takes time to tinker

“What is extraordinary about this story is that Richard has had no books or access to technical information. He says he does not know where he gets the ideas or the knowledge, and yes, he has given him self plenty of electric shocks.  His father James is proud of his son, and has given him space to tinker and collect bits of gadgetry.”

Things I like about the story I just read on AfriGadget, titled 13 year old Kenyan innovator saves cattle from lions with lights:

a) Richard himself, for being exactly the kind of person we need to hear more about when we talk about sub-Saharan Africa. And at age 13, no less.

b) The dangling modifier. I was really hoping he was saving his cattle from lions that had mastered electricity.

Richard Turere, 13, from Empakesi, Kenya, brings the cows home for the night. Photo: AfriGadget

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let there be light

Thoroughly enjoyed this Opinionator post by Tina Rosenberg. Africa has skipped landline technology altogether and moved straight to cell phone networks (which are far better — and cheaper — than the networks we have in Canada, by the way). Now, some areas seem poised to do the same with electricity, by skipping nationwide power grids altogether.

I attended an environmental fair in Nairobi last fall, and I was surprised by the number of booths touting solar lanterns designed for the rural poor (some of which also had an outlet to charge mobile phones, brilliant). However, they all had a similar pitch: buy this lantern and you’ll save money in the long run, because you no longer have to buy kerosene. From my non-expert perspective, it seemed that there was a major hiccup in the plan: where would Kenya’s rural poor get the cash for the initial investment in the lantern? The “saving money over time” pitch means nothing to someone living hand-to-mouth, and a major challenge to poverty alleviation is lack of personal savings.

However, from that Opinionator post, it seems like some initiatives have found creative ways of getting around this issue. I especially like SociaLite’s idea of paying for a service (light), instead of a product (a lantern).

In terms of problems of distribution (how do you get your product out to all of these remote villages), one idea is to ask yourself what you can find in even the smallest villages in the world. Easy answer: Coke. India’s government already jumped on this idea, using Coca-Cola’s distribution network to deliver the polio vaccine to remote areas.

Also, the water bottle light-refractor is just plain neat.

dangerous women

The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it.

~ Thucydides

Back in October I spent an energizing and inspiring day with 33 women committed to a single goal: reducing rape, assault and gender-based violence in their neighbourhoods of Nairobi. They were learning not only how to kick some serious ass, but also how to teach other women to do the same.

at the training hall in Korogocho, women defend themselves against attacks from behind

My article on the course was published in the features section this weekend, but here it is in a nutshell: US-based No Means No Worldwide is a train-the-trainer initiative started by Lee Sinclair, a microloan-officer-turned-self-defence-teacher. Instead of  flying trainers to Nairobi from Boston or San Francisco to teach women in slums how to defend themselves, NMNW trains Kenyan women to become self-defence teachers themselves. These newly-minted trainers go back to their communities and spread the gospel.

The women featured here are the first graduating class of NMNW. They rock. There is no other word for it. They are confident, funny, intelligent, hard-working, beautiful, energetic, passionate about women’s rights. And if you cross them, they can kill you.

Sheila and Liz, mid-battle

Despite the fact that these women are now equipped to violently destroy an attacker — or multiple attackers — in a variety of situations, what I found to be most interesting about this course is that Lee tries to focus on the verbal elements of self-defence. She said courses in North America are very focused on physical fighting, because that’s what the students seem to want — but she told me that 85 percent of assaults can be stopped with voice alone. Verbal defence skills are a major part of the NMNW curriculum.

What exactly is verbal defence? Reasoning and negotiating, yes. But also screaming, yelling, raging, shouting, and basically scaring off a would-be rapist by acting like one crazy bitch.

Paps and Liz practice fighting from the ground

Witnessing one of their training sessions was inspiring. The class welcomed me into their tight-knit group, and they were eager to talk. I was surprised by how openly they shared with me their stories of rape, violence and abuse. The rape statistics in Nairobi vary, from the government’s official rape rate of 2 percent of the population, to some NGOs’ estimates of 40 percent. It’s impossible to know, but the NMNW graduates would definitely tell you that it falls closer to the higher end of the spectrum, at least in their communities.

One woman in her early 20s told me about being raped by her boyfriend. Another told me her cousin sexually abused her when she was 11, and it has taken her until her early 20s to be able to trust men. A third woman shared the story of a police officer who tried to rape her by luring her into his home with promises of a gift in remembrance of her father, who had just passed away.

There is no question that the women I met have experienced trauma and horror, but the most remarkable thing is how positively and passionately they have emerged from those challenges. There were no whining/excuses/wallowing in self-pity in that stark concrete training hall in Korogocho — only a fierce determination to prevent any more women from having to tell stories like theirs.

As one graduate put it, “We don’t want to take a woman to the hospital because she has been raped. We want to take an assailant to the hospital because he has been beaten by a woman when he was trying to rape her.”

graduation luncheon, downtown Nairobi

So far, so good. During the final week of class, two of the students were attacked not once, but twice, in a single evening. The first attack was two men, the second was 11 men. These men couldn’t have picked smaller women to attack — Paps and Liz probably each weigh 90 pounds soaking wet — but they stood their ground, used their voices, and got away without a scratch.

I don’t really know how to sum up the experience of spending time with these inspiring women. Maybe another inspiring woman, Eleanor Roosevelt, said it best: A woman is like a teabag, you never know how strong she is until she gets into hot water.

(PS: Speaking of kickass women, I really enjoyed this Vanity Fair article.)

tourist at home

I love houseguests. Aside from an excuse to cook big family dinners (accompanied by more wine than usual), hosting friends is the push I need to stray from familiar stomping grounds. Kristy was visiting from Mombasa over the weekend, and she soldiered through some “slight malaria” to have some serious fun.

Saturday was a trip to the National Museum. I head there regularly to stroll around the botanical gardens, but this was the first time I laid out the shillings to actually go inside.

lucy

happy family

The museum has an extremely extensive collection of birds, as well as some interesting art, exhibits on the origins of mankind and the development of Kenya, and the requisite hall of taxidermied animals.

On Sunday, we saw animals that were actually alive. And when I say saw, I mean got hipchecked by a baby elephant and got covered in giraffe spit.

The David Sheldrick Trust is an elephant orphanage located on the outskirts of the city, near Nairobi National Park. Elephants are fiercely loyal and family-oriented, so the only time a baby elephant finds itself alone is when its mother is dead or severely injured. The trust rescues and raises young elephants that have been orphaned by natural causes (unlikely), human greed (likely), or animal-human conflict (also likely), such as farmers killing elephants that encroach on their land. The elephant-keepers raise the orphans, socialize them, and then after a few years they begin the years-long process of  reintroducing the young elephant into the wild at Tsavo National Park.

There is a fantastic episode of The Nature of Things about the Sheldrick Trust, here. It’s equal parts heart-warming and fascinating, as is attending the 11 am feeding at the trust.

big smiles, running towards lunch

when all goes according to plan, the older elephants "adopt" the younger ones -- these two are about two weeks and two years old, respectively

After the elephants, we headed to the Giraffe Centre. It’s run by the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife, in an effort to protect the Rothschild giraffe. They have an info centre, walking trails, and a raised platform where you can come face-to-face with the giraffes that live at the centre.

When I reached the top of the stairs and emerged onto the viewing deck, I was momentarily paralyzed. A giraffe was staring right at me, and — not going to lie — I let out a little shriek of joy.

why sure I'll take that food pellet -- you know what? I'll just make sure to suck all your fingers clean, too

Giraffes are way cool. Their faces feel just like a horse’s. Their little antennae might look soft, but they’re actually fur-covered horns. Their tongues are huge.

pure joy

When we cleansed ourselves of giraffe spit, it was time for lunch in Westlands. Gorgonzola cheese, avocado, pesto, bacon on a baguette — as if the day couldn’t get any better. Plus, bonus: it barely rained all weekend.

sukuma your wiki

Well, I’m still running into a few consistency challenges with these kale burgers but who has time to wait for perfection? Just eat your greens.

Sukuma Wiki Burgers
makes 4 patties

stay together for the kids

I adapted this from a couple different recipes for spinach burgers, adding my own flavours and using sukuma wiki — Kenyan kale, literally meaning “stretch the week” since it is extremely inexpensive and therefore popular with those who need to stretch their grocery budgets. (Lots of people here hate it because they ate it so much as kids, but it’s way more nutritious than the staple “fill kids’ bellies” food in Rwanda: green bananas.)

Kale is a lot coarser than spinach, so I did significant tweaking from the recipes that used spinach… therefore I don’t know if this is backwards compatible with a spinach substitution. If anything, I used more liquid because I think kale’s stiffness requires more sticking power, so if you want to try this with spinach maybe err on the side of less wet ingredients. Also I think maybe the spinach in those recipes was supposed to be cooked, and my kale was raw. So… yeah. Have you decided yet that you don’t trust me, or this recipe, at all? LET’S JUST COOK AND SEE WHAT HAPPENS. With sesame oil and parmesan in a frying pan it is doubtful this will taste bad.

Combine in a bowl:

  • 1 + 1/2 c roughly chopped kale (packed)
  • generous 1/4 c grated parmesan (plus a slice to eat while you cook)
  • 1/4 c chopped coriander
  • 4 green onions, chopped
  • 1 tsp garlic powder, or to taste
  • 1/2 tsp ginger powder, or to taste
  • chilli powder to taste
  • ground black pepper to taste

Toss those ingredients to combine well, then add:

  • two eggs
  • 2 tsp tamari
  • 1 tsp sesame oil

Mush it together with your hands! Once everything is goopy and fantastic, slowly add:

  • 1/2 c breadcrumbs (approximately… just add until it seems like its the right consistency to be burger-ified.)

Set the mixture aside. Add to a skillet over medium heat:

  • olive oil or other fat for frying — these suckers soak up oil, so add the amount you’re willing to ingest. The more, the crispier.
  • a few drops of sesame oil

While the oil is heating, make your burgers.

This is where I ran into technical difficulties. It can be hard to make your little burgs stay in one piece. I roughly formed each burger as a ball in the palm of my hand, and then placed it on a chopping board and really pressed down to make it all flatten out and stick together — then transferred it to the frying pan with the spatula. Once it hits the heat of the pan, everything on the outer surface binds together, so it holds together pretty well… the hard part is just handling the raw burger.

Fry 3-4 minutes each side in a covered pan. Watch carefully — mine burned. (Both times I made them. Ok now you definitely don’t trust me.)

Enjoy with your leftover Spiced Lentil Rice from last night, and a side of smugness. You are eating kale burgers, you are so healthy. (Just exercise selective memory when it comes to how many “one more small one” slices of parmesan you ate while you were waiting for the burgers to cook. Ahem.)

kale patties + spiced lentil rice with yogurt and curry powder on top + the tail end of a lonely cucumber = dinner

feed me something

My food strategy is simple: eat real. I don’t go for a lot of packaged or processed foods. No shame, friends. It’s just that I like to cook. I think it’s fun. I think things taste better from scratch. And I think it’s a good way to challenge myself. However, “real” foods are not always low-calorie. Such as… butter… cream… maple syrup… cheese… almost-mooing ribeye. Just a few of my favourite things.

Cooking (ok, fine, eating) gives me a sense of stability, so I tend to do it more when I travel. I also find myself wanting to sample all the new snacks I come across, much of which are far from diet food. Examples in Kenya: bhajias (battered, fried potatoes w/ cilantro and tumeric), battered and fried sausages, fried samosas, fried tilapia (head still on!), fried chicken (head removed – thankfully), mandazi (fried dough… theme?). Also the local pizza chain makes a killer Hawaiian.

glorious mandazi, made with rice flour. just right.

Gaining a few extra pounds is no big deal, it’s what’s on the inside that counts, right? Normally, yes. However. I’m going home to Canada for Christmas, and it is entirely possible that none of my jeans will fit. Somehow I don’t think my forgiving Kenya wardrobe — skirts, dresses, wraps — will be so useful in a Canadian winter.

Therefore I am making a few last-ditch tweaks: less wine/fat/carbs, more water/vegetables/lean vegetarian protein. Strangely, what’s keeping me going with the health-craze is perusing recipes for disgustingly rich holiday treats… the kind that only North Americans can dream up. (Such as my personal favourite LeBreton Flats, made entirely out of Breton crackers, melted chocolate, butter and brown sugar. I also came across a recipe today that involved baking mini chocolate bars into globs of cookie batter and then covering them with frosting. YES.)

So, in the meantime…

Spiced Lentil Rice

This makes enough for a decently-sized dinner for two, if you add some other dish (stir-fry, curry, big salad?). Or just scale it up. In my sad little case, it made dinner for one + leftovers. Awwwwwwwwwwwwwsadface.

Add to a medium saucepan, over medium heat:

  • a splash of olive oil
  • 1/2 c lentils (I used green)

Saute the lentils for a minute or two, then add:

  • 1 + 1/2 c water

hello my pretties

Simmer for 10-15 minutes, until lentils are beginning to soften. While the lentils simmer, dice:

  • one medium red onion
  • 3-4 green onions
  • half a head of garlic

Heat in a skillet over medium heat:

  • a blurb of olive oil (so precise)

Then add your onions and garlic. Saute until soft, then add:

  • 1-2 tbsp garam masala (or a cumin-ish curry-like spice mix sort of thingy… yeah)
  • chilli powder, salt, and pepper to taste

Once the spices seem to be getting a little toasty (you may need to add more oil to prevent sticking/burning), add:

  • 1/2 c raw brown rice

Toast the rice for a minute or two, then add the whole mixture to the lentils. Be sure to scrape in all the good stuff that stuck to the pan. Add water to cover. (A little too much is better than not enough, you can always boil it off.) Then add:

  • 1 medium tomato, chopped

Simmer for about 30-45 minutes, or until the rice is cooked. When you think it’s close to being done, add:

  • a whole ton of fresh cilantro, chopped… or less, if you’re not obsessed with it like I am. (It’s 12 cents per bunch here! I can’t stop! Someone get me help.)
  • optional: more spices/seasonings, to taste
  • optional: I made mine too spicy so I added 1 tsp raw cane sugar to counteract the mouthfire. Tomato paste would also do the trick.

If everything’s cooked and soft but it seems a little soupy, either boil off the excess water or just remove from heat and let it stand for 10 minutes. I had it with kale burgers (recipe tomorrow maybe, still tweaking) and salad… but I’ve also eaten it on its own, with just tamari (and an episode of The Wire).

all of my photos came out blurry. whatever this isn't Pioneer Woman, deal with it.

it’s the end of the world as we know it

I got really quite horrifyingly ill last week. I will spare you the details, but it involved undercooked chicken and the digestive tract equivalent of Fukushima Daichi — your personal experiences with salmonella poisoning can fill in the rest.

As I laid in bed on Wednesday contemplating the sweet release of death, the sky outside my window increasingly darkened. A huge clap of thunder shook the walls, and then it started hailing. Yeah. Like, ice falling from the sky. Pea-sized chunks of frozen water pummelled the earth, mixed with rain and general atmospheric chaos. Keep in mind Nairobi is just a few latitude south of the equator. It’s supposed to be summer here.

I stared in disbelief out the window. Then I thought about the plague infesting my body… and all I could think was, “Yup. It’s the apocalypse.”

Talk about pathetic fallacy. I managed to struggle out of bed and get my camera soaking wet, just to document the moment — for future proof that I hadn’t been delirious. In the end, I was spared a hospital visit by my travel medicine doctor in Montreal… more specifically, the little bottle of miracle antibiotics she prescribed in May. This was not the first time I’ve found myself deploying 1000 mg of cipro-fury on a stomach bug, and I never cease to be amazed at the effectiveness. I may name my first-born Ciprofloxacin.

Anyway, don’t feel too sorry for me. I’m better now. And a week from today I’ll be waking up here. Jealous? Distract yourself with this crazy story [via Goulet]. Or this awesome element of American society. (The whole rice and curry thing is getting old. I could really go for some grippachos or alligator jerky.)