Monday, June 11, 2012

Tumefika Kenya


Pole sana for the long delay dear readers and karibuni to our blog at last! A combination of pay per MB internet, unreliable/unavailable electricity, and a packed scheduled has kept us away for too long but we are here and ready to start chronicling our adventures of the past five weeks for you. I am writing to you now from our new place of residence, a hostel in the town of Mbale, the headquarters of Vihiga County, Western Kenya.


Hostel is a loose term to describe our situation here. We are living in a room on the second floor of a relatively tall building (3 stories is quite tall by rural Kenyan standards) that also houses a bank and a bakery below us.  Sadly, although the bakery wafts up delicious smells that sometimes overwhelm the scent of the latrines below our window, their outputs are surprisingly tasteless. Never trust a Kenyan cream puff. It is neither creamy nor puffy. We have not ventured to try the curiously named “American doughnut” nor “pizza” based on our previous disappointments. But they do squeeze a mean fruit juice.

Tonight is an unusually warm and usually loud night. Although the warmth may have something to do with the end of the rainy season. We had a terrific lightning storm earlier tonight that knocked out our power (but what doesn't, really?) and had me seriously confused for a bit.

Our old room at the Ehaji's house in the village
The lightning strikes were so bright and regular I thought it was a nuclear attack or the the end of the world until it started raining. And now the usual Mbale night noises are coming back: the sound of mosquitoes whining (hopefully outside of our net), semi-domesticated dogs howling from nearby, the occasional car or motorbike bouncing over potholes and tonight what sounds like-and might be-somebody dragging a rickety wheelbarrow full of rusted cans up and down the road outside our window. Road is also a bit of a misnomer since the main drag in Mbale is a wide dirt path with more potholes than surface but somehow the local piki piki (motorbike) drivers seem to manage remarkably well and at impressive speeds.

It feels too hot to sleep under our mosquito net right now which is part of the reason I am up writing tonight. If all our friends didn’t seem to be coming down with malaria lately I would consider sleeping outside of the net.


We are not entirely sure that everyone who says they are is sick with malaria. It seems to be a catchall term for illness in this area. Which is pretty understandable given the high rates of infection and the fact that visiting NGOs probably focus much of their energies on malaria education. But all the same, I think sometimes people are probably sick with other things. It's hard to know. 

I am looking forward to the real start of the dry season when I hope there will be fewer mosquitoes and friends getting ill. We heard tonight that when the bushes (i.e. corn) are cut down soon, the mosquitoes will go away, too. We’re not sure if that’s because of the lack of rain or lack of places for the mosquitoes to hide but it sounds good. Except that it will be strange to look across the barren, brown fields once all the corn (they call it maize or mahindi) is cut down.

We live a few km from the Equater. Sadly there is no dotted line.


We’ve become completely accustomed to the ubiquitous maize fields all around us. In some places you could just imagine you were somewhere in the heartlands of America…at least in the other parts of Western Kenya where shambas (homesteads or farms) are large. Here in Maragoli, the farmsteads are quite small and usually include some beans or Napier grass or tea or banana trees planted along with the corn.  But more on matters of crops later.

It is a bit strange to be in a place where the weather is so predictable, at least during the rainy season: cool cloudy mornings, warm clear afternoons, a brief hot period and then rain in the afternoon and evening. Despite what I said about the heat tonight, this area is actually quite nice most of the time, probably averaging in the mid-70s every day.

And it is so lush and green.  If you don’t mind the fact that most everything growing here is cultivated or weed.  There are not really any wild, indigenous plants. Every square inch of land in this area of Kenya is planted with crops, grazed down to stubble by dairy cows or goats, or used for a dirt road. But the overwhelming appearance is still breathtaking, especially if you go riding on a motorbike through the hills around sunset when the smoke comes pouring out of everyone’s tin sheeted or thatched roofs and the air is cool and you can see enormous round stones perched on the hillsides. 

Jackson and Jacob walk home through the village
There is something about the smells in the evening, too. The burning of the eucalyptus wood for cooking fires and the evening breeze makes a wonderful spicy scent-much better than the daytime smells of cypress, grass, and animal dung. But enough smells; you want to know all the juicy and exciting details of living in rural Kenya!


Sad to say, life here is much like life everywhere else in many ways. Mostly people worry about what they are going to eat today, hope their kids are doing well in school, and complain about the same things as back home: politicians, weather, and how darn expensive gas is. Then again, some things are very different. The ladies get caught eating houses, grown men hold hands, and children do what they’re told…

Not to mention a few of the comforts of home are missing: indoor plumbing and clean water, electricity, e-mail (for most people), employment, window screens, books, grocery stores that stock fresh food, public transportation and sanitation, paved roads (for the most part) just to name a few.

Decorating the teachers' office building with fresh flowers for Education Day

The hostel that we are staying in, unlike our previous home in the village, does have piped water and electricity, although both are inconsistent. We boil our water and cook our food on a tiny gas burner, which has forced us to be creative about cooking. The nights we cook, it takes several hours to eke out a meal but we usually end up with something fairly palatable. I have not yet mastered the art of making soft Kenyan chapati (thin fried breads) on our gas cooker nor have I –truth be told- even attempted the staple food of ugali yet. I have heard the best way to test your ugali is to keep throwing small pieces against the wall until it sticks, which might be an improvement on our current wall decor (mold). 


Some foreigners have described ugali as a paste-like or playdough-like mixture of cornmeal and maize. They must be eating some different ugali from ours here in Vihiga. The kind we are served is more like a firm brick of coarse, mildly flavored cornmeal. But it does grow on you. By the time we leave I may very well feel, like any good Kenyan, that a meal without ugali is like a cheque without a signature.


There are some great sayings here. Though I don’t understand enough Kiswahili yet to appreciate most of them, I imagine. My favorite insult translates to “your girlfriend is so skinny that when she eats a peanut she looks pregnant”. Kenyans are wonderfully appreciative of curves. I have twice been complimented on my attractively sizeable calf muscles. That’s right. A good-looking woman has to make a bit of noise when she walks so that when you bring her home to your mama and aunties they won’t be worried she’ll collapse on the way to the well. Maybe the style is a bit different in Nairobi where there are no wells to be had…but I think there’s a lot to appreciate about rural Kenyan culture. Or perhaps I should say Luhya culture since we are living in a predominantly Luhya area.

The Gisambai Primary Class 7 boys prepare for their dance at Education Day

Right now I feel like my Kiswahili (the prefix for languages in Swahili is ‘ki’) is halfway decent for the brief amount of time we have been here. But I can still only manage a few greetings and a very short introduction in the local language, Kimaragoli. There are a number of reasons why I think my “mother tongue” is progressing so poorly. For one thing, the family we lived with for the first month rarely spoke in Kimaragoli and all of our early Kiswahili phrases (Kula Eat! Shika Take it! Shuka Get down from there!) were learned from Jackson and Evelyn and their kids. Second of all, there are no resources to learn Kimaragoli. Signs are written in English or Kiswahili, as are textbooks. And we have only seen one, rather esoteric looking book in Kimaragoli so far.

And, the truth is, I am reluctant to put too much effort into learning the language since I know that when I travel a few kilometers in any direction, the native language will have changed. Sure, all the Luhya languages are mostly intelligible to native speakers but there are a lot of differences, too. But the trouble is that it makes people so darned happy when one of us wazungu attempts to speak in mother tongue.  I get thunderous applause when I address old farmer ladies in a few words of Kimaragoli at meetings and peoples’ faces positively light up when you greet them with a simple vuche or ovendi? (‘Morning, how are you?). I feel a bit like I am perpetuating some post-colonial expectation when I insist on studying Kiswahili instead of mother tongue, too. But maybe it can’t be helped.

Some girls running the hurdles at District Sports Day


Whatever language you attempt to speak or not here in Kenya, just don’t forget to greet people. If you haven’t shaken at least fifty hands in a day, you must have been hiding under a rock. Kenyans are warm and adamant greeters. And it is nice. Every interaction begins with a handshake and a greeting and an inquiry into one’s day, regardless of whether one has met every day for the past week or even earlier in the same day.

And if you don’t stop and visit somebody’s home after you have been invited, well shame on you. In fact, if you plan to be anywhere on time in the village, you had better add in a couple extra hours to stop and greet people and come in for a drink and some cooked bananas or mangoes or avocadoes or beans and rice or maandazi (Kenyan doughnut equivalent) or all of the above.

But not to worry. Kenyan time operates differently than time in the US. We still haven’t quite figured it out. Sometimes things only start a half an hour or so late, sometimes three hours, sometimes weeks. And distances are not measured in kilometers but in the cost of public transportation required to reach a place. Which is often dependent on one’s haggling abilities anyway. Safe to say, it best to greet everyone on your way and worry less about getting there on time.


Speaking of which, this little note is almost five pages and I have not even gotten to the parts about what we have been doing all this time-working at the local schools, volunteering with my hero Dr. Ruth Oniang’o and ROP, planning poultry projects, starting a children’s library, visiting our wonderful friends in Kisumu, getting bitten by caterpillars and more. But I think all that will have to wait for our next installment since it is getting very late and we have to be up early in the morning to meet our young friend Eugene and buy roofing materials.

There is much more to come…


Some of our neighborhood friends in the village from top left to bottom right: Purity, Martyn, Willy, Brevin, Angela, Scholastica, Mayline, and Baby Lucky

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