kids behind bars

I visited Langata women’s prison today. It was incredible to see Ahmed Salim and his friends bringing smiles to the faces of the 85 children living with their mothers in jail. A wonderful way to celebrate Eid.

In a situation like this, pictures speak louder.

singing us a song when we arrived

waiting for the sweets

Ahmed makes some new friends

all smiles

lining up for treats

portrait session

Iman and her grandmother

cell blocks

Ahmed explained that he wanted to bring some smiles to the kids as a celebration of Eid — they were thinking of doing a meal for the Muslim inmates but realized it wasn’t fair to single them out, so he settled on treating all the kids who live there (regardless of background) to sweets, milk, juice, chocolates and chips. The items were donated by his friends — it’s not some big charity initiative, just one Kenyan with a lot of kindness. Ahmed is certainly a remarkable guy (or as he would say, “dude”) and I’m sure he’ll grace the pixels of this page many times over the next seven months.

We didn’t go into the cell blocks to see how prisoners are treated (as of two years ago, maybe not so well) but what we saw from the guest area was clean and well-kept, and the inmates were friendly, grateful, and seemed relatively well-taken-care-of.

At a certain age (around 4 I’m assuming, since none of the kids seemed to be older than that), the children can’t stay with their mothers any longer — I can’t imagine what it must be like to enter the world beyond the concrete walls of Langata, after growing up behind bars. I’m hoping to go back to the prison some time in the near future to speak with these women about raising a child in jail, but for now it was enough to begin to get a sense of the prison system and the people who call it home.

milestone

My first article was published in the Daily Nation. It made the cover of the features section, if I do say so myself. Here is the online version.

the view from the Daily Nation newsroom -- intersection of Kimathi Street and Banda Street.

Tomorrow I’m off to Langata Women’s Prison with a local entrepreneur and social activist, to deliver sweets and treats to children living with their mothers in prison. I don’t know if I’ll get a story out of it, but if the last two weeks are any indication, I’ll certainly meet some interesting people.

a day of contradictions

As Nairobi shook itself awake on Saturday morning, I was already beelining through downtown, averting taxi-drivers and newspaper vendors with a smile and “hapana, asante” (“no, thanks” — one of the Swahili phrases I use the most). It was nice to be out early, before the crowds gobbled the streets and it became more a matter of weaving than walking. I was off to visit my cousin — in town on business from Ottawa — who had kindly offered to treat me to breakfast at his glorious hotel. But when I entered into the lobby of the Serena Hotel, I thought maybe I was still dreaming. A day of contradictions began.

one of many tables sagging under the weight of my desire

The breakfast spread was stunning. It would have been decadent in North America or Europe, but the smorgasbord of food on display was even more amazing when you think that just a few hours’ drive north, Kenyans are literally on their deathbeds due to malnutrition. There was hot and cold cereal with all the toppings: hazelnuts, walnuts, raisins, dates, pecans, toasted coconut. There were fresh-squeezed  juices: watermelon, passionfruit, paw-paw, papaya, cucumber, orange. A server was on hand to make custom waffles or crepes, topped with maple syrup, whipped cream, chocolate sauce. There was lime jam, croissants, chocolate ganache, brioche, crusty breads, marmite, pain au chocolat, peanut butter, marmalade. There were foods I couldn’t recognize and can’t pronounce. Cut fruit was piled high on platters: papaya, jackfruit, watermelon, pineapple, kiwi, banana, strawberries, passion fruit, honeydew melon. Smoked sailfish, ham, Italian salami. Most of all, there was cheese. Gouda, blue, herbed goat… OH MY.

Oh, and that’s not even including the hot buffet — eggs with caviar, lemon chicken, two kinds of sausages, potatoes fried or curried, rice, beans, grilled tomatoes, sauteed mushrooms, chapati, ratatouille, grilled fish, Mount Kenya toast. I can’t even remember what else. Oh. BACON. (My now-favourite cousin — I’m easily bought — invited me back for breakfast again this morning, and it’s possible that I’ve eaten an entire pig in the last 48 hours.)

there's a famine in this country?

I’m not going to lie. I gorged. Many, many thanks are due to my amazing cousin Curtis for his generousity. And for not judging how many times I went back to the buffet.

Stuffed to the point of verging on pain, I returned to reality to do a few more interviews for my feature article on the Kenyans for Kenya campaign. Across the street was Uhuru (“freedom”) Park, where hundreds were gathered to raise money for the 3.5 million Kenyans at the complete opposite end of the spectrum from my fortunate self — those that are at risk of starvation, living in the arid and semi-arid areas of the north, north-east and south of the country. It was the last day of the four-week campaign, which mobilized corporate and individual Kenyans to donate to the Kenya Red Cross — and had raised more than 680 million shillings (CDN$7.2 million) before the concert even started on Saturday.

400 tonnes of UNIMIX -- high-nutrition porridge -- bound for southern districts of Kenya

Even though the campaign only ended this weekend, the Kenya Red Cross has already been able to use 101 million shillings of the funding to buy 1000 metric tonnes of high-nutrition porridge, which has been distributed to about 200,000 children through school feeding programs. The outpouring from “ordinary” Kenyans has amazed many of the organizers, as donations as small as 10 shillings rolled in from thousands of people. Kenyans gave what they could. I spoke with the partnership coordinator of the Kenya Red Cross, Rosemary Mutunkei, and she said that in a strange way (a contradictory way, one might say, if they were trying to engineer a unifying theme for their blog post), this crisis is actually allowing Kenyans to regain their dignity — to demonstrate to the international community that Kenyans can look inwards and test out local solutions to their internal problems. Aside from food aid, the Kenya Red Cross is working on a number of long-term food security initiatives for the drought-affected areas, like greenhouses and boreholes… initiatives that have been successful in other parts of the country. (For more, pick up Wednesday’s copy of the Daily Nation!)

The Kenyans for Kenya benefit concert in Uhuru Park -- the skyline of Nairobi in the background.

The concert was uplifting — the sunshine and the dancing and the laughter in the lush greens of Uhuru Park made it easy to forget that it was a fundraiser for people who are on the verge of death, in parched lands only a few hundred kilometers away. As the head of the Kenya Red Cross, Abbas Gullet, said, “You just have to get a few hundred kilometers out of Nairobi and you face a different terrain.” It’s easy to forget that Nairobi isn’t Kenya — gotta get out of the city soon.

sightseeing, fried chicken and the first president of kenya

Hard to believe I left Canada only a week and a half ago — nights warming my toes by the bonfire, breezy afternoons on the back porch with a book, and sleeping-in mornings in my cluttered bedroom at home seem like years ago. (Yet, I have no doubt that clutter will be waiting patiently for me in seven months.)

Exploring downtown Nairobi, finally in the sunlight.

Saturday was a glorious day for exploring the city — just wandering downtown to see what we could find. We got almost-hustled at a Maasai market, dodged traffic, and predictably found a bar with a couple cold Tuskers, some samosas and a football game.

Monday was the big day. Paige and I started work at the Daily Nation. It was an early morning coming off a late night, but we managed to scrape ourselves out of bed for an 8 a.m. start, which we promptly re-negotiated to a 9 a.m. go-time starting on Tuesday. We’d already been to the office last week for a quick tour and HR logistics, but this was our first time reporting to the newsroom.

On the editors’ desk there is a big book, with line-upon-line of loopy handwriting. This book is the bible of the Daily Nation — it lists all the assignments for the day, and beside each assignment is the name of the reporter slated to cover the story. Paige and I each got to pick a reporter to shadow on their assignment, and that was that — we were off to the races. (For the moment, we’re working at the Daily Nation, which is the English-language daily newspaper. The Nation Media Group has many, many media holdings, and once I figure them all out myself I’ll fill you in.)

Waiting for a glimpse of the president.

I went out with a reporter named John, to cover a wreath-laying ceremony commemorating the 33rd anniversary of Jomo Kenyatta’s death (the first PM-then-president of Kenya). Aside from Kenyatta’s family, the mayor of Nairobi, and many other VIPs, the current president himself was slated to lay a wreath. So all the journalists stood out in the sun waiting for him to arrive. (And so did all the people in the picture to the right.) Of course, it was one of the first hot days we’ve had, but in a burst of professionalism I chose to wear a blazer and pants. Making a good impression on your fellow journalists isn’t so easy when you can feel the sweat trickling down your spine.

When Mwai Kibaki showed up, everything went nutty — Stephen Harper sure doesn’t get photographers into that kind of a tizzy just by showing up to a ceremonial event. The president (accompanied by what I’m sure were the who’s who of Kenyan political society) went into the mausoleum, laid his wreath (presumably, we weren’t allowed in, being mere print reporters), then they played the national anthem and we were off to church for a service in the late Kenyatta’s honour.

Photographers and camera-operators jockey for position.

President Kibaki and his entourage (mostly security). The fabulous woman in blue is Kenyatta's widow.

The Holy Family Minor Basilica in downtown Nairobi.

We headed on foot to the Holy Family Minor Basilica, where a 90-minute service treated us to hymns in Swahili and English — plus a little dancing in the aisles. The structure is impressive. High vaulted ceilings, stained glass stretching to the heavens. During the service the journalists on either side of me alternately crossed themselves and checked their smartphones, then John and I weaved our way back to the Nation building. “There’s no story here,” said John as we dodged pedestrians and traffic, which is exactly what I had been thinking but was too shy to voice. The president hadn’t spoken, and the tributes to Kenyatta were heartwarming but generally predictable niceties. The president is apparently not one for speaking at public events; Prime Minister Raila Odinga, on the other hand, can be counted on for a speech on most occasions.

Inside the basilica. Not pictured: TV screens projecting the lyrics to the hymns.

Aside from seeing the president it wasn’t the most compelling first day, but things are picking up. Tuesday I went out with another reporter, Beryl. She’s an intern from Eldoret, working at the Nation for 10 weeks (and hoping to get a job when she’s done — the job market is tough). We were assigned a story on the Kenya Red Cross, which meant a drive out to their office in a part of town called South “C”. It was a basic story about a corporate donation for famine relief, so when we got back to the office I figured I might as well take a crack at it to see if my print reporting skills were just rusty, or seized up entirely. Apparently I shook off the dust — and I got my first byline (shared with Beryl, happily). I also successfully pitched a feature story to the editor of DN2, the current affairs pull-out in the Daily Nation. Not bad for Day Two, although now I actually have to navigate writing a 2,000-word feature in a country where I’ve only lived for eight days.

We’re finally settled into our two-bedroom apartment, so the city is actually becoming home. For the first time today, I had a pang of oh-my-time-is-ticking-by! and I had to remind myself that March 31, 2012 is still very, very far away… which is a change from the predictable homesickness that kicks in at unexpected moments. In a departure from toast and instant noodles, I also cooked a real meal for the first time in our new place — spaghetti bolognese with carrots and kale. The kitchen is pretty well-stocked in terms of utensils, and you can find most ingredients you want at the super market… but what I would give for a block of parmesan and a grater.

Officially no chance I'm coming home thinner than I left.

In the meantime — check out what I chowed down on for lunch today at Kenchick Inn, on the street behind the Nation Media building. Yup, that’s friiiiied chicken and chips! The chicken is already cooked, but when you order it they pop it in the deep-fryer for about a minute, just to make sure it’s good’n’saturated’n’crispified with oil. Pop it on top of a bed of fries and boom.

Then go home and eat a carrot for dinner. (Or leftover bolognese, shhhh.)

Jack

Whether or not you agree with his policies, there’s no denying he was an admirable man. Here’s to you, Mr. Layton. You’ll be missed.

day three and four in links and pictures

This has nothing to do with Kenya, but I think back on my crooked, heavy-handed writing on the blackboard in Grade 9, and I am blown away by this. (Someone once told me that the key to writing on a blackboard is originating your strokes from the shoulder.)

Hunter S., via Flavorwire.

This has nothing to do with Kenya either, except for the fact that I enjoyed reading it while lying in bed in Nairobi. I can’t say I’ve read much Hunter S. Thompson until now — the most I really knew about him for sure was that he looked pretty great in a swimsuit. I found the article here, which is an interesting collection, although I don’t think I would go as far as “best ever”.

And then there’s this. I think I am constantly operating in what they describe as a state of ego depletion – my default choice in any situation is whichever route will keep my options open. Fascinating article, although what I really took away from it is I should eat whenever I have to make a decision. Fine by me.

You wanted to hear more about Nairobi? Here’s what I can tell you: I took a bath so hot my skin was pink, the Internet’s fast enough to download This American Life, I get goosebumps if I go outside in short sleeves, and Dr. House is making witty wisecracks on cable TV. This is not an Africa I have experienced before.

Muindi Mbingu Street. Part of my morning commute, starting Monday.

I also can’t wait to go to this, which Dustin kindly told us about. Blankets and Wine? They’re appealing to the Montrealer in me.

Until that magical musical afternoon in September, we’ll have to settle for Thursday night karaoke in Westlands. Alex, Paige and I were just looking for a nightcap, and completely accidentally had a fantastic evening at the Santa Fe, complete with Bon Jovi and Coolio… but unfortunately no Journey. It was another side of Kenya I wasn’t expecting — a side where they ply you with free liquor to participate in karaoke night. Clearly I haven’t spent enough time in Africa’s big cities.

Our first nyamachoma.

We had our first nyama choma yesterday and I cannot say enough good things about it. A lot of people think of it as one of the few truly Kenyan dishes, as a lot of the fare here is common to the rest of East Africa, or is borrowed from India… and in the city, pizza, fried chicken and burgers also abound. Nyama choma is basically bbq’ed meat, almost always goat, cut into bite-sized pieces — greasy and a little salty and served with lots of toothpicks for afterwards. I’m doing a really bad job of selling it here, but it completely hit the spot. We had it with ugali (maize flour turned into a thick porridge, the white doughy-cakes you see on our plates) and a really delish tomato, red onion and cilantro salsa/salad. The best part? You eat it all with your hands, using the ugali as you’d use flatbread in the Middle East.

NOT our first Tuskers.

And of course, the meal wasn’t complete without a few cold Tuskers. (The “cold” part of the equation is important because room-temperature beer is an option here. Whenever you order a beer, the server asks “warm or cold?”) Fun fact: Tusker is named after the elephant that killed one of the company’s founders. It’s the most popular local brew from what I can tell, and it’s about a buck-fifty for a 500 ml bottle in a restaurant. I could get used to this.

We were lucky enough to share it all with Tony, a Kenyan friend of Dustin. He took us on a drive around the city, to meet his warm and welcoming mother and drink perhaps the best tea of my life. A little ginger goes a long way, apparently.

Today — Saturday — is the first sunny day so the plan is to get off the computer and out into the sunshine… at least to stock up on more bananas and mangoes, as I’m running low. Here’s hoping it will reset my body clock so I stop sleeping until noon, and that it’s warming the air enough that I can wear a t-shirt outdoors without shivering.

showing up is eighty percent of life

We’d been sitting motionless on the tarmac for more than an hour before I really started to worry. It wasn’t the fact that it was almost certain we’d miss our connecting flight in London – it was the fact that the ground crew was trying to fix a problem that the captain delicately said was “not something the Toronto maintenance fellows have seen before.” Encouraging.

The excitement began on the way to the airport at 2:30 pm, when I got a frantic call from Kristy, who was smart enough to check our flights and found out that our flight to Paris was delayed by five hours – meaning we’d miss our connection to Nairobi. Air Canada had already rerouted Alex and I through London, and Kristy made a mad dash to the airport to catch an earlier flight to Pair-ee. I took my original flight to Toronto, met up with Alex at Gate 178, and boarded a Boeing 777 bound for London.

But the plane didn’t move.

8:20 pm: We board the plane, a good 20 minutes in advance of the scheduled takeoff. The Danish couple beside me is friendly, the in-flight entertainment has an impressive array of choices. Why was I so negative when I found out I was flying Air Canada?

8:44 pm: Oh, right, that’s why. The first officer comes on the intercom and announces that the cockpit has just been alerted that our plane was due for its 100-hour check – after 100 hours in the air, aircraft are required to have a routine once-over. So, he says, we’ll be delayed by an hour. The cabin lets out a collective groan. (On a Boeing 777, that’s actually a lot of voices involuntarily groaning at once – sort of had the same effect as the final cut at the end of Inception… if you saw it in theatres you know what I mean.)

8:50 pm: I start to wonder why they didn’t do this “routine check” before they crammed hundreds of people onto a pressurized tube with re-circulated air and no food. Right up until we boarded, the departure screens in the terminal showed “on time” beside the flight number.

9:00 pm: The flight crew comes around, offering water and weak, apologetic smiles.

9:45 pm: The captain himself comes on the intercom. This is how you know it’s serious. The maintenance crew found a problem with the aircraft that has to be fixed before we can take off. It’ll be another hour. Well, at least they found the problem right?

10:20 pm: Yup, they found it… aaaaand it turns out they don’t know how to fix it. It’s a procedure that the ground crew has never done before. I imagine the plane splintering into pieces over the Atlantic, when it turns out they were using a helicopter repair manual to guide the troubleshooting. We’ll be delayed another hour at least, maybe until midnight. The captain keeps using the word “optimistically” in a tone that suggests he isn’t.

10:30 pm: I start pondering a mutiny.

10:41 pm: I think about Louis CK for awhile. (Skip to 2:04 if you’re so busy.)

10:54 pm: Oh! Wait! They’ve fixed it! Now we have to wait while they do the paperwork. Thank you, bureaucracy.

11:20 pm: Well, at least we’re going to London. Maybe Prince Harry will be there.

11:44 pm: Hey there, it’s the captain again. Everything is fixed and ready to go, but guess what? Because we were supposed to leave three hours ago, he’s going to go over his duty period if he flies the whole route. So we need a third pilot. He’s on his way, they swear. This is what we call a “cascade effect”.

11:45 pm: A text from home – “This is some reality sketch show, right? You’re getting punked!”

11:57 pm: The women in front of me starts handing out her chocolate souvenirs to the starving passengers. “Sorry, grandma,” she laughs.

12:09 am: OH MY GOD WE’RE MOVING, a full nine hours after I checked-in at the Air Canada counter in Ottawa (with the desk agent who didn’t want to issue my boarding pass because my entry visa expired before my return ticket — and even argued with his superiors about it).

Once we got into the air, flight was uneventful: I watched most of The Bang Bang Club, ate some nondescript chicken and actually sort of slept.

Heathrow, Hour Seven.

We arrived in London around noon, two hours after our connection had departed for Nairobi. Air Canada had already re-re-booked us on Virgin Atlantic flight leaving at 9 pm — which became the third flight we were supposed to take to Nairobi: first it was a Kenya Airways flight from Paris, then the British Airways flight that left Heathrow before Air Canada entered British airspace. We got meal vouchers, and got laughed at when we asked for lounge access or free Internet. We wandered to find some food and then flaked out on benches, realizing that we flew all night to spend the day in what is basically a mall with runways attached, in order to take another overnight flight. I spent a while trying to count how many hours until I’d taste fresh air again (or in Nairobi, I think it’s enough to settle for non-re-circulated air), as the airport waiting room was probably eight degrees hotter than the rest of the airport because of all the body heat. I’ve never seen such a crowded terminal, or as Alex called it, a “people barn”.

About nine hours after arriving in London, it was time to board the plane for Nairobi. We got there in plenty of time, as we’d already explored the entire terminal, eaten two meals, downed a Magners and watched the episode of Man vs. Wild filmed in Kenya, where Bear Grylls evades a lion attack and then drinks water he squeezes out of elephant dung — a survival skill I won’t be trying. We found our gate number on the looming departure screens, noting that the Air Canada flight returning to Toronto was three-and-a-half hours delayed. (At least something can be said for their consistency?) Foolishly relieved we were switching to Virgin Atlantic, we found our gate and were in our seats about 20 minutes before the scheduled 9 pm departure. Note that word, scheduled.

It was hot on the plane. At first I thought it was just the sweaty rush of getting onto the aircraft and stowing our bags, but looking around I saw beads of sweat, makeshift fans, and passengers dozing in the warmth. There was no cool air coming out of the ceiling jets. Hm.

And then the captain came on the loudspeaker.

You guessed it, a malfunctioning AC unit. I’ll spare you the play-by-play – but it was two hours of sitting on the plane at the gate before we even began the eight-hour flight to Nairobi. Luckily for the flight attendants, the previous 24 hours had worn us down to the point that we couldn’t do anything but giggle.

I arrived Tuesday morning at 9:30 local time, 13 hours late, with almost 36 hours of airplane and airports caked on my body. I’m finally in the apartment I share with the lovely Paige, I have tea with powdered milk, I have an Internet connection, and I’m just about ready to sleep horizontally for the first time in three days. Life is rapidly improving.

I’m sure our ordeal was a one-time thing. It won’t happen to you if you visit me in Kenya. It’s glorious here, so go on and book those tickets! Just maybe not through Air Canada.