Thursday, September 25, 2008

So apparently my last entries have been kind of extremely negative, which implies that I’m hating it here, which I would like to correct. I am not hating it here, I’m not even disliking it here. I just feel that liking and disliking things at this point isn’t even really the issue, and so I can’t say that I’m loving it here either. I’m loving this experience, overall, I think, but do I love Nairobi, do I think it’s the greatest place on earth? No, of course not. That is not to say that there aren’t some crazy awesome things that happen here, but on the whole this city is basically nuts. But I didn’t expect to fall in love with Nairobi, at least not within the first month of being here. I think you can come to love a place like this, despite all of its faults, but the fact that it is the faults that stand out first to you makes it hard to have a romantic vision. I love that people are so kind here, no matter how stupid you look. I love that a nice Indian mad bought some stuff at the store for me, saying only that some day I would meet him again and do something nice for him. I love that everyone from the rich elite to the poorest of the poor have an intense pride in where they live, and where they are going. I love that this city exists for Kenyans, not for tourists, and that everyone is here to live their life and just get on with it. I love that American chains are virtually non existent here, and that I won’t see a starbucks cup for the next three and a half months.

I don’t love Nairobi per se. The fact that I can’t walk outside at night, and can’t get away from the smell of burning trash, and have to throw away aluminum cans for the first time in probably my life, and get hit in the legs by beggars just because I’m white and won’t give them money makes love at first sight hard. But I didn’t expect it to be easy, and I didn’t expect this to be Europe. All things considered, I’m still in fucking Africa, and despite the fact that I’m not eating bread at a street cafĂ©, or dressing up for the horse races or going to wine tastings at the vineyards, I’m in the birthplace of man. I’m a true minority for the first and probably last time in my life, and I’m seeing humanity in a way that no one who hasn’t been to Africa can really understand. And really, that’s what being abroad is about, not loving every moment of it. Hating some moments of it is ok too, especially when you’re observing and participating in (somewhat) a life that is hard in pretty much every way conceivable. So if this journal is sometimes negative, it’s just what is on my mind while I write. I don’t hate my life, so don’t worry.

In other news, I did get to be in the same room as Rialo Odinga, the Prime Minister of Kenya, as part of my internship the other day. Not that I had anything to do with it, but we went to this housing site that the government is building to try to upgrade Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, and he was there to make a goofy speech and look at the site. He just made a politician speech and smiled and left, but it was still pretty cool. Very different than American politics. First of all, he just came with a couple security guards and they stayed on the side, not really doing much, while this horde of people, mostly residents of Kibera, surged around him cheering and yelling. No one like that would ever be allowed within 500 yards of the President of the United States. It was kind of nuts. But cool.

We’re going to Masai Mara this weekend, which is the famous game preserve in Kenya. We’re only going for three days, but really how much animaling can you do before you get tired of it. It’s during the migration period of the wildabeasts, which is apparently something amazing to see, as hundreds of thousands of them migrate across Kenya at this time of year. So hopefully we can see some cool things. Either way, it will be an excuse to get out of Nairobi, which will be really nice. I’m getting a little claustrophobic, being in the city 24/7. I’m seriously glad that we have a quiet, secluded kind of apartment building that we can retreat into, when the bustle and loudness of the city starts to get to you. After spending hours just trying to get from once place to another, it’s nice to just be able to walk into a gated, relatively quiet environment and just relax on the couch. I’m pretty admiring of people who do homestays in places like this. While it would add a lot to your experience, and in some ways I think it would be a lot cooler in the end, I think this month would have been exceedingly harder had I been required to come home to another unfamiliar, kind of stressful environment. Because no matter how nice a family is, interacting with adults that are very culturally different and you really want to impress and not offend in any way is just tiring, especially when you’re already completely overwhelmed by your environment as it is. It must be really hard.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

I can't be bothered to edit this Sep 2-9

We started classes today, which was kind of a complete disaster, in all honesty. I have faith that this will all get better, and it will all work itself out in the end, but today was extremely overwhelming. I basically was out for nearly 10 hours, and had one hour of class in which we went over the syllabus. It was kind of a complete waste of my life. Transportation is such a mess. The USIU bus was late, because apparently the bus broke down or something. So I waited in town for over an hour for the bus. Then when I got to school, my first professor straight up didn’t show up, so the class just left after 40 minutes or so. So I sat around for another hour and a half before my second class. Which seems like it will be ok. Some review of some basic envs stuff, but also some more econ stuff which actually looks interesting. I found it rather hard to understand people, they have such thick accents, which I wasn’t expecting for some reason. I should have been, but I just wasn’t. My professor was pretty understandable though, so that was good. It was a really strange class environment though. For having such a culture of respect of elders, the students were surprisingly rude to our professor. She seemed used to it, but they just up and told her that her weighting of assignments was unacceptable and she needed to change it. In the US, that would be completely out of line in every way. If the professor says that the four quizzes are worth 20% then they are, no questions asked. My whole class basically commented and criticized her choices. It was strange.
The commute home was even more of a disaster. My class gets out pretty late, so I didn’t get into town until about ten after six. Then I got lost trying to find the matatu stage back to Westlands. Fortunately this nice man helped me out and told me where to go and I got on. But the matatu took this crazy route trying to get around the traffic jam, just called the Jam here, and I got confused. So I thought that they said it was my stop when it wasn’t so I got off and had no idea where I was and by that time it was dark and seven o’clock. I fortunately found some nice security guards who called a cab for me, though he charged me $300 shillings just to get back to Njema Court. And on top of that just as we were going up the road home, his car stalled…on a hill, so we rolled backwards for a while, as he tried to get his car to start, which it wouldn’t for three or four minutes. Finally, I got home at 7:30. I finished my class at 4:30. My commute was four hours long! I had one hour of class and eight and half of transportation. Which was really stressful as well as being annoying. The USIU part, and really the whole commute in was fine. I got on the first matatu just fine and made it to Givangi Gardens, where we get picked up. But the trek home was seriously horrible. I was just really nervous the whole time. Not knowing how to get home, and it getting dark, and then getting off at some place in the middle of Westlands, where all the shops were closed and I had no idea how to get home. I came home and cried. It wasn’t the worst thing ever, it all ended up ok, I am home and I made it through the day which is all that really matters. And next time I will know more about how to get places, and hopefully get less lost. That way I can walk home instead of having to take a five or six dollar cab ride. It was nonetheless, a really stressful experience. I’m looking forward to being more comfortable with my surroundings.

We visited five of the internship sites today. They all seem pretty interesting. I think I’m going to have a hard time deciding where my top choices are going to be. There are so many cool programs out there that I’d love to learn about and help out with, but I can only do one of them. We went to this orphanage that was seriously the cutest thing I have ever seen. There were so many small children. It was strange though, apparently they are all Muslim, which I guess isn’t really that surprising seeing they were in Eastleigh, a very Muslim part of Nairobi, I just didn’t expect it. We were visiting during Ramadan, so they were fasting, except for the children under ten apparently, but the guy showing us around made it seem like absolutely everyone in the orphanage over ten was required to fast. Definitely different than an American orphanage.
Eastleigh is definitely a very different place. Apparently it is made up of predominantly Somali immigrants, and is like the hub of blackmarket trade in drugs and guns. Cheerful I know. Just to add some harsh reality to the day, Chrissie, one of the girls in the program, had a necklace she was wearing (admittedly something we were told not to do) stolen, ripped straight off her neck as she walked down the street. It was kind of chilling. We had been told that pickpockets were everywhere, especially in places like Eastleigh, but experiencing it was another matter. I was walking right behind here, and I didn’t even notice anything until she stopped and said someone stole her necklace. Which brings up another tidbit of information we learned from orientation. Apparently, due to the complete lack of police follow up in claims of theft, the people are really fed up with petty thieves. So when someone yells thief in a crowded area, people tend to take matters into their own hands and attack the thief. So if someone steals your crappy watch and you yell thief, in can lead to someone dying, people going into a frenzy and even rioting. All over a stupid watch. What a crazy situation.

Then today we went to probably the worst play I have ever seen in my entire life. It was supposed to be a comedy about the student strikes that apparently happen here a lot, but it was one of the most incomprehensible, unfunny things I have ever seen. A little bit of it was that the accents made the whole thing really hard to understand, but for the most part, things just had no order to them, or were just not funny. For instance, there was basically a rape/harassment scene between a student and teacher, that I guess was just to indicate the corruption in the school scene, but ended with a joke and people laughed…it was seriously not funny at all, this poor girl got molested, how could that possibly be funny, at all? And then it was never mentioned again, and apparently had not point in the plot progression at all. Quickly following that, there was a long conversation between a teacher and the head cook about how the teacher’s cousin had once had him look through a key hole at someone’s wife masturbating with a banana, and how awesome and cool it was…again with little purpose to the supposed plot, which really in the end didn’t exist at all. It was seriously horrible. If there had been an intermission, which by the way there wasn’t in this two hour play, I would have been sorely tempted to leave. It was that bad.

I have never experienced such intense traffic in my entire life. It rained yesterday pretty hard, and we were stuck in traffic for like an hour and I thought it was bad, but nothing compared to today. Apparently rain just completely incapacitates the entire city, it is nuts. Lynsey, our program director, says that a big part of it is that people who don’t normally drive all bring out their cars when it starts to rain, and in a city with roads already filled to the breaking point during rush hour, this creates traffic jams. And then people aren’t smart about it and block intersections due to the complete lack of traffic lights or stop signs or anything, and you get pretty much complete city-wide gridlock. We had our first Kiswahili class today, and fortunately we walked there, or else we probably wouldn’t have made it at all. It took Lynsey two hours to get, literally, a grand total of seven or eight blocks. I’ve never seen anything like it, just due to a rain storm that wasn’t even that torrential. It rained hard for about half an hour, and it was a lot of water, but nothing so large that one would think it would be the sole cause of complete shutdown. It was just complete craziness. Other than that Kiswahili seems like it’s going to be pretty cool. I’m excited to have a class that is going to be challenging, and that I’ll be able to use in everyday life. I’m always pretty accepting when I hear that classes are going to be a breeze but it always ends up pissing me off more than I anticipate. You’d think I would have learned by now that nothing irritates me more that pointless wastes of my time, but somehow I didn’t expect it from university classes, despite the warning. Not that it’s all bad, and they could still get better, but it’s also just the whole…learning environment, as goofy as that sounds. It seems like a small detail, but I think it all pretty much boils down to the fact that on the whole, students seem to be fairly disrespectful to both the professor and the idea of education in the first place. People are outwardly rude, questioning the professor’s authority, talking back, constantly whining to be let out early, to receive special treatment, to not have to do the minuscule, insignificant amount of work required beyond just showing up to class. I feel like I’m a freshman in high school again, and all the kids who are going to drop out by the end haven’t yet, and you have to deal with them all the time. It’s aggravating.
The commute is getting a lot better. Now that I’m used to where things are, and I’m more confident about riding matatus I actually enjoy being by myself in the city. You’re much less of an eyesore, when there’s only one of you, even when compared to two. When it’s just me getting on, the drivers don’t even really look twice at you, which is a nice change. I think I’m also just getting used to the staring, and I notice it less as the days go by.

Monday, September 1, 2008

First week

So I really want to get into the habit of writing about things, because if I don’t, I know that I will regret it. I have now been here almost an entire week, and yet somehow it seems like I’ve been here a lot longer. This is pretty much the first time that we’ve had any time to just sit and adjust, which has been kind of stressful. But probably good. The city is absolutely enormous; it just goes on and on and on. But it isn’t the same as a western city, in that people are growing corn in the medians of the highways, and there are these strange pockets of extreme poverty packed in with the secure compounds and mansions. It’s really strange to be living in this nice, furnished, secure apartment that is large and spacious that has three bedrooms and four people, and where people clean and do your dishes for you, and then to look out your bedroom window to see the two men who basically live across the wall of our apartments under a tree with some blankets. I really think they’re living there…permanently. This type of wealth disparity is apparent pretty much everywhere you go in Nairobi, and it’s pretty odd. Not that that kind of imbalance doesn’t exist in the US because clearly it does, but not on the same level.

USIU has a really beautiful campus, which is going to be a welcome change from the city, I think. Maybe the classes aren’t really up to snuff, but if for no other reason, I think it will give us all a quiet refuge other than the apartments that will break up the insanity of life in Nairobi. I really hope that these are good classes, even though the opinion seems to be otherwise. I’m interested to hear the Kenyan perspective on economics and resource management. They certainly have to think about it in a really different light. I’m actually really excited about classes and school actually starting again. I think that the last week has been so crazy because we’ve been pretty much all experience all the time, and we’ve been out and going and watching, with this onslaught of sensory information, and it’s been understandably kind of dizzying.

Orientation has just been exhausting. I knew that security was going to be an issue, but I guess I just hadn’t really thought it through. I have class until 5:10 pm twice a week and it’s going to be a mad dash to see if I can get home via public transportation before the sun goes down and it’s not safe for me to be on a Matatu (think insane African taxi-bus). If I’m late for some reason, I’ll have to take a cab because we’re not allowed to walk outside, anywhere, at night. The sun sets at like 6:30 here so anywhere you need to go after that must be done by cab. Which isn’t as big a deal here as cabs are only a few dollars, but that adds up in the end. I think we’ll end up doing all of our errands in the day time if we can and only using cabs to go out on weekends. Which really isn’t so different than my life at school, really I don’t walk too many places at night on weekdays, other than on campus, but the fact that I’m not allowed to due to safety is just really unnerving. It will take some getting used to. A lot of our discussion during orientation was about security in one way or another. What we as women need to know, what we as white people need to know, as foreigners, and just as people in Nairobi. How to use public transport safely, what to look out for, what to do and what not to do. I think they did a pretty good job of preparing us; the fear factor might have been laid on a little think at times, but I think it’s better to be a little too wary than not wary enough. I don’t think it scared anyone to the point of being incapacitated, so we’ll just all be extra careful until we have more of an understanding of how things really work.