Monday, September 28

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

I remember seeing an article in National Geographic some years ago about the black pharaohs. Chelatan reminds me of one of the artist's renditions. I think it's the shape of her head.

Like last time, if you have the money to spare, please give more than a thought to sponsoring one of the children in Nakuru. The children just wrote their sponsor letters last week, and the kids who had sponsors for the first time just glowed. It makes a real difference in their lives.

Thursday, September 24

Considering “District 9”

If there was any buzz for the Peter Jackson-produced District 9 this summer, I missed it. Nary a poster in a lobby nor a TV spot did I see. I did, however, see the trailer before some other blockbuster earlier that year, Star Trek maybe, and that was enough. It was mind blowing. It opens up in documentary style, people responding rather negatively to the arrival of a new population in town. The language is clearly that of racists, and you expect the slum to just explode into a riot worthy of Rodney King. But then a black, rocking back and forth, says that he just doesn't trust them, and it begins to throw you for a loop. The loop then disintegrates into a kindergartner's frantic experiment with a new marker when the next scene is the interrogation of something not altogether unlike a Wookie-sized crayfish. Freaking wow. Did not see that coming. So, when I saw that District 9 was playing in Nairobi while visiting three weeks back, I did not hesitate in advocating for our attendance of it. It was our morning time kill between checking out of the hotel and taking the bus to the airport and picking up the center's latest international volunteer.

The very beginning of the movie keeps up all of the energy of this brilliant set up, from the introduction of our hapless hero Wickus as he struggles with his clip-on mic to the department's entrance into District 9 to deliver eviction notices. The documentary style, closely adhered for the first act, may seem like a cheap way to easily fill in background information, but it's appropriate. Until the plot takes a swift turn for the cinematic during the evictions, the point is that this is not unusual. The clear ignorance of those assigned to deal with the foreign population and the casual brutality of their police escorts alone are nothing worth making a movie about. They are more facts than stories and deserve a different sort of presentation.

Then there is a cut to some aliens searching for something and vague allusions to a plan. One of them dies to protect the plan, Wickus receives a face full of mysterious black fluid and we no longer have a documentary but a full-fledged horror film. Wickus' body begins to fall apart, and we don't know why. He pulls off fingernails, and teeth aren't far behind. When he finally is taken to a hospital, he is pulled out within hours by shock troops in black suits. Awake in a secret lab, he is subjected to a battery of medical tests and prepared for dissection, only barely escaping with his life, though that is not guaranteed with the government running alerts on his escape and the military actively searching for him. This is good stuff. The paranoia, the sense of hopelessness as Wickus is forced to pull the trigger one more, the terror of his accelerating condition, they are never more acute or powerful.

Then it all falls apart. I can locate the precise moment. At the beginning of a mission back into the lab to retrieve what remains of the black fluid, Wickus splatters one of the guards against the far wall. When his alien partner demands to know why when Wickus had earlier ordered that no one was to be harmed, his response? “He shot me!” From here on out, it's just another action movie. That's a little unfair. It still has some brilliant segments, especially the final confrontation in District 9 as the advantage constantly shifts between Wickus, the aliens, the government and an absolutely insane Nigerian gang, but it's certainly not what I was hoping for from such a brilliant premise of turning the arrival of aliens on Earth not into some fantastic war or opportunity for growth but into their transfer into slums. Rather than go for the exceptional, it opts for cannibalism and human bodies that explode into a fine red mist.

A lot of the critical response I have seen has focused on how District 9 is this great throwback to science fiction as political allegory and bringing a little thematic dignity back to the genre. Seeing as how the movie is set entirely within and around Johannesburg, I can see how apartheid is the obvious target, but did anyone else feel the allegory was more appropriate for homosexuality and coming out of the closet? An apparently all-male species that easily indulges in cross dressing? An entirely emasculated man becoming closer to the aliens only after a lot of self hatred? A wife so distant in the background that the machine-o'-death has more screen time than her? Just saying this deserves some greater thought by someone on Metaphilm.

Tuesday, September 22

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: In the news

It's a real shame that print journalists rarely ever make the news instead of just cover it. When your name is Janet Cooke or Stephen Glass or Jayson Blair, it's pretty bad for the profession, but as unsavory as those stories are, they are still a far sight better than those about the likes of Daniel Pearl and Stephen Farrell.

It's a shame those are the only two cases because if reporters found their names on the page and outside the by-lines more often, they might approach their stories with a bit more tact. They would better realize just how foolish one can appear when their quotes are taken out of context and how embarrassing some personal details can be. Reporters might treat their sources more respectfully then and generally be more careful in their coverage. They might spend more time considering why they are writing their article.

So I find it rather important to be in that situation now. The article isn't exactly about me. It's more about a situation that I find myself in. It's kind of like claiming that I voted in the last presidential election and thus am an authority, but the article does reference Pokot and is about a national drought that I am seeing the effects of, even if Nakuru is safely inside that slice of western Kenya not afflicted by the worst of the drought according to The New York Times' graphic. In fact, heavy rain clouds have reliably drifted through the sky every afternoon for the past month and, more often than not, have let loose a short drizzle. Not that it helps much since the principal growing season is well past.

"Lush Land Dries Up, Withering Kenya's Hopes" is in that unfortunate class of famine-and-coup stories which are the only way the developing world ever receives any news coverage in the West and plays that angle for all that's worth. Through the personal stories of Turkana villagers waiting for the delivery of emergency food, Jeffrey Gettleman does not miss a chance to describe the most dramatic effects of the drought. “[T]he picturesque savanna is now littered with an unusually large number of sun-bleached bones.” A starving man begins choking on his porridge, “the color and texture of sand,” and only stops when his granddaughter offers him a “capful of water.” Children are starving to death, and government officials readily deny the most obvious reasons. And all of this is happening in one of the most developed nations in Africa. By the end of the article, the reader cannot help but feel further depressed about the chances that Africa, if one can ever refer to such an immense and diverse continent in the singular, will be separate from the euphemism “developing.”

To his credit, Mr. Gettleman, to use the very proper style of the Times, does point out the inability (or is it unwillingness?) of the government to deal with its own problems, but I think he misses their greatest failure. It's not just that the Parliament appears more interested now in minimizing the power of President Kibaki by denying his political appointments than in feeding the people but that the water supply should not be a problem in Kenya. The Mau Forest is an abundant source of water, but the Moi administration more than eagerly sold off huge tracts of it to settlers and shell companies owned by family and friends. The Kenyan government has been so ridiculously corrupt that it has put more effort into protecting and growing the fortunes of politicians than the lives of citizens.

And I would like to point out that the reports of ethnic conflict, as least as described by Mr. Gettleman, are exaggerated. When things go bad in Kenya, sides will form along tribal lines, but that the Turkana and Pokot are fighting is evidence of nothing. Even in the best of times, the Pokot will still steal the Turkana's goats and the Turkana will steal them plus some right back. It's what they do. Forty years after independence and no government has demonstrated or attempted an effective way to deal with it. You may as well say tensions are high in Europe because the Greeks and Turks don't particularly care for each other.

I wonder why this article was written and received placement on page A1. To make those Americans who read the Times feel better about their own situations and realize how much worse it could be? A part of me wants to say that there is a call to action contained within this article, a plea for food and water aid to keep the people alive, but Mr. Gettleman seems plenty ready to deny the possibility of that. When the United Nations and World Food Program are unable to raise the funds to protect some four million Kenyans from starvation because donor nations are no longer certain of the viability of the state, who can help?

I only hope that it wasn't written as witness to yet another catastrophe.

Monday, September 21

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

I would like to introduce a new feature to Spice of Life this week. I call it “The Weekly Kid.” You ever hear of The Daily Puppy? Same idea. An opportunity to celebrate cute things only with the kids who live at the center rather than with domesticated wolves.

I do it all for you, my faithful readers. Since coming to Kenya and making a sincere attempt to post regularly, I have been amazed by the responses I have received. People I haven't spoken with since high school are commenting and letting me know that they enjoy reading my brain droppings. It all means a lot to me, so I want to do a little something extra to fill the four days of the week I don't post. Hope you like it.

His name is Manu, short for Emmanuel. He's in preschool and still has all of his baby teeth. His generally bright disposition and eagerness to hold my hand when I'm walking him and the others to Grayla Junior Academy already put him in contention for cutest kid at the center. The teeth just kick that up to 11. When he tries to say his brother's name, it sounds more like “die Mutti” than “Timothy,” and when he wants to say “this,” it comes out “dix.” At that point, it's hard to resist the impulse to stuff him into my luggage and take him back to the States with me.

If you agree and have a little extra money in your bank account, please consider visiting IHF's website and sponsoring him or one of our other children. As IHF is run entirely by volunteers, from those designing the promotional materials to grant writers to center directors, all of the money goes directly toward supporting them. Your money pays only for their food, their clothes, their medicine, their tuition and everything else that they need. You can be sure that your money will have a direct impact on the child's life. As a student of the dismal science might say, it's a high benefit-to-cost ratio. In return, you'll receive a letter and picture of the child once a month.

I'm not a big fan of doing things like this, asking for money that is, but I believe in the Foundation's mission and accountability. Please give sponsorship more than a moment's thought.

Friday, September 18

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Harvest

I have never pictured myself as a farmer. My mom did keep two vegetable gardens in our backyard when I was younger, but my involvement amounted to knocking over the old corn stalks with whatever stout stick might be readily available and shucking peas. Never much wanted to be one either. I know that the organic, local food movements have brought a new romance and dignity to the profession, but those have always smacked of a certain elitism to me.

Nevertheless, I can now say that I have spent an afternoon in the fields working on the maize harvest. Basically corn, but unlike any I've before seen in the States. The kernels are about three times the size those you find frozen in the grocery store and not as sweet. A paler sort of yellow, too. More sun-bleached khaki than sunflower. Thus, I prefer to write maize in this post, but you get the idea.

I could not exactly say that I was anticipating harvest day. I was prepared for disappointment. Our farmhand had begun to slash the shortest and least productive stalks weeks earlier for cow feed. Birds were scavenging what remained. Whenever I walked through, it seemed that I only found half- and full-eaten ears. Every time those in the know told us that we had to wait a little longer for the husks and stalks to dry completely, it meant we put off the day we had to organize all the children only to find that all the field had produced enough only for a meal or two.

But it came earlier this week. We gathered the children, passed out some nails to strip the husks and some sacks to gather the yield, and went in. The kids loved it. The first husks they stripped, they pulled out the silk to put on their heads. They sang songs in whatever language seemed most appropriate at the moment. When they felt tired, they sat down and stripped the hulls from the stalks to the white and sucked out the sugar water. Low fructose corn syrup, I guess.

I liked it, too. It was hard work, yes. I have the cuts on my hands to prove it. Those husks can surprise you. They have edges on them. Yet it was good to work with my hands for a few hours. When your work is the care, education and betterment of children, you may feel noble and all, but definite success is fleeting and only possible in the distant future. There are times when you could not be more proud of the children, and times when they do things so stupid you just want to lock them in their rooms and away from decent society forever. With your hands, though, you can say at the end of the day, “You see that maize? I picked it. It's there because of me.” Soon enough we'll eat the maize and all evidence of the day's work will be gone and children who become mature, responsible adults will last forever, but it's nice to have a little win every once and a while.

We were fortunate to harvest what we did. I may complain about the damage done by the birds who tore through the husks or the cows who would eat entire stalks when no one was paying attention, but at least we had something for them to feed on. Driving to Pokot and walking through the city, in the ditches and as bed-sized plots in yards, you could find plenty of maize fields, but even stalks half as tall as ours were rare. I can't recall seeing any other fields even produced ears. Those stalks were felled early to feed cows. The drought is real. Our field lies at the bottom of the hill most of the center is built along, and the waste water from both the kitchen and wash area runs into it. The water may be dirty, but it is some nourishment, and that is enough.

Wednesday, September 16

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Lake Nakuru and Menengai Crater

There is only one reason anyone outside of East Africa has ever heard of Nakuru or bothers to visit. That would be Lake Nakuru National Park, home to massive flocks of greater and lesser flamingos, site of one of Kenya's largest black rhinoceros sanctuaries, and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Every local tour agency offers a package which includes a trip through the park, and if you see anyone white in town, you can be sure they're here to check out the park.

Finally, two months after arriving in Kenya, I managed my own safari there this past weekend. That extended delay was only encouraged by a completely disastrous attempt to visit in July when Demetra and I walked to the front gate only to learn that no foot traffic at all is allowed inside and that between the two of us, we could only pay for half the entrance fee with the money in our pockets. Kind of disappointing, but that's over and in the distant past now.

To put it up front, the wait was completely worth it. Driving through a park with a guide rather than going through at my own speed under my own power is not my first choice, but nothing could distract from how excellent the park is. We're riding past families of warthogs and herds of giraffes and zebras and impalas and gazelles and water buffalo and waterbuck and baboons, and I can't help but think that these don't belong in real life but movies. They should be cracking wise and singing not taking mouthfuls of grass.. But here I am, watching them watch us. A storybook come true. There was even a rhinoceros. Our driver was all over that one. When the van in front of us stopped for pictures and blocked our view, he threw ours into reverse to take a second road which the rhinoceros was heading toward. Thing was bleeding massive. Could have taken out the van no problem if it had been so inclined, and that was a distinct possibility as the driver adjusted the van so often for a better view.

Easily my favorite were the flamingos. I had always imagined them as such awkward birds, a feeling only encouraged by the Queen of Heart's determination to use them as croquet mallets, but they are actually quite dainty. Every step is precise and delicate, and unlike the pelicans they share the lake with, flamingos do not dive into the water with a splash. No, they flare their wings at the last possible moment and plant their feet. Second favorite would have to be the mongoose. When I first saw it running through the underbrush, I wasn't even sure it was a mammal it moved in such a lizard-like fashion.

While the fauna is the main attraction, the flora deserves its own due. It is amazing to me that such a diversity of land could be find within the same park. Driving alongside the lake, you find yourself in a lush wetland. Go a little farther out from it, and you're in a thick forest. Go to the other side of the mountain and you find yourself on the savanna. Incredible.

The part of me that likes to be clever likes to think of Lake Nakuru as the ideal American park on a number of levels. Two, to be precise. As I already mentioned, no foot traffic is allowed inside the park. The official reason is for the visitor's protection as there are lions inside. That doesn't convince me as seeing them is so rare. I think it's really just a deal to give more business to tour agencies. In either case, it means that walking is prohibited. The appeal to the many weight-challenged Americans should be obvious. There was also a distinctly democratic sense to the park in that all of the species of animals seemed so comfortable with each other. Yes, they may stick with their own herds and kinds, but they mingle while foraging and share the same water. No problems. An animal melting pot or salad bowl or whatever your favorite symbol for American diversity. In retrospect, it seems so conducive to American health and sensibilities, I'm surprised there aren't any like it in the States.

We finished our safari with a drive to Menengai Crater. There isn't much to it, just a vista of the surrounding land. There are trails, but our guide warned us they weren't safe, especially for wazungu. Because of bandits or because we don't have as sure of footing, I don't know. So we just sat. That was nice. It reminded me how much I miss parks. In Spokane I could bike for a half hour in either direction and be outside the city and in a park, and there was still Riverside at the city center. It's nice to have a place of quiet and beyond the rush.

Monday, September 14

Considering "Revolutionary Road"

I made a poor choice of surprise for my first Surprise-and-a-Treat Night. I have been bored by movies, and I have been hard pressed to remember anything about it as soon as I left the theater. I have felt manipulated by by movies, and I have been disappointed by movies (I'm looking at you Australia and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Don't try slinking into oblivion.). But it is the rare movie that I wish I had never seen. As you might have guessed by now from the title of this post, Sam Mendes' Revolutionary Road is one of those movies.

It's hard to point to any single classic element of cinema as the source of my frustration. The score, as simple and as repetitive as it is, is perfect. It is employed to set the earliest scenes and at the moments of highest drama but is always appropriate. The kudos surrounding Kate Winslet's performance are well earned, and the rest of the cast play their roles well. The only off note is sounded by Leonardo DiCaprio who comes off as something of a brute, prepared only for violence, when something more subtle is called for. The direction and pacing are fine. No complaints with the scripting or costumes or set design either. Really, when you look at the individual parts, it's a fine film.

It's only when I pull back and consider the overall effect that it begins to leave me nauseous. It's the motive pervading Revolutionary Road that irritates me most. When a cast and crew that has already received so much attention from the Academy creates such a self serious film based on an acclaimed work of literature, it's rather impossible to consider it anything other than Oscar bait. In and of itself, this is not a problem. While I prefer to side with C.S. Lewis on this and attempt to create honest art rather than art which will be great, bait can still lead to some fine films like There Will Be Blood. Revolutionary Road took a turn for the disastrous when it decided that the theme which will bring in the statuettes is that the American suburbs are stultifying and encourage conformity thereby crushing the human spirit and zest for life. Whoa. My mind is blown. Brain is all over the wall it was so blown. Then it takes a twenty-pound sledge to the remains just in case the point didn't come across. Film set in the 1950's? Check. Insecure husband works in a cubicle? Check. An incredibly ironic name for their street which only serves to further draw out how not revolutionary their lives are? Check. An incredibly ironic advertisement composed by the husband which only serves to further draw out how he isn't actually doing what he really wants to do? Check.

It was awfully generous of Revolutionary Road to provide its own best analysis of itself. Trying to convince her husband that they need to abandon their pleasant home on Revolutionary Road for Paris, the only place where he ever really felt alive, Winslet argues that everyone in the community has told them they're special, meant for something better, but they aren't. Only in this case it's not everyone else telling this movie it's special. The movie's telling us its special in every aspect of its production and performance. But it isn't.

The suburbs may very well be the refuge of the middle class and enclaves of those who prefer the norm to change, but somehow people still prefer to live in them. Some even manage to thrive. Who could imagine that? We are not slaves to our environments. We choose and find our own happiness and fulfillment. Anyone who says differently is posing a poor excuse for their own misery and should spend a few months in a slum. See how long their existential crises lasts when they actually have to put effort into their survival.

Saturday, September 12

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Another favorite picture

I haven't had much time to write this past week as the senior director left and two new directors were hired to take her place, so please accept this brief photo post in the stead of the more traditional anecdote or essay.

There are a lot of things I like about this picture. The composition for one. The layer of sand rises to meet the bushes on the hill's crest of the hill which touch the clouds on the horizon, finally ending in the clear blue sky at the very top. The women, especially the one flaring her shawl, provide powerful focal points. The color is rich.

But this is where it gets interesting. Clearly, I like this picture, but it bothers me, too. Pokot simply does not look like this. The color is more muted, less intense. If this picture were left out in the sun for a few hours, then the color would begin to approach that of Pokot. Fortunately, that's unnecessary as the original captures it all quite well. That picture was processed through Picasa which tweaked more than a few settings. The result was this picture, one that I find ultimately more striking but less honest, and therein is the problem. More than most any other art medium, photography can claim to present the greatest truth of its subject, but even in something as minor as modifying the colors, it already is departing from that truth. This was never a problem when I stuck with black-and-white.

If you want to see other pictures, less good, from Pokot and the center in Nakuru, please check out my Picasa album.

Wednesday, September 9

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Orphans with families

Working at an orphanage is demanding. Seeing to the children's health, safety, education, happiness engrosses you, sometimes to the point that you forget why you're doing it. During the past school holiday, we allowed many of the children to return to Pokot, a chance to get away from the city and return to their tribal culture. About a week and a half ago, we visited the villages to pick the children up, and a mother refused to return one of them, a pre-schooler, to us. My hackles went straight up. She hadn't been able to provide for him and given him up to us. He was our kid now. She had no right to him.

We informed the founder of the Foundation of this the next day. She was glad. It was a much needed cold splash to the face. The boy shouldn't be in an institution. He should be with his family.

I hate my job. Absolutely abhor it. It's not the long hours or the dulling government paperwork. It's not even the children who decide that the best possible time to break the rules is after midnight. It's that my job exists at all.

I'll let you in on a secret. Despite the title of orphanage, the vast majority of the children who live here have living parents. No more than ten have no parents whatsoever, and they still have other relations that would be willing to take care of them. The children should be with their families, immediate or distant, and not in an institution with a hundred others where they can't get the particular attention and all the care that they need. But they can't because their families are subsistence farmers in a drought-stricken land, because the nation lacks a strong economy with jobs for the educated, because the government is too corrupt to protect water sources, much less provide adequate social services.

We and the center are only here because things are wrong with the world. If everything were right, we wouldn't be necessary. We should dream for that world.

Friday, September 4

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Buying bootleg DVD's

Work at an orphanage that is home to over 100 children is exhausting. Big surprise. And, as fun as living with the children, eating with the children, teaching the children, putting the children to sleep at night, waking the children up in the morning and playing with the children can be, we occasionally need time away from them.

That is why we instituted Surprise and a Treat Night. The treat is biscuits or crisps or some other goodie with a British name. The surprise is a bootleg DVD. One of us chooses the surprise, the other the treat. And then we switch the next week.

When my turn to find the surprise first came around, I was, I am ashamed to admit it, more than a little scared. The problem was certainly not finding one. This isn't the black market where you need to know the right people and use the right hand jive at the right time. To say that bootleg DVD's are abundant in Nakuru is a gross understatement. If you spend any time in the city whatsoever, you have to go out of your way to avoid the street vendors. They set up shop in front of every store whose owners do not ask them to move on, and there are at least three on every block, both sides of the street. The selection isn't bad either. Hollywood releases appear on the streets within two weeks of opening in American theaters, and so long as you like star-driven films, there is a rich catalog to choose from. They even have the taste to package all of the Godfather movies on a single disc, even if they use the cover of the video game to advertise it.

No, my concern was looking like at idiot tourist while flipping through the selection and being ripped off. Bargaining over two hundred shilling, rough equal to $3 American, may seem like the height of arrogant Western tourism. That's change. You can't even buy a full meal at a fast-food joint in the States with that much, but the Kenyan on the street could eat for a day on it. Still, knowing you're getting cheated is a more than disquieting feeling, and when you intend on spending a few more months in the city, you don't want to be setting a bad precedent for future exchanges. My original strategy to deal with this was to watch the vendors out of the corner of my eye while walking by at full speed. If I saw one I wanted, the plan was to stop, grab it, pay and get out. No time for haggling or being seen. That never worked. On the rare occasion I actually saw a DVD I wanted to pick up, I had already passed by. Turning around would only smack of desperation and kick the price up a few notes.

I realized this Friday afternoon. Then I humbled myself to stop in front of a vendor and flip through their selection. There was no hard sale. She pointed at a few options on display that I might like. Classic Schwarzenegger Films? Ultimate Horror Movie Collection Vol. 3? I settled on a collection that included Revolutionary Road. 200 shilling and a handful of my popcorn? Sold. I think the woman laughed to her friend and I definitely heard her say “two hundred” as I walked away, but that's still better than anything Demetra had paid.

One note, only buy your bootlegs from Dubai Digital Movie. They fill their DVD's to the far edges of the disc with at least 12 films on each. These things are high quality. No worrying about jerky cameras that inexplicably periodically go out of focus while filming a static screen. Dubai gets its rips from promotional copies as often as possible. My only complaint: who decides who selects the films for each set? I really want to meet the person who thought there was a demographic desperate to have Twilight, The Wrestler, The Alphabet Killer, Behind Enemy Lines: Colombia, and Slumdog Millionaire all on the same disc. Maybe it's a family collection, something for everyone?