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

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.

NIMBY? actually, it is.

How closely do you pay attention to what’s happening in your backyard?

Yesterday afternoon, I stretched out on a beach chair beside my apartment complex. Birds were twittering away in the trees and a warm breeze rippled the pool. I had a John Irving novel, a sweating bottle of chilled club soda, and a stylin’ pair of knock-off Ray Bans. Before long, I dozed off in the glow of the late afternoon sun.

A mere five kilometers away, people were losing their homes. Bulldozers tore through concrete, shredded furniture, and sent debris crashing to the ground. While I was inspecting my skin for signs of sunburn and flipping the pages of A Prayer for Owen Meany, my roommate was trudging through the mud, documenting what may be the worst day in some Eastleigh residents’ lives.

the demolition in Eastleigh -- photo: P. Aarhus

Eastleigh is often called “Little Somalia” — it’s where most of the Somali diaspora lives, a population that is generally discriminated against in Kenya partially due to the al-Shabaab link. I’m not going to pass judgement on the government’s motives, because I don’t know what they were. The official line is that the demolition was due to security concerns (the buildings were located next to a military airfield); some say it was a land grab. Here is what we do know, and what I will judge — the residents of these buildings got ten minutes’ notice.

“Lucky” doesn’t even begin to cover my living conditions here in Kenya.

But let’s broaden the lens a little. Imagine a community where many live in makeshift sheds without water or electricity. Where their toilet is a bucket, emptied into a ditch outside their home. Disease and infection are a constant concern. Children run free — there’s no elementary school, let alone high school or post-secondary education.

I could be describing any number of communities in the developing world… until I add this little tidbit: imagine the winter temperatures in this community reaching 45 degrees below zero. Hey there, Canada.

a makeshift tent home to a family of six -- photo: HuffPo

Governments treating their citizens like shit doesn’t only happen in Kenya. Welcome to the lives of many of Canada’s First Nations. On Monday, NDP MP Charlie Angus wrote an article for HuffPo Canada about the current situation in the Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario. Read it. No, don’t open it in a tab on your browser to “come back to later” — read it now. It is chilling. But it is not a one-off.

In June of this year, interim Auditor General John Wiersema released a report detailing the failure of the federal government to honour its commitments to improving the quality of life in aboriginal communities. In fact, the report found that conditions had deteriorated since the turn of the millennium: shortage of housing (and poor conditions in existing housing), lack of access to safe drinking water, high levels of high school dropouts, and lack of appropriate family services. This document was the final report by the previous AG, Sheila Fraser. In it, she wrote: “…a disproportionate number of First Nations people still lack the most basic services that other Canadians take for granted.”

This is not a partisan rant. The mistreatment of Canada’s aboriginal populations has been a longstanding political tradition under the authority of multiple political parties, both in government and opposition. In fact, it has been going on since the Europeans first sailed up the St. Lawrence. Canada turned 144 this year, shouldn’t we be old enough to know better? Regardless of background, ethics or political stripes, I don’t think any Canadian would like to believe that this is how we treat our own. Maybe you don’t believe in using tax dollars to fund development in faraway regions through CIDA or IDRC. But these are people living within Canada’s borders. They’re Canadians. It’s happening in our backyard, and we’re ignoring it.

The federal government recently committed $500,000 to the Attawapiskat First Nation, but when you consider the gravity of their situation, it’s almost an insult. Angus’s article estimates that the community needs 268 new houses just to deal with the current backlog of homelessness… that $500,000 isn’t going to go far.

Let’s make a little comparison, shall we? How much did the feds spend on the G8/G20 summit in 2010? Well, they spent a roughly similar amount ($517,983.40) just on baggage handling at the airport in Toronto, according to a CBC database (if you trust those pinkos). All told, the final House of Commons calculations peg the G8/G20 summit costs somewhere around $900 million. And despite being a proud member of this exclusive little economic club, Canada is letting its own citizens live in poverty. Let’s get some frigging perspective up in here.

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.)

gardens and grenades

It’s been (dare I bring it up) more than a week since the last attack in Nairobi, and the new reality is becoming routine. Military guards stand sentry outside hotels and malls, cradling semi-automatics. Entering a grocery store or nightclub requires a swipe of the metal detector, although the screening seems a little selective. If you’re a muzungu trying to get into the popular downtown bar Simmers, the staff just waves you through. (Guess they figure white people are the targets, not the perps.) I think it’s a lot like airport security — it’s there to make the patrons feel safe, rather than serving any real purpose against a serious attack. For example, Simmers is an open-air club, bordered on three sides by sidewalks… not exactly difficult for a pedestrian to lob in a grenade.

The initial panic seems to have subsided, but I don’t know if that’s a return to logical thinking or a false sense of security. I ask my taxi drivers what they think of al-Shabaab and they shrug them off as hooligans. Some Kenyan blogs are covering how to survive a grenade attack. Others are even brazenly going as far as making fun of the whole situation. (Both via Paige.) But I honestly don’t know what to think.

Despite the new reality of living in Nairobi, life goes on. I have a new story in the Nation today. Gathering the material for this piece was really enjoyable — it reminded me of home. I’ve only recently begun to get my fingernails dirty, but I grew up on a diet of vegetables grown in my own front yard, and it’s nice to see people trying to bring some of those same techniques to an area that so desperately needs an agricultural revolution.

note the lush green that Gai has created against the background of a parched savannah

It was also just great to get out of the city — Gai’s farm is on the edge of Nairobi National Park. Canadians have squirrels and deer in their backyards. Gai has giraffes and cheetahs. And also a generally gorgeous home.

My bedroom for the evening.

Also — I finally went to the coast. And I approve.

Dear Canadians, you are suckers.

Breathing space.

But it’s not all coast and cocktails. Next up for me? Some dangerous women are showing Nairobi’s rapists the meaning of the word no. Aw, hell yeah.

three dead

“Our greatest fears lie in anticipation.” — Balzac

Last night’s second grenade attack killed one person and injured eight. And the news keeps getting worse: yesterday, two victims of the nightclub bombing succumbed to their injuries. That makes three dead in 24 hours.

Al-Shabaab hasn’t claimed responsibility for the attacks. News articles are clear on that fact, but the situation in Nairobi is still being framed as part of Kenya’s war with al-Shabaab. I wonder, though. The grenades were detonated in crowded areas downtown, but they’re not areas that foreigners frequent. So far, only Kenyans have been injured or killed. That, combined with al-Shabaab’s silence on these attacks, makes me wonder where the attacks are actually coming from. Al-Shabaab swore they would destroy skyscrapers and target foreigners, which hasn’t happened so far. These attacks could just be a rogue element within al-Shabaab who’s decided to take matters into his (her?) own hands, or just some crazy person with access to grenades.

Kimathi Avenue, downtown Nairobi

It’s business as usual in Nairobi. Sort of. On my walk to get groceries today, a rifle-wielding soldier stood sentry outside the posh colonial Norfolk Hotel (alongside the hotel’s regular private security), watching the ex-pats come and go. I wondered if every loitering car had a trunk full of explosives. I usually just buy a day or two’s worth of food at a time, but today I stocked up on as much as I could carry — if everything goes to hell, at least we’ll be well-fed for the first week.

I’m touched by the number of friends and colleagues who’ve gotten in touch over the last 24 hours to ask if I’m okay, wish me well, and tell me to stay safe. I’m not going to lie that I’m unsettled by what’s happening here, but the fact remains that I am incredibly fortunate: if things get worse, either the Aga Khan Foundation or the Canadian government will get me up-on-outta-here in a hurry. I can’t say the same for the millions of Kenyans who call this country home. I hope for their sakes — and selfishly for mine, as I really don’t want to leave this otherwise fantastic city — that it doesn’t come to that.

I especially feel for the Somalis living in Kenya (and abroad) who have nothing to do with al-Shabaab but get lumped into the same camp. No doubt they’ll be taking the brunt of some Kenyans’ anger over the coming weeks.

the I&M building, one of Nairobi's tallest skyscrapers

Aside from the regular warnings I receive from the Canadian government, Nation Media has started sending “Security Bulletins” — complete with emergency numbers and evacuation procedures. I’ve already stored the numbers of multiple private ambulance companies in my phone, as well as the emergency response number for the Red Cross (1199, if any Kenyans are reading). Other than that, there’s nothing I can really do, aside from avoiding crowded areas, following my instincts, and hoping for the best.

Being in a situation like this changes your perspective. My biggest complaint about life here used to be pollution and traffic, but yesterday I found myself flipping through my medical insurance policy to find out what kind of coverage I have if my legs get blown off by a terrorist. Sirens are no longer background traffic noise — my mind immediately jumps to grenades, carnage and debris.

When I accepted this contract, I weighed the risks and benefits… and in terms of personal safety, I wasn’t too concerned. Nairobi is known for being a crime-ridden city — but that means robberies and car-jackings, which are unpleasant but don’t usually end in death or mortal injury. There are diseases too, but that’s more of a risk outside Nairobi. There’s no malaria in the city, and there’s good sanitation in the areas where ex-pats live… plus some of the best hospitals on the continent. So, when I told people I was moving to Kenya, I was overly flippant in response to widened eyes and is-that-safe-be-careful. I never imagined that the city would become a war zone. Two low-casualty grenade attacks are not on the same level as the devastation and horrors of places like Somalia and Afghanistan, but things are definitely not heading in a peaceful direction here. Even the Amurrrrrrcahns are admitting they may get involved (in fact, I would be surprised if they’re not already on the hunt).

In the meantime, I’ll be here on my balcony filing stories with a mug of tea and a watchful eye on Nairobi’s skyline. I may be in more danger than friends and family back home, but when you take a good hard look at the grand scheme of global poverty, violence, rape, fear, and torture, I’m still incredibly fortunate. I just have to hope that luck holds.