Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Kenyan superstitions

The woman who serves us coffee at work is called Esther. She's a tall, broad-shouldered woman who is always smiling and insisting I have just one more cup. She's been sniffling lately, with some kind of flu. Then the other day she told me her auntie - not aunt, but auntie - had died. Turns out, the two are linked.

One day, I found her reading her aunt's obituary in the paper, while sniffling. "You still have that cold?" I asked her. "It's because of my auntie," she said. "When you are sick, it means something bad is going to happen to your family." She says African/Muslim tradition says that when someone in your family feels pain, you too will feel pain. Everytime you get a headache, it means something bad is coming.

But get this. Anytime you accidentally shatter glass - you drop a glass for ex - you are diffusing some bad thing. So instead of being angry that you broke something, you should be grateful that this has happened instead of something worse.

Everytime I walk my this construction on my street, I wonder if the scafolding made of wood will just collapse... But I never get a headache, so I guess these workers are safe!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


About 3/4 of the way along my jogging route, I always run into a group of Kenyan women sitting at the intersection, waiting. They wait, all day everyday. For a job. I don't know how they expect the job to fall from the sky. But they wait for someone to approach them with some kind of opportunity.

One of these women would always laugh and cheer me on when I ran by. One day, I decided to stop and introduce myself. As I did, I told her, "tomorrow, you're coming with me!"

So the next day, when I got to her spot, I stopped and said "let's go!" She got up off the rock she was sitting on and ran a block with me in her orange dress. We ran slow and she breathed hard, but she actually did it! I was impressed that she wasn't just talk. That day we exchanged names for the first time. Hers was Jane

The next time I ran by, I stopped to say hi. Jane told me her brother had died in Nairobi's biggest slum. She needed money. It was amazing how little I felt. Two years ago in Senegal, that would have tugged at my heart. I would have felt I had to give her something to feel ok with myself. This time, I felt something completely different - that I wanted to set a different tone. I wanted it to be clear, from the beginning, that a friendship with me is to be a true friendship - and not for any other purpose. I obviously still have questions about this. Sure, she shouldn't befriend a stranger just to ask for money, but what if she has no option? Sure, in Africa, asking someone for money isn't really using them because the needs are just incomparable, and if you can give, you give. But I guess I just wasn't happy with the expectation that I was now going to be her bank. So I said, "I'm so sorry to hear that" and kept running. Have I become cold?

Democracy on the bus

The traffic, as usual, was horrible on my way home from work the other day. The bus driver decided, as they often do, to take an alternate route to "beat" the traffic. Of course, that route only led to more traffic and half an hour was wasted. People on the bus got testy. Women started screaming at the fare collector to give them their money back since they were now going to miss their appointments because the bus was no longer taking them where it was suppose to. I watched as yelled and yelled. And he just stood there silently, not even acknowledging them. I could feel their pain. It was, for me, an avid reminder, of what life is like in many African countries without democracy. You can protest all you want, but nobody listens. And you certainly never get your money back.

Matatu in the rain

The other day, I thought I’d beat the Kenyan traffic, so I left work at 3:15pm. Figured I’d be home before 4pm and I’d have a relaxing afternoon. So I caught the bus and about half way home, I got a call on my cell phone – an interview I’d been waiting for all day. So I pulled out my notebook and scribbled down notes while riding along. We spoke for about 15 minutes. Then I hung up and waited for my stop. It never came. After 15 minutes or so, I looked around and realized I really wasn’t anywhere near what I was used to. By this time it was close to 5pm. “Excuse me, do you know if the Yaya Centre is coming up?” I asked the guy next to me. “Oh we left it behind long ago,” he answered. Ha. So much for getting home early. I got out then and there and found myself in one of the "people’s" neighbourhoods, let’s say, where tin shacks grew out of the muddy, garbage-filled streets. Paths, I should call them, because there was no tarmac. Then, as I waited for a bus going back the other way, it started pouring rain. It's the rainy season in Kenya, meaning every other day it spontaneously starts pouring buckets! A jolly old guy next to me let me stand with him under his umbrella. All the buses coming through, as well as their smaller, ghettoer versions, the minivan Matatus, were full. I climbed around in the soggy red clay dirt with my high heels, looking totally out of place. We reached a place further up the hill where we caught a matatu. When you climb into one of these things, you feel you can never get out again because they are crammed with people so tightly and I always manage to put myself in the corner furthest from the door. Given the traffic on the main road, the matutu made a U-turn and drove off onto a side street, where we got stuck behind some car stuck in the middle of the road. The back door of the van kept flying open. When it didn't, the passenger door couldn't seem to close. Everytime we went over a bump, we all went flying in the air, our heads banging against the rickety sides of the van. I think I got home around 6pm...

Sunday, May 10, 2009

"This is Africa"

So... I'm back in Kenya and committed, for the next little while, to stay on top of my blog. I feel totally disconnected from all of you and want to make a better effort to make you informed of my life and be informed of yours.

So, basically, I'm living in Kenya now. Every day, I go jogging in the morning (I get the funny stares from everyone, because running is huge here - but seemingly only for men). Then I ride bus no. 46 to work (I pay 40 Kenyan shillings, or about 50 cents). I work out of Bloomberg's office here, mostly continuing to cover Sudan. (I do analysis, or call people by phone, etc). But I've become increasingly frustrated with not doing any work in the field, and I'm trying to engage myself a little more with my surroundings - ie. to actually feel that I am in Africa and not just sitting in front of a computer screen. Then I ride the bus home again in horrible traffic, pick up groceries from the supermarket and make dinner. Pretty normal life really.

But there are always reminders.

The other day I was reading the newspaper on the way to work and found a tiny article, hidden on page 6, about the murder of a politician. He had been on way his home at 10pm one day, when a car drove by, shot his tires flat, and then kept driving. He got out of his car to ask for help, and the same car drove by and shot him in the head four times, again driving away, without stealing anything.

I was shocked. It was a two-paragraph story on page 6 !!! I showed it to my Kenyan colleague when I got to work. He hadn't even noticed the story. The Kenyan capital Nairobi is known to have high crime, but not like this! He said the politician must have been mixed up in some shady business and this was payback. Then he went back to his desk as if it was nothing.

"This is Africa," he said.

p.s. For those of you who are now freaking out, Kenya is overall a very good place to live. There are no wars, and quite a bit of development - a step up from Sudan anyway! But the next day, the newspaper showed the pictures of 26 men who had been killed in execution-style killings in the last two months alone. I expressed some concern about this to my colleague, and he said, as long as you're straight in your dealings, you'll have no problems. Let's hope so!