo means “Yes, No?” or the best equivalent is “Ya know?”

Sawa, let me continue this journal of my time overseas. Sawa? Sawa!

Quick recap: meeting with Maboyz again here in Nairobi has made a huge change in my plans here. I basically talked a lot of smack before I left. Many of you heard me say “Yea, I’m gonna climb mount Kenya!” or “Hey! Gonna climb the highest mountain in Kenya” but really – things change when you get here. And being here and seeing Maboyz again, I realize I’d rather spend more time with them, so, instead of taking a 4 day trek into the wilderness, I’m gonna be spending one night in Nakuru, which is a lake town and game park, north of Nairobi. I hope to see some Rhinos and Leopards, sindiyo?

Sawa.

As I wrote before, I have felt kinda torn being here. I have so much attachment to the guys I’ve been working with since my last visit, earlier this year, and seeing how much they’ve changed and how much their group has grown in numbers, maturity, and consistency, makes me want to be a part of it so much more, but it is sad because I know I have to leave.

But it’s been both difficult, wonderful, painful, and rewarding. Last night they had at the church , what they call, a Kesha, or an all night vigil of prayer, singing, skits, games, movie, etc. As for me, I’m not one who can pray for 8 hours straight, most of my prayer, I like to spend alone, I guess. But its good with the masses every so often. A few of the guys showed up, and as they were arriving, I was upstairs in my flat, getting ready to play some guitar and leading the group in some songs. It’s been a long (very long) time since I’ve done that sorta thing, and so I was nervous. Plus the guitar I was to use, had a broken string. And I get very particular about sound, and if I’m missing a string, I get worked up. So I was lucky to have a friend downstairs named Tim who had a guitar and was generous enough to let me borrow it for the evening.

Once the gathering started, one of the guys walked in, and let’s just say he wasn’t doing too well. We told him he should go home, get sobered up and then come back. I wasn’t sure if it was the right thing to do, but it did make sense at the time. Maybe it’s about building discipline, if he can control himself one day a week? I dunno, I have no idea how these things work, but as far as addiction goes, I can sympathize. I think we all can. There’s always something that has us kinda bound: big things, small things. It’s all the same at the end, just some have bigger consequences than others.

He ended up leaving and the night continued. But with a sort of bittersweet note, for me.  I was spending most of the time worried about this kid. As I started playing Tim’s guitar… the most amazing thing happened, the strap broke. Then, a string popped, then another string snapped! And my one hour gig, turned into 15 minutes of clumsy, yet very musical, playing and singing, and for those 15 minutes, everyone was feeling it. Well, at least I was for sure ☺

It was also special because it was the first time Nadia and I sang and played together in such a long time and it was kick-ass for sure.

I’m writing this in MS Word (for Mac) (since I have no net connection right now), and I’m surprised to find that “kickass” is not recognized by the spell checker, and is telling me that I’ve misspelled it. I guess it’s time to add “kickass” to the correct spelling list ☺

OBAMA 2008!

Sawa.

At around 1:30am, in the middle of an intense game of Bible trivia, boys vs. girls, I’m told that the boy from earlier, was passed out on the street right outside the gate, and had been sleeping there in the cold for bout 2 hours.

Mena and I tried to wake him up, but he would not budge, so the guards kept an eye on him and we went back at 2:30 to get him.

Mena and Junae and Kimani, three brothers who are living here in Kenya. I’m just so amazed by them, and their love for the guys, and how much work they’ve put into their group in the last 7 months. I’m happy to know that they are here as I don’t think anyone else could do the job, sindiyo?

We brought him in, and spent until 4:30 with him keeping him company, trying to get him to stay alert. We got him food and tea, it was hard. This guy was a really amazing person, yet, covered by so much crap. You see the potential, yet you know he doesn’t really want help, or maybe he doesn’t think there’s a way out. At the end of the day, it’s a challenge in letting go, but loving and pursuing, and staying dedicated unconditionally. But how that balance is achieved is very hard.

He couldn’t even hold the tea, because he was shaking so much.

At the end, I feel just so inadequate. Inadequate to help, and inadequate to have any answers to why this is the way it is. But you have to keep on going, because it isn’t about me. But you can’t do this kinda work without seeing yourself in these guys. You have to relate to  your own struggles, and your own challenges. These guys serve me, I think more than I serve them.

Couldn’t sleep at all, but finally passed out around 6am, waking up at 10. Not much sleep.

We had the Maboyz meeting a few hours ago, and we tried a few new exercises with them, challenging them to go deeper. What a lovely time it was though. To see these guys open up, and learn to trust each other more. It is really something magical to just witness.

One of the guys in particular, told me how sad he was that I was gonna leave in a week.

“What have you decided about Maboyz, Paul? Will you come stay with us?”

How do you answer such a question?

It feels good to be loved. It humbles me. I know for sure that for now I am supposed to be in New York. What the future has, I have no idea, but one thing is for sure, being in Kenya is part of my yearly plan.

Earlier that day,I was thinking about how the new guys I really don’t connect as well as the older ones because we didn’t have time to spend one on one like I had with the others.
But fate has it, that today, the new guys all showed up earlier, and the rest showed up an hour later, and it really gave us a good chance to bond.

We had fun though, one of the guys taught me some Kempo Karate. I told some of the guys the story of Che Guevarra, Che’s image is an icon all over Kenya, yet no one really knows who he is, where he came from, or what he did. Matatu vehicles all over the country have his icon branded on the rear window, and as they drive by, and you hear the muffled sound of what is to the passengers, piercing Ragga (not reggae) music, vibrating down the sometimes rocky, sometimes smooth roads of Nairobi.

But I digress.

I am here now at the Java house, unwinding with a cup of coffee, and writing these things out. I’m an introvert, actually, and I need these times every day in order to stay sane ☺

I have a lot to think about, but I look forward to a few relaxing days in the countryside amongst the rivers, the mountains, hyenas and flamingos.

More to come, and more photos as well – - Give my best to my city, and my country, and I miss you all so much. CHAU LOCOS!!

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Thanksgiving

And so I sit here, 11:20am EAT, at the Nairobi Java House, which is Kenya’s version of Starbucks, except it’s just so much better. They have table service, the coffee is Kenya AA. They also serve breakfast lunch and dinner; best eggs on the equator, I reckon. And I’m just doing some work for my company back home, because the wireless connection is a lot better here.

I think high speed internet really is the one thing that’s missing here; that and my friends and family of course. :)

A few more stories from the Motherland to keep you guys reading. I don’t blame you al for being upset with me, I’ve slacked on the blog. Partly because of time, and partly, I really haven’t had much to say. My blogs were becoming too political, which is ok, but while we’re on that note: Obama 2008!

Ok, now that we’re done with that:

Peter Jackson’s Letter

As you may recall, a few months back, Peter Jackson, the esteemed director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy wrote back to a letter I wrote to him, telling him about the experience I had in Nairobi earlier this year, how a support group for at-risk youth started up, after we bonded over watching the trilogy. On Tuesday night, I read the letter to the guys. There was dead silence in the room. What I did not expect, was what I saw when I looked up. So many of the guys were tearing up. They couldn’t believe that someone of Peter Jackson’s celebrity status would care about them to tell them how he felt. It was really a solemn moment. Ah!! I just love working with these guys.

Wednesday Night Bribery

Grace and I went to pick up some dinner and smoothies for Nadia and Mena, cuz they were “tired”, or so they say. While we were at the smoothie place, we were getting free samples of their new ice cream flavors, like chocolate hazelnut, whiskey cream. One of the workers turns to me and says “You know, my boss, he can afford 100,000.00 KSH per month for his flat. We get paid… well… let me put it this way: only God is our provider” and he winked.

On the way home, I guess we didn’t notice, but Grace was driving with the lights off. There was a truck behind us so it looked like we had our lights on, as the road ahead of us was well lit.  Suddenly, a cop jumped in front of our car, and signaled to us to pull over. There are no cop cars here, no high speed chases, just metal spikes in the road to force you to stop or else you lose your car, and maybe even your feet. The cop was pretty angry, carried a semi-automatic weapon strapped to his body, and he yelled at us, and told us we were going to prison.

We were apologizing profusely saying it was a big mistake, we go to the church down the road, have mercy, have mercy. He started yelling at us to let him get in the car so he can take us to jail. He searched the car made us open the trunk, made us get out. then we go back in the car, and I’m shitting in my pants at this point. I was like “officer… ” he’s like “you may speak now” and I said “officer, you see…” and here’s what he doesn’t know – he doesn’t know that I’m Mediterranean, and as a Mediterranean, I talk with my hands. I really do. Just ask my friends.

But he didn’t like my hands moving as I spoke and he took them and threw them down. Ooops? So anyway I pleaded with him to let us go. So he’s like “ok, only if you give me 2000 KSH” And I was like reaching for my pockets to give the man his money when Grace pinched me “NO! All I have is 200KSH”, and he’s like ” ok ok, 1000KSH” This went on back and forth back and forth. I wasn’t ready to go to Kilimani Prison last night, so I just whipped out the thousand shillings and he let us go.

Of course, Grace was pretty upset with me, but I just did what I could do to get us out of there.

We reported the cop to the department, and his trying to bribe us. Not like it will really do anything but it was worth trying at least, ya know?

The Great Debate

What’s for Thanksgiving dinner?? Goat, or Ribs? That’s the question of the day, and the answer will arrive shortly. And until then, here are some more snaps from the motherland:

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Ramblings from flat 7

It’s 1am, Wednesday night, and I’m sitting on the couch in flat 7 at the St. Mark’s Guest House at the Coptic Mission in Nairobi on Ngong Road, the couch that I spent hours writing my thoughts on this blog from February to April, earlier this year. It’s amazing how some things have not changed at all, while other things are completely different. I still don’t have hot water, and my stove still doesn’t work. My room is still cold at night and the maintenance guy here still ignores my requests no matter how much I beg.

When I arrived on Sunday night, it was about 5 minutes of complete culture shock before I felt at home, almost, and what that almost is I will describe a bit more later. ;)

I get out of baggage claim and I see a bunch of dorks standing there with signs:

Yes the Chicken Sucks, but only at one restaurant, if any of you guys remember reading from my trip to the coast in February. But these guys were holding the signs at the airport, and people, new visitors to Kenya walk by, and see this sign, and realize they’re getting advice about the food quality in the country. According to them, people thanked them for the frank advice and would indeed, stay away from the chicken.

Yea, things haven’t changed much around here. Kachumbari, Nadia’s red Volkswagon is still broken and still runs on fumes. Mena’s car still has that alarm that wakes up people in neighboring cities. And it rains, and rains, washing it all away. But if it were that easy life would be sweet.

But it was sweet, and it still is.

Monday night, I didn’t expect to see the boys so soon. We went to Kibera to meet them, almost like a pre-game show before the Tuesday night meeting. And they were all there, still committed, still part of this group that we had started when we bonded over Peter Jackson’s Ring trilogy. But it was much stronger. Seven months, they have been together since I left. I saw Carlos and Rocky running up to the car, and I was overwhelmed with love and feelings of camaraderie, I can’t believe such a long time had gone by, and I can’t believe how much I’d actually missed them. And as we gathered in the ragged broken down hotel where we met the first time, right by Olympic station. I just had no words to say. Seeing these guys there. These guys whose experience with them changed my life. I was honored, and humbled.

Here’s a recent pic of them on a trip they took a few months back:

We sang, we prayed, and we spoke with one another. All we could say to each other was I missed you. People gave stories of their life, people gave their hearts, really and truly. I think it was a little too much to handle; I knew already how much these guys meant to me, but i guess I saw visibly how much i meant to them. They didn’t wanna leave my side, nor did I want to leave theirs, but I was afraid of getting attached again, because I knew in just 10 days, I would be leaving them again. So I kept a wall up, not really by my own doing it just happened.

Later that night, there was a conflict between two of the guys, and they were about to knife each other over a loaf of bread. Yes, this is the world we live in. Yes, this kind of situation exists. 50% of the world would be in the same situation. Why isn’t anything changing? It shocked me, trying to talk sense, trying to help them see, and ask themselves if it’s worth it. But who am I? When have I ever needed a half-loaf of bread just to survive? When have I ever needed to fight for my survival to that extent?

The next day was my day of just lounging around, practicing my photography around the compound, and of course, annoying my sister at work :)

One of the artist guys I met last time, is now living nearby, and is getting ready to go to school. Finally things are happening.  have been spending a lot of time with him, he’s a kid, with a lot of questions, and just needs some support and encouragement, and i’ve been honored to actually be able to give that to him during this time. He taught me some Swahili vocabulary today. I’m just so impressed by this kid’s strength, given all that he has been through, he’s strong. So strong.

Tuesday night, was Maboyz Meeting night. Apparently they had a surprise for me. It was Kenyan drama in the Kenyan drama school of Kenyan drama, and it was pretty awesome. I didn’t quite understand the dialogue cuz there was no translation, but to know that they worked so hard to surprise me, I was so touched.

We stood around a circle and started singing Swahili praises, and the walls, oh the walls came-a-tumbling down. I was back in the moment. I was back with my family. The power and strength in that room, from the voices of these guys was shaking the earth. I still can’t understand how so much talent and passion is so overlooked by the people in their own society. And it leaves me torn, between this desire to take more of an active role again and between my responsibilities back home. It’s not an easy feeling to live with.

There was a young dude there from Canada who was sitting in the meeting with us, and he said something that really blew me away. He was talking about how he sees the bond between these guys here, and how he wished he had such a community of his own back home. It was the first time I’ve ever seen someone tell these guys that “I wish I have what you have.” They’re so used to being the opposite position saying how they wish they lived in the west, they wished they had this and that, and fancy sneakers and cars, and, and, and, and…

The more I thought about this man’s statement, the more amazed I became.

On this note, I’m gonna have to conclude and write more later, it’s almost 2am. I spent most of the day sleeping. I’m not even on NY time. I’m more on Tokyo time or something. Vacation time maybe?

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Good-Bye Kenya

I have about less than a week left before I return back the States. I thought this trip was going to be about accomplishing something, but it was more about learning, and discovering. I accomplished a lot in the short time I was here. I had developed a new system for the Hope Center. In the process now if a few last minute changes, and training a new developer to take over the project long term.

I have a lot to think about when I leave here, especially about next steps. My sister told me the other day “Do you realize all that you experienced while you were here?” She was kinda laughing, it was intense for sure. Between Massimo, and the software program, and the Tuesday meetings, and everything, I think despite all these things, life in New York has a way of making it seem as if those things never happened, and though that will be a challenge, I don’t even think life in NY could ever let me forget.

I still have a good 7 days left here, and although they will mostly be spent working on the software, and tying up loose ends, there will be room for a few things to take home with me.

I’m meeting with the guys for our last “Tuesday Night”. There will be no movie, but we are going to spend time together, just talking, maybe a few games. I’m trying to put together a little gift for each of those guys, though I’m not sure exactly what I can give. Maybe framed pictures from our trip. attached with a note or something?

Anyways, it’s almost time for lunch. The above pictures were drawn by H and J. They gave em to me last week. One says “Goodbye Kenya” and the other says, in a nut-shell, “Remember us”. Like that’s even a question!

I don’t think I could ever forget.

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My iPod Built A Wall

It’s Wednesday night here, early March, 10:30pm as I write this, realizing I’m so behind in the things I wanna share and say. The last few days have been very tough. Draining is the word. I’m in the heart of many things, between code development, working with the street kids, teaching computer skills. I haven’t had some me-time in a while, and I think it’s starting to wear on me.

If you could only hear the rain outside, it sounds like this house is sitting underneath Niagra Falls. It’s incredible!

I’ve been here for a little over a month, and I do have to say that things still affect me, when I experience them. I’m still very sensitive to the different interactions I have, and what I’m learning about people, about our race as humans. I’ll share with my sister who’ll reply to me “Paul, stop being so damn profound.” to which I respond “Nadia, kiss my royal irish arse.

The truth is, I am Egyptian, but saying it my way has better ring to it.

So I have some new friends here, a couple of Maasai warriors who work as hospital security. They stand out even from the average Kenyan, so much that even other Kenyans may stare. The Maasai have a presence unlike most people I know. I can’t put it into words, but there’s a difference there, a certain quality of character. Or maybe it’s just the 5 inch-diameter holes in their earlobes. From what I know about the Maasai warrior, is that they have to go through intensive training, and they do much to defend and care for their society, that they represent to me, true essence of bravery. Robert, the younger, is 30, and has killed one lion with only a small spear. The other, James, 50 years old (but doesn’t look older than 30, for some reason) has killed 2 lions, and is married with 5 kids. I see them now, every day at 6pm, and we just chill, and shoot the breeze. I forgot to mention Robert and James speak about 2 words in English, making communication very (very) friggin difficult, but wow, is my Kiswahili improving!

I was listening to my iPod and Robert saw me and wanted to know what was coming out of this little white device. I told him it was an mp3 computer, and he was like “Sidai oling” which is like “Very cool” in Maasai language. I let him hear a few tracks, and had him bopping to “Hey What’s Goin On” (it’s only for nostalgic purposes.) But, what really got Robert’s attention; the band that really captured Robert’s interest: Coldplay! He basically disappeared with my iPod, walking around just humming and totally gettin the wrong notes, really getting into it. But hey, the man loves his Coldplay!

He must have listened to Warning Sign at least 20 times. So, Robert offered to make a deal with me. In exchange for my iPod, he would give me a sword.

A sword from the hands of a Maasai warrior, in exchange for this mass produced yet VALUABLE object of mine, which holds 60 GIGS of music. Music being the reason I wake up every day. I don’t know if this is a fair trade. He then asked for a copy of the Coldplay songs on CD as long as I provide the listening device as well. But come on, a burned CD in return for a hand made Maasai sword? That’s unfair from MY end.

Any suggestions on what I can offer this man as a gift? Robert said, either way he’s getting me a sword.

In a way, I feel that iPod kinda put a gap in between me and Robert. Sometimes things  can come between people. Maybe it’s in my head, or maybe the fact that I owned the iPod put me in a different league – who knows. It’s just weird to be gawked at for something in my possession.

At any rate, Maasai sword. Yeah. Now all I have to do is kill a lion, and I can be an official warrior (but I’d also have to serve for 7 years, hunting, and raiding herds for my village). But seriously, I’d be a total chick magnet after an experience like that. Imagine telling a lady at a bar, that I had killed a lion with my bare hands. And then have the scars to prove it?

Yea, I got some work to do.

And here’s a random thought. It turns out that most of the characters in the Lion King, are actually just Kiswahili names for the animal species that they are. Simba means lion, as in, the lion king’s name is lion.  The friend’s name is rafiki, which means friend.  The warthog’s named Pumba which means warthog, you get the picture.

I hope no speaker of Kiswahili was subject to that film. That’s like us watching a Warner Brothers cartoon, you know the episode where Rabbit was being chased by Bald man with a gun. Or the one where Cat was trying to eat Bird but Old woman kept beating Cat with her umbrella whose name was Lucy. Thank you Disney for stretching the limits of creativity.

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What was I thinking?

I don’t know how they convinced me to leave the house last night. I was curled up, comfy, in my chair, working on the application for the Hope Center, when I was lured by the serpent to eat the of the fruit of the tree: “Indian Food and Bowling.”

I looked out the window, and saw torrential rains, streets flooded, I saw a baby kitten flying off a tree branch, before it could be rescued by a local fire-fighter. Why I left my comfortable room, to go into that meteorologist’s wet-dream?
duh! Indian food. And bowling.

See, another difference. In the States, weather like this would call for branding by each of the networks. For example: CBS would call this ‘Rain Storm 2006’, while NBC would call it ‘The Monsoon of 2006’ and use a different font, while Fox would call it ‘If Corporations Were Regulated Less, This Sort of Thing Could Be Prevented’

But in Kenya, it’s just rain.

I got in Mena’s car at 6:30pm, anticipating the slow burn of chili peppers sliding down my esophagus while I thrust a 16 pound plastic ball towards an innocent crew of red-necks. It was ok, because, the bowling alley was 15 minutes away. We’re about to leave, when the door opened. I’m not sure if any of you are familiar with the term “sitting bitch”, but someone in Nassau County in the mid 90’s made up this silly term for sitting between two people in the back seat of a car. If you’re in that position, you are “sitting bitch” and before I knew it, I was being told to move over and in comes this woman whom I’ve never met before, she’s soaking wet, and with every second that door is open, there are buckets of water being thrust at my face, and I’m being squeezed in between this wet stranger, and my wet sister, and then I said “It’s ok, because: Indian Food.   And bowling!”

And it turns out we had to make a few stops: to drop off the wet stranger at her place, and then Grace wanted to go home and change. By the time all this was done, it was 7:30. But it was ok, because at 7:45 it was all about, you guessed it.  Indian food.... and, wait for it… BOWLING.

We’re driving, driving, driving, then we’re not driving anymore. We’re actually at a dead stop. What’s going on? It’s ok, just a little flooding, rain panic, no big deal. 8:00pm, we’re in the same spot, not moving. 8:07 rolls around and I start to panic. I became that annoying guy in the back seat. “Why aren’t we moving?” as if the driver knew something I didn’t. In these situations you have to kill the awkward silence, but why we chose to use annoying questions to do so, is beyond my scope, so you’ll have to ask your parents.

Nadia and Grace are yelling at the poor guy who’s driving “Why didn’t you take the other road?” “What is going on?” “Hop the divider, turn around!” and I’m like “Leave the poor guy alone.” It was like being in a car wash, when gallons of water are being hurled at the car from every direction.

Yet a car moves a lot faster at a car-wash.

At 8:30 the car started to move! It was over, the traffic let up! I’m sure the explanation was simple, it was probably an accident, or a downed tree. And as we approached the bottleneck of the traffic we realized what the problem was. A police officer, with no concept of traffic patterns or etiquette was directing traffic, for he stopped right before our car. And his strategy:

Traffic Strategy: Stop the cars for pedestrians for 10-15 minutes, and then let them drive for 10-15 seconds.

This is not an exaggeration, folks. Ask Mena if you don’t believe me (his number is 011+254735-979795) And it seemed that all the cops in Nairobi had developed this same award-winning strategy, for it was like this at every major intersection.

At one point, I think I had some sort of mid-life crisis, where I started questioning the existence of all that was right and good on the planet earth. But then the traffic would move again, and hope was alive, and world-peace was again, a possibility.

Somehow or another we made it to the final destination. I had been in that car for 3 hours, and we only travelled a few kilometers. And for those who don’t know a kilometer is half the distance of a mile (more or less). But it’s ok, right?  Because of that Indian food… and bowling… and bowling…

So it kinda stung when the owner of the bowling alley told us to return to our homes because the bowling alley was gonna be closing early tonight because no customers had shown up. I wasn’t sure if he was aware or not, but we were actually there as actual customers.

I fell asleep in the car on the way home, and the gallons of water became pitter patters of what I used to call ‘rain’ back in the United States, and all, again, was well in the world.

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