Monday, January 31, 2011

Birthday goats and tain cakes

They said a prayer and then plunged the knife into the goat’s throat.  And thus started Caleb’s birthday party preparations. 
Kind of gruesome, but if you eat meat, this happens in much more brutal fashion to the cow or chicken you enjoy, and after a pretty horrible existence.  So, I’ve made my peace with the goat and said my own silent prayer of thanks for his sacrifice.  
Birthday goat
Mbugwa, our good friend, had the dubious honor of slaughtering, skinning and disemboweling the goat, which he did with ease and efficiency (I’m told).  I got there as the disemboweling began it was fascinating in a high school science kind of way, in that all the internal organs were so clearly identifiable.  But enough of that…

Our friends spent the better part of the day preparing what turned out to be an ambitious feast, with pilau, kachumbari, chickens (also slaughted much less ceremoniously for the occasion), beef, fresh fruit, and chapattis.  It took a community of cooks, working around immense pots on outdoor fires and with knives that looked better suited for battle than food preparation, several hours to prepare the food, but it was well worth the effort.  
They cooked slowly all day making sausage by hand and cutting mountains of vegetables.  They cooked with patience and humor and a sense of togetherness.  I almost wanted to join them, but I had my own food preparations to attend to...
I met the Kenyan cooks own patience with a child-like irritation at not being able to bake my cake with any of the conveniences I’m accustomed to at home.  The modern mom tradition that has become part ritual and part pissing contest – is making a cake for your little one that will evoke some comment from friends and family and (secondarily) a bit of excitement from your youngster. 
Impressed with my own ingenuity, I settled on a train cake.  It’s composed of 4 loaf cakes which I could easily cook in my miniscule “oven” (toaster oven), and Caleb, like a typical boy, loves trains.  Perfect!  However, power outages and sticky old loaf pans thwarted my clever plans and the loaves came out craggily and misshapen.   But nothing, I told myself, a little frosting won’t fix…
Ah… the frosting.  Of course it would have to be homemade, but I have no beaters to whip up the butter and sugar.  So, I softened the butter in the sun and went to work with a spoon and immersion blender (which was so useless as to be nearly counterproductive). 
I wanted 3-4 colors for the trains so that demanded a lot of frosting, prepared over 2 days.  I stuck the blue and green in the fridge over night and they promptly turned back into solid bowls of brightly colored butter.   To which I responded the next morning with another infantile fit.  
After some words of perspective and encouragement from my very patient husband and father-in-law, I returned to my project.  I softened the blue and green frosting in the sun and made a final batch of red frosting.  Things started to look up. 
We didn’t have a pan large enough  to display it on so I turned a drawer upside down and covered it with tinfoil.  I decorated it with cookies and M and Ms (compliments of babu from South Africa) and even shoved some frosting into ketchup dispenser bottles I found at the grocery store (the kind you see at diners), and that worked to do some piping with the frosting. 
The whole project was really so that I could feel like an adequate mom by modern American standards.  But we’re in Kenya, and the best part was that we could hack into this thing and share it with a compound full of kids who have likely never tasted a cake made with butter.  Trust me, Kenyan cakes are heavy, not that sweet and made with Blue Band (a kind of oily margarine), and this cake tasted like actual good old American birthday cake.  That was probably the biggest triumph of all. 
Getting ready for cake!

Yes Youth Can

Today I saw a piece about the US pledging $45 million for “youth empowerment” in Kenya. Having done research on the best ways to reach what are termed “disconnected youth” (those out of school, work and with poor social supports) in the US, this was greatly heartening. At least in the US, this demographic of those no longer children but who have failed to make a healthy transition to adulthood -- struggling to get educated, land in upwardly mobile professions and endure the poor luck of being born into abusive households -- these disconnected youth are met with a mixture of fear and apathy from policy-makers. In a political climate concerned mainly with threats from abroad, the sinking of the Dow and the rising of unemployment, these young people, disproportionately minority, are largely forgotten. Combine this with a popular disdain for economic assistance abroad, the $45 million commitment to struggling youth abroad seemed like a pretty impressive coup.

(Speaking of coups…) The bizarre twist is that, despite the importance in terms of future stability and economic development of supporting this precarious demographic, this overture was met not with appreciation but with unequivocal suspicion and outright criticism by both the Prime Minister and the President of Kenya, who have called it an attempt at…… “regime change.” 

To be fair, the assistance is intended to encourage youth to “participate in the development of their country and expand their peaceful participation in the democratic process.” I suppose in a post-Bush era, any meddling tinged with “democracy promotion,” especially in a country with a delicate unity government born out of post-election violence will be viewed with a healthy dose of trepidation. But that’s too bad.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Turning two in Kenya

Caleb’s turning 2 this weekend, and birthday preparations have begun.   Whereas in the US, this might entail thinking up a theme and activity,  buying decorations, and sending invitations; in Kenya this has entailed procuring a goat for slaughter, renting a tent for shade, and scrounging around for suitable birthday cake pans.  
Given the sensitivities of Colin’s position as a country director in an enormous office, we don’t want to exclude people. So, our current plan is to tell everyone about the party rather late so we can invite as many people as possible and still be able to accommodate the people who show up.  Hopefully strategy won't backfire and catch us unprepared for a rush of people or with pots of food and no one to feed it to.  Either are possible.
Our friend and Caleb’s caregiver  – Rukia – is going to help cook the meal (rice, chapatti and goat for adults and mandazi for the kids).  Our friend Mbugwa is going to find and slaughter the goat.  Carol is offering her compound (which is much bigger than our sliver of a yard).  Raissa, an expat from Mexico, is making a piñata for Caleb and friends.  And I’ll simply make a cake and bring over Caleb’s toys for the kids to play with.   There won’t be much of a “program” per se, other than the novelty of a piñata and a pile of toys. 
In some ways it’ll be very Kenyan. Kenyan parties don’t have themes or activities. Mainly, a meal is offered, occasionally speeches are made, and there might be some music or dancing.  And that’s what we’re planning.  But in other ways, it’s very non-Kenyan to throw a big party for a 2 year old, and we’re sensitive to looking like over-indulgent mzungu parents.  So, we’re just presenting it as an excuse to have a get together with our new friends. 
We’re also, truth be told, looking forward to the exotic appeal telling folks back home that we “slaughtered a goat” in honor of Caleb’s birthday.  So, you can look for that in an upcoming facebook/blogpost entry…. ; )

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Biking with baby in Busia

One would think that not having a car would render us housebound, but it’s actually not that difficult to get around.  Busia is basically one busy thoroughfare and we can step out of our house and get on a boda boda (bike with a padded seat for passangers on the back) or matatu (overstuffed minivan) to take us anywhere we need to go.  They are both rather harrowing modes of transportation, but at least they (most of the time) get you where you want to go.  If we want to escape Busia, we simply hire a car.

The one problem is getting where we need to go with a toddler.  Coming from a place where car seats are required practically until the age at which children can drive themselves and riding a bike without a helmet is a ticketable offense, the way Kenyan children travel – on their mothers lap squeezed in the front seat of a matatu or sandwiched between others on a motorbike – seems laden with danger. 
As much as we want to “do as the locals” in most areas,  we’re much less cavalier concerning Caleb and we still lug around our carseat – what must look like a padded baby thrown - for long trips, despite the odd looks we get.   (When I tell people that in the US it’s against the law to drive with a baby without one, they look at me like I can’t possibly be telling the truth.) 
We also are way too afraid to do as the locals in the realm of biking our baby around, which is basically a little one clinging for dear life, sans helmet or harness, anywhere there’s room on a bike.   

I think this child is actually holding the crate on the bike

Look closely.  There's a toddler hanging off the back.

I’ve seen some clever people build a makeshift babyseat out of an upsidedown stool and some rope to provide a greater modicum of safety.  But I’ve yet to see anyone wear a bike helmet or use a baby seat.  I know you can’t buy them here. 
At least that’s what I thought until last weekend when I went to my neighbor’s house and saw the rarest of things hanging broken and usused outside her house: a bike with an actual babyseat!!  I have no idea where she got it and it was at least 10 years old, but she let me have it. 
I took to a fundi (repair man) and got new wheels, new brakes, new pedals and they even jerry-rigged a new seat belt for the baby seat.  It was ready the next day for a total of about $10.

The fundi puts on the finishing touches while Caleb can barely wait.

Ready for our first foray...

So, now we can ride Caleb around feeling slightly more secure, if a bit more conspicuous.  I’ve gone on a few bike rides into the shambas, and as if 1) being a mzungu, 2) having a mzungu toddler and 3) riding a bike as woman wasn’t attention grabbing enough, throwing in the novelty of a bike seat, is just a laugh-out-loud riot to anyone we happen upon. 
I suppose if you know you’re going to attract attention you might as well go whole hog.  I hear there’s another mzungu (a Finnish guy working on a clean water program) who gets around on…wait for it….  land skis!  Yes, he really does.  He glides down the bumpy African road in the hot sun with poles and roller skis like some tragically lost alpinist, practically daring people not to laugh.  I suppose he figures, if people are going to stare, may as well give them something to stare at.  I think I’m unwittingly adopting the same approach just trying to keep Caleb as safe as I can.    

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Development economics and devil worshipping

As I’ve explained, the organization I work with does research on development projects.  Specifically, we do “randomized control trials” (RCTs) in which we randomly assign a group of people a certain treatment (say discounted bednets, for example) and another group we simply monitor as a comparison group.  If the treatment group improves more than the control, we can attribute this to the intervention. 
We randomly assign people because if we only look at what happen to people who seek out an intervention on their own compared to those who don't, any positive results could be because the seekers are likely a more motivated group or have more resources – not because the treatment actually had any real effect.  So, through RTCs, we’re getting around the whole “selection bias” issue you may remember from any social science class you took in college.  If RCT are good enough for the pharmaceutical industry, why not development economists?
OK.  So, this all makes a massive amount of common sense so far.  The findings about the effectiveness of poverty alleviation programs we get from RCTs are convincing to policy-makers, the media, academics, consultants, and people simply interested in how to make the world a better place. 
You know who all of this is not all that convincing to?  The people we are actually studying. 
And here’s why:  Let’s say you are giving out free school uniforms to see what effect that will have on school attendance.  You give the uniform to ½ of the kids randomly selected in a village, and monitor the results.  It’s a good idea in the experimental sense, but tell that to the kid who’s passed over for a uniform and who watches their relatively more well off neighbor get one for free. 
The idea that you would make these decisions “randomly,” and not based on need or merit, rightly makes no sense at all to many of the recipients, despite your explanations about the long term benefits of research and computer-generated decisions.   Add to that an only fair suspicion outside intervention in a post-colonial country and layer on a cultural belief in witchcraft and you have a combustible situation.
Just last week I had to go out to the field to meet with yet another family who, puzzled by our practices, had accused our NGO of devil worshipping.  Turns out, their neighbors -- those in the control group and passed over for our intervention -- who were spreading rumors about IPA being buddies with Beelzebub. 

These rumors are deftly put to rest by our very talented program manager who mixes humor and common sense in his meetings with our detractors.  But, rumors of this kind are enough of an issue that we recently held meetings with all the chiefs and elders in all the areas we work to explain again who we are and what we’re doing giving away things in such a random manner in their area.  
These explanations always include a greater good argument. If we can find that an intervention is effective and we can convince policy-makers to do something about it, your whole village, and maybe even the whole country will benefit.  So bear with us and please don’t ask for something if you’re in the control group, no matter how deserving you think you are. 
The best example we have of this is the deworming program.  Years ago, IPA did a study that showed that giving deworming pills to school children, many of whom have untreated parasites, increased school attendance 25% and was by far the cheapest way to do so.  So convincing was this study, that it prompted a national program treating over 3.5 million children. 
Still, it’s hard to convince people who are worried about sending their kids to school next week that in several years time if we can collect convincing enough evidence and persuade the right people, their participation could lead to a massive expansion of a worthwhile intervention.  If I was in their shoes I’m not sure I’d be so convinced.  Maybe devil worshipping would sound just as plausible. 
Meeting with area chiefs and elders

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Caleb didn't nap today. Does anyone know what I mean?

I’ve finally figured out a way to explain it.  It being the particular loneliness I feel despite being surrounded by people who I easily relate to in many ways.  
The thing is that I’m the only non-Kenyan here with a child.   The expats enjoy Caleb and are exceedingly sweet with him, but they have no idea how to relate to the profound frustration and disappointment I feel when Caleb refuses to take his afternoon nap.  Toddlers and naptime are simply not part of their world yet.   
Our Kenyan friends with children offer easy companionship and we share a more common daily rhythm, but they too have no idea the profound frustration and disappointment I feel when Caleb refuses to take his afternoon nap.  "My child didn't take his nap today" would probably be met with a shoulder shrug and a head scratch ("Why are these mzungus so uptight about silly things?")   Children here aren’t scheduled and, anyway, if a child becomes crabby due to lack of sleep, they are simply passed around an extended circle of friends, family and neighbors who share in the burden of an overtired toddler.
At home, I’d call my sister or any of my mom friends and they’d offer a knowing and empathetic ear, share some horror stories of their own and maybe even some words of comfort.  They’d know the nail-biting anxiety of watching time slip by as your child wiggles and sings despite all your nursing, rocking, patting and finally pleading with them to sleep.  They’d know you’d only throw in the towel after at least an hour of trying because you know what an overtired toddler will do to your evening.  This support and understanding was my modern “village” of the old “it takes a village to raise a child” adage. 
In Busia, I still don’t have the more traditional village of extended family and neighbors to free me from the modern techniques (like scheduling naps, bedtime routines and time outs) that work to soothe and guide my toddler.   But I’ve also lost the support I used to have when I use what appear to my neighbors to be iconoclastic child rearing techniques.  It’s ironic that I seem to have lost my “village” just when I’ve actually moved to what can more closely qualify as an actual village. 
I just want to tell someone – besides my husband – that Caleb refused to take his nap today, and for them to know what that means.
What Caleb did today instead of taking his nap

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Supper time in Busia

Some people have asked what a day in our culinary life looks like.  In a lot of ways our options are more limited, but this also invites creativity.  So here's what a typical day looks like. 


Other than the lack of bagels or fancy coffee made by someone other than ourselves, breakfast in Busia is actually on par with or better than we ate at home.  This is mainly because I often cook a hot breakfast - usually banana pancakes or french toast (we're working through our imported chocolate chips for weekend pancake treats).  If we're running late, breakfast takes a slight turn for the worse.  We'll usually pick up queen cakes (bland and curiously continuously stale tasting muffins) or mandazi (oily deep fried dough that does a disservice its cousin, the donut).  Here's a duka (shop) we'll buy our breakfast on the go.

Where we get our breakfast

One of the more entrepreneurial guards at the office also sells samosas out of the guard post in the morning for 10 Ksh (12 cents), and if we're feeling a bit of intestinal bravery, we'll buy some of those. They're actually really tasty.


For lunch, our options are Msafiri (pictured below) or whatever we can scape together from last night's dinner or scrape out of jars of peanut butter at home.  

Where we eat our lunch

Msafiri is the only eatery within walking distance from work that serves more than 5 items and also does it quickly.  Its menu (really a marked-up piece of pink cardboard taped to the wall) is a pretty good representation of local cuisine, but that's not saying much for local cuisine. No one looks at the menu anyway since there are only about a dozen dishes made in Western Kenya and if you choose one, they likely have it stewing in a pot outsideBasically, most people get ugali, rice or chapati (like friend roti or naan) with a bunch of sides of vegetables -- beans, lentils, cabbage, sukumu wiki, katchumbari (salsa).  Sometimes there's nyama (meat) or kuku (chicken) and sometimes omena (like sardines) also on offerSometimes they'll throw in a mtoke (friend banana).  Sometimes they'll have watermelon for dessert.

The food is actually quite goodThe staff know us and inquire about Caleb and we enjoy practicing our SwahiliBut after just a few days of the same oil-heavy meal, a peanut butter sandwich actually seems enticing


Dinner is the hardest mealOK.  There's no option to eat out or order in when you're just not in the mood or too tired to make dinner. Msafiri you've had for lunch too many times already this weekYour refrigerator is the size of a television, and your pantry is about 4 shelves, so it's not like there are a lot of reserves to pick through to creatively throw together a mealThe upshot of this is that you are forced to buy fresh vegetables on the way home from work and cook them directly - the way nature intended  
Dinner fodder

But you quickly reach the end of your creativity cooking the vegetables and grains on offer from local farms.  Even if you had room in your kitchen the list of foods you'd have to travel 2 hours or more to get is huge and includes zucchini, mushrooms, green beans, dried fruit, lettuce, spinach, brocolli, any chesse other than industrial looking bright orange cheddar, any type of easy-to-cook chicken, fish or meat and canned beans.  (There are plenty of dried beans, but your stove runs on a jug of propane and a 3 hour simmer will eat up too much gas.)

If I wasn't working or looking after a toddler, I'd probably take this opportunity to learn how to slaughter and prepare a chicken, can my own vegetables, grow my own lettuce, bake my own bread.  I might even look into making my own cheese.  But since that's not going to happen any time soon, we try to get creative with what we have. 

Some of our staples are peanut noodles with greens, vegetable stir fries or curries, pasta prima vera, and potato and cabbage stew.  If we don't want to brave the store-front open air butchers, we can sometimes get minced meat, frozen whole chickens or a variety of highly processed meats (hot dogs, sausage, salami) at the one decently sized grocery store in town.  This expands our options some.  A few nights ago we made baked potatoes with meat chili.

We also have a great group of other expats who similarly struggle with the "what's for dinner" dilemma, so we share ideas.  We've learned about a great pumpkin lentil stew and a minced meat and apple stuff squash this way.  I'm also starting a "Busia cookbook" with contributions from the other expats.  So, hopefully we'll be able to expand our repertoire even more.

But other than forcing us to get creative there's one other advantage to eating in Busia.  When you do take those rare trips out of Busia and finally eat those foods you've been missing, the lettuce taste crisper, the cheese more flavorful and the ice cream more mouth wateringly sweet.  So, I'm going to count flavor enhancing as an advantage of our culinary life in Busia.   

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Straddling two Africas

As you may have gathered, our existence in Busia is pretty basic.  We don’t have consistent electricity and a hot shower can be a gamble.  Cooking is a challenge in a kitchen the size of a small closet, with our perishables shoved in a fridge fit for a dorm room and baking confined to a toaster oven.  We don’t have a car, but then again, there’s nowhere in Busia you can’t get to on a matatu or bike.  The notion of ordering pizza is something of a family punch line and the nearest movie theater is 2 hours away. 
But it’s hard to forget that compared to our neighbors, many of whom have no electricity, running water or indoor plumbing, we’re living in luxury; and there’s not many modern conveniences I truly miss. 
Well, at least that’s what I thought until we went on our first trip away from Busia. 
Meeting our friends for lunch at a rather upscale bistro in a rather upscale part of Nairobi, Colin and I felt like country bumpkins in lip smacking awe of the gorgonzola cheese on the menu, the whimsical luxury of stimulating art on the wall and the general air of cultivated civility.  The glassware alone induced a bit of culture shock.  When our friends asked what kind of restaurants we have in Busia, Colin and I just looked at each other and laughed. 
After lunch, we went back to a new friend’s Nairobi house in the lush and hilly Milimani neighborhood, and this is where my little culture jolt turned into full-fledged, wide-eyed and unabashed envy. 
Katie lives in a spacious house surrounded by the kind of gardens you'd find at a zen meditation retreat center.  The house was filled with comfortable furniture and tasteful art and had an inviting and totally useable kitchen.  The talk turned to her frequent dinner parties, tennis lessons and weekend ultimate frisbee games.  As if this charmed existed extended its power to the outdoors, the weather was a perfect 75 degrees, sunny with a refreshing breeze.
The simple (and yes, at times, self righteous) appeal of our humble existence in Busia was losing its allure with every minute we stayed at her house.   After all, this is what we could have were we to move to Nairobi and get jobs with big NGOs or the US government, and it looks pretty darn tempting. 
But after spending way too much time in shiny luxury malls, this envy morphed into a familiar and creeping soul-sickness brought on by the unbridled and in-your-face consumerism of the wealthy world.  Don’t get me wrong, the trip was wonderful.  We basked in the company and love of family and friends and did our share of indulging in the creature comforts I was poo poo-ing just a second ago. 
But visiting the wealthiest parts of the wealthiest cities in Kenya and South Africa is a disorienting contrast with our existence in Busia.  The sheer choice of clothes, shoes, jewelry, art, cookware, gadgets, restaurants, and toys, all cleverly and enticingly displayed to convince you that no matter how much you have, it's never enough, was literally dizzying. Stimulating and exciting at first but then kind of depressing. Kind of like the feeling you get from eating too many jelly beans.    
At times we even started to crave our modest Busia life, in which no one cares about where you got your clothes, but they routinely ask about health of your family.  Where there are no restaurants in which to eat food infused with hints of other food, with a dash of something else sprinkled on top, but there are no high end malls to give you existential angst either. 
Again, don’t get me wrong, I can easily get used to and even enjoy all the luxuries of the modern world, and I certainly have in the past.  But spending time in Busia makes me think that maybe I shouldn’t.