Thursday, March 31, 2011

Blessedly busy

Well, March has flown by – as evidenced by my lack of blog posts.  I’ve been blessedly busy lately with a number of new research projects and other work.  To be honest, the inspiration for this post is mainly so that there’s not a ‘2’ after March in my post archive. 

·     But just so it's not a total waste, I'll share one of Caleb's Kenya-inspired cute-isms:  He calls playgrounds (really pictures of playgrounds he sees in books) “game parks.”  I'm not sure how he put this together.  I’m not sure if he means that it's a park where kids look to be playing games or if it’s a nod to the biggest driver of the Kenyan economy.  Either way, it’s cute. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

In praise of Western Kenya

I’ve mentioned in prior posts that we live in one of the least visited parts of one of the most visited countries in Africa.  Busia has a lot more in common with its neighboring Ugandan border city of the same name than any of the windswept savannas normally associated with Kenya.   We’re an 8 hours drive on questionable roads to the capital city and therefore far removed from pre-packaged tourist itinerary.  

All of this means that when we take weekend trips from Busia, to places of near equal beauty to the coast or Masai Mara, we’re relatively alone.  And this means our excursions are cheaper and less crowded and, more importantly, that we can harbor that pathetic and misguided but inescapable ex-pat/backpacker fantasy of being relative pioneers.

There are some jewels out here in terms of natural beauty and cultural interest, but they take a bit of work to find (perhaps making them seem to shine brighter on arrival).

A few weeks ago, we went to this lakeside haunt (Safari Village, Mbita) in which we relaxed with a smattering of other travelers to the exotic grunting of nearby hippos and enjoyed tranquil boat rides to bird-filled islands, local fishing villages and remote beaches.     
The view from our hut
Sun setting over lake Victoria
 But to get to this far flung paradise, you have to brave a 2 hour matatu ride from Kisumu down crappy roads, then take a rickety, slowly-leaking boat 45 minutes to the peninsula in the lake.  From here you have to hunt down and board a motorbike the remaining 5 km to the resort.  If you’re lucky you can find a car. 
Riding for 45 minutes in a slowly sinking boat is even more fun with 2 year old screaming "No boat!" This elicited funny looks from the local moms whose kids are entirely unfazed and wondering what all the fuss is about.  Not sure why I'm smiling.
So, I don’t imagine an influx of tour buses any time soon.  

Then last weekend we drove what googlemaps said was 2.5 hours, (translation: 5 hours of anxiously dodging crater-sized potholes and playing chicken with oncoming long haul petrol tankers driven by kamikaze truckers) to the national park surrounding Kenya’s second highest mountain peak – Mt. Elgon.   You actually can’t get there by public transportation and if you arrange a car, it had better be 4 wheel drive or you risk getting stuck.  

There were four bandas in our section of the park. We filled two of them and the other remained unused.  We woke to zebras, bushbuck and dozens of baboons merely meters away from our bandas, took hikes to these dark and bat-filled caves marked with thousands of scratches from area elephants nightly eating salt deposits; and, while taking in an overlook expanse, a giraffe nonchalantly ambled past us.  Sure beats sitting in a jeep snapping telephoto shots of distant elephants while the jeep behind you waits its turn.  There are horses to ride and 169 square kilometers to explore and only a handful of other visitors.
This is the scene we woke to
And then these guys joined us
And this fellow joined us on our hike
I love/hate how infrequently these oases are visited.  Of course, the more popular a site is, the less “special” it is.  We all know those people who  prefer keep these locations relatively secret lest they become “overrun” and somehow “spoiled.”  

But I’m sure the park rangers would rather be occupied with toting around tourists than warding off poachers (their main activity), and I know more tourism brings with it shillings, jobs and infrastructure, all of which greatly benefit the local community (who could sure use all three).  All these things are unequivocally more important than inspiring a feeling of daring and superiority among a few intrepid travelers.  So, maybe the greater good is more feet on the Mt. Elgon trails and more eyes on the Mbita hippos.  

But we all know that a poorly managed transformation to a tourist hub can exact a huge toll on the environment and indigenous way of life.  While this is somewhat mitigated by a movement towards more socially conscious eco-tourism, the whims of tourists are capricious.  So, if an area’s economy becomes dominated by the tourist dollar and then the tourists up and migrate for bigger game, bluer shores or splashier hotels in another area, the place might be worse off than it started.  

Who knows?  It’s one of those tired development debates rehashed frequently on blogs and in classrooms.  It seems that, if well managed, tourism can be a development boon.  But if the economy becomes too dependent on tourism alone, it risk becoming precariously vulnerable.  

For the time being I’ll do my small part by treading lightly, dropping some shillings and telling like-minded travelers (like both of my readers) about places like Mt. Elgon and Mbita. 

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The bizarre civility of Kenyan thieves

Despite my recent viewing of the grim after affects of mob justice and the fact that our house is guarded 24 hours a day, Western Kenya is hardly the least safe place I’ve lived.  West Philadelphia or Washington DC probably top that list, and I certainly walked with a lot more trepidation on those streets than I ever do here.  

Busia is a still a smallish town and while there is theft, it’s rarely violent.  And the mob justice attests to the protective intolerance to theft among the population.  Who’d dare to publicly rob you when a cry of “mwizi” (thief) will incite an angry mob against them?  So, people may have items stolen from their homes, but you generally feel safe walking down the street. 

That said, the bigger cities in Kenya, Nairobi (or Nairobbery as it’s sometimes known) in particular, are notoriously dangerous.  Walk down the wrong street and you can pretty much guarantee an incident.  Some of our field officers recently did some surveying work in Nairobi and even the people visited encouraged the surveyors to leave the neighborhood before 4 PM lest they risk being attacked. 

Their driver was not so lucky.  He took a wrong turn while waiting for his team to return and wound up with a gun in his face and lighter about 8,000 Ksh ($100) and a laptop. 
Recalling this incident to me he said, “But god is good because they left me with my phone and 150 Ksh.”  This is not because they didn’t find the phone and the 150 Ksh; the purposely left them for him so that he would have a way to get help and respectfully called him "mzee" throughout the robbery.  

Since this incident, I’ve heard several other stories about the bizarre civility of Kenyan thieves.  A woman who was carjacked and held hostage until she emptied her bank account but later called on cell phone to make sure she got home all right.  A fellow mugged on the street but given bus fare to get home.  Others robbed but left with a phone to call for help.

What’s going on here?  A few anecdotes don’t a social trend make, but you rarely hear about this kind of civility among robbers in the US.  The idea back home is to terrorize the victim enough so that they fear going to the police, not to call them elder and look after their welfare.   

I have a few inchoate theories about what’s going on here: Maybe since there’s so little trust in the police to get the job done (among good guys and bad guys), there’s no real incentive to discourage a victim for seeking justice through intimidation.  

Or maybe the level of poverty here drives people to crime who aren’t so naturally inclined towards it. So, in a society with a 5 % unemployment rate only the true miscreants are driven to crime, but a society in which a full 50% are unemployed pulls in a lot more people – not just the sociopaths – to a life of crime that they would otherwise avoid.  Maybe those guys are nicer criminals?

There are probably other factors at play here that a criminologist or other social scientist might be able to illuminate.  I’m just going to take a small measure of comfort in the possibility of a courteous “thank you come again” mugging should I have to endure one. 

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Car qualms

So we finally did it. Colin and broke the bank and bought a car.  Normally, we’d be celebrating a shiny new toy like this, but we spent the 2 hours driving it home from the dealer befuddled about the decision.

First, it was damned expensive.  Living in Western Kenya is ridiculously inexpensive in most facets of life.  Rent for a 3 bedroom house is under $150, child care and house help combined total even less than that, and pocket change buys you dinner.  But because there’s no local production and import duties are a cash cow for the government, getting around in a private vehicle costs nearly double what it would stateside.  A modest used 8-year-old Japanese sedan will run you around $10,000 after import duties.  Selling our old car covered less than half of the cost of this new car.  It’s the most money (save grad school) we’ve ever spent on a single item in our young married life.

And what we got for that dear price was a 2003 Nissan x-trail (to handle the epically bad roads) with questionable history.  It came without an owners manual (which would have been in Japanese in any case), and we couldn’t look up any vehicle history through a VIN number.  As we were driving off the lot, the airbag light began to blink ominously, turning up the radio we discovered the speakers were blown, and we shortly realized that the car is permanently stuck on the gas guzzling 4 wheel drive position. 

But to check my complaining, I know what an average University educated Kenyan makes, and in order to finance a car, they’d probably have to offer up their first born and any subsequent grandchildren.  

Incredibly few people in Busia drive their own cars, and that’s the second reason Colin and I feel ambivalent about our purchase.   It’s a shiny hulking 2 ton monument to these very wealth inequalities we normally try so delicately to step around.  And it’s made us immediately more conspicuous than we already are.

So, there are a few things wrong with that.  First, the guilt about our underserved wealth now weighs as much as this car.  There’s no getting around it.  Most smart, hard working, honest people here in Kenya will never be able to own a car like this.  Why should we?  But at the same time, these smart, hard working, honest people will be coming in droves to ask us to borrow the car.  We’d do the same in their shoes.  But it’s going to be difficult to manage.

But the real reason we got the car in the first place is 2 feet tall and the most important thing in our lives.  Statistically, the greatest danger we place Caleb in is getting around by bus or matatu.  Car seats are not an option there.  We can put him in a car seat if we hire a private car and driver, but that’s expensive and makes it difficult to explore the country freely. Caleb didn’t choose to live in Kenya, his parents did, s0 we have an obligation to minimize his risks as much as possible. 

So, that’s the best reason to feel OK with our new purchase.  

Right now it’s doing a lot of sitting around in the driveway providing a distraction for Caleb when tear ourselves away and head to work.  But we’re also looking forward to more easily getting out of Busia and exploring East Africa in manner that’s a far cry from my back packing days, but I’m sure will be filled with other kinds of adventures.