Entebbe to Nairobi, Kenya, Onward to Garissa
November 19, 2007 — Garissa, Kenya
Flew from Entebbe to Nairobi at night. From the second we landed, I was blown away by Nairobi, not at all what I expected. Evidently the reputation of "Nairobbery" as being the most dangerous city in Africa is no longer true. Driving though Nairobi felt like driving from the San Jose airport or someplace in California. Car dealerships and modern office parks everywhere. The air feels similar, temperate and often cloudy. We're staying in Westlands, which I gather is the nice part of Nairobi, so maybe our experience is biased, but still. Our room at the Jacaranda Hotel was nice but not in a colonial obnoxious way, just a comfortable hotel that you might find in the states (except for the added fear of malaria coming with those mosquito bites).
The next morning when we went to the ICRAF complex to meet Dr. B. I couldn't get over again, how much it reminded me of an office park in San Diego or something... until a troupe of monkeys came streaming out of the trees! Dr. B laughed when I got giddy over the monkeys and said they live with them. It would be like somebody coming to New York and being awestruck that there are pigeons or rats. We drove out of Nairobi in an old Landcruiser and stopped at a modern grocery store, just like we were off on a roadtrip in the states. We drove through this neighborhood where all the embassies and UN stuff is—unbelievable houses, with flower vendors on the corners, lots of nurseries, everyone driving nice cars, etc. Not the Hollywood Hills, but not far from it.
Where we are going, Garissa, is definitely not a tourist destination. It's way out in Eastern Kenya towards the border with Somalia, the one region that is not even covered in our Lonely Planet guide. It's about a 4 or 5 hour drive from Nairobi. The vegetation thinned out and things got drier and drier until there was nothing but scrubby Acacia and trees with really fat trunks (I think they are baobab trees, but I don't have google to verify).
Lots of camels, donkeys, goats and cattle on the road. Not a lot of "wild" life, the occasional digidig and one random baboon that crossed our path. Going eastward, it gets predominantly Muslim. That roadside was peppered with nomadic encampments of these hemispheric huts made of woven branches, and covered with plastic tarps since it was rainy season.
We arrived in Garissa and it started to pour. It smelled strangely briney while it was raining, like being near a dirty ocean. Afterwards, there were flies and weird beetles and bugs everywhere, and more unidentifiable smells. Never have I seen so many bugs. We had dinner with Dr. B and ran into some other Kenyan NGO workers. The number of educated Kenyans is astounding. They have very high literacy here and many Kenyans go on to get higher degrees. Dr. B was telling us that when he posts a job, even if it is a post in a small rural place like Garissa, he'll get hundreds of resumes from very qualified people with advanced degrees. Education is not a problem here. They know their shit. The main problem in the village we are visiting tomorrow is food diversity. They essentially live off camel's milk and meat. Nothing grows out here. There are other problems of course, they still perform genital mutilation on women, and fertility is very high. We'll find out more tomorrow...
In Purgatory with Marabou Storks Reading Ngugi Wa Thiong'o
November 19, 2007 — Garissa, Kenya
... or not. Our plans were foiled. We were going to go to Dertu today, but with the rains yesterday the road is impassable. Or at least we were advised to not even try. Dertu is a sort of sedentary village for the otherwise nomadic Somali pastorals that live in the region. It is a 110 kilometer drive from Garissa on a rough dirt road, on a good day. Some people that tried the drive a few days ago took 24 hours to get there. We were willing to risk it and camp out if need be, but evidently there are many bandits and rebels along the way so we were advised not to (we don't have the armed escorts that others bring). However, if it doesn't rain too hard today, we will try to get there tomorrow.
So here we are stuck in smelly and bug-infested Garissa for the day. Jess is at the office meeting with people, and I went there briefly to upload the last posting and download my email. Then I walked around this ramshackle town, but there is not much to see except the dinosauric marabou storks hovering and roosting everywhere, making it rather sinister, like Spy vs. Spy pterodactyls. Evidently they have acidic digestive juices that enable them to eat large bones and even metal. They are like brooding flying goats, with these obscene gullets hanging off their chins that look like tumorous testicles. The most grotesque creature I have ever seen.
In the afternoon, I walked down to the muddy Tana River.
Pterodactyl storks roosting everywhere. I'd heard sometimes you can see hippos and crocodiles in the river, but I couldn't spot anything besides lot of swirling mud, like a thick chocolate milkshake. Brother Markus would be in his element.
Spent the rest of the day reading Matigari by Ngugi wa Thiong'o. It's about this fablesque hero, Matigari, who wanders Kenya seeking truth and justice. Kind of like the guy in Kung Fu, though he wears a "belt of peace" (at least in the beginning until he says fuck it, and whips out his AK47). It's a political novel for sure, very Orwellian, though without much metaphor—it's served straight up. The main message of the book, that "the products of toil should go to those who toil," is stated on every page, if in parable. It also carries an underlying biblical tone, with parallels to Jesus. It is a rebel song for the masses, and I guess when it was released people believed that this Matigari fellow actually existed, prompting the Kenyan government to ban the book. It is in fact based on an oral Kenyan folk story where a man is searching for a cure for an illness, but in Matigari he seeks truth and justice.
Like a fable, the writing's sole purpose is to deliver his message. There's not much flair or beating around the bush. It's spelled out, driven by driving home a political message, which is definitely socialist and inciteful. It's a book, like Animal Farm, that carries an important message but is easily read—that is for the masses.
Another message he states throughout the book is that, "too much fear breeds misery in the land." I understand what these words mean, but I can't fully grasp what he means by them. I can understand how too much greed can bring misery in the land, but I don't understand how fear can. Maybe that is something I will learn being here. Everything here, and in the book seems to be mired in bureacracy. In the end he reaches the Minister of Truth and Justice, after getting past the various Provinical Commissioners. The same pecking order that exists in the health world that Jess works in. Dr. B was telling us that it's harder to reach the top of this chain of command than in other African countries, like Rwanda where you can evidently waltz into the office of the minister of health who works elbow to elbow with those below him.
When I was finished, I gave the book to our driver K, who is a funny guy. For some reason he reminds me of a black Adam Clayton Jr. Pensive and meticulous, qualities you want in a driver. In his downtime he said he read every newspaper and magazine he could get his hands on in Garissa and needs more to read, so I gave him Matigari. A strange thing about Africa, that I've had happen to me in Indonesia is that men hold hands a lot, so if you're walking along with another guy, they might just start holding your hand, which is kind of funny at first. You don't see men and women holding hands much, just men and men, or women and women.
Another thing I've decided is that I really don't like goat meat. And they eat a lot of it here, so I'm kind of screwed.
Hopefully tomorrow we will actually make it to Dertu...
posted 2007 Derek White