Like any place in the world, Kenya has its pros and cons. Unfortunately the cons seem to be outweighing the pros of late and I’ve been a little frustrated with this place.
My frustration comes from the fact that nothing works. The long rains have arrived in Kenya and everything shuts down. They come every year and everyone knows they’re coming, yet no does the work necessary to prepare for them. Last week my apartment went 48 hours without any electricity. That means no hot showers, no internet, and going to sleep at 9:00 out of sheer boredom. Even after the 48 hour stint, electricity has been intermittent at best and I’ve come to see it as a privilege, not a right. It’s hard to plan or be productive when you have no idea if you’ll be able to turn on your computer. Even worse than the electricity is the problem of traffic. Nairobi’s roads are not capable of handling the traffic as it is but when you add torrential rain, poor drainage, bad drivers and more pot holes, getting around town becomes a nightmare. On Tuesday I spent 4 hours in traffic to go less than 20 miles. It might have been okay except for the fact that selfish drivers pass you on the other side and cut in when they see another car coming. Selfish people make things worse for everyone around them.
Anyway, I don’t want to be such a downer but it’s difficult knowing Kenya’s potential and comparing that to where the country is today. If people would work together instead of cheating and stealing to get just a little ahead, if corrupt politicians would be replaced with true leaders, this country would be truly great. It has the intellectual capital, land, resources and location to become wealthy, yet poverty persists because individuals think more of themselves than the people around them. No, I’m not advocating the demise of capitalism (I think capitalism, not aid is the solution) but that people obey the rule of law, stop stealing and diligently perform the jobs that they are given. Then the unbelievable inefficiencies of this country would be reduced and Kenyans would have the ability to pull themselves out of poverty rather than having to rely on aid. I would also like a million dollars but alas, the world is far from perfect.
As I’ve mentioned previously, I really dislike the city of Dar es Salaam. It’s hot, humid, mosquito-infested and crowded. However, I must say the food in downtown is better than anywhere I’ve been. The Middle Eastern and Indian influences are obvious. I feel like I’m back in Cairo again, not only because the food actually has flavor but because I see more Arabs than black people.
This experience of traveling alone in Africa is stretching me in incredible ways. It’s not without its challenges but I know that it’s ultimately making me grow. Today I was doing a focus group outside Dar and literally thought I would melt. I was doing a survey inside this woman’s house in the middle of the day. The house was humid, dark, and smoky with tons of people inside. I’m not claustrophobic but I felt like I had to escape and catch some air before I passed out. Climbing into the air-conditioned car afterwards felt like heaven. I fell asleep for the entire ride home because it felt so incredibly good.
To escape the heat on Sunday, I went with a couple Tanzanian guys to a waterpark outside the city. I met these guys a couple of weeks ago when I was watching a football match at a restaurant in town. They told me we were going to the beach and somehow we ended up at this waterpark. I didn’t have a bathing suit and neither did they so we just ended up swimming in our boxers. It was a little strange swimming in boxers with women in full hijabs sitting outside the pool. Dar es Salaam is a fascinating mix of cultures and religions that somehow manage to get along.
Speaking of cultures, yesterday I did a walking dinner tour of downtown Dar. No tour company offers these, I just decided to walk around and try everything that looked interesting. I bought bananas, sugarcane, an organge, chicken, naan, chips, salad and a coke. The price? Less than 6 US dollars. I got ridiculously lost and walked forever but the electricity was out so what else was I going to do? It was super interesting how each street had a different feel. Some streets had more street vendors, while others were quiet. One street held at least 4 or 5 Hindu temples with people chanting inside. Mosque street obviously houses a lot of Muslims. Despite its unwelcoming qualities, Dar es Salaam really is an interesting blend of cultures that makes for an interesting experience.
Tanzanian Water Park
The Mighty Boabab
The Drive from Arusha to Dar
On Tuesday, I traveled to a rural area of Burundi to conduct another focus group with a Belgian organization called Village Imuhira. They work in education and community development in one part of rural Burundi. As we drove to the village, my thoughts turned towards the value of human life. Our driver was going ridiculously fast, weaving through traffic, and barely missing cyclists carrying huge loads of bananas and charcoal. After 3 months in Africa I’m used to crazy driving, but it’s made me think whether drivers really care about other people on the road. They probably wouldn’t even face legal action for killing a poor villager. Compare that to the States where you could go to prison for years if you killed someone for reckless driving. There just seems to be a different perspective on the inherent value of human life here. It reminds me of one of my favorite films, The Constant Gardner where they ask the same question: Are African lives less valuable than our own? I even did some more research and found an articleabout lives being valued differently from a life insurance perspective in the United States. I understand why it happens, but it’s still an interesting thought to consider.
I’ve found that one of the most exhausting and difficult things is the inability to communicate effectively. Burundi has been challenging in that respect. I would say my translator is learning English but definitely not fluent. I repeatedly have to say things louder, slower, and use different words to say the same thing. Eventually we’ll find a French cognate that he understands or something he learned in school. It’s frustrating when you need specific information and you’re having to pry really hard to reach it.
Of course I have to remind myself that the difficulty of communication is nothing compared to the hardships these people face every single day. Yesterday I saw a naked kid crying in the dirt with flies all over his face. I have to admit it was uncomfortable. I just can’t imagine being a Burundian my age, earningsomething like 2 dollars a day and looking ahead to the rest of my life. What will it look like? Would I be able to hope for the future? I really believe the problem with poverty is not being poor; it’s the hopelessness that comes from having no other options. Provide opportunity and people will endure hardship for a lifetime, even on the simple hope that their children will have a better future.