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.