08 August 2007

coming awake in kenya

I am almost certain that if you took a person, drugged them, and left them lying crumpled to awake in Kenya, particularly in rural Kenya, it would not be difficult to convince that person that the year was 1894 when they woke up. Really.

If not for the advent of the modern motorcar, there would be almost no evidence that the twentieth century had ever dawned. Houses are built by hand, from hand-mixed concrete and wood cut with a manual hand saw. Scaffolding on an unfinished, six-story office building in Nairobi was made not from steel but from trees that had been felled so recently that some still had branches and leaves. Brooms are nothing more than a collection of sturdy grasses, bundled together with string. Toilets are often nothing more than holes in the ground, also known as squatty potties.

That is not to say that all of Kenya is this way. For instance, the home we stayed in did have modern toilets, although getting them to flush was another story.

The point is that the conditions and cultural practices in the remote highlands of Kenya are probably the polar opposite of those in the United States.

As an example, time is an interesting thing in Kenya. For someone from an advanced, industrialized nation (like, say, America), time is an extremely frustrating aspect of Kenyan life. You see, there is this telling phrase in Swahili, “Pole, pole.” Translated, it means “Slowly, slowly.” Time has very little value. There is always tomorrow. Efficiency is still a foreign concept. For Kenyans, they would rather things be done traditionally than efficiently.

In the kitchen, they cook over open flame. A fire is built and a pot is placed on top of the fire, filled with who knows what. The butcher in town cut some beef for us from a cow that had been slaughtered and hung in a tin shack that morning. He asked which portion we wanted and we pointed to the lower half. Mind you, this is literally a bloody cow hanging from a rusty hook in a tin shack. All that separates us from the butcher 4 feet away is a piece of wire mesh, presumably in place to catch the chunks of cow that are about to begin flying. He grabs that back legs of the cow and pulls out his machete. Yes, his blunted 14-inch knife is his only tool. In a series of incredible blows, he manages to mangle and separate the piece of the cow we pointed at. Bit of it are all over the walls and the mesh screen. Short of breath from the immense effort of basically hacking a cow in half with a glorified butter knife, he places the beef in a plastic sack and weighs it on that scale from Monty Python’s Holy Grail. You know the scale...they used it to see if the woman, accused of being a witch, weighed the same as a duck - and she did by the way which presumably resulted in her being burned.

Anyway, that is Kenya. Some things were so rudimentary that I even began to think that moving to Kenya and starting a business would be a good idea.

I actually had the idea to start a butchery right next to the one where we bought our beef. For $500, I could have a nice steel table to cut on and a selection of sharp knives. I would be head and shoulders better than that guy, run him out of business, and have the entire town coming to me for meat. I thought this sounded attractive. That is how desperate I was for someone to run a proper business.

The roads also left us reeling. I couldn’t believe that a country would let their roads get into that kind of shape. You can be driving behind a car and then it just falls into a pothole, almost like the one that those Nazis fell into during one of the memorable chase scenes in Blues Brothers. The car is missing and you keep on driving. Maybe it isn’t that extreme, but it’s close. It is bad enough that you can go 20 minutes on a major highway without ever getting out of 2nd gear. It is bad enough that everyone in the car lets out a sigh of relief when you finally turn onto the muddy, flooded dirt road. I mean, when faced with bone-jarring potholes on the asphalt or vomit-inducing sliding around muddy trails, it has to tell you how bad the potholes are if I say we would rather be vomiting. Well, that was the case. On the asphalt, you are truthfully afraid that you might die. On the muddy trails, you just feel like you wish you could die.

Food is something most people worry about when traveling to Kenya. Truth be told, it really isn’t bad. It is, however, bland. Imagine having no grocery store nearby. Then imagine that you had no refrigeration. And now realize that you have one day a week to buy produce from a farmer’s market, with the only products available being those that are locally grown. Now, think of what is available to cook for dinner. Let me go ahead and tell you: rice, beans, pasta, spinach, potatoes. We had some combination of that pretty much every meal for 8 days. No cheese or other dairy products - they require refrigeration. Same goes for meat. And forget seasonings. Salt was available, but apparently precious as it was used sparingly. They did have some strange chili sauce in a ketchup bottle, the Kenyan answer to Cholula, which I applied liberally to everything. That really made my digestive system happy, let me tell you. But since everyone else had the same symptoms as I did (we were all running like a Kenyan marathoner), I never thought twice about using it.

We managed one incredible meal in Nairobi, at the Nairobi Java House. It is an American-owned restaurant that caters to the sizable population of white foreigners in Nairobi. They even have Heinz Ketchup sitting on the table. Stef and DeLean (our South African friend who went with us) split a cheeseburger and fish and chips. I had a BBQ beef sandwich and a milkshake. Pastor Willie, still running from 22 straight meals of beans and rice, had a veggie burger. All together, it probably cost about $12. We eat there every time we’re in Kenya (this was my third time) and it never fails us. I would kiss the owner if I saw him. He is my hero, and could potentially be eligible for sainthood. I’m not quite sure.

There is more about Kenya. So much more. We flew on an airplane that seated fewer people than a Chrysler mini van. One night, we think we heard a dog eat a rooster - or mate with it. We splashed brown water on ourselves out of a bucket and called it a shower. We met a rat named Reggie who kept us company at night. We smelled bad, we felt bad, we looked bad. And yet, lest you believe that it was all bad, we had an amazing trip. We got to connect with the orphans. We got to see the incredible mountain vistas overlooking the Great Rift Valley. When the rains passed, we saw more stars in the night sky than one ever thought possible. We flew right over the top of the tallest peak in Africa. We were blessed with a new perspective and a new appreciation for our chilly home in Johannesburg. We are alive and better for what we’ve seen. All in all, we are thankful.


  1. Wow! You captured my time there in words that I never thought to use. I feel proud of my self for making it over 3 months there. Thank you again for giving the children the pictures from me. It means more to me that you will ever know. Shannon

  2. I was laughing and crying, wishing I was in Kenya again, and feeling so glad I'm not, all at once! Thank you for your truthful words and the beautiful pictures.
    Love you both, Mom