crisis in paradise

I woke up this morning to an email asking if I was still alive. Tangled in the sheets and still half asleep, I squinted in the blinding glow of my Blackberry screen, trying to make sense of what was going on. Turns out, while I was peacefully sleeping off my long weekend, someone lobbed a grenade into a nightclub downtown. At least a dozen confirmed injured. The police are blaming al-Shabaab, and the anti-terrorism squad has sealed off the bar. It’s begun.

bloodstains on the floor of Mwaura's Bar in Nairobi (Mukoya/Reuters)

Since Kenyan troops went to war with al-Shabaab last week, there have been escalating threats of terrorism — threats that the international community are taking seriously. The Canadian government emails me once a week to warn me to stay away from anywhere crowded or popular with foreigners. No bars, malls, sporting events, or anything fun at all. And don’t even think about going anywhere near the border with Somalia. The Americans have also issued a travel advisory for Kenya, warning of terrorist threats… although they’re denying involvement beyond that.

So it shouldn’t be surprising, but somehow it’s still a shock. We knew something like this was coming, and we’ve been speculating for days on what it would be. Al-Shabaab promised the destruction of Nairobi’s skyscrapers and the decimation of the country’s tourism industry, so maybe I expected them to start with shock and awe. Images abound: explosions in hotel lobbies, suicide bombers on buses, car bombs in the underground parking of my office building (a prime target since it’s also home to foreign embassies and the stock exchange… great). Last night’s attack may not have been on that scale, but it makes those visions seem more likely. Al-Shabaab is clearly walking their talk, and this could just be the beginning.

It’s surreal to live with a real threat of terrorism — from my balcony I can see the skyscrapers of downtown just a few blocks away, and I keep expecting them to burst into flames. I remember in the days after 9/11, when the planes finally took to the skies again, I wondered if every jet I saw was headed for Parliament. This is a similar feeling, but doubled in intensity. This is an actual threat, one that has been carried out, first in Uganda and now in Kenya. I’ve spent long enough living in different parts of Africa that being a visible minority no longer throws me, but it’s strange to know that al-Shabaab is thinking about people like me when they plot their next move.

I can’t imagine what it’s like to grow up somewhere like Afghanistan, where this uncertainty is just a fact of life. (All life is uncertain, but a terrorist attack a few blocks from home throws it into harsh relief.) I guess the only attitude to take in this situation is fatalism — if it’s going to happen, so be it. I can’t hide inside my apartment until all the baddies of the world are captured (or buried at sea). And anyway, I’m more likely to get robbed or die in a car accident than get-gotten by terrorists, if Dan Gardner has taught me anything.

But it’s all an especially harsh crash back to reality, after spending the weekend on the south coast drinking rum punch and making friends with starfish. What a country.

UPDATE: a second grenade attack in less than 24 hours, this time at a bus stop. It’s getting real.

a taste of home

Canadians gathered last weekend with one goal in mind: eat to the point of physical discomfort. Being thousands of miles from home doesn’t mean we can shirk our responsibility to overindulge, so a little group of Canucks gathered in Nairobi last Sunday. Mission: accomplished.

oh my.

We started with pumpkin soup, then came turkey, stuffing, potatoes mashed and roasted, garlic green beans, roasted carrots, gravy, cran, and a steady flow of red wine. Then two pumpkin pies, a red wine chocolate cake, ice cream and banana bread. We had a lot to be thankful for.

these pies have equally fantastic back-stories: one was made from an actual pumpkin, and the other from a can of pumpkin pie filling transported all the way from Canada in a suitcase.

Meredith documented the saga of preparing the glorious feast, so head over there for more photos, commentary and general merriment.

la piece de resistance: an 11-kg turkey named Jalal. (thanks Meredith for this photo.)

Happy belated Thanksgiving to all my Canadian friends. I hope your celebrations were as memorable as mine.

the first draft of history

When people ask what I like about being a journalist, I can boil it down to one word: access. Journalists go places and meet people and do things that are out of reach for most civilians — it’s an incredible privilege, and we pay that honour forward by doing our best to accurately and fairly report on what we’ve seen, heard, felt, smelled.

They say journalists write the first draft of history. Sometimes, that history isn’t pretty. I recently read a statistic that around one in 10 Americans suffer from PTSD, which seems high… but if it’s true, journalists are certainly no exception. Newsrooms increasingly offer counselling and support to reporters covering difficult topics, but journalists rarely discuss trauma as openly and honestly as CBC Radio’s Dave Seglins in this piece, on the sentencing of Col. Russell Williams. I recommend you give it a read, no matter your profession. [Via -30-]

Not only reporters, but everyone, can take a lesson from this unashamed account of psychological trauma. Unwillingness to discuss mental illness (whether temporary or chronic) only makes it that much harder for sufferers to cope. If you sprain your ankle or struggle with lifelong back pain, there’s no shame in casually disclosing it — but mental weakness is a spectre few are willing to candidly raise. Well done, Mr. Seglins.

Of course, not every journalist is working in psychologically taxing conditions (although it’s a good excuse for the hard drinking and cynicism). Sometimes being a journalist means bearing witness to moments of peace and harambee (“pulling together”), such as my chance to attend the celebration of the life of Dr. Wangari Maathai today. When I arrived, the crowds were already thick in Uhuru Park. But a flash of the press pass, and I was above the fray on the media riser — with an unobstructed view of the casket, the ceremony, and all the dignitaries, there to wish a truly remarkable (and tough as nails) woman well on her next great adventure.

a bamboo, water hyacinth and papyrus casket -- Dr. Maathai's final chariot before cremation.

Paige and I went to the funeral together. She provides her account here.

let the wild rumpus begin

I had no idea that Maurice Sendak, author of my favourite book, also wrote the book that haunts me most from my childhood. (In a good way.) He recently gave a fabulous interview to the Guardian, where he airs his views on Gwenyth Paltrow (“I can’t stand her”) and Roald Dahl (“He’s dead, that’s what’s nice about him”)… you can read it here.

Also, new article in the Daily Nation today, about solar-powered water pumps in rural Kenya. Here.

tools of the trade.

save the elephants

My article on poaching in Kenya was published this week. Here you go. Interested to hear your feedback, friends.

I would tell you the next story I’m working on, but I want to make sure I get it first. Ridiculous, I know, but it goes with the territory. Back in the day, Maclean’s international correspondent Michael Petrou gave a guest lecture to my fourth-year international reporting class at Carleton. When it was over, we asked what story he was working on next. He wouldn’t tell us, for fear someone would steal his lead… at the time I thought he was being ridiculous, but now I understand the irrational paranoia of the international reporter. Like my fellow reporters in Nrbi are obsessively reading this blog and just dying to steal my pedestrian idea. Watergate, this ain’t. (I’ll give you a hint: it involves a lot of cow poo. My life is so glamorous.)

Unrelated: I really enjoyed this mashup of Tom Petty and Notorious B.I.G. by The White Panda. I thought you might too. Perfect for a Saturday afternoon.

born free

The trip from Nairobi to the Maasai Mara National Reserve takes you smack dab through the middle of the Great Rift Valley. It was the first time I’d seen been there in person… but in a way, we’ve all been there before, haven’t we?

hey guys remember that time we decided to be bipedal?

I have friends in high places in the Mara, so I was lucky to get a complimentary stay at the Impala Wildlife Lodge. It’s right on the edge of the reserve, at Ololaimatiek Gate. I could hear the hyenas barking at night, and when I walked to my room in the evening, gazelles bounded out of my way.

hut sweet hut

I spent my days touring the grasslands with the park’s chief ranger, Kennedy. We patrolled for poachers (found: 0), gave tickets to tour groups who strayed from the trails (5), and picked up litter (can’t count that high).

the President of the Mara

We went to visit some of the other rangers, hanging at the Keekorok airstrip. Visiting the Mara by air is actually very popular with tourists, as you can avoid the horrendous road that leads to the reserve.

the airstrip outpost

interrupted a game of checkers

And then there were the animals.

my absolute most favourite ever

hey there tembo

try as he might, Kennedy couldn't get this lion to wake up. Apparently the expression "let sleeping lions lie" doesn't exist.

however, this beautiful lady was wide awake... and pissed that she had just failed at killing a wildebeest.

wildebeest are kind of cool, but are also EVERYWHERE... so they lose their intrigue quickly.

there is, however, something to be said for the magnificence of the Great Migration. The sheer number of wildebeest in the Mara at this time of year (about 2.5 million) is overwhelming, and made me feel about as big as a dust mite. This picture doesn't do it the slightest justice...

the gazelle -- yet another animal that loses its allure after less than an hour in the park

giraffes remain cool no matter how long you look at them

you are the strangest animal. Even stranger is how graceful you are with your bizarrely-proportioned body.

a male ostrich, vogueing

water buffalo: a lion's favourite snack

zebras taking a dip. Just another day in the Serengeti.

It wasn’t the first time I’ve been on safari, but it was the first time I saw a park through the eyes of a ranger. I am so grateful to Kennedy for showing me around his kingdom.

Obviously it was a pretty spectacular few days, and it’s hard to believe that all this is just a five-hour drive from Nairobi. (Even harder to believe is that it was work.) It was fastastic to leave the city, especially to see how much the city really did feel like home when I returned… as well as to get some much-needed breathing space. And what a place to inhale.

cue The Lion King soundtrack

three hours in Kibera

I’m standing in the shower letting scalding water rush over my body. It sweeps away a long day’s worth of dust, grime, sweat and smoke. But it can’t clear the haze from my head. I’m still hearing faraway shouting, music blaring, generators pulsating. Smelling smoke and garbage. Tasting fumes and slum-brewed moonshine. Feeling compost slipping under my feet and dusty fingers wrapping around my wrists. I’m still in Kibera.

630,000 acres of "informal" housing

Some facts about Kibera: It is the largest slum in East Africa, and possibly all of Africa — depends who you ask. The population figures vary widely, swinging between 170 thousand and two million people. The latest census from Kenya pegs it at the lowest end of the scale, meaning it would barely qualify as Kenya’s biggest slum (although I’m not sure how one does an accurate census in a slum). Meanwhile, one of the guys who lives there says that it’s home to 700 thousand.

Kibera is more than 600 thousand acres of “informal” housing, and the UN estimates that rental income from Kibera is worth about CDN$47 million annually to its landlords — a goldmine.

It’s bordered by a golf course, Uhuru Gardens and the Nairobi Dam:

a man and his dogs

Yesterday, I visited Kibera. The last time I set foot in a slum was in Sierra Leone. I wanted to see where locals went to dance, drink and make merry, so I asked one of the guys in my neighbourhood to take me where he would go dancing on a Friday night. He was skeptical about why I’d want to venture into the corrugated-iron maze of Freetown’s back alleys, when there were plenty of clean(ish) ex-pat bars a few minutes’ taxi ride away. I explained I wanted to see the Freetown he knew, not the Freetown that existed on the sidelines of main roads. The dance club we went to was only about a four- or five- minute walk into the slums, and it was at night… so all I saw were darkened doorways and the glowing tips of cigarettes. I stepped over open sewers without knowing what I was avoiding. I didn’t see the slum so much as blindly glide through it. (The club, Congo’s, was an experience of its own, which you can read about here.) This time, I actually felt like I’ve “seen” a slum… even though using the label “slum” feels strange. The term carries such negative connotations, when really it just refers to an area characterized by informal settlements and substandard housing that lacks tenure security.

watching the rain begin to fall

I wish I could leave it up to the photos to tell my story of Kibera — it wouldn’t leave me searching for words to explain the sounds and smells and feelings. Let me be clear that this is just my story, not the story. I’ve only spent three hours in Kibera. I only know what I saw and what I was told by D and V, the two guys who showed us around. (We met them through one of the media fellows who was at the Nation last year. D has lived in Kibera his whole life, 25 years.)

greeted at the door to a makeshift bar

I want to say this off the top: the Kibera I saw is not a sinister place. It is not evil, scary, or treacherous. It is not some black hole of disease and crime and hopelessness. As we navigated its streets, I wasn’t afraid once. (Ok, I was a little afraid drinking the moonshine, but that’s just because I’m too young to go blind.)

So let’s make that clear. Humans are humans no matter where in the world you find them. The reality of life in Kibera has not twisted its residents into evil, heartless or hopeless mutants. There is just as much laughter and entrepreneurship and kindness on the streets of Kibera as there is on the streets of my neighbourhood in Nairobi. (There is more kindness and entrepreneurship and laughter than on the streets of Ottawa or Montreal.) The people who live in Kibera are doing just that: living. Some have gotten lost along the way, but that happens everywhere. I would venture to say that it happens more in Kibera, but I think we’d all be surprised how quickly it could happen to us. So, no, Kibera is not an unfriendly place. But while it has just as much light and kindness as the areas I’ve been fortunate enough to live, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Kibera is essentially 630,000 acres of poverty.

a chicken picks through a pile of compost and garbage

The most overwhelming element of Kibera is the garbage, simply because it’s inescapable. It covers every surface. Burning garbage, blowing garbage, garbage ground into the earth by foot traffic. Open sewers with rivers of trash and shit. Waste as far as the eye can see: clogging gutters, underfoot, stacked in piles beside the paths. Plastic bags disintegrating in the sunlight, used condoms, egg shells, naked corn cobs, gum wrappers, broken chairs, chip bags, stray socks, general unidentifiable sludge.

Kenya already has a smell that drifts through my bedroom window on the morning breeze: exhaust fumes, burning garbage and mangoes. In Kibera, add to that the smell of rotting human waste leaking from public latrines (where users have to pay just to use the facilities).

My lungs were thick with dust, smoke, and generator fumes for hours after I got home. I blew my nose and the tissue turned black. Kibera is not a healthy place to spend three hours, let alone a lifetime. But the pollution is just the strongest impression, not the only one.


The kids of Kibera run alongside newcomers and wrap their tiny hands around your wrist. They giggle and shriek and ask over and over again, “How are you? How are you?” until it becomes a mantra being chirped from all sides. They’re friendly and playful; they don’t regard us with the (understandable) suspicion of their parents and aunties and grandfathers. They just want to touch our muzungu skin, pose for photos and, more importantly, see themselves in instant replay on the screens of our digital cameras. Runny noses, dusty cheeks and huge smiling eyes. Infectious laughter.


A slum is a city. People are working. Women are braiding hair, brewing moonshine, selling roasted corn or raw chicken or cassava root. Men are boiling pork bones for stew, holding court over their shops stuffed with extension cords and bubble gum. Other women are frying bhajias or mending clothing or hanging laundry out to dry. Piles of dried fish bake in the sun, beside tomatoes and cabbage and bananas for sale. Teenagers rent time on Playstation consoles, or watch football matches in darkened “stadiums” (Kenya won its qualifier yesterday for the Africa Cup of Nations). There are volleyball games, blasting sound systems, footballs made out of plastic bags and twine. Kids are playing in the dirt alongside ducks and chickens and dogs.

Not being anything close to expert on Kibera, I would venture a guess that the low standard of living is not due to unemployment so much as underemployment. Some people commute to other parts of Nairobi for work, but others try to make their living in the informal economy of Kibera. People are not lazy. They are doing their best with the opportunities they have available. But you can sit at your vegetable stand all day, and if no one is buying bananas, you come home with nothing.


In a bid to put a bit of money into the local economy, we stopped at a bar for some moonshine. We never would have known it was a bar, the entrance was just a doorway with a curtain drawn across it… and two little girls peeking out on the doorstep. Even inside, you’d have no idea you were in a drinking establishment — two couches and a few chairs around a coffee table, and a baby sleeping on a mattress beneath a TV set blaring the football game. The woman of the house got out four small tumblers and an empty mickey that once held vodka. From a small, unmarked plastic container, she filled the mickey with Kibera’s ubiquitous brew, Changaa, and then settled back into her armchair. This “bar” is her home.

Changaa is 80 percent alcohol. The income from the sale of the drink helps feed families and send kids to school. Only recently did it become legal. It actually went down smoothly, and no signs of blindness 24 hours later. So far, so good.

potato bhajias

We followed the moonshine with some bhajias bought from a street vendor. Moments before, we had been accosted by a group of giggling kids who left our hands smeared with red earth. As we looked at our palms, I said “Just don’t put them in your mouth.” No more than a minute later, we came across a bubbling pan of oil, with bhajias floating temptingly at the surface. It didn’t take much to seduce us, and before long were digging our fingers into plastic bags full of fried potatoes. They were worth the risk — warm, salty, crispy around the edges. We didn’t know what to do with the grease-laden bags when we finished… we paused for a moment and then dropped them on the ground. Two more floating pieces of plastic. “When in Rome,” Alex said.

Wiping the oil from our fingers, we met Pastor Alois, who presides over one of the Baptist Sunday services in Kibera. He also runs an orphanage, where eight children currently live with him. He showed us the church: a bare concrete floor and corrugated metal walls, grimy plastic lawn chairs stacked in the corner.

Pastor Alois in the door to his church

Other than those vignettes, the experience of exploring Kibera becomes a twisting maze of uneven roads and haphazard shacks and thousands and thousands of faces. We hiked up one of the hills of Kibera to get a “good” shot of the slum… and D insisted that Alex and I be in the photo. It seemed inappropriate to even be posing for the picture, and even more so to smile.

not exactly uhuru peak

Going to Kibera is something that I struggled with. There are two ethical dilemmas for me — the first is why I wanted to see Kibera in the first place, and the second is how I saw it.

When we disembarked from the matatu (public bus) in Kibera, one of the first things we saw were a bunch of white people pouring out of a safari vehicle, no doubt on a “slum tour” (more on those in a bit). I was immediately disgusted. What do these sick foreigners think they’re doing, coming to gawk at poverty and suffering? But I had to pause. What was I doing there? How am I different from those tourists in their khakis and backpacks, setting off into the slums like it’s a day hike in the Masai Mara?

Here is how I justify it: Journalists bear witness. We try to understand the communities in which we live, then we use that knowledge to promote others’ understanding. We don’t hide within our own demographics. The stories that move mountains aren’t written from press releases. I’m living and working in Nairobi for eight months. After three weeks it’s gradually becoming home to me, but I can’t write about Kenya without seeing it. I’m not breezing through Kibera in between game drives and pedicures. My journalism degree is specialized in foreign reporting, and I have a master’s of international development. In the coming months I hope to cover stories that encompass all elements of Kenyan society. That includes Kibera. Surely that qualifies me as more than a slum tourist?

vegetable stand

I think it does. But, if we’re being honest, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that I also wanted to see Kibera out of a unsettling fascination with the lives of those who are less fortunate. I wanted to see the piles of garbage and smell the smoke and taste the street food. Going to Kibera, for me, was about seeing with my own eyes the conditions that millions of people live in every day. What I saw of Kibera was just the beginning of a journey of getting as close as I can to “understanding” what happens in the poor parts of Kenya’s urban environment. But witnessing a lifestyle so unlike my own leads to obvious misinterpretations or egregiousness oversights. Kibera is a world so foreign to me that there is no way I could understand what I was seeing at first blush. Yes, I’m not just a tourist, and my understanding of life in a slum has to start somewhere, but can anyone who hasn’t grown up there ever actually get it? Is “understanding” just an excuse to gawk at poverty? As Kennedy Odede wrote in the NYT, about a “slumdog tourist” snapping photos in Kibera, “For a moment I saw my home through her eyes: feces, rats, starvation, houses so close together that no one can breathe. I realized I didn’t want her to see it, didn’t want to give her the opportunity to judge my community for its poverty — a condition that few tourists, no matter how well intentioned, could ever understand.”

Most of the people in Kibera were friendly but we got our fair share of dirty looks, which I don’t begrudge in the slightest. White skin, sturdy shoes and a camera at the ready, I am indistinguishable from a “slumdog tourist”. Even if I explained that I was a journalist, I can imagine that some of the people who live in Kibera wouldn’t care about the distinction.

chopping firewood

To use a term that was thrown around in the pre-departure seminar for this trip to Kenya, we have to be careful that our quests for understanding don’t become about indulging in the “pornography of poverty”. Now, I’m not using the “pornography” of sick, fly-bitten children to market an NGO to potential donors. To belabour the metaphor, it’s porn for personal use only. (And in terms of the images on this page, they’re all collected with consent.) But nevertheless, I’m posting photo upon photo of garbage and poverty. The difficulty of understanding the nuances of living in Kibera makes it so much easier to just focus what I can easily see and grasp.

The second issue is how we saw Kibera. It’s not the kind of place where there are street signs and tourist kiosks — it’s not a “show yourself around” kind of neighbourhood. Without D and V, there’s just no way we could have seen it. Period. And if I want to see it, it seems unfair to expect a free tour. So, straight up, we compensated D and V for their time. In one sense, it’s no different than paying a boat company to ferry you up and down the Rideau Canal, a guide in the bow of the boat spouting little-known facts about Colonel By. But on the other hand, the “attractions” aren’t monuments and tulip gardens… they’re humans and the often-appalling conditions in which they live. Without the people, Kibera is just a pile of garbage (of which no one would be tempted to take a tour). All I can hope is that as a resident of Kibera, the money I gave D will go back into the community. It’s not like I hired these guys to show me around, but I’m still conflicted about the fact that cash changed hands.

Ethical ramblings aside, I’m glad I went. And I’ll go back. I want to see Kibera as more than what Kennedy describes in the NYT. I hope it’s possible to really understand. I’m going to try. I plan to return, to walk the streets and ask questions, to keep my eyes and ears open, to read what’s been written and to write what hasn’t about the people who live there. Because three hours in Kibera is simply not enough.

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.


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.