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.