Email 14: May 14, 2006
"I work in security training. I train government officials and military professionals in security, counterterrorism, etc. in high conflict areas. I have lived in Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Egypt, Sudan, Sierra Leon, among others.I lost a house lady of mine to AIDS, and for that reason (AIDS) I have no hope for Africa, despite my line of work." - Australian Gentleman, I met, who started his own high level Security Training Company at 26 years old.
"When a woman says no, she really means yes!" - Member of Parliament speaking on the record in regards to whether or not a Sexual Offenses Bill should be passed.
"How is the Atlantic Ocean divided into two oceans?" - Eve, 20, Seed of Hope First Year student while looking at my flat world map.
"You don't have poor people in America, not like here. I saw the area where Katrina hit on TV. They said those are the poorest people in America. They didn't look poor. They had big houses, not slums." - Eve, 20.
Jambo! (Hi in Kiswahili)
First and foremost, CONGRATS to Stacey Worman, who will serve as next year's Michael B. Keegan Traveling Fellow!
I can't wait to follow her journey in the upcoming year. At the same time, it saddens me to think that my trip is nearing the end. I can't imagine this year ending in 3.5 months or so, and I really cannot believe that it is nearly May and graduation was 1 year ago. It feels like yesterday. (I will live vicariously through Stacey until I can find another way overseas!)
My apologies for not writing sooner and clueing you into how I have spent my last month here in Nairobi. Time has quickly past largely in part to the fact that we have celebrated 4 public holidays/long weekends since my arrival. Overall, things are going great despite the slow start because of the four holidays and Easter vacation. My views of East Africa are still quite positive even though my "visit" to Nairobi is very different than my time spent in Kampala, which I will explain later in the email.
As for an informal "personal" holiday, I found out last month that my mom will live out her life-long dream and come to Africa! We have talked about her dream of an African adventure since I was little. All year we have talked about her coming, but I was not sure if it was going to work. As I have been arranging volunteer work, I have also tried to plan our trip. The expectations are high! She arrives next Thursday and we are going on Safari and then to Egypt!
Living in "Indian" Nairobi - Nairobbery
Welcome to Kenya! Everyone I met while traveling (locals and ex-pats) recounted horror stories or stereotypes of life in Nairobi (or commonly known as Nairobbery). To be honest, I was not the most excited to leave Uganda in part because I was having such a good time and also because of my fear of Nairobi. It reminded me of the instilled fear I had in San Salvador, Rio de Janeiro, and Cape Town where everyday I said "is today my day to get robbed."
Now you are wondering, "Why did I decide to go to Kenya?" Well, there are a few reasons. I wanted to go to another East African country because it was easier (and cheaper) to fly there from Uganda, unlike going to Ghana or elsewhere. Second, I knew I wanted to go to a country that offered both NGO related work and interesting travel opportunities. Lastly, my neighbor in Chicago's family lives here and he always encouraged my family to go to Kenya and stay with his family.
So far, my impression of Nairobi is very different from anywhere else I have been. First, I am staying with an Indian family. I don't believe I mentioned this in my emails from Uganda, but there is a large Indian Asian population that migrated to Eastern African years ago in search of business opportunities.
I have learned a lot about the Indian culture, traditions, and Hinduism during my stay. And of course, the food is incredible. It is as if I am practicing for my trip to India. At the same time, I am having a very different "Kenyan" experience. Unlike my visit to Uganda, I am not immersed in the ex-pat community or and I have not identified close local African Kenyan friends. I am eating Indian food, hearing Indian music, learning Indian dancing, etc. Overall, the Indian community is segregated from the local African community.
For example, on Easter Sunday, I went to an Indian comedy play which was entirely in Gidrathi, a local Indian language spoken by a large part of the community here. I felt bad because I was dozing off for the first 30 minutes because I did not understand one word. I was caught! For the first time in my travels, I have felt completely lost because of the language barrier. At the same time, it was wonderful to see how the Indian community has been able to preserve so many of their traditions in Africa in addition to accepting the local culture and speaking Kiswahili as well.
Speaking of Kiswahili, I am slowly learning a few words just like Luganda in Uganda. So far, I have Hello, Thank you, How are you, please, chilies (for the cook), you're welcome, yes, no, and "It's all good/Cool." Within my family's home, it is interesting because they blend English, their local Indian language, and Kiswahili in the same sentences.
As for Nairobi itself, it does not please me as much as Kampala. It reminds me more of the city center of San Salvador or Guatemala City. Kampala 's city and surrounding seven hills are gorgeous whereas Nairobi is traffic filled, smoggy, and many of the buildings have not been updated in many years.
However, I do not fear the city center like most tourists do. My host family was shocked that I was willing (or brave enough) to take a matatu (taxi vans) instead of a private taxi to town. I explained to them that I have taken public transport everywhere I have visited and I can't afford to spend $10/day or more on private taxi versus $1 or $2 on a taxi. Finally, I strongly believe that using local transport gives you a better picture of the true local culture and customs. Most members of the Indian community that I have met have never taken a matatu because they are dangerous. You run the risk of theft or injury due to accidents. Sadly, there are no boda-boda's motorcycles in Nairobi. (Although, after one month of living here it is a good thing that there are not motorcycles here, I am certain you would run a high risk of injury or death. The drivers here are insane!)
Unlike Kampala, the matatus here do not take advantage of mzungus by over charging the fare. I have never had to argue about the price and never overcharged. You pay a standard rate like everyone else. The Nairobi matatus remind me of the micro-buses in San Salvador. Every ride is a "party bus" with loud music at 8 am or 5 pm. Here, they prefer rap music and pay tribute to rap artists by painting his/her face on the side of the bus, whereas in San Salvador the buses are decorated with flashing or neon lights and shark fins.
I have also quickly noticed that there are few "mzungu" or white people walking in the city center, whereas I felt like in Kampala there were many more tourists or ex pats walking around town. However, in Nairobi, people do not call attention to the fact that you are white. They hardly turn their heads unlike Kampala. And like Guatemala City and San Salvador, I do not go to town with a bag of any type. Everything is in my hand or in my pockets.
Another interesting aspect of my life here in Nairobi is that I have started running. Shocking, right? I have not gone running since my only month of running in El Salvador. My principle excuse is that it is too dangerous to run in the other cities.
In Uganda, Moses, the head master at Golden Bell, would invite me every Monday to go run with his Hash group. I was reluctant for a few reasons: 1) 7-8 Km sounded like too much 2) too much pressure to finish 3) I encountered my first Hash group in Chicago last summer and I found them slightly odd.
However, when I arrived to Nairobi, Priten, the family's son, invited me to run too. I decided that I cannot travel to 2 different countries and be invited to join the Hash and decline. I was determined to give it a shot.
For those of you unfamiliar with Hashers, it is more or less a social club to meet others (mainly ex pats) and run on Mondays. It is an international phenomenon, which started in Malaysia. You can find hashers running every Monday in nearly every city in the world.
I have successfully completed four runs (with a little bit of walking). It is my hope that I continue to join the Hash groups in India and Cambodia. I have enjoyed hearing what other people are doing in Nairobi. For example, I met the East/Central African Director for Peace Corp and a group who is here working on draught relief projects. (As you may know, Kenya along with Somalia and Ethiopia are enduring a very serious and deadly draught.)
FAIR FUND (Fem Aid International Relief Fund)
Since I have arrived to Nairobi, I have focused on working on the same preliminary phase of a future human trafficking awareness campaign for FAIR Fund as I did in Kampala. I have been meeting with our partner organization Slum Information Development Resources (SIDAREC). They work in 2 slum communities of Nairobi working on early development education, public health, and other community related issues. SIDAREC will help identify the 30 at-risk street youth to be interviewed by the four selected interviewers.
I spent my first 2 weeks preparing SIDAREC and the interviewers for the project and the interviewing campaign. I have enjoyed being a part of this new initiative because it gives me the opportunity to learn more about human trafficking, its risk here in Eastern Africa, the role of partner organizations, challenges of starting a new NGO project, and meeting the young people who will serve as interviewers.
I have noticed how challenging it is to start a new project especially when the organization is based in the United States and this is their first exploration project in Africa. I have also noticed the challenges of selecting or working with a local NGO and how much faith/trust you are placing between the two organizations to carry out the work.
I have also witnessed how it is challenging to recruit volunteers or young people to get involved in a NGO project. The spirit of volunteerism among young people in developing countries is not as strong as it is among US or maybe UK students. I witnessed this first hand in an email I received from a Kampalan student who was not selected to serve as a paid interviewer, but I suggested that he could get involved in the future as a volunteer. I found his email to me disheartening, unprofessional, and rude. It attacked me for suggesting that I have someone of his "professional level" volunteer his time. It went on to say that I must be "very poor" and requested that I do not contact him in the future. I could not just delete the email; I felt obligated to reply.
Despite this gentleman, I did have the pleasure of meeting the 4 interviewers in Kampala and Nairobi. As you see below, I have included a small dialogue from our training session. It further exemplifies the need for such an awareness campaign in East Africa.
Dialogue between me and 4 selected Nairobi university students/interviewers:
"If a man approached you and asked you to accept an offer to New York City to be a prostitute, would you go?" - Me
"If I approached you this morning (at this meeting) and asked you to go to New York City to be a waiter or waitress, would you accept the offer?"
This mini dialogue exemplifies how young men and women (even with a high level of university education) are susceptible to the vulnerabilities of human trafficking. I was shocked that the students did not see how these two scenarios to New York City are similar and could lead to the exact same trafficking situation. However, they trusted me as the recruiter as opposed to a stranger and they preferred the waiter job over prostitution. They were not able to see the similarities in the two offers. But, the harsh reality is these scams happen all the time in cities, such as Kampala or Nairobi.
I explained to the four students that I could have been easily been paid by the same man to make the glamorized offer to go to New York City, but the outcome may have been the same. You would never wait one table. You may arrive to NYC and be used as a prostitute or face harsh labor conditions. These are the realities of human trafficking. Human traffickers target both at-risk youth and educated persons because both alike are vulnerable and desire a better future.
Sadly, the interviewers in both Kampala and Nairobi answered in the same manner to the above scenario. Furthermore, in the Kampala training session, one young woman told me how there is a professor at Makerere University (one of the strongest universities in Africa) who solicits young female students to go to South Africa to receive further education or studies. However, after these young women go; they find themselves working as prostitutes! I found this alarming! I am still looking for the proper outlet as to how to share this information. Both of the young women say a lot of the women know of the professor's plan and they spread the word among each other.
As of now, the interviewing campaign is off to a great start here in Nairobi and Mombassa, but moving a little slower in Kampala because there still is not a partner organization. More importantly, the interviewers are learning a great deal and hopefully will be engaged in the campaign curriculum development later this fall.
Seed of Hope - Vision Africa Vocational Training Centre
In addition to FAIR Fund, I have been working with Seed of Hope and observing their school. Seed of Hope is a vocational Training Center for young women (16-18 years old) who are destitute or orphaned. Fortunately, there are only 2 "true" orphans at the Nairobi center. The center recognizes that not all girls can continue formal education after primary school. However, without an education or skills training, many girls are left hopeless and forced to seek money in other ways (like prostitution) or having babies at a very early age.
As a result, Seed of Hope was launched four years ago. It is a rigorous two year program for roughly 40 girls to learn dressmaking, crafts, English, Kiswahili, Basic Cookery, Life skills, Personal Social Development, and Business skills. The program teaches the girls to make professional and high quality clothing and the business skills to open their own enterprise after graduation.
As a result, the young women are empowered to start their own business, utilize their skills, have financial security, and become self-reliant. Seed of Hope provides them with free informal education and all the materials/machines, protection from outside harm and abuses, counseling and advice, and finally prepares them for the future.
Unlike other vocational training schools or female empowerment programs, Seed of Hope is very strong and sustainable. It receives strong funding from Vision Africa and they recently opened a store, Johari (something precious), where they will sell high-end products to wealthier local African women.
I have enjoyed spending time with the young women and getting to know them better. However, it has been a little difficult to break down the cultural barrier for them to open up to me. Unlike primary school children, older teenage girls are not open to talk to me. I was told they "fear the white face." This shocked me at first. How could they fear me, especially, when the director is Scottish.
I have realized that the first years are much more interested in me and America versus the second years, and I have identified the girls who enjoy spending time with me, asking questions, etc. They enjoy looking at my world map and asking questions about America. Many ask about the "Africans" in America, our food, our crops/exports/agriculture, etc.
More shocking is that all of them ask about poverty in America and question its existence. They became defensive when I said we have poverty because they claim that their poverty is worse, they have slums, etc. It was hard for me to argue because I know that they all are products of this poverty. This is their reality. How could I compare our poverty (which I don't fully understand) to their daily life?
Finally, I give credit to what Seed of Hope is doing because the girls are making high quality items in a "non-sweat shop" environment. I feel very uneducated even with a Vanderbilt degree when I watch them. I lack practical skills. I can't sew a button, make a dress, make crafts, or start my own small business. They laugh at me because I cannot sew like they can. It shows me how we do spend to much time focused on formal education and that there are many practical training skills that are important to life as well. We cannot assume that formal education is the only answer or life's answer to success for all people.
My only criticism of Seed of Hope is that I fear that these girls will be in competition with one another after graduation with their small businesses. Secondly (and more importantly), there is not enough focus on self-esteem, confidence, and the empowerment of these women. They are so dedicated to perfecting their crafts and clothing, they forget that there other goals of this program. If you ask about the mission or goals of Seed of Hope, they say "to make money, to get a job, to make dresses." But, when asked how to satisfy the need of financial security (right now without a business), one young woman, Agnes said "marry a rich man." Teacher Maureen then said, "What if he beats you everyday?" Agnes replied, "It's okay if he beats me, I will have money." That concerns me because the culture of violence has not been changed.
This is only underscored by the Member of Parliament's comments in regards to the Sexual Offenses bill. Kenya is a country where there is no law in regards to rape or sexual assault! For that reason, I am grateful to be a U.S. female citizen. Additionally, a friend here was telling me how young women expect to be raped or threatened with rape in their lives, so many are "trained" to tell their attackers, "I have HIV/AIDS" to prevent the rape or hope the man uses a condom.
Prostitution giving Ex-pats a bad name?
I realize this email is once again becoming lengthy, but there is one aspect of life in Nairobi that I hate, and I need to vent about it. High levels of prostitution is to be expected in many developing countries and it is a part of life in any city or part of the world, developed or not.
I am not shocked by the fact that there is prostitution in Nairobi (although it saddens me), but I am sickened by their client base.
When I go out with my host brother/sister, Pooja and Priten, we go to classier bars or areas that are frequented by the Indian, Ex-patriot, and wealthier Kenyan communities. In addition, many prostitutes are also found at these establishments. I seem to be the only person who pays any attention to this fact. No one else seems to notice their presence.
At first, I was shocked that management allows prostitutes in their bars. Then, I realized it is good for their businesses. Most of these women are not dressed like your "stereotypical" prostitutes.
Additionally, their male clients are ALL White, middle aged/older, men who are either here on business, contract, or colonial residents. This outrages me, and I find myself starting at them as they cover themselves with 1, 2, or 3 young women for the night. These men could be working for an NGO, the UN, or an international company who should be helping the people here or promoting economic growth in Kenya. But, at night they are only adding to the troubles that face women. Not to mention, the risks of HIV/AIDS in Kenya.
For this reason, I think ex-patriots are receiving a bad name in development of Kenya. These women come to the bars because they know they can find wealthy white man. It makes me sick as a white, ex-patriot woman who has hope for Kenya and the development of Africa.
It also damages the ambiance of enjoying a night out when you have women laying on couches, sitting with their legs spread, or dancing inappropriately looking for their next client, who inevitably comes a few minutes later. And of course, I am the only person making a point of the issue. Pooja, Priten, and their friends do not notice or are accustomed to the fact. As one friend said, you don't see the Indians with the women, just the mzungus.
Okay, I'll end there. If you made it this far, thanks for reading. I appreciate all of your support! I wish everyone a great week and I will email again after my trip with closing comments on my visit to Kenya. It's off to India on the 7th of June.
Happy Mother's Day to all the Mom's, Happy Vandy Graduation, and Enjoy the Memorial Day weekend!