Tuesday, December 29

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: The Weekly Kid: Chepkopus

Chep-KO-poos (still an 's' sound, not 'z')

There are a lot of Chepkopuses at the center. This is the smallest of them.

Apparently the offer of my stories was not enough . That is unfortunate as I have nothing else to offer. Please, if you found yourself the beneficiary of a generous gift this past Christmas, consider sharing it with these children through a sponsorship. Thanks.

Monday, December 28

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Hell’s Gate adventures

There are two reasons for any traveler to make stop in Kenya. The first is the Coast, the warmer climes and slower paces of Mombasa, Malindi and Lamu. The second are the parks of the interior, the migrations across Maasai Mara, the flamingos of Lake Nakuru and so on and so forth.

Demetra and I have been sadly negligent in our pursuit of these more common destinations. For better in reasons in the case of the former. It takes fourteen hours, minimum, to drive to Mombasa, the point from which all other ports on interest on the Coast may be reached. Unless you're willing to pay for a flight. Which we aren't. In the case of the latter, we made effort to remedy it with a trip to Hell's Gate National Park and the neighboring Lake Naivasha following our adventures at Carnivore earlier this month. It would be remiss of me not to offer a proverbially tip of the hat to Amanda, a teammate from my days as a high-school cross-country runner, for suggesting this park for a visit.

Lake Naivasha? Kind of a disappointment. Granted, we stayed at the YMCA, a good distance down the road from the resorts which presumably have beaches and charter boats and a more developed coast line. Rather than the muddy, reedy shore we discovered after wandering across a sheep pasture, down some backroads and over a hippopotamus trench. Apparently, if you are interested in protecting yourself against hippopotamuses, all that is necessary is a trench about two feet wide and four feet deep with another two feet of embankment on the far side. Of course, this whole defense is predicated on the belief that hippopotamuses are too stupid to walk down the gravel road that the trench was unable to cut through. I'm still not quite sure whether the YMCA lady was screwing with us when she informed us about that particular landmark.

Hell's Gate? Better. Not quite containing that same bounty of fauna as Lake Nakuru, but that's kind of the point. If it had, then they probably wouldn't have let us go through on rented bikes. It was wonderful to just go through at our own pace, stop when some family of warthogs caught our eye and not worry about testing the patience of the driver who has undoubtedly seen these same sights for years on end and grown weary. To sit and watch a small herd of giraffes cross the road ahead and feel the ground shake when they start. To have all the time you could desire to try and take interesting pictures of cliff walls that rose straight out from the gentle hills that otherwise make up Hell's Gate. To actually be on a bike again after months off. That is some good stuff. We may not have made it to the geysers, the main attraction of the park so far as I know, but it was pretty good for what we did have. Perhaps the best part? The park is half the distance to Nairobi, ideal for small, future get-aways.

Of the greatest interest to me, though? The town just outside the park. The whole thing had to be owned by Sher Karuturi, local rose exporter. The social hall? Sher Karuturi Social Hall. The club? Sher Karuturi Club. The security protecting aforementioned greenhouse and club? Sher Karuturi Security? The football team? Sher Karuturi. The football stadium? Sher Karuturi Stadium. If you lived in that town, you either worked for Sher Karuturi or fed the people who did. Or rented bikes to the tourists.

Not that it seemed like a bad set-up for the locals. From how standardized the housing looked, I'd be willing to guess that Sher Karuturi built it for their employees. Looked a sight better than what I see daily in Githima. They had to have at least a few rooms in each home, and each had a TV antennae. And they did have the official social hall and club. I imagine visiting Sher Karuturi now would be something like slipping back to see Hershey, Pennsylvania, back around the turn of the century. Fascinating, really.

Tuesday, December 22

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Carnivore adventures

My proclivity toward vegetarianism along with those instances in which it is permissible to ignore that dietary restriction has been documented on this blog before. Now I add another circumstance to that list: when the establishment intended for the satisfaction of the gustatory impulse has been voted one of the world's fifty greatest restaurants.

Carnivore does have a vegetarian menu, but what's the point? The name is Carnivore. The meats are the motivation, the reason for being, the centerpiece, the raison d'etre, the alpha and the omega. You may as well go to a hockey game for the Sprite as forego the pleasures of the flesh at Carnivore.

Yes, the soup at the beginning was fennel and vegetable. And it was accompanied by some brown bread. And there was steamed rice and spinach on the bottom of the lazy susan every table was provided with, but we know they were really there to freshen the palate between courses of muscle taken from the usual and atypical suspects of mammals, birds and reptiles.

A certain sense of the theatrical accompanied this celebration of animal-based proteins. Waiting to be seated offers an unimpeded view of the roast pit. Its circumference was at least the equal to that of double bed, and the skewers were stacked eight high around it. The internals made externals of chickens and cows and pigs and turkeys and lambs and ostriches and crocodiles all roast slowly above one another, their juices dripping down until their internal temperatures are raised to a point deemed safe to eliminate all bacteria.

Neither does the sensational end with the meal itself. When it comes time to be served, the lacerated muscle is delivered straight to the tables by carvers arrayed in zebra print aprons and carrying literal swords. The blunted end is planted on the table and slices of roast lamb and beef and pork and turkey are sheared off before you and on to your plate. Alas, the good stuff cannot always be delivered with such style. Pork ribs and chicken wings and crocodile steaks are simply pushed off long skewers. Chicken livers and ostrich meatballs are even more disappointing. They are carried on a silver plate and deposited with tongs. It may have more grace, but made at the sacrifice of flamboyance, it is not worth it in Carnivore.

Anyway, it all tastes pretty good. The waiter took especial care in describing exactly which meats the masala curry (beef), fruit (pork), wild berry (ostrich and turkey), garlic (chicken), chili (any), mint (lamb) sauces are meant to accompany, but every dish was so richly seasoned that the toppings became irrelevant.

I could have definitely broken my vegetarian fast for inferior animal bits.

Monday, December 21

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: The Weekly Kid: Plilan


Whenever Demetra and I get around to casting our Lord of the Rings with the kids, Plilan is our goblin.

New deal. IHF is still in that dry spot with regard to sponsorships. It appears that my last appeal was not as effective as I had hoped. Therefore, I introduce an incentive. If you begin any child sponsorship, I will send you a copy of one of the short stories I am currently submitting to contests and for publication and whatnot. I have three, so if you want to see the complete Christopher Francis Heinrich oeuvre, you need to pick up three.

Should this actually excite you to the point of sponsoring, please let me know which child and the precise sponsorship through a comment on this post or an email or something. Though I have access to the active list of sponsorships, it has come to my attention that people whom I don't know read this blog. I wouldn't want to accidentally neglect you because I've never personally met you.

Wednesday, December 16

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: The kids and my camera

I may have these grandiose ideas of capturing the beauty of the commonplace through my photography, but the whole approach is kind of dependent on people being unaware of the camera. Or, at the very least, uninterested in it. I hate it when people pose and make faces. They look so much more interesting when they aren't self conscious.

The kids, however, disagree. If my camera is out, the kids badger me with “Me picture” or “One more.” If I train my lens on one, others are sure to come in and fight for position. So long as a part of them is in the frame, it's okay. Even just an arm is alright if they're rushing in. They are also particularly fond of trying their best to emulate whatever gangland signs they've seen on Kenya's MTV. They're rather bad at it, though, and it mostly turns into fingers splayed at odd angles

Observe this in action in the following movie:

By this point, I've just accepted that the kids will probably never miss the opportunity to be in a picture or mug for the camera and have done my best to take advantage of this. One of my favorite pictures from here is of the kids struggling to be in the frame, and I've also opted for more wide-angle shots that capture the entire milieu of poses and late comers running in. At least it's better than people flinching away


Monday, December 14

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: The Weekly Kid: Chembalow

Chem-BA-lau (like 'loud' with the 'd')

Overwrought MySpace picture or just plain spooky? I don't really know. I was just trying to bring that dark line under her eye into greater focus. No idea what it is. Normally I would guess it's a birthmark, but another boy at the center has the exact same thing. Odds against that have to be pretty strong. Someone suggested it's a scar, but it's just dark. Thoughts?

Here's the deal. IHF depends entirely upon donations from you and those like you to exist. All the money we have comes from your Orphan, TEP, Medical and Class sponsorships. No foundation underwrites us or is able to toss in a little extra when we hit a dry spot.

Now we've hit a dry spot. This is serious. The winter holidays are supposed to bring in more donors than any other part of the year, but we are losing them. Without this money, we may have to send children back to Pokot. Please, if you can at all, spare the $40-odd to keep a children here and fed. If you were at all considering giving me a Christmas gift, please pick up a sponsorship instead.


Friday, December 11

Considering David Foster Wallace's "Brief Interviews With Hideous Men"

I admit. I never heard of David Foster Wallace until his suicide November last year. Considering the accolades that followed, this was apparently a terrible oversight on my part. The next time I visited Auntie's I picked his second collection of short stories, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. It seemed like an easier introduction to the man's writings than his elephantine tome of a novel, Infinite Jest, and more up my alley than his two collections of essays and arguments, Consider the Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again.

I've had the book for nearly a year now and read it full through twice and am still not entirely sure how I feel about him. I respect him, sure. But do I like his work? That's a bit trickier. One of the review blurbs on the back calls him a "mad scientist of American literature" on par with Edgar Allen Poe. It's incredibly apt. The man experiments with the short story with the ruthlessness of Mengele, and as you might expect, the results are mixed. Sometimes he succeeds better than that kid in October Sky. Sometimes he manages to fail worse than my seventh grade science fair project investigating whether people think green spaghetti put through a blender tastes different than the more traditional stuff. "A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life," a piece of flash fiction falls in the former category. It bursts through the typical confines of prose and into poetry in its lyricism, and because it's only 70-odd words long, I'm going to reprint it here.

"When they were introduced, he made a witticism, hoping to be liked. She laughed extremely hard, hoping to be liked. Then each drove home alone, staring straight ahead, with the very same twist to their faces.

"The man who'd introduced them didn't' much like either of them, though he acted as if he did, anxious as he was to preserve good relations at all times. One never knew, after all, now did one now did one now did one."

Wow. "The Depressed Person" is similarly amazing. A friend once explained to me that part of Van Gogh's genius in "Sunflowers" was not just using the paint to simulate the plant's colors but to layer the paint so thick that it mimiced the very texture. Wallace writes the words so thick that to read the story is to wholly enter the state of the titular protagonist. I've never been depressed myself, but I have been sad, and I have never read anything that so perfectly captures the constant self-criticism, the fears of other's judgment, the chasing thoughts and recriminations. Then again, sometimes this fails, too. Consider "Wiggle Room," a piece published in The New Yorker just this past March. Wallace so perfectly captures the boredom of auditing that I couldn't finish the piece. I was too bored. I'm also a particular fan of "Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko," a wonderful and surprising story of the rise and fall of a TV producer and his youngest daughter in the 1980's cast in the style of Ovid. The wordplay and classical allusions are rich and mindblowing. Just try and identify everything going on in the title alone.

Then there are all the rest, the experiments which just kind of fizzle and annoy. "Datum Centurio" is a story told through three defintions of 'date' and examples of usage taken from Leckie & Webster's Connotationally Gender-Specific Lexicon of Contemporary Usage, published in 2096. And "Octet," actually a series of five pop quizzes, that begins by asking the reader which terminal drug addict in an alley behind the Commonwealth Aluminum Can Redemption Center on Massachusetts Avenue survives the harsh winter night and ends by asking the reader whether the whole conceit is successful. It does, however, include possibly the greatest first line in the history of English literature. "You are, unfortunately, a fiction writer." I still laugh when I read that.

I can't help the feeling that maybe if his editors were a little less indulgent and a little more willing to practice their craft, there would be more successes than failures in this collection. As varied as his approaches to fiction are, Wallace has some consistent idionsyncracies, his heavy use of footnotes probably the most famous. Mostly I'm indifferent to those. They're distracting but never too much so. There's also his obsession with the scatalogical. "Adult World" revolves around the masturbatory lives of a married couple, "Signifying Nothing" has its narrator trying to come to grips with his father once wiggling his penis in front of the boy's face, and the Hideous Men are often so because of their sexual proclivities. Worst, though, is his inability to ever let a phrase or tic go. He repeats himself an awful lot. It might be to emphasize a point, but it gets old fast.

"A sickly child, weak and cheese-white, chronically congested. The suppurating sores of his chronic impetigo, the crust. The ruptured infections. Suppuration': the term means ooze. My son oozed, exuded, flaked, suppurated, dribbled from every quadrant." And it continues to go on much in this vein throughout "On His Deathbed, Holding Your Hand, the Acclaimed New Young Off-Broadway Playwright's Father Begs a Boon."

I certainly would have liked "Octet" a whole lot more if he could have just come to the final question and not kept backing off, trying to demonstrate yet again how hard and revealing and all the rest it is to ask whether you like his story or not. I answered in the negative. Largely from spite.

If you're curious taking a shot at his stuff yourself, his writings, both fiction and not, for Harper's Magazine and The New Yorker are still stored on their sites.

Thursday, December 10

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: More football

Kenyan football is, for the most part, over for the season. The Kenyan Premier League wrapped up its regular season in the third week of November, and the national team, the Harambee Stars, are done after failing to qualify for both the World Cup and Africa Cup of Nations and losing in the quarter finals of the CECAFA Senior Challenge Cup to Uganda. All that's left to look forward to now for fans of Kenyan football are Sofapaka's first Champions League tournament and AFC Leopards entrance in the CAF Confederation Cup, both beginning in February.

Not that there isn't still a lot of football to enjoy. For instance the center is hosting the inaugural Nakuru West Football Peace Tournament the next two weeks. Ten teams composed of boys from the neighborhood are participating, and judging from their size, I would guess ages range from 8 to 15. Carol AFC, the home team played the Friendly Stars to a 1-1 draw in the opening match. About half of the teams I've seen play have come with uniforms of any sort, though more than a few play without shoes of any sort. Otherwise, I've been very impressed. It has all been organized, from finding the teams to bringing kids to set up new goal posts and dig sidelines and goalboxes on our pitch, by a local secondary student. People walking down the road have sat down just outside our fence to watch.

Of course, football in Kenya will never be over so long as the English Premier League plays. Local favorites are Arsenal, closely followed by Manchester United. A banner was hung over the main street to announce a 'red-hot' party at one of the resorts when Arsenal played Man-U, and knock-off jerseys and shirts for them are everywhere. It's the same at the center. After the last holiday break, a bunch of the boys took pens to their shirts turn them into English jerseys, and one spent half his last sponsor letter describing in detail why Liverpool is his favorite (mostly because it has Torres).

It's frustrating, really. Most of the kids probably couldn't name any team in Kenya but listing off the starting line-ups of the top English clubs is no problem. You can only find Harambee Stars jerseys in Nairobi and even then they're rare. And forget about finding KPL jerseys. The only reason AFC sells them is that I think they have some sort of Green Bay Packers thing going on with the fans owning the team. Seriously, they die hard. When AFC was facing relegation at the tail end of the season, fans started fundraising to pay the players 10,000 shilling bonuses for every game they won.

I want to tell the kids to have a little local football pride. Quit cheering for the teams you only see on TV. Watch the Ulinizi Stars and Red Berets in person. Sure my high school's football field and track is in better condition than Afraha Stadium, but it's an awful lot more fun to be there than watching SuperSport.

It's funny that it's taken five months in Nakuru to realize this. I never attended any Shock or Chiefs or Indians games in Spokane, and my attendance at Gonzaga athletics was, at best, lackluster. I can claim an indifference to sports in general was the cause, but in Nakuru, any opportunity to spend time away from the center and kids is welcome. Sports have provided that outlet for me, and now it bothers me when the locals don't even care about their boys. Why not cheer for the guys you might actually see around town? What about the athletes who aren't multi-millionaires endorsing whatever garbage or whose every move is tracked on ESPN? What about sports at a level where it is still a fun game and not a culture? Local may not be professsional and top tier, but the games are still fun and a far sight cheaper.

In any case, there's rugby to look forward to now. At least Kenyans have some pride in that. You can actually find the national team jerseys. Now I just need to learn the rules of the game.

Wednesday, December 9

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Obama

Kenya loves Obama. A lot. On the night of his election, cameras recorded the reactions of people in his dad's home village. I remember there being dancing and singing and cheering and jumping and all the rest. The enthusiasm hasn't lessened all that much in the intervening year.

A few weeks ago the government was discussing investing twelve million shillings in the senior Obama's hometown of Kogelo to build a monument and other such things for the tourists. Tentative name? Obama Cultural and Leadership Centre. Apparently the man is a serious attraction. The tour agency we used to visit Lake Nakuru also offers a special seven-day Obama package. I'm not even sure if that tour visits Kogelo, but throwing around Obama's name and smiling face is a fairly common technique to boost sells. In my five months here I've seen T-shirts, shawls, jeans, belt buckles, and soapstone Scrabble boards with his name or face on them. There's even an Obama brand of bubblegum. He shares that particular distinction with Mr. Bean and the English Premier League.

Other, less-economic evidence of Obama's popularity: the one Luo child at the center very readily claims Obama as his brother and articles centering on the American president are fairly common in the national newspapers. Claims and counter-claims that Obama's birth certificate was forged and the 'beer summit' both appeared in The Daily Nation.

What makes this all the more impressive is that Obama hasn't done much to deserve local support beside the nationality of his father. He's chastised the Kenyan government for showing a complete lack of willingness to reform or prosecute those responsible for the post-election violence, snubbed the prime minister for a day when Odinga was in Washington, D.C., and totally skipped Kenya on his first trip to Africa as president. Obama has really kicked the chastising into high gear, too. Twenty-some top Kenyan officials received letters a few weeks back informing them they were not allowed in the United States for their parts in encouraging post-election violence.

Oh well. There are a number of men named Kennedy here, our nurse and farmhand among them. Give it a decade or two, and Kenya will probably be full of Obamas.

Tuesday, December 8

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: The Weekly Kid: Kamama


Okay, Kamama may look more spooky than cute in this picture, but he signed his last sponsor letter "Kamamama." That's very cute. As always, if you want to receive a little piece of cute like that monthly, please consider sponsoring a child during this holiday season.

Saturday, December 5

Considering Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories"

Some things get worse every time I return to them. Every time I see Juno, it seems a little more artificial. Every time I see V for Vendetta, it's a bit more banal and ridiculous. What may have been clever at the first, becomes trite by the second.

Thomas Mann, on the other hand, is firmly in the opposite camp. He shares this distinction with kiwi fruit. They only get better. His writing is so far from modern sensibilities in terms of keeping a reader's attention through any action whatsoever that the first time reading him is a slog. Before any character gives a line of dialogue, we are treated to a half-page accounting of their total physical appearance and three pages worth of background on their moral character and family history. Consider Lisabeta Ivanovna of "Tonio Kröger."

"She was about the same age as himself--slightly past thirty. She sat there on a low stool, in her dark-blue apron, and leant her chin in her hand. Her brown hair, compactly dressed, already a little gray at the sides, was parted in the middle and waved over the temples, framing a sensitive, sympathetic, dark-skinned face, which was Slavic in its facial structure, with flat nose, strongly accentuated cheek bones, and little bright black eyes. She sat there measuring her work with her head on one side and her eyes screwed up; her features were drawn with a look of misgiving almost vexation."

And all she does is listen to Kröger whine that to be a good artist, such as himself, he cannot fully immerse himself in and enjoy life but must remain a cold and distant observer. And she calls him bourgeois. That's it. This descrption contains nearly as many words as she speaks in the entire story. You should rejoice that I chose an instance of Mann writing with restraint. He gives equally extensive descriptions of hotel managers who are limited to only welcoming the real characters.

It doesn't help either that the stories begin to blend into one another as, once again, a middle-class family declines in spectacular fashion or beauty is contemplated or a writer finds it impossible to partake in the sensual pleasures like the masses do. Really, how different are Tonio Kröger and Detlev Spinell? Are the differences between brother and sister pairs Ingrid and Bert Cornelius and Siegmund and Sieglinde Aarenhold so great? Not really. Mann's range of concern is rather limited.

But the second time through, when any thought that this will be a rollicking tale of high adventure and any hope for even a modicum of action has been banished to the farthest reaches, Mann improves considerably. I stop waiting for anything to happen and enjoy what has been written.

I wrote earlier that Mann has a limited range. That's one way to put it. Another way to put it is that he has a singular vision and is wholly intent upon exploring it. Art is that vision. By the end of the last story, a coherent philosophy of Art has been created. For Mann, Art is intrinsically and inseparably fused with death and stands in opposition to life. His great artist characters, from Gustave von Aschenbach to Felix Krull, are the final scions of dying noble families. In the words of Spinell, "Because it not infrequently happens that a race with sober, practical bourgeois traditions will towards the end of its days flare up in some form of art." Children appear in his stories only to demonstrate just how far the family has fallen by their excesses.

This is because Art stands in opposition to life. Its adherents are unimpressive physically and often sickly. The most beautiful are, like Tadzio and Gabriele Eckhof, those nearest death. Their antagonists are the healthy and practical, but it is not so simple. The artists have their envies and are jealous of the vitality of the unartistic.

It's refreshing to see a writer so willing to describe their philosophy in detail. While this tends toward the didactic in "Tonio Kröger," the more subtle developments of it found in "Death in Venice" and "Blood of the Walsungs" are great. I don't see this so much in contemporary fiction. No doubt authors have their particular philosophies and whatnot, but they seem more interested in exploring situations and characters, more interested in considering alternatives to an idea than explaining it. Maybe that is more the domain of the essay, but Mann at least demonstrates it can be done in fiction with style.

Thursday, December 3

Why I write

I submitted a short story of mine to a short story contest last week. I've done it a handful of times over the years, but never before with a reading fee. I'll let you know how it goes. Allow me to say now, though, that I have high hopes. It's the first time the contest has been held, the prize purse is only $100 and the original deadline was pushed back, all of which suggests that the pool of entries will be less than deep. My chances only increase.

It's odd, then, to only find myself asking now why I write.

This question became particularly acute when I was running through NewPages' list of magazines accepting unsolicited submissions. Of course I had never flipped through any of them before. I was lucky if I had even heard of them. Yet I was still spending the better portion of my day off checking out their websites for submission guidelines. Really, what's the point of publishing a story if it's only going to a journal you've never read yourself? Because at that point it begins to seem an awful lot like you are just looking for the money. Which is fine when you need to survive, less fine in all other cases. Like mine.

I'd rather not think such things about my writings, so I think further. There is a quote by Flannery O'Connor that I found on the GlimmerTrain Press site. It goes along the lines of “I write to discover what I know.” I feel an affinity with that. That's pretty good.

I keep a journal to record what happened and what I thought. I write emails to stay in touch with friends and family. I keep this blog to find answers to questions. I write stories for the same reason, but the answers I'm looking for in them are to questions too personal to deal with straight up on Spice of Life. Sometimes I need proxies for myself and my friends as I consider what could have been or what should be.

I first wanted to be a writer sometime after archaeologist and major league baseball pitcher. That would place it around third or fourth grade. After a few years that urge faded in favor of video game designer and reporter, but it's come back strong lately, though in a different way. I'm not interested in writing fiction full time, if that were ever even possible. Since working at House of Charity and coming to Nakuru, it has become more than clear that there is real work that needs to be done to meet human suffering. It's work that's more important than writing, but it doesn't mean I can't do the latter. I still need to write to find answers.

Being published, winning contests, making a little money through my writing would be cool. It's pretty solid proof that someone thought my words and phrases were interesting and worthwhile, but and I hope never to forget this, it's only secondary to the answers I can find.

Monday, November 30

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: The Weekly Kid: Cheyech

CHE-yech (Both 'ch' are soft like 'China.')

I have pictures of Cheych where she's absolutely adorable, but this one where she's trying to ape a gorilla or something is my favorite. Seems like I have a trend of of Weekly Kids with contorted faces going on here.

Anyway, American Thanksgiving may be over, but Christmas is one horizon. If you're thinking of a gift for a friend or just want to make the holidays of some kid in Kenya a little brighter, please consider a sponsorship.

Sunday, November 29

Considering Jorge Luis Borges' “Collected Fictions”

I have a small rule. I call it “The ceding small portions of your life to chance makes it all more interesting rule.” It goes something along the lines of “Should I hear allusion to a particular work or artist at least three times in a brief span of time, I will endeavor to be audience to said work or oeuvre.” So, you can see how after finding an article comparing The Dark Knight and “Three Versions of Judas,” having one of my stories called “Borgesian” and reading an essay considering the Argentinian's treatment of death, I had no choice but to buy Borge's Collected Fictions. Granted, the last two coincidences are a bit of a cheat since the same friend who made that comment on my story wrote the essay on death, but I'm cool with all that. Otherwise I might have missed out on this master or, at the very least, been delayed in our introduction.

Borges' stories are singularly unique creations. From the fictionalized biographies that make the majority of A Universal History of Iniquity to the ideas masquerading as stories in Fictions and The Aleph to the fragments of thought in The Maker, I have never seen fiction like this before. Book reviews and obituaries become narratives, and the death of a street tough in Buenos Aires becomes poetry. These stories are powerful little punches, too. Borges' words make up 515 pages of the volume. One hundred-odd stories are collected. On average, each story is under five pages long. In this short space, Borges crafts lasting characters and powerful moods. It is a testament to his restraint and precision in word choice.

Despite this vast disparity in style, there is something that unifies all these works: a drive to exhaust all knowledge and imagination. In the fewest words possible Borges attempts to anticipate every argument and alternative to the central idea. The story is not complete until everything that could be written has been written. At times, this works. When the subject is infinity and the inscrutable, we find ourselves drawn up in the awe that must have inspired Borges himself. The implications of an infinite library or entire society governed by lottery are truly awesome to behold in Borges' stories.

At other times, this urge to explain fails Borges. His characters find themselves on the periphery of a great mystery that smacks of magic and the occult. They delve deep only to discover something quite mundane beneath all the complexity. For all the talk of futures and labyrinths, “The Garden of Forking Paths” is a murder mystery solved. There is no name in “Death and the Compass,” just revenge. After the first one, it already feels like a cheat. In such an heavy collection where it happens over and over again, it becomes tiring.

The dueling examples of “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero” and “Three Versions of Judas” are revealing. The follow similar trajectories. Academics look into a legendary story. Academics discover a vast conspiracy behind it. Academics ultimately become accessories to the conspiracy's continued concealment. The difference? One deals with an Irish revolutionary and the other with the Christ. One is human and the other divine. One is scrutable and the other moves in mysterious ways. And therein lies all the difference and all the interest of all Borges' fictions.

Not that it would surprise me if this were Borges' purpose. He is a great commentator on his own work. Side characters from his earliest stories reappear decades later to tell their own tales. Many stories are told as though they were discovered in lost archives or told to him by the characters years later. In his explanations of the human, Borges may be making light of his own attempts to describe the indescribable. Just how far can he, a finite creature, go in talking about the infinite? In the end, these mysteries and all their wonder may be no more than illusions, and if they are, Borges is going to have the first laugh.

Tuesday, November 24

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Eating out

Every so often the taste for a meal outside the center descends upon Demetra and me. We've already had githeri twice that week, and we know it's on the menu three times next week. Our tongues are bored. In those cases, when even a spoon of mustard or dash of chili sauce fails to excite the tastebuds, we stay a little longer in town and eat out.

Ever seeking to expand my palate, my selections at Nakuru's restaurants and cafés gravitate toward the uniquely Kenyan dishes, the ones that you can't find in the States. I ran through most all of those within a month. Kenyan cuisine is pretty limited, even in the Rift Valley, some of the most productive farming land in Africa. No matter where you stop, most of the menu is either British or Indian. Near every café offers Full English Breakfast, and it is the rare place indeed that fails to serve chips. Unfortunately, Kenyans have not adopted the British tradition of flavoring their chips with generous amounts of vinegar, but they make up for it with masala chips, chips served in a chili sauce. Curries of varying quality are not hard to find either. Other staples include omelets, fried chicken, fried fish and burgers. I have yet to taste anything less than terrific pizza though spaghetti is rare.

Despite this lack of local culinary pride, there is some decent stuff that I've never seen before and don't expect to see again outside of East Africa. Nothing particularly fancy, this is food meant to fill you up and keep you going. Two particular favorites of mine are njahi and ndengu. Similar to githeri but tastier, both are hearty sauces that are served with ugali or rice or chapati or whatever to scoop it. Njahi's central ingredient is black beans while I'm still not clear on what exactly is in ndengu. After having it the first time I would have guessed they were split peas, but the waitress assured me they were green grubs.

Matoke is an interesting one that I've enjoyed a few times. It's a cooked banana. Sometimes it comes still in the classic banana shape and with a thick yellow sauce. Once it was mashed and was accompanied by a translucent red sauce. Both times it tasted kind of like a potato. I don't know how they manage that. I've asked and been told it isn't actually a plantain. Maybe they just cook them when the peel is still green. I hear they only eat fried matoke with beef in Tanzania.

Pilau is a particular favorite, but I'm not entirely sure if it's Kenyan. It's a lightly fried, lightly spiced plate of rice, sometimes with vegetables and sometimes without, served with a thin sauce. It makes for a good texture.

For what it's worth, my top pick for budget eating in Nakuru is Naku Chick in the Uchumi Business Centre. The menu is limited, but they do it fast and do it well. An especial fan of their masala chips and njahi. You can easily do a complete meal with drink there for under 100 shillings. In the mid-range, I like Rift Fries, not to be used with Planet Fries whose front is almost the exact same and only a block away. They do the crispiest chips in the city and have some decent curries. El-Bethel The Meeting Place is good, too. I avoided it for months because it looked like such a tourist hole, just a block from Cafe Guava and with an awning that screamed its authentic African dishes and mursik, but they have good ndengu. They don't screw my order up either. This is important. About half the time, I need to have two orders ready because they won't have one that day. The other half the time they bring back the wrong thing either because I butcher the Kiswahili or they don't understand my accent in English. I kid. But not much. In any case, it makes ordering an adventure on the nano scale.

My culinary adventures in Nairobi have been limited to mid-range places along the same lines as Rift Fries and The Meeting Place. This is unfortunate because I hear ex-pat entrepreneurs make some terrific Italian and Indian food, and Carnivore has been twice voted one of the fifty greatest restaurants in the world by some magazine. I am, however, grateful to financial concerns because, without them, I would have never been forced into Fast Food and Take-Away Restaurant next to the Methodist university. They do it cheap. They do it fast. They do it tasty. They have two secrets to this. The first is frying everything. There might be three things on the menu that aren't fried. As soon as you place your order, they can shovel your meal up and you are on your way. The second secret is their onion salsa. They leave heaping bowls of the stuff on the counters, so you can take as much as you want. Equal parts chips and salsa? No problem. It's like three free servings of vegetables and kicks up their already good chips and bahjia (fried potato rounds) to the next level.

So, what I'm trying to say here is “No worries. I'm not starving.”

Monday, November 23

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: The Weekly Kid: Timothy

Timothy is the older brother of Manu, the first Weekly Kid. I swear that he's grown since we arrived. He's lankier.

Now it really is Thanksgiving week in the States. If you have money left after traveling and Black Friday and all the rest, please consider using it to sponsor one of our children.

Sunday, November 22

Considering Leo Tolstoy's “Anna Karenina”

After my less than excellent experience with The Brothers Karamazov, I turned to Tolstoy's Anna Karenina for the redemption of Russian literature. In his small way, Tolstoy is successful. I prefer Karenina, as far as it is possible to compare that novel of manners and society to the ponderous philosophical meditations of Brothers. Things actually happen in it. Affairs are had. Couples are reconciled. Proposals are made. Proposals are refused. And that's all just in the first of Karenina's eight parts. There are still horse races, public snubbings, weddings, births, deaths, failed suicides and one very famous successful suicide. Even when things do not happen, particularly in the case of a certain divorce that never materializes, there is action and energy. Unfortunately, Tolstoy is unable to resist the soapbox of his serial novel (props to Emmett for the historical context) and cannot help himself but to express his opinion on, among other things, the Serbo-Turkish war, psychics and the particular relationship of the Russian peasant to the soil, but even Koznyshov's obsession with reviews of his An Attempt at a Survey of the Foundations and Forms of Government in Europe and in Russia is more interesting than the murder in Brothers.

No doubt, Dostoevsky has little interest in competing with Tolstoy on these grounds, but all this action is not to meant to imply short shrift in Tolstoy's ambition in elucidating the great themes. Karenina is really two stories, that of Levin/Kitty and Anna/Karenin/Vronsky. Except for a few characters who move between both narratives, the two have nothing really to do with one another, but their parallel structures go far in developing his thoughts on love, happiness and society.

Yet for all this praise, I could not help thinking the entire time I was with Karenina, “Why am I not reading Vanity Fair? They do so much the same, and Thackeray comes up the better in most every instance.”

Passionate heroines who don't quite conform to the standards of society? Thackeray. When the last vestiges of society depart from Anna, she takes a train. Becky revels in everything life offers her, no matter whom she's with, no matter if her ambitions are thwarted.

Cads who destroy the women they are with? Thackeray. Except for his willingness to destroy his military career and relationship with his family for Anna's sake, I cannot see the appeal of Vronsky. He's kind of a selfish pig. At least, George has his moments. I can understand why Amelia would fall for him.

Decent women who fall for the cad first? Tolstoy takes this one. Kitty is able to get over Vronsky by the second part. Amelia pines for George for over half the novel and tortures poor Dobbin the entire time.

Likable heroes? Thackeray all the way. Unlike Tolstoy's straight-up mouthpiece, Levin, Dobbin is sympathetic and interesting, a near impossible feat with such a decent, kind character. Under all but the most careful pens, they always come off as boring.

Proposal scene? I put particular emphasis on this one. It's a staple of the society novel, from Fair to Karenina to Pride and Prejudice, and I'm a sucker for the things. For my money, none of them do it better than Thackeray with Dobbin's arrival on the docks in the rain. It may give in to more melodramatic flourishes than the quiet intensity of Levin and Kitty's letter game, but my hands were steady then. I think I literally dropped the book when I got to Fair's proposal.

So I'm left still searching for a Russian writer deserving of the fame, and my eyes turn toward Anton Chekov. I plan on ordering a collection of his short stories this afternoon. I have high hopes. Tobias Wolff is a fan.

Wednesday, November 18

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Management

There were a number of changes I expected coming to Nakuru. I expected the winters to be a bit warmer. I expected to be taller than most. I expected, too, to be paler than everyone. I didn't so much expect to be a manager. That's kind of silly in retrospect. After all, the position I came to fill was director. What did I really expect to do with that sort of title? To mow the lawn and play with the kids all day? No, there's staff to do that. We have farmhands to tend the garden and care for the cows; cooks to prepare the meals; guards to watch the gate and patrol the grounds; caretakers to clean the buildings; and, for just the past few weeks, teachers to lead classes.

My job is to make them do their jobs. Oh, there are the four hours of online work I am supposed to do daily for the greater Foundation, but what I do here is what they call “white-collar work.” It's kind of a new thing for me. Kind of important, too. On a personal level at least. Beginning around eighth grade I identified myself as a communist. I've mellowed out since then, just socialism now, but it's good to be on the other side of the desk. Every other job I've had, from Zippel Bay State Park on through Hopkins House to the House of Charity, has been grunt. I was told what to do. I did it. In disagreements between workers and management, I naturally sided with the former. I still take orders, but the balance is definitely shifted toward the giving end. It's one of those “learning experiences.” It's a walk in the other one's shoes. It's a look through their eyes. It's a shoe on the other foot.

It doesn't offer quite the same satisfaction that grunt work does. Opportunities to say “See those eggs? I collected them myself,” are rare, and “See those eggs? I made sure someone collected them,” just doesn't sound as good. I'm not just responsible for feeding the kids. I'm responsible for their entire welfare. There is simply neither the time nor the energy to see every individual project and need followed through on. I need to find the person to do it and move on to the next need. I may find the sellers and buy the food, but someone else has to prepare and serve it. Gratification is delayed and always tempered by the realization that while the cleaning may be going great, the repairs are probably falling behind.

The irony is that my job is most pleasant is when all the staff are doing their jobs to the best of their abilities. Were this state to persist, however, my position would be superfluous. They would need no one to point out their mistakes or remind them of the next item on their checklist. By necessity, my job involves telling people when they're screwing up or, more often, when they need to do more for the same reward and those are a distinctly unpleasant experiences.

More unpleasant still is when staff continues to refuse to follow our directions, and they need to be fired. We had a major staff reshuffle a few weeks ago which involved eliminating a lot of old positions and creating a number of new ones. We preferred not to hire five people again and a sixth decided he didn't like the new contract. On the one hand, we could tell ourselves work would be easier now. The caretakers would listen when we told them to wash the youngest children in the bathrooms rather than on the asphalt outside. The children would be better cared for. On the other, nearly 120 people came to interviews for about eight positions. Our former employees weren't making a lot, but it's going to be a far sight more than what they'll likely make in the coming months. The case of our former cook was especially difficult. He stole from our food supplies, lied to us and defied our authority. He had to go. There was no question. But his wife gave birth a month or so back. His family needs to eat, too. In the end, our duty is to the kids here. We tell ourselves, if he isn't performing his duty to them, he can't be here.

If it seems crass to turn the loss of people's livelihoods into the grist for a blog post, I totally agree, but I don't really know what else I can do. I don't know if this is the sort of thing I want to do with the rest of my life. Satisfaction in my job may be more complex and distant, but if I want to make big changes, it's what I have to do. I can't do it alone. I have to bring the right people together and give them the right direction. We'll see what happens.

Monday, November 16

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Cafe Guava

There is a restaurant in Nakuru named Cafe Guava. In a city where a good half of the restaurants would be considered dives even by Baudette standards, Cafe Guava is something special in that would not be out of place in America. The dominant colors of the interior are warm earth tones. There is original framed art on the walls instead of sun-bleached Coke ads, and padded leather easy chairs instead of those of the plastic lawn variety. In one of those ironic little twists of capitalism, while the coffee-addled Pacific Northwest is all over those blends and roasts from our little part of East Africa, Cafe Guava is the only place I know in Nakuru that serves the entire line of coffee- and espresso-based drinks. For the tourists desperate for anything cool in equatorial Africa, at least fifteen different fruit smoothies are on the menu. Cafe Guava even has its own logo and branded hats and polo shirts.

I hear the food is good. When a sponsor came to visit last month, he went every Wednesday for the special, chicken stir-fry with rice. Demetra appreciates the french fries because they are accompanied by real Heinz ketchup rather than the semi-transparent tomato sauce the other places offer. I wouldn't know. I just order the drinks and rare pastry because the prices are as American as the rest of Cafe Guava.

I abhor the place. I feel anxious just being there. It's a tourist haven. At any given moment on any given day, you can reliably count more white heads than black ones in there, including the entirely local staff. Fittingly, Cafe Guava is on the intersection of Watalii Street, Kiswahili for tourist/visitor/stranger according to Teach Yourself Swahili. It's silly of me to feel this way. After all, in most senses, I am just a visitor. I certainly don't belong here and can't even pretend to do so until I achieve some fluency in Kiswahili, though it's doubtful I'd feel any measure of acceptance even then, but I am something more than some tourist on a one-week tour of the highlights of Kenya.

Yet when I am there, I am just one of them. The place is designed solely for the tourists. The prices are suitably out of reach of the bulk of Nakuru's population, and Kenyan dishes are conspicuously missing from the menu. Ugali and nyama choma are replaced by wraps and pizza. It's a little piece of the West just for us, where we can forget for a little while that we actually aren't in Kenya. It feels false, like a game to see if it can fool the visitors and keep them from knowing anything about Nakuru. They win if the tourists get home and someone asks about Nakuru and they reply, “Well, it had a nice coffee place.”

And still I visit regularly once a week because it’s the only place I know in all of Nakuru with free wireless Internet. Funny that.

Sunday, November 15

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: The Weekly Kid: Chepkite


Whenever Demetra and I get around to casting our edition of The Weekly World News Movie, Chepkite is going to be our Bat-Girl. Just look at those ears.

Thanksgiving is coming up soon in the States. It's too late for those in Canada, but if you would like to give the kids someone to share their blessings with, please consider a sponsorship.

Saturday, November 14

Considering David James Duncan's "The Brothers K"

I had a strange experience reading David James Duncan's The Brother K. I found myself having fun. How do I begin to describe the feeling, so foreign to me since the fourth Harry Potter at least? There's a certain lightness to the reading. You don't feel exhausted at the end but amazed that it's been three hours. I snicker out loud. That's not to say I haven't enjoyed Wolff, O'Connor, Borges and all the rest these past few months, but they are different. They're elegant and self-serious, and nothing puts an end to fun faster than that combination. You literally cannot read them for more than an hour at a time because you need a break from their explorations of good and evil, life and death, God and nothing, and all the rest. Not that Duncan avoids these topics. He explores them with as much passion as anyone else and as well as the best of them. He just lets us have more fun while doing so.

I put the blame for this fun most entirely on the language. Duncan cares about his themes but sees no reason to preserve them in amber like his predecessors. They are treated first with the voice of a middle-class kid growing up in small town Washington and obsessed with baseball and again in the voices of his family in their letters and journals. Irwin's freshman essay, The History of my Dad from his Birth up to Kincaid's, is replete with the character's silliness and humor. "My father Hugh Chance was born in 1929 in Chicago Illinnois on May 5 1929. He was no relation to Frank Chance the famous first baseman, Dean Chance the famous young pitcher, or Fat Chance the famous expression (ha ha)." And there has been no better description of heartbreak ever than "quack bisection of his heart."

Somehow though, with all of this energy directed toward the multitude of original voices and ambitious themes, characters are left behind. In the entire novel, there is only one character worth remembering: Hugh Chance, father of the titular brothers. His fall, his redemption and his fall again are powerful stuff. In his successes and failures, both large and small, he is real. The brothers themselves, excluding the narrator who disappears so effectively into the background that it's a challenge to remember his presence even while he relates the story, all fall so deeply into the types of the '60's, draft-dodging campus radical, nirvana-seeking Fulbright student, conscientious Vietnam grunt, that it becomes difficult to even care much about them despite the hundreds of pages devoted to them. There is incredible potential in many of the women, not least the fiercely Seventh-Day Adventist mother who retreats further and further into her faith as her life spirals farther out of control or equally fierce atheist mother-in-law, but the story is not about them. They are more symbols for the men to run toward or from than anything else.

This is rather unfortunate as I believe that more than any other element of story, character is the most important. Powerful characters are what turn genre fiction into literature. Without Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie would be just another mystery writer. Without Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett, Jane Austen is just some romance writer. Why are Timothy Zahn's books the best of the Star Wars Expanded Universe? Grand Admiral Thrawn, Mara Jade, Captain Gilad Pelleaon and Talon Karrde, in that order.

So what do you do with a novel with all the trappings of a great work in its eternal themes but without the characters to give it force? In this case, go with it. The voice is powerful enough to carry all 643 pages of Brothers and probably another hundred or two more.

Thursday, November 12

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: The Lonely Planet Guide

I can’t recall if I even flipped through a Kenyan, much less African, travel guide in anticipation of this year's adventure. I believe my attitude then was one of work first, play second. At least, I hope that's how it was. It's also very possible that I just planned poorly and figured that the locals would suggest the most interesting places. Yet Demetra and I now find ourselves in possession of the Lonely Planet Guide to Kenya. It’s borrowed from one of our fellow Kenyan directors. The Canadians who are renting his house while he works here are lending it to him. Not so sure why he wanted it in the first place. Maybe to see his country through the eyes of its visitors.

I can't deny the guide has been of some use to us. A history of Kenya beginning with those people dug up by the Leakeys. Street maps of Old Town. Directions to a cheap hotel in Mombasa. Facts about all of the diseases we can expect to catch. Some laughs at the warnings against riding in matatus.

Still, there is something about Lonely Planet that sets my teeth on edge. The tone, to be specific. It acts as though there is an opportunity for adventure in every part of Kenya, be it the Indian coast or Nairobi or the desert north or the western forests. Boxed texts give equal visual weight to the histories of dhows and the fact that Nairobi has surpassed Johannesburg as the most dangerous city in all of Africa. Even in these rare cases where the writers suggest there might be danger, they brush it off with simple warnings. Be sure to hire an armed ranger before driving down roads known to be hit by bandits around Lake Turkana. Bars described as hang-outs for prostitutes and pool sharks are presented more as little adventures than places no foreigner should get involved in. It's just so optimistic about it all.

Not that I can really fault the writers for this approach. After all, this is a travel guide. No one is going to spend $25 to be told “Do not go here.” A general warning and suggestion of similar environments is quite enough for that. These books are designed for people looking for a break from their daily lives. More than anything else, they want to be away from their mundane concerns and worries, not confronted with a host of new ones. If this book has made the reader confident that they can discover and survive Kenya, it has accomplished its goal, even if it sets them up for disappointment when it turns out the hotels that came so highly suggested have long since closed and been replaced by a clothing store.

It really doesn't bother me that I didn't look at a travel guide before arrival. The most useful part of Lonely Planet has been in identifying parks and other such interesting sites I hadn't heard about before, but really, all I need to find those is a good map and a local to tell me if they're worth visiting.

Monday, November 9

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Further Mombasa adventures

Though attempts were made to visit Fort Jesus and Old Town on our first full day in Mombasa, it was only on Friday that we made our first successful visit to either of these historical landmarks, mostly because we finally brought along a map then. It's quite easy to get lost in Mombasa. It holds true to the Kenyan tradition of avoiding street signs as often as possible, and the streets in Old Town are exceptionally difficult. They're narrow enough to only allow a single car to pass through, and the buildings crowd along the sides so tight that finding any landmark is impossible. You only know you're getting closer to Fort Jesus when the curio shops with their window displays full of wooden animal sculptures and paintings of pastoral scenes start cropping up and the prices for everything kick up a few notches.

That said, both Fort Jesus and Old Town were nice places. Fort Jesus is a very well preserved Portuguese castle used to defend the coastline and trade routes. It didn't do this terribly well as the fort changed hands between Europeans, Arabs and Africans several times over its hundreds of years of service. Still, it's one of the oldest, if not the oldest, building in all of Kenya, and that is cool. Less cool is the choice of the curators to describe Fort Jesus as an exemplar of High Renaissance architectural thought and not give the least description of what that might possibly involve.

Surrounding Fort Jesus is Old Town. It's kind of an odd place and a mix of competing influences. The buildings were constructed by merchants and traders centuries ago and many bear plaques that describe the histories of those earliest owners. The doors and hanging balconies are all of the carved wood that are so famous along the Indian coast. These are the tourist draws, and there are plenty of overpriced cafés and curio shops along the streets to take advantage of these visitors. At the same time, though, Old Town is a highly residential neighborhood. When you walk those streets you walk under lines of laundry or past children making their way to and from school and people hanging out on their stoops or in the many alleys. Farther out from Fort Jesus are textile shops and other such useful places that are of little concern to tourists but very important to the locals. It kind of makes tours awkward as you constantly feel as though you're peeking into people's homes, which, of course, you are. Maybe that wouldn't be so bad if Old Town were more like Browne's Addition, and the locals know people are looking at their homes and make every effort to make them as beautiful as possible, but Old Town is poor. There are only a few public water spigots, and you are never out of sight of someone crippled by polio or whatever and carrying a metal bowl. It's a less than pleasant contrast when tourists with the latest digital cameras, myself among them, are walking past those who, at the best, couldn't afford such technological finery if they saved every shilling they earned for a year. I can solace myself with this whole “working at an orphanage for a year” thing, but I wonder how those who are only visiting for a week or two deal with it.

A short walk from the public beach, visited by Demetra and myself three times in three days to enjoy its warm waters, gentle waves and white sand beaches, is Haller Park, which we visited on Saturday, our last full day in Mombasa. It's the closest thing I've found to a zoo in Kenya. There were scheduled feeding times which guaranteed you could be within feet of giraffes and hippos, and there was a reptile park which kept snakes and monitor lizards and tortoises on islands. Kind of different since the country is otherwise content to throw up a fence around some lake or patch of the savanna and let people drive through with no guarantee of ever seeing an animal. It was nice though, if only because it allowed people to walk through at their own pace and offered some peace from the heat and sound of traffic.

And then we drove back to Nakuru in a single shot on Sunday. We left Mombasa at 7 in the morning and arrived at the center at 8 in the evening, not quite enough time to finish the last half of Anna Karenina but only because it got too dark to read in the last hours. This trip, our first major break since July, was very necessary, and now we're prepared to deal with the children for another month. We're already looking forward to planning a trip to Uganda to try and find some gorillas in December. Good times.

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: The Weekly Kid: Kaparsip

Whenever Demetra and I get around to casting our Nakuru-edition of The Lord of the Rings, Kaparsip is going to be our Frodo.

Thanks to my mom, you can now enjoy a phonetic pronunciation of The Weekly Kid's name. Kaparsip. Ka-par-sip. The 'a' sounds the same as the 'a' in 'father.' Pretty simple.

Also, this is the sort of picture you can expect every month as part of any child sponsorship. Please consider it, if you have some money to spare.

Friday, November 6

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: The beginning of Mombasa adventures

In less than a week I will have been in Kenya for four months. In that same time, I have spent four days in Pokot and eight days in Nairobi. Both these tallies include time spent traveling to and from. Every other day has been spent in Nakuru, working or hiding away from the kids in the room or a café in the city. Not that this is a bad thing. Nakuru isn’t a terrible city, and we’ve grown comfortable with it, but when I make it back to the States, I would like to be able to talk about a bit more of the country than just the capital and my little slice of the Rift Valley. Beside, a vacation, has been a long time in coming. We could have done much worse than Mombasa to start these travels off with. Much worse.

There are direct lines from Nakuru to Mombasa that would have saved us a night’s stay in Nairobi, but those had the disadvantage of not allowing us to stop in Makindu, a small town along the highway, almost directly halfway between Nairobi and Mombasa. I was a bit leery of this visit since it was to meet a Peace Corps volunteer we had only known through email and had been introduced to by a friend from Gonzaga, but by the time we left early Wednesday afternoon, Makindu had jumped near to the top of my favorite places in Kenya. Firstly, it is a small town, and it was very much a relief to be able to walk along the streets and not have to periodically glance over my shoulder to make sure there weren’t any tuk tuks or matatus bearing down and expecting me to jump out of the way. Secondly, we were able to meet other American volunteers and learn how they too were trying to make the world a better place. Last of all, and potentially most importantly, the Muslims and Sikhs in the town are apparently in a competition to impress the locals. Both have built hospitals and compounds which take up entire city blocks and have spared no expense in their construction and upkeep. As far as I’m concerned, the Sikhs have won this one cold. Mostly because we had lunch at their center. There was this wonderful fruit rice and spiced chickpeas and a cauliflower and green pea curry and apples and fresh vegetables and cool water and glazed sweet rings. And we were allowed to for seconds. And the toilets had seats and the sinks towels. And it was all available for a free-will donation. If we had wanted to, we could have even spent the night there, too. Every city deserves a Sikh temple.

Anyway, we made it to Mombasa late Wednesday evening. It was dark, so we went straight to the hotel and only ventured out to grab a small snack and fresh fruit juice. Thursday morning we spent wandering the streets, getting the lay of the city and generally being noticed a lot because these wanderings did not always involve the most tourist-oriented parts of the city. On the advice and with the directions of our Peace Corps friend, we made our way north to visit Pirate’s Beach and the coast of the Indian Ocean in the afternoon. There was no need to be concerned about raiding Somalis when we arrived, though. The shore extended out a good four hundred meters minimum from the kiosks selling forgotten suits to those who had left theirs behind, and even once we made it to the water, it wasn’t possible to do much more than wade. This was a disappointment. A rather drastic one. With the temperatures somewhere in the high 80’s, we were expecting swimming. Demetra already had her suit on under her shirt and skirt, and mine was stuffed in my backpack. We opted to sneak into one of the classy shoreside resorts instead of turn back to the city immediately. Not that the management cared so much when we ordered their mango juice and orange Fanta at prices five times anywhere else you could find them. Nursing our drinks for the better part of an hour, we from the inland United States realized we had forgotten something important. The tide can radically alter the coastline. By the time we were finished, we couldn’t have stood where we had once waded. We went straight in, and it was beautiful. The water was neither too hot nor too cold, the waves neither too rough nor too mild, and we were certainly not fighting with others for our patch of water. Absolutely wonderful. Beside the Sikh temple, every city deserves a piece of the Indian coast, too.

Further plans before leaving on Sunday include touring the Old Town, going through Fort Jesus, checking out Bumburi where there’s some manner of nature preserve and crocodile park, and spending two more afternoons in the Indian Ocean. Ought to be fun. I’ll let you know.

Tuesday, November 3

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Third journey into Pokot

Two Sundays back I returned to East Pokot for the third time. It's beginning to feel a little familiar, and it absolutely blows my mind to write that. East Pokot and its people are about as far from my twenty-two years of experience on this world as possible. To feel fairly comfortable with them is some sort of achievement. Of course, this may simply be a symptom of only being with them for a few hours on a single day every month, but it's still progress of some sort.

Still, as familiar as these people and their fan necklaces and low wooden stools and knife rings may become to me, I hope I am never comfortable with seeing the stragglers pick up loose cabbage leaves from the dirt or scoop up maize flour mixed in equal proportion with dust from the floor because they were the last in line. It did rain a few drops in the afternoon, though. I do hope very much that El Niño brings some respite to this blasted region.

For what it's worth, I was recently assigned to the Foundation's Voices team, the goal of which is to preserve and share the cultures of the tribes we work with. I have yet to be trained, but to start, I began taking portraits of the people waiting their turn for a scoop of maize flour. You can find them sprinkled throughout this post. The deeper I get into the team and its work, the more I hope to share including dances and songs and stories and explanations behind the meaning of particular designs and colors and cuts of clothes, but I hope you like these as a first course. You can find more on my Picasa album.

If you would like to learn more or sponsor any of these projects, scroll to the bottom of this page. Your sponsorship could help us bring another bag or two of maize flour and vitally important medication to some of Kenya's poorest.

Friday, October 30

Considering "Libertango"

I don't remember the first time I heard Astor Piazzolla's “Libertango.” Most likely it was on AccuRadio's Tango station, but it just blended into the background. Once they started playing it at Simply Dance milongas in a set with “El Tango de Roxanne” and definitely after I saw its music video produced for The Tango Dancer, or some such thing, the song confidently strode to position itself among my favorites of all time. Before I go any further, I make full disclosure that music is not my thing. I like a lot of it a lot, but I really lack the training to wholly appreciate it. I mix up harmony and melody and can say nothing about the influence of any one artist or composer upon another. Just so you know what to expect from the rest of this interlude from squeeing over Piazzolla and “Libertango.”

The opening is just marvelous. The piano makes a frantic rush. It's headlong. You can hear it stumbling over its own feet. Violin and bandoneon appear briefly but never to bring order until the violin breaks in and takes control after a minute of barely contained chaos. For a time, this incredible passion and energy has found an outlet, but it collapses into that chaotic energy once again at the end. It's a rush. You feel out of breath merely listening to it. Piazzolla may not have written the most danceable tangos, but who could resist this one?

All of which, understandably, would make me rather eager to hear other takes on this little masterpiece. I count the Yo-Yo Ma cover from his Piazzolla: Soul of Tango and Rodrigo Y Gabriela's take in Live: Manchester and Dublin among my collection. Unfortunately, neither really measures up to the original. Ma falls the farthest from the original. His may be the most famous in America due to its appearance in the aforementioned The Tango Dancer, or some such film, and by virtue of the fact he is Yo-Yo Ma, one of the few cellist the average American could name off-hand, but his “Libertango” is inert. It's as though he thought Piazzolla's composition was too fun and needed to be more boring. The frantic energy is reined in, replaced with a bandoneon that may as well be a metronome. By the time he is finished taking out the good bits, “Libertango” may as well be played at one of the balls those Bennett girls were so fond of. This may be unfair since the other versions I have of “Libertango” are live and not studio recorded, but I paid good money for this.

Rodrigo Y Gabriela manage the not difficult task of besting Yo-Yo Ma in covering this song, but they still are not within striking distance of the original. Strange as it is to say, especially for this duo, “Libertango” is too nice at the beginning. Their guitars very nicely share the stage with the visiting violinist. That's just not right here. “Libertango” is a struggle between instruments. The fight to take control of the song. They are definitely not sharing. It's only at the end that the Mexicans remember this and begin to perform a worthy successor to Piazzolla's original.

It pains me to write these things. Ma's Bach:The Cello Suites is a staggering work of heartbreaking genius and artistry and it absolutely tears me up that I won't be able to hear 11:11 until next year, but somehow they all managed to miss what made “Libertango” so great without really introducing a wholly alternative vision of it. I guess the part-to-whole fallacy is real.

Wednesday, October 28

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: The Weekly Kid: Kaplege

I have pictures of Kaplege that do a superior job of demonstrating her frantic insanity, but none of them involve her with arms full of corn and pieces of stalk sticking out of her mouth. Tough choice.

Kaplege is actually fully sponsored for Orphan, TEP and Medical, but if you would like to help out a kid a lot like her, click here.

Thursday, October 22

Considering The Brothers Karamazov

Call me a philistine, but I have never “got” Dostoevsky or understood his exalted place in the canon. I did almost certainly read Crime and Punishment when I was too young (i.e. 17) and I did lack a patient teacher to guide me through, but the elephantine tome mostly irritated me. Excluding the very fine first part leading up to the titular crime and the inspector's interviews with Raskolnikov which were attempts to produce a punishment, Crime was, for me, nothing more than some annoying guy changing his mind about whether to confess or not. He does it a lot. Sometimes several times within a single page, and that gets old when the book pushes 700 pages. Still, when Demetra brought along Dostoevsky's final work, The Brothers Karamazov, to Nakuru, I figured I ought to give him another shot. It was either that or read David Foster Wallace again. A month later, I can pretty safely say that I won't be reading The Idiot until the memories of Brothers fade.

That I didn't like Brothers is not to say that I didn't respect it. I do. It's an incredibly ambitious work. Its themes of good and evil and love and family and God and all the rest are more than relevant, and Dostoevsky's intelligent, sensitive treatment of them is original and has lost no urgency in the century since the book's publication. His portrayal of the devil as a “poor relative” is brilliant. Some of the stories contained within, like that of Zossima's conversion, are wonderful. It's just that these parts are not the whole. In between them are a lot of extended, boring monologues. Brothers would have been so much better without those. In fact, if Dostoevsky just dropped the narrative entirely and turned those best parts into short stories and essays, he would rise so much in my estimation. Ivan and Zossima's chapters of speeches are basically those already. Instead, he just has to keep writing and writing. And writing. And then throwing a few more words on the paper for good measure, just in case.

In the back of this Barnes & Noble Classics edition are a selection of quotes regarding Brothers, and one is from Nietzsche. It goes something like “Dostoevsky [is] the only psychologist, incidentally, from whom I had something to learn; he ranks among the most beautiful strokes of fortune in my life.” I have a friend who agrees with this. I do not understand that at all. The allure of psychology, to me at least, has always been about has always been its mysteries and those parts which are beyond explanation. Dostoevsky, on the other hand, cannot help himself but to explain everything he mentions. Characters explain their motivations in depth and with complete honesty. Every character, no matter how minor, has a full background that does far more than drop hints as to the reasons for their present actions and feelings. Good grief, the writer can't even keep a secret for more than a chapter. I understand that he needs something to keep the readers engaged and eager for the next issue when the book is being published serially, but when the accused Dmitri reveals that one thing he promises to never reveal after just a chapter, it gets stupid immediately. In turn, the characters are boring. How could they be otherwise when everything about them is laid out, all neat and tidy, on the table? The whole psychology angle would also make a lot more sense to me if the characters actually acted like people and did things. Instead, they spend most of their time talking about themselves and their ideas. I guess this was before the concept of “Show, don't tell” was developed.

I want to like Brothers. I want to be cultured enough to honestly enjoy one of the medium's masters, but it is not happening on my ownsome. If you violently disagree and believe that I've lost the forest for the trees, please let me know. It's one of the less fun parts of being away from university. There aren't a terrible lot of people within walking distance to have this discussion with. Thank goodness then for the Internet.

Tuesday, October 20

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Nairobi adventures

Nairobi is not a tourist town. Which is rather unfortunate because that is where Demetra and I escape to when we need to really be away from work and the center and the kids. You see, you can't just lock the bedroom door and ignore people when they come knocking because they don't stop. Either they refuse to believe that we really aren't there and keep knocking, or they look through the considerable crack between the door and frame to prove it. They can be tenacious in this regard. Coming back from Nairobi last time we found an eye-sized hole poked through our plywood wall to give the children a wider view of our room and pretty definitive proof that we were not just not answering.

But I was talking about Nairobi and how it is not a prime tourist destination. Kenya itself may attract a significant number of tourists to Africa and they may land at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, but they only stay in Nairobi long enough to board their safari buses. The city is too young, only founded in the mid-nineteenth century, to make walking through the different eras of development a joy like that of wandering through Paris or Istanbul. There isn't much for easily accessible culture either as museums and theaters and the like are in short supply. Really, the majority of cultural events are held by the Goethe Institut and Alliance Française, which are great for what they are and offer but when you are looking for something uniquely Kenyan, they leave you more than a little wanting. And I'm leaving the best for last. The capital's nickname is Nairobbery. Upon hearing that I walked the streets alone while Demetra spent the mornings working on her applications to med school, one of my fellow directors, the one who used to live there, sat straight up and asked, “Seriously? That's dangerous. You shouldn't do that.” This woman worked in one of the largest slums in world and was still scared of Nairobi's streets.

Not that she was entirely wrong in this belief. My mission on Saturday morning was to find City Stadium, home of Kenya's national team. Before leaving our hotel, I checked a city map and memorized the names of the major roads I would have to walk along. I know it's not the best plan, but it's worked for me in the past, and I'm too cheap to just buy my own. Anyway, it started well. I found Tom Mboya Street and the second no problem. Then my shoes come undone. It happens. I kick my foot up against a short fence and start tying. This man drops his ballpoint pen just a foot or two from me and goes to bend and reach out and pick it up so slowly that I finish the first foot and the second by the time he straightens back up. At this point, I kid you not, I think Are you kidding me? Couldn't you be just a little less obvious about this?

I start walking, and like I expected, he follows. I'm not worried about being mugged at this point. The streets are just too crowded. I'm not particularly concerned about pickpocketing either since I can still feel my wallet in my pocket. But I do not want this guy following me to a place I've never been to before. I push through thick crowds to put some distance between us. He walks faster. I walk near walls and cars to scrape him off when he pulls up to walk abreast of me. He walks right behind me. I make sudden stops when he's too close and goes past. He waits until I pass him again. I walk on the wrong side of the sidewalk so others knock into him. He pushes through. I run across a four-lane highway to scare him off. He follows even when I make eye contact to let him know I know what he's doing. I double back when I'm convinced that I missed my turn and lose him for a few moments, but when you stand three inches taller than the average Kenyan and have an explosion of red-blond hair, it doesn't take long for anyone to find you again. I may as well have a bounty of my head for how persistent he is.

I miss the the street to City Stadium again and decide to go take an alternative route that's approximately three times longer than the way I hope to go. It's not the best plan, but I don't want to keep walking the same three Nairobi city blocks looking for this street because it's going to look odd to anyone paying attention to me. It's a very stupid reason especially when it turns out this alternative route goes through Nairobi's industrial section and the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds slim to isolated groups. Still, this guy does nothing, says nothing and makes no move to pull a knife or try to pick my pocket. I occasionally glance over at him. Everytime I find him reading something different. Once it's a loose page of The Daily Nation. Another time it's a child's lost school notebook. The edge of immediate fear dissolves, and I'm near convinced the guy is harmless, just mentally ill and means me no ill. By this point I know I'm walking generally in the right direction toward City Stadium but the right road still eludes me. I find a cake shop and ask the woman sweeping outside for directions. My companion looks up from the torn sheet of cardboard he's inspecting to repeat the question. She gives him a look but points me in right direction, the same way I was walking on. I thank her and we continue on, asking directions one or two more times until we find it. Mission accomplished after ninety minutes. Now I'm thirsty. I go into the Ukwala Supermarket and he follows me right inside, past the drink cooler and through the check-out. I manage to find the road I was originally looking for and follow it back to my hotel, making the return in a much brisker thirty minutes. My companion stops to pee along the road and greet some friends but sticks with me the rest of the way. Once we make it back to the district my hotel is in, I make some half-hearted attempts to lose him in some stores but ultimately just walk back in. He's only stopped at the security checkpoint on the second floor. He tells the guard he's with me, and I disagree. The guard believes me and sends my companion of the past two hours and ten-odd kilometers to the police. An atypical start to the day. The rest is more pedestrian and mostly involves eating or visiting Parliament and the Judiciary.

This wandering and those that preceded it have begun to form the foundations for plans for future visits to Nairobi. The aforementioned City Stadium is on this least for Kenya's final World Cup Qualifying match against Nigeria or the CECAFA football tournament. Carnivore is on the list as well. The restaurant's name may not be the most persuasive to this vegetarian, but I'm willing to ignore that for a night for a place which has twice been voted among the world's fifty best restaurants. Then there's the village market and Nairobi National Museum with its cheaper rates once my application for a resident alien card is processed. And when I get to the point where I can't stand the city anymore either, there's still Nairobi National Park. That ought to be enough to keep me busy for the next nine months or so.

Monday, October 19

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: The Weekly Kid: Kiptoo

Kiptoo's name is one of the first I learned. Mostly because he had a hernia that was really obvious when he was receiving his evening shower, but he had surgery this August to correct it and is totally recovered since then. Speaking of which, that's the sort of thing Medical sponsorships pay for. If you have the extra cash, please consider sponsoring one of our children and making sure they receive the care they need.

Wednesday, October 14

A Year (or Two) in Kenay: Further thoughts on bribes

It occurs to me that I forgot to mention something important in my earlier post on bribes. I would like to take this chance now to mention it because I find it unlikely anyone would realize this from the rather aggressive tone in took in that piece.

I don't think the people taking bribes are necessarily evil or bad in anyway. Yes, I am frustrated with and angry at them. When the request for the second bribe came in, politely described as fees necessary to cover the team's lunch and transportation and an allowance because they had to leave work for the afternoon to visit the center and make the recommendation, I had to take breaks by myself to avoid punching the contact straight in his lying mouth. But, if you put my back against the wall, I think the Children's Office and all of its members, both official and unofficial, with a finger in the pie want us to be a registered children's home, if for no other reason than that they would then have to figure out what to do with the hundred-odd children who suddenly found themselves without regular meals or beds if we were closed.

The problem is that they just see no problem in taking a little something for themselves while they're ensuring the children are cared for. After all, I am doing something good by protecting children whose parents abandoned or couldn't support them. Don't I deserve a little more for my good work? And it's not really taking anything away from the children when these wazungu run the center. They always have plenty of money. I assume those are the thoughts that allow the contact to keep a straight face when he says they need another 10,000 shillings. Because otherwise he and allow those he represents are just evil and are totally willing to take the food from children's mouths to buy themselves a new jacket.

Tuesday, October 13

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: The Weekly Kid: Chepanga

Chepanga is not so cute as she once was. Yes, she still smiles a lot and has this incredible energy, but her two front teeth have grown back in. It makes a difference.

The Nakuru center received seven new sponsorships for both children and classes this month. Let's try and do better still this coming month.