Monday, April 26, 2010

The Western Kenya Safari (3): Tabaka and the Soapstone Quarry

Saturday in Kisii began with a nice breakfast at the Mash Park Hotel, where I was staying. Another look back into the days of colonialism and the attraction these places had for European travellers (and of course the expatriates, who came to visit places like this and liked it so much they just stayed).

Very curious about the name but didn't have a chance to ask anyone about it - or kept forgetting. I suppose there was a Mr. (or Ms.) "Mash" and a park somewhere nearby was named for that person, but it still sounds funny, doesn't it?

Mash Park Hotel.

It's a lovely old hotel, and as you can see from the photograph, it's quite grand in design. It's glory days are over, although the outside and the grounds are kept up. But it's really not up to snuff. As I have a son in the hospitality industry, I've learned to judge these things pretty carefully and the Mash Park, well, if you're travelling alone and you don't mind looking in the other direction once in a while, it's OK. But don't take your mother-in-law or your latest girlfriend there. Or boyfriend. It's kinda sleazy in the rooms.

But it was nice to look at, and very picturesque. And it was a place to sleep.

Enough editorializing. Let's get on with the day. The First Family of Nyanguru Village came to pick me up and we all went off for the day to visit the soapstone quarry at Tabaka (and, as Charles says, "it's just a name" and has nothing to do with tobacco). Surprising, since everything else is grown in the area, thanks to that wonderful weather I was mentioned last time. Bananas, rice, every kind of fruit and vegetable you can think of (except peaches - I can find boxed peach juice at the supermarkets but peaches are not for sale in Kenya, at least as far as I can determine). Odd that the Kenyan farmers have never tried raising tobacco.

Of course I took some PHOTOGRAPHS as I'm doing most of the time now. The camera is a great boon to my travel, and when I'm with the Masese children, there's never any need to worry about entertaining them. Each has become a real expert with Mr. Guy's camera.

We travelled by car on the famous (or infamous) Kenyan roads. There has been much progress on the paved roads connecting the cities but once you're off the main roads (of which there aren't very many), you are back on to the unpaved, red clay lumpy roads that bounce you all over the place. And with the rains, we're talking major, MAJOR red mud, all over shoes, trousers, and even - after you've taken a couple of falls - on your jacket, shirt, and even in your hair (don't ask).

But travel we did, bumpy and all. Not fast. Traffic moves very slowly on these roads, and when they are crowded, well, you just sit and wait. And thank your lucky stars that your driver is taking care of things.

When we got to Tabaka and started asking around, we were delighted with what we found. First of all, the town is almost totally given over to soapstone carving (the Kenyans are famous for it, and Kenyan soapstone figurines are a popular export - and of course the wonderful funny animal carvings make delightful gifts for grandchildren). There are people all over the place, sitting on their front porches and carving away. If you ask, some of them will let you sit with them and watch them work, but we didn't do too much of that, as we wanted to get to the quarry and visit the source.

Again, one is so impressed with the gorgeous countryside surrounding the place. The quarry isn't too big (there are others in the area, but they're not too close together, probably several miles apart), and of course the place has houses all around. I was delighted with the friendliness of the family "grandfather" who came to greet us, speaking beautiful English (I'm still a little surprised at how well so many people in Kenya speak English, and I don't mean to be patronizing - it is after all required in the school system and has been for decades). He greeted us warmly, turned us over to two of his sons to be our guides, and off we went.

I probably learned more about soapstone carving than I ever need to know, but we had a splendid afternoon of it. The day was beautiful, and the rains held off until we were on our way home.

And this mining out of the soapstone truly is manual labour, in every sense of the word, as you can see from the photographs and how hard the men are working.

After our visit, we wound our way back to the old man's house, where he dutifully brought out some splendid treasures to show us and from which I dutifully made my selection (but the grandchildren presents were purchased later, as we made our way back through the little town of Tabaka). We really enjoyed getting to know the family, and learning about how much work goes into mining the soapstone pieces from the quarry. And then the carving. It's so delicate and it is such a splendid skill. I really admire these artists for the lovely work they do.

And so back to Nyanguru Village for another evening of good food, many, many visits from many villagers, and good conversation. And if at any time the conversation flagged and I wanted to get it moving again, all I had to say was, "And what do you think of our President?" and the faces would light up, even from the villagers who speak little or no English. The Kenyans are so proud of Mr. Obama. And why not? His grandmother still loves in Kisumu and her house has been opened for visitors to "drop by" (which I definitely would have done, had I had time to fit in a visit!). I was shown her photograph and what a lovely, lovely lady she is. She must be so proud. But then, aren't we all?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Western Kenya Safari (2): Nyanguru Village - Welcome Guy

Anyone following these notes knows I'm very taken with the Kenyan people, and this safari provided a splendid  opportunity to really get to know my friends, and to learn more about how people live in this beautiful country.

My friend Charles invited me to Kisii for a visit, and to come to his house and visit his family who live in the compound. It was a wonderful experience, and I feel as if I have yet another new "family" (in that connection I was writing about a couple of weeks ago).

This was my first visit to an Africa village and to see something of village life, and it was a very enlightening and very pleasurable time for me. We arrived late in the afternoon, and the village school (we had to drive through the schoolyard to get to the house) was closed, but the children were playing football and many other games on the grounds, and they just couldn't believe it when they saw us drive up.

They all approached the car and as I got out, I was surrounded by little kids of all ages, all fascinated. In fact, many of the little ones just couldn't stop laughing at me, and they were fascinated to see a muzungu in their village. I guess to some of them I was something of a clown-like figure, because they just couldn't stop laughing.

During the course of my visit, in fact, I was told several times and by many different people that I was the first white man to ever visit Nyanguru Village, and I felt duly honored to be so singled out. We visited the house three times during the course of the week-end, and each time mobs of people descended on the house, all happy to see me and full of questions about my life in America. 

The photo above is of Charles's family, taken in the beautiful sunset time of the early evening (just to entice you to go to the album for this visit and see some more Nyanguru Village photos).

Many of the community speak English, and while the degree of proficiency varies (and many of the children - not yet proficient - were quiet and appeared to be shy, but they were just listening), we had plenty of conversation. It's country life, and these people live their lives with their own livestock, bringing water from the river (a long and rather tortuous climb, it looked to me), cooking their meals from what they grow, and it was all very basic and back-to-the-earth for this city dweller.

I was asked about New York and about where I live, and it soon became obvious that the concept of a big city with tall buildings was pretty remote to many of the people I met. We spoke about how I shop, and what I eat, and how I cook for myself (very strange that a man would make his own meals). They told me about the crops they grow and toured me about to see much of their livestock. One of their big crops is Napier Grass, and it was made clear that it is a very important part of their lives. Why? Because it is what they feed the cattle. In fact, I was asked several times by different visitors what I feed my cows, and I have to say the first time I was asked I was a little taken aback. It took me a while to figure it out.

The house is a lovely home, built by Charles. It's in several buildings, a big square room separated by a wall going almost to the roof, with the sitting/dining room in the front next to the entrance and the master bedroom next. A separate building houses the kitchen and two bedrooms for the children, and a third building houses Charles's aged parents (and, yes, at dusk the children help them round up the goats and the chickens and bring them into the parents' house for the night).

The house is made of timber with the cracks filled in with cow dung, and then the whole, inside and out, is covered over with mud, which dries to a hard, plaster-like finish. And to answer your question, the bathroom is a pit toilet, in its own building away from the houses, and there seems to be a separate shed-like building where there are some sort of showers and other washing gadgets, but I did not go there to explore. I didn't want to be rude.

Charles's wife Jane and aunts and neighbourhood ladies prepared wonderful meals for us, all the good things Charles has learned that I like (so he obviously prepped them) and we all ate sitting around the long coffee tables in the sitting room, using the long dining table as a sort of sideboard to hold all the things prepared for us to eat. I had brought loaves of bread and sugar and cooking oil and things like that, since that is the proper gift when visiting a Kenyan home, and it was very clear why they were appreciated, for the place was just always full of people, inside and out, and meals were shared (of course I also brought New York souvenirs - tea towels and potholders and lapel pins and the like but that was different - it s the "household" gifts - the food staples - that are most appreciated and customary).

We were blessed with so many good comments and conversations, and wonderful visits by many, many people, not just children. The adults wanted to know more about America, about President Obama (we had passed a home on the road that had been signpainted over the door "Senator Obama Estate"), and, curious to me, about my work for the United Nations. 

We were also blessed with a glorious sunset, since the compound is on top of a high hill, facing West (and apparently these sunsets are just part of the daily routine!). I tried to capture some of the colour in the pictures, and there is lots more about Charles's family and his home, too. As you look at the photos of this part of the country, with this post and with others, you can see that these houses and compounds rising up the hillsides is the common way of building for the Kenyan people in the hill country of Western Kenya.

I already knew before I arrived at Nyanguru Village that the Kenyans are very religious people. Most of the people in Nyanguru Village are Seventh Day Adventists, and when we arrived for Saturday night supper, people came to visit dressed in their church-going clothes, and all the young men in suits and neat shirts and ties. There were prayers, before the meals and whenever we would leave for the night (for Charles to take me back to the hotel). 

And even though I profess to being not very religious, I could not help but be touched by the devotion of these people to their God and their routine of bringing Him into their lives, not in any demanding or challenging way, but just as part of their lives. 
And when I had the opportunity, since we prayed before the evening ended, I told about how the Anglican service of Evensong and Evening Prayer was always one of my favorite services (still is) because it is so beautiful in thanking God for getting us through the day and asking for protection during the night. My Kisii friends understood immediately and loved hearing me speak about Evensong.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Western Kenya Safari (1): Kericho and the Tea Fields

The longer I am in this beautiful country, the more impressed I am with what a wonderful place it is. My driver Charles and I had planned a safari to Western Kenya for some time (since long before I went away on that massive journey to Europe and America and South America). We chose the site for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I wanted to go in a different direction from some of my earlier travels, and it seemed like a good idea to head off across the Great Rift Valley and see if I couldn't see a part of the country that was a little different.

And a second reason for the journey was to visit Charles's home and his family in Kisii. I had heard much about this lovely place, both from Charles and from other Kenyans I know in Nairobi, so my curiosity was piqued.

So that's what we did. With Charles's son Justin accompanying us, we took off early of a Friday morning for the long drive. But first we had to stop at the Sopa Resort just outside Lake Naivasha for a quick meeting with some of my U.N. colleagues - who were on retreat there and had me come by for a brief presentation, since it was on our way anyway.

And why not? Little did I know that our brief stop at the Sopa (I'll be staying at the Sopa Resort in Masai Mara, when I take that safari in mid-May) that it would be a preliminary of the rest of our journey, for the first thing we saw as I got out of the car were the monkeys! They were all over the place, so while I did my presentation, Charles and Justin took the camera and had some fun, with this first picture a delightful way to open the album.

After a long drive over the mountains and across the Great Rift Valley, we came to one of Charles's favorite places, the great tea plantations of Kericha, where we spent a long afternoon, enjoying the views and a nice leisurely luncheon at the famous old Tea Hotel (another taste of the grand old colonial days).

What most impressed me, of course, was the scenery. The photos are unloaded here, and as you can see, tea is everywhere. I had done a little research, as I was wondering about the weather conditions and it's easy to understand why the Kisii area is such a huge part of the Kenya agricultural economy. The sun shines - often quite hot - for most of the morning and into the late afternoon or early evening, and then the heavens open up, with wonderful, earth-soaking downpours. It really is quite spectacular, the weather in that part of the country (and yes, you have plenty of opportunities to get wet and often, pretty muddy as well, depending on where you have to walk!).

As for the tea, well, it's a mainstay of the economy and in fact Kericho is sort of built around the tea. There's no real "season" (as we reckon these things in the West), and the tea plants just grow, getting trimmed back to the ground every so often. The tea leaves must be harvested at a very particular time - usually I understand after the leaves have been maturing for 7 to 14 days - and it's an amazing spectacle to see all the workers out in the field, picking the leaves.

So we stayed for a while enjoying the scenery and then headed on towards Kericho and the Tea Hotel. The photographs don't lie: the grounds really do look like this, and the flowering trees and plants and, well, just everything about the place was just beautiful to see. (OK, the food was pretty ordinary but we weren't there for the food, were we?) And after we had our lunched, we strolled about the grounds for a while and that's when Justin pointed out that our day had been sort of complete. We had started out with the monkeys at Sopa Resort and now the back garden of the hotel was just full of them. I hope they can be seen clearly in the photo album (I think it's best seen as a slide show, but that's just my choice).

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Families, Weddings, and the Pleasures of Being Together

Families and the interactions within families have long been fascinating to me. Human relationships are so varied and so full of all those "ups-and-downs" we hear about in all the sermons, and yet as we go through life, we find the connections of family - whether genetically connected or not - bring us much pleasure and give us much to be thankful for.

Such ruminations are appropriate, I suppose, for someone who has traveled far - even building the visit into a work contract six months in advance - to participate in what can only be called a "family" event. In this case, the "family" is a marvelously extended family, going back some thirty or more years and bringing together people who - while not blood-related - think of themselves as very close, and think of each other often.

James Lafferty (above) and Guy St. Clair have known one another since James was about 11 months old. Our families were close, and over the years the bond between James and Guy has continued to flourish, as well as that between Guy and James's sister (Helen Lafferty Knudson) and with James's mother, Dellie Flanagan Johnson (shown here with James's son Julian leading the wedding procession). We've now been one big "family" for a long time, and we've delighted in the relationship, very comfortable with it. It's right up there alongside those other "families" we have, Guy with his sons and siblings and several family-like relationships with other groups, and James with his, and all stretching out over many years. 

So of course when James is getting married, his friend Guy is going to be at the wedding. And mightily honored to be asked to be part of the wedding, to do one of the readings. Could James and Anne have selected more beautiful readings than these two passages from Le Grande Meaulnes by Alain Fournier:

"Now and then my foot encounters a patch of fine sand. And in the silence I hear a bird – I imagine it to be a nightingale, but how can it be if they only sing at night? – a bird which repeats the same phrase over and over: the voice of the morning, a greeting  that comes down through the leaves, a charming invitation to roam through the alders. Invisible, persistent, it accompanies me on my promenade under a roof of foliage."       and 

"For the first time I too am on the path of adventure. For once it is not for shells left stranded by the tide that I am prospecting, with Monsieur Seurel close at hand, nor for specimens of orchis unknown to the schoolmaster; nor even, as so often in old Martin's field, for the deep but dried up spring protected by a grating and so overgrown with weeds that on each visit it took longer to find... I am looking for something still more mysterious: for the path you read about in books, the old lane choked with undergrowth whose entrance the weary prince could not discover. You'll only come upon it at some lost moment in the morning when you've long since forgotten that it will soon be eleven or twelve... Then, as you are awkwardly brushing aside a tangle of branches, your arms at the same time trying to protect your face, you suddenly catch a glimpse of a dark tunnel of green at the far end of which there is a tiny aperture of light."

    So it was a wonderful occasion, this journey that Andrew and I made from New York to Santa Cruz in March (additional photos are captured here). As I mentioned, because of this important family event I had been able to negotiate time away from the current project in Nairobi, although I did combine the travel with project work in Brussels, Geneva, New York, and - following the California visit - Rio de Janeiro.

    We had fun getting to know Anne Hopkins - James's beautiful bride better than we had known her before. We had met on several occasions and we knew and loved Anne long before the wedding, but to be with her and her family on this important occasion was a splendid treat for Andrew and me. And true to form, the lovely, funny vivacious woman was so composed that she was even able (as shown here) to maintain her composure as Mr. Guy read. I wonder if I would have been so composed and comfortable in her situation!

    The reception pleased us all. The music, the food, the dancing, the toasts, all prepared with great attention and great specificity to this particular occasion and this special couple. And Anne and James themselves did their part, and the results were so evident of much special thought and careful planning. Far too many special touches to try to list but those of us who cherish and delight in our books cannot resist recording our pleasure at the selections of books arranged amongst the table decorations. Every table had two or three wonderful titles, each of which - with books ranging from the Harvard Classics to children's books that had been Anne's and James's favorites - had special meaning for Anne and James and for many of the guests.

    And what a great party it was! As Andrew and I had come to know Anne's children as well as James's Julian, we enjoyed being the "older guys" with the young ones and, yes, there was plenty of romping about and laughing and chasing one another. We even achieved considerable success (as I had done with Charles's son in Kenya) in giving the boys full rein with the camera and they found themselves continually entertained both in the hotel where all the guests were staying and at the reception.

    And the "family" theme? No question about it, weddings are a splendid opportunity to become a big, loving family, even for people who are not related by blood. Some would perhaps call it simply "friendship" or "bonding" or "sharing" but I think there's more to it than that, something that perhaps I cannot even articulate as clearly as I want to. As Andrew and I got to know many of the many people who had come together for Anne and James, it became clear that we were, indeed, one big family. We were all loving the many conversations, interactions, joking, story-telling, and even professional networking (yes, some of us even exchanged contact information, since it seemed an appropriate thing to do as we shared stories about working and living in different parts of the world).  Memories were evoked - happy, sad, life-changing, and even (sometimes) silly memories, all heightening our pleasure and our delight in Anne and James and the fact that they had found one another.

    We are so grateful to James and Anne for bringing us all together and into their lives for this special time. Happy memories that will be with us forever. 

    Sunday, April 11, 2010

    Re-Entry (2) - Welcome Home to Nairobi

    Different times. A different focus.

    The last time I returned to Nairobi I was coming back after having been away only two weeks, and that after having been in Kenya for only a brief introductory two-weeks of living here. So that re-entry was not at all like this one. On 11 December 2009, I was returning to Nairobi after having been here for a very short time, and I was very unsettled about my life in Kenya.

    Not so on Easter Night. Now, having lived in Nairobi for four months, sharing a house with a beautiful and very kind couple, embraced by splendid friends, enthusiastically received by professional colleagues in an important assignment, volunteering with a new NGO that is going to have a serious and life-changing impact on the lives of many young Africans, I came back to Nairobi comfortable, relaxed about being here, and anxious to continue on with what I had been doing (and, sadly, well aware that this next phase of my time in Kenya is going to be limited).

    Not unexpectedly, the impressions are different this time. For one thing, I've learned to relax about the Kenyan - muzungu relationship. Being an American (or Westerner, for that matter) I was originally concerned about how I - as a white man - was to act and, especially, about how I would be perceived.

    I shouldn't have worried. This re-entry made it very clear that I'm now just another one of the people in Kenya. Yes, there are probably some folks (individuals, not ethnic groups or races) who might try to take advantage of or exploit differences. But for most of the people I've met in Kenya, there is already such a mix of races, tribes, ethnic groups, economic and professional classes, religions, and such that it would be a real effort to pursue any sort of prejudice based on that sort of thing. We're all just people - a mixed bag of people - and we all have our prejudices based on our up-bringing and our life experiences but we generally don't pre-judge simply because some looks different or is from a different community. So I no longer worried about being welcome back into my life in Kenya.

    And of course there is much I was anxious to get back to.

    Let's start with the food. I couldn't wait to start beginning my day again with my coffee, a banana, and a chapati, the wonderful flatbread I like so much. Such a simple breakfast and oh, so nutrituous! Eating a different cuisine, I had missed all the boiled vegetables, so fresh and so good (and probably the reason I lost so much weight over those four months - eating healthy fresh fruit and vegetables and walking between four and five miles a day back and forth to work). And I was really looking forward to having ugali, githeri, Kenyan-fried cabbage, and irio again. Even the nyama choma - the marinated grilled meat (which I don't eat often but when I do I really like it) was thought about from time to time in places like Geneva and San Francisco.

    Finally, as I think is pretty clear here, I was anxious to get back to the people I've come to care so much about. The Kenyans, and in particular the ones who have befriended me and make me feel so much at home, are extremely welcoming people and I am very comfortable with them. Whatever the next assignment is and wherever it takes me, I'm going to remember with much pleasure my friends in Kenya.

    Saturday, April 10, 2010

    Rio de Janeiro - Quick Impressions

    It is probably not very kind to describe one's impressions of Rio de Janeiro so soon after the awful disaster of the flooding of last week, especially if those impressions are not altogether positive.

    But I'll forge ahead and hope my friends won't think me callous if I share a few thoughts based on what was probably too brief a time in this fabled city.

    In connection with my current assignment with the United Nations Human Settlements Program (UN-HABITAT), I was asked to attend the World Urban Forum, a huge event held every second year and one of the most important gatherings of people affiliated with the entire larger subject of sustainable urbanization. My task is to work with UN-HABITAT's KM team to devise a knowledge strategy for the organization, and coming to this meeting fit right into my work. What better opportunity to drill deep than at such a gathering of world leaders, academics, donors, NGOs, and many other thousands of people who would be coming together in Rio to network about this important issue?

    And the work was superb, and since this is my personal blog, I won't go into detail about the excellence of the conference and the continuing high quality of the presentations, meetings, focus groups, knowledge networking opportunities, and all those other elements that lure us to professional conferences. It was a privilege to be amongst such dedicated and knowledgeable people - all willing to speak freely and frankly about the subject of sustainable urbanization - and the consultancy assignment was considerably enhanced by being able to meet with and interact with so many leaders in the field (a brief description is at the SMR blog and the official World Urban Forum site has much information about the conference). 

    Rio de Janeiro? Well, as I say, it is a fabled city, and certainly Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire have a lot to answer for, since for many folks "Flying Down to Rio" is their early introduction to the city. And wasn't there some sort of Rita Hayworth connection back when we were going to the movies to indulge our fantasies about exotic places?

    No matter.

    Rio's not like that now. For Mr. Guy, it was an extremely unusual business trip. For one thing, I had not reckoned on the heat. How all those business executives (and security guards) manage in their black suits all day long is a mystery to me. I showed up the first day in my usual management consultant's suit-and-tie and found myself immediately drenched to the skin. 

    After nearly fainting from the 40-degree heat (that's C - about 100 degrees F, I believe!) - and thank you Anonymous Security Guard for taking care of me and finding me some water) - I fortunately discovered that the UN-HABITAT stand was selling t-shirts and some of them fit me nicely, so I quickly became the agency's most enthusiastic t-shirt model....

    The conference venue was on the other side of the city from the Copacabana, the beach area, and while the delegates were housed in lovely resort hotels across the wide boulevard from the beach (which is - by anybody's standards - simply spectacular in its beauty), it was an unwise visitor who walked about outdoors. The combination of warnings about not walking about alone (even in the daytime hours) and the heat simply made it practical to limit one's hotel egress to the open door of the waiting taxi (bless the hotel
    staff for their excellent service in this regard).

    The journey to the conference venue took about 25-35 minutes, and it was interesting to observe the streets as you rode along. The city is obviously in the grips of a financial depression, and the millions of citizens living in the slums are testament to the concept that if something isn't done about the world's cities, society is going to be in a terrible fix, sooner rather than later.

    The signs are everywhere. Rio is not a clean city, and it is surprising after being in other large cities to see the extent of dirt, leftover construction materials, and falling-down construction sites and deserted structures just littering the place up. Graffiti is everywhere, simply everywhere, and to think about what's happening to the city as you ride along (admittedly in your air-conditioned taxi, safe from having to be part of the rough edges of city life) is to realize that if something is not done to reduce the inequality in urban society, it's just hard to tell what the future is going to be like.

    The distant conference venue was (despite the bleakness of other parts of the city) an example of how a major city is trying to do what it can. All along the harbor are these huge warehouse, left over I suppose from the great days of commercial shipping and probably dating - one would guess - from in the early part of the last century. Deserted for a long time, the warehouses are now part of Rio de Janeiro's campaign to "re-birth" itself and to that end, a massive effort has been put into turning the six long warehouses - stretched out along the harborside - into a world-class convention center. It's not there yet, but the signs are there, and given a few more years, a collection of innovative
    and enthusiastic architects and designers, and a few million (billion?) dollars, this could be one of the great conference venues of the world.

    So despite the heat and the sad prospect of what could be seen in other neighborhoods, the beauty of the harbor is readily apparent (and the harbor was the subject of the only photographs I was able to take, beyond some taken at the conference itself - plenty of other images of Rio de Janeiro are available particularly here). 

    The conference was hosted by the Brazilian government, and it was obvious the country's and the city's leaders were very pleased to be able to offer Brazilian hospitality to conference attendees, and we were all thankful to them - and to UN-HABITAT's conference planners - for doing such a fine job.