Friday, January 16, 2009


Sorry I never put up a final post. I think everybody knows I made it home, before Christmas and was able to enjoy the holidays with family and then with friends in New York.

I move back to William and Mary tomorrow and am excited for real classes to begin again. I'm hoping to get funding to do my honors thesis this summer, so I will hopefully be returning to Kenya this summer. If all goes according to plan, my funding will cover my transportation, living costs, and be enough extra that I can pretend I actually had a paying job.

My life at William and Mary isn't interesting enough to report here, but check back during the summer as I'm sure I'll be off on some exciting adventure even if it isn't overseas. Hopefully it won't be the adventures of a temp in Staunton. My options as of right now are:
1) Research in Kenya
2) Red Cross Presidential Internship (paid and everything)
3) Partners in Health Internship (although this would involve me getting chosen over several thousand applicants and finding someone to give me money to live in Boston)
4) White Water Rafting Guide in Colorado (also offering you an exciting place to vacation next July and celebrate my 21st with me)
5) My own personal version of The Office as a temp in Staunton

Monday, December 1, 2008


My month long project is coming to a close, and I thought it might be a good time to fill you in a little on where I've been spending my days. The project certainly hasn't turned out as I had planned or hoped, but I've also been able to learn many valuable things because of this project. My time has been spent in Mathare, a slum about 1.5 to 2 hours away from my house.

Mathare is certainly not even close to being the largest slum of Nairobi, yet is still home to over half a million people. Most are women and their children; most unemployed. Many of the men you see are passed out in the alleys because of drug and alcohol abuse. The population increases daily as people flock to Nairobi in hopes of employment and opportunities. Unfortunately, instead most live off about a dollar a day in complete squaller, with no government aid and no hope for their future or their children.

In all the interviews I've completed, I've met few that have had the opportunity to attend secondary school, and less than five who have been able to complete it. The Kenyan government provides universal primary education. Too bad that there aren't enough primary schools in Mathare for all the children. Instead, private schools have popped up to accommodate the ever-increasing poverty. These "private" schools are made from scrap metal, lack electricity, are stifling hot, and fit 20 to 30 students in each classroom which is about the size of a nice bathroom.

Large families fight to fit into small ramshackle huts made of scrap metal and other products usually regarded to as trash. Rent for these "houses" range anywhere from 800 to 2500 Kenyan Shillings (between 10 and 30 USD). It may not sound like much, but most families struggle to make three or four thousand a month. These are the dollar a day statistics you always hear about.

The “streets” are lined with sewage and other waste. Streams of unusable water run through the entire slum, making walking through the slum a dangerous and arduous adventure. The government does not provide adequate water supplies, with many people being forced to go on long walks each day to fetch water. The water supply was turned off a year ago because the government complained too many people were not paying. There are not enough bathrooms to suffice for the overabundant population. Where electricity exists, it is usually in an illegal form; hijacked from families up on the hills above Mathare, still costing each household about 300 shillings a month.

Nighttime is a dangerous time in Mathare. Although the Kenyan government
implemented a project to instill large lights for all of the slums, there are still areas of darkness. When there are power outages the slums become infinitely more dangerous at night. With little police intervention throughout the slums, people are left to fend off muggers, rapists, and other violent persons by themselves.

If you wanted to walk through Mathare by yourself, it would be nearly impossible. The maze of homes and shops is nearly impenetrable without a knowledgeable guide. If you do get in, be prepared for the nonstop chants of "How are you, how are you" over and over again from young children excited to see a white person. The jaded adults just stare at you, occasionally asking that you sponsor their child through school. The meaner ones yell at you to leave, that this isn't a show for my privileged eyes to see.

On hot days, I am embarrassed to say, I can not survive staying in Mathare for more than 2 hours. The combination of heat, lack of ventilation, and the awful stench of human waste makes me physically ill. Instead I leave, sit on my matatu for 2 hours, and realize how unbelievably lucky I am that my journeys to Mathare last for a few hours at most, while all the people I talked to during the day were born, raised, and will probably die in conditions that will never even be an option for me to live in.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving in Kenya

I love Thanksgiving. It may be my favorite holiday, so I was not about to stop a little thing like being in Kenya where they don't have Turkey stop me from having my Thanksgiving dinner.

Luckily Nairobi is swarming with ex pats, particularly the area that I live in. It wasn't too hard finding a large turkey (although finding one that wasn't completely ridiculously overpriced was a bit of a challenge). The real challenge came in trying to cook the turkey and all the other delicious goodies that are necessary for Thanksgiving in a Kenyan oven. At least our apartment comes with an oven, which is a huge luxury here. The turkey just barely fit, but we somehow got it in (and even managed to bake brie and pigs in a blanket at the same time)

So all in all, Thanksgiving was wonderful. I found all the necessary ingredients except cranberries. I had a week filled with baking. I even successfully cooked my first turkey, although apparently its head had been stuffed in the Turkey and i didn't take that out. Oops. I did get the neck and giblets out successfully, didn't dry the turkey out, and had it out on the table with all the other delicious food I prepared only 2 and a half hours after we had originally planned. Then I celebrated with 11 others, and it was wonderful.

Nairobi is now decorated for Christmas, which I am highly opposed to. Now the grocery store that I go to has power outages every seven minutes because of all the lights that are on outside. Personally I would rather keep my meat refrigerated than have palm trees lit up for a month. There are also probably large sections of Nairobi that have lot longer power outages than the somewhat (okay, very) shwanky part of town I have found myself in.

I've also decided not to go to Tanzania this year. It was a somewhat difficult decision to make, but I don't think I can handle flying into New York, driving to William and Mary, and starting classes the next day. I'm still going to travel around Uganda with a friend for two weeks, and then fly home. I'll miss Christmas, but hopefully be home in time for New Years in New York. Now it's just a matter of changing my flight (again), so everybody should say a little prayer or do a little dance, or just cross your fingers for me, that I can get home when I want to.

Hope everyone's Thanksgiving was wonderful. Enjoy Black Friday. New York Times says that sales are going to blow your mind, so make sure to buy me a lot of stuff.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Driving Lessons

If upon visiting Nairobi, matatus do not seem like an appealing mode of transportation, there is always the option to rent a car. However, there are certain elements of driving that will suddenly appear, while most standard rules that you’ve appropriately obeyed your whole driving life will suddenly disappear.

Which Side of the Road Do I Drive On?
Technically, drivers should stay on the left side of the road at all times. However, if in heavy traffic, most likely you will dash onto the wrong side of the road, speed as far as you can go before crashing into an oncoming car, and then slyly force yourself back into the left lane by simply not allowing anybody else to take your spot. Although this will inevitably cause you to be in several car accidents a year, nobody will really mind all that much as it is daily life and their cars are already being destroyed by the unfathomable number of potholes. If driving on the wrong side of the road doesn’t appeal to you, you can always take the side walk approach. Now this poses a problem when you run into all the people walking and the street venders selling fruits and vegetables. Here you just simply drive to about an inch of them, viciously honk your horn until they figure out their unforgivable audaciousness in using the sidewalk, and then move themselves and all of their belongings out of your way.
What’s With all Those Roundabouts Anyway?
I’m sure if an analysis of worldwide roundabouts was done, Nairobi would come out as number one in the number that exist. In town (which is what westerners would consider “downtown”, but here downtown refers to the unsafe red light districts), you will be hard pressed to find yourself traveling more than a minute without coming across another roundabout. At midnight, these make great sense and are great fun to travel around with your crazy cab driver. At noon, they are treacherous awful things where traffic laws are thrown out the window, and you will likely witness at least 1 traffic accident, and you will probably sit in 15-20 minutes of traffic at each one (a tremendous amount of time when you have to sit through several roundabouts). Here it is extremely common to see the mass exodus of people from their matatus as walking 5 kms suddenly becomes exponentially faster than sitting in the car. Unfortunately this then adds to the degree of difficulty, as not only do you have to avoid hundreds of cars, you also have to attempt to avoid the hundreds of people milling around between cars in the streets.
How Do I Avoid That Unfathomable Number of Potholes?
Simply put, you don’t. Give it two weeks and your stomach will suddenly be used to the constant throws of the road, and suddenly you start to enjoy the unavoidable ab workout of riding around Nairobi.
When are the Best Times to Drive to Avoid an Immense Amount of Traffic?
If you like to drive around at night, Nairobi will be perfect for you. Between the
hours of 8:30pm and 4:30 am you will be hard pressed to find traffic, and those roundabouts are great Otherwise you will be stuck in traffic no matter what, no matter where you are. If you thought your cities traffic was bad, I assure you, it is not. So be thankful next time you’re driving down the LIE; at least you have your 711 coffee.
Traffic Lights?
In theory, they exist. In practice, you go when you can. Although at times you see traffic officers trying to control the roads, they are also largely ignored. When people do follow them, it usually turns into a version of the opposite game, gravely frightening the passengers but somehow always working out.
The Rights of the Pedestrian
I haven’t quite figured these out. Usually the pedestrian just runs. There are numerous mind games played between the drivers and the walkers where the drivers often speed up immensely in order to see if they can get the pedestrian. In town there are a number of pedestrian signals, but like all other things they are ignored.

Overall, the main goal is to have great luck. Basically just drive, drive anywhere and everywhere, look intimidating, and you will probably make it from point A to point B. Then again you could just take a cab which takes all of the above to a new level.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

My Stomach

So it turns out that what I had affectionately named Jacque von Claudue was not actually a worm in my tummy. Instead it was a billion bacteria viciously attacking my intestines for a month and a half. Oops.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Taking a look back on all the emails of the past two weeks, I have realized that they all begin with "So where are the pictures of your bald head?"

So here is the journey I took from hair to no hair. Enjoy.

A bit of a narcissistic slide show, but enjoy anyway.


Monday, November 17, 2008


I've decided to follow my sister's lead and begin a tutorial of how to survive in Kenya.
What is a Matatu?

A matatu is East Africa's response to a lack of public transportation and incredible traffic. The small ones start at 14 passengers (although a little squeezing can go a long way in adding a few passengers), and can go up to bus size. They travel on routes throughout Nairobi and beyond.

How Reliable is a Matatu?

Great question. That really relies on what traffic is like. Usually you stand on the side of the road and have found your matatu of choice to hop on. In the peak of rush hour it may take a few matatus to find one that has an empty seat, bust most likely you won't wait more than 5 minutes. However, once on, you don't necessarily know how long you will stay on. If you happen to hit an unexpected traffic jam (which should actually be expected), you will most likely be kicked off the matatu as they have decided to no longer run. Sometimes you'll get your money back, but usually you won't, and then the door will be slammed in your face.

How Do I Know Which Route to Take

The general consensus on how to figure out which route to take is "you just know". Although there are very set routes the matatus take, there is nothing in writing anywhere to tell you, leaving the white people cluesless. Instead you ask "Wapi matatu mpaka insert name here" (Where is the matatu to....). People most point in an indeterminable direction, you walk fifteen steps, and repeat the process. However, there is a catch to this. For instance, there is Rt 46 which goes to my house, and also to Mathare (a slum on the opposite side of Nairobi). If you ask matatus near my house if they go to Mathare they look at you like you are an idiot, and promptly drive away. Why? Because Route 46 does not actually go the whole way. Instead you must get off at the railway station, take a ten minute walk, and then hop another 46 to Mathare. Why is there this mystery gap in matatu service? Another great unknown.

Where Do You Sit in a Matatu

Seating on a matatu is at a premium. To sit in the front means an absolute panic attack, and you are near death almost the entire time as the matatu lurches into the nearest automobile. Sitting on a window seat is equally as bad as you watch your matatu creep up to the matatu next to you, until you can't creep anymore, and then you DO creep more, and become positive that at any given moment the person's head next to is going to crash through your window and onto your lap. If you sit in the back row you are certain to hit your head multiple times on the roof, as for some reason the roof dips down just in time for the back row. Then if you sit in the seat next to the door, you will probably have the fare taker sit on your lap at least once as he tries to make room for extra passengers. So that leaves 2 seats for the taking. Good luck.

Matatus can be broken into three categories: the Obama Matatu, the Jesus Matatu, or the Ghetto Party Matatu. Sometimes if you're really lucky, you can catch one that has combined all three.
The Obama
Consists of various pictures of Obama's head plastered onto the windows and sides of the vehicle. Then there are various phrases like "Yes we Can" and "The Change you Can Believe In".
The Jesus
The large window in back has a picture of Jesus, usually with a saying such as "Believe in your Shepherd" or some such thing. Usually the sides of the vehicle are covered in the Beatitudes and various other religious sayings, along with smaller images of Jesus.
Ghetto Party
These matatus are the ones that are most often vibrant oranges, pinks, and purples. Then they are covered with obscene phrases, and either pictures of half naked girls, or American rap and hip hop celebrities.
The Combination
These usually cover Jesus and Obama on the outside. Once inside however you are surrounded with ridiculous phrases, that even I proficient in English, sometimes have a hard time understanding.

Matatu Entertainment
No matter which matatu you take, you are sure to have the same in transit entertainment. It consists of obnoxiously loud, bad bad bad music, that often revolves around alcohol, drugs, and parts of the female anatomy. Some songs are only three words long, but I will refrain from posting them here as my mother reads this. If you are lucky and catch a matatu when it is getting dark, you will also experience the flashing lights and television screens to play music videos or other random tidbits that rarely actually go along with the songs being played. Once in a blue moon, this music will be foregone for a mix of Whitney Houston and bad country.

And that is how I spend at least 3 hours of my day. Next I will touch on how to drive in Nairobi, as that is a bizarre experience in itself.