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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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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I’ve Arrived

10400789_79461905170_5641_nTook a couple of days, but it finally happened. After spending the whole day in the house on Monday, and not having any Kenyan money to take public transportation anywhere, I decided to just get out the door and walk. There are always stories of muggings, how walking isn’t safe, and I decided, I’d take my chances today, I didn’t quite feel I was back here. Overall i just felt sleepy, disoriented, and happened to have a few nice trees out the window.

Speaking of out the window, a family of hawks found their home in a tree, at eye level with my sisters balcony. Every once in a while they swoop by, gliding right past my face, and wink, as they fly off to make a kill. Remember the sea turtle in “Life Aquatic”? Kinda like that.

I put on my shoes, and I hit the streets, and let me tell you, it brought me back. I arrived. The sounds, the smells, the red clouds of dust as my foot would occasionally hit the side of a rock, crossing the street by looking right to see the oncoming traffic, re-learning the rhythm of Nairobi jaywalking, and of course, the sounds of the matatu (micro-bus) reverberating their reggaton and hip-hop, as they transported more than the maximum capacity of people in their sometimes lavishly colored and not-so-cleverly sloganed plastic frames. 

The matatu of Nairobi do not compare to those of the coast, both in color, speed, and their ability to both bless and diss with their graffiti painted sayings on their rear window. 

Don’t take sidewalks for granted. They are a beautiful thing. We have sidewalks here in Nairobi, but mainly they’re in town. Out here there are foot-paths. Think of it like hiking. The streets are fine, but the sidewalks are in parallel with open air drainage systems, one wrong step, and not only are you wet, but most probably infected with a parasite.

I walked maybe 3 miles to the Coptic Center, where I did my first volunteering stint, back in 2006. Wow, so many old faces greeted me with hugs, and smiles, and more hugs. It was nothing but hugs if you wanna know the truth. It was humbling, and it brought me back to a simpler time. I found out a few things

1) I’ll be going back to Kibera on Thursday to see MaBoyz!
2) A few folks have moved on to pursue their futures. Makes me so proud!

The questions I was asked went in this order:

“So are you here to stay this time?”
“So is Obama going to win?”

They kinda like Obama over here, he’s “the prodigal who left Kenya”, who they hope will return someday.

I was not so adventurous to walk back at sunset, so I took a taxi back home, got freshened up and met a few friends for sushi. Not only did we go to sushi, but so did Jason’s monkey.

It was embarassing as Grace often set it off the screaming monkey at the restaurant, at very opportune times, which brought nothing but smiles to the people around us. I had the same reaction as I did back at the office in Boston, whenever that thing would go off. A big but somewhat embarrassed smile, and just kinda shaking my head, but internally enjoying every minute of the disturbance.

Jason, your monkey is in good hands.

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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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