The news from Kenya, part one

English: A lone giraffe in Nairobi National Park.
Giraffe in Nairobi National Park. Image via Wikipedia

I’m writing this from Kaimosi mission in Western Province, where I’m about half-way through my month in Kenya. I have electricity at the moment, so I want to post some notes on my trip while I can.

Electricity and water have been quite erratic since getting to Kaimosi, more off than on it seems. It’s Sunday night, December 18, and I’ve been staying at Kaimosi Friends Theological College for a week now.  My first week here was both thrilling and challenging. I was quite sick for most of the week.  Intense nausea, headache, very weak – perhaps altitude sickness, perhaps some lingering effects of the malaria medication, perhaps something I ate or drank, all exacerbated by my living situation, which I’ll write about later.

Still, the past week was my chance to meet with people and visit classes here at the college before the term ended Friday and people left for the break. I’ve committed to writing several articles for Quaker and other publications in the States about my trip, so despite barely being able to get out of bed, I arranged a very full schedule of interviews and appointments for early mornings and late afternoons, and then collapsed in the middle of the day to sleep.

But I’ll write a lot more about Kaimosi at another time. What I’d like to do now is go back and share some of the first portion of my Kenya trip – my stay in Nairobi – and then I’ll work my way forward chronologically in later posts. I had hoped to upload some photos, but my Internet connection (basically cellular dial-up via a flash drive) just doesn’t want to let that happen. So I’ll start with text, include some links, and if I can figure something out about photos later, I’ll add some then.


My flights from the U.S. all went smoothly, everything arriving and departing on time. On the flight from London to Nairobi, my seat mate was an Indian man who lives in Toronto. He’s a trucker who makes a monthly round trip all the way from Toronto to Laredo, Texas. He was on his way to Mombasa for a month to visit his mom, who was not well.

Once I arrived in Nairobi, it took well over an hour to get my visa, clear customs, and find my bag. But Bernard Ngamau, my ride, was there waiting for me at the end of the line, my name printed large on his card. Bernard is the driver I had hired for my two days in Nairobi. The ride from the airport took another hour or so (Bernard told me that Nairobi has a red light rule that says after 8:00 pm you don’t have to obey red lights if no one is coming – my kind of rule!), so it was about midnight when we finally arrived at Chris’s house.

My host while in Nairobi was Chris Steel, who handles the education programs for USAID in Kenya. Thanks to a freelance assignment earlier in the year, I had written an alumni profile of Chris for Penn’s Graduate School of Education. When my original plans for the trip fell apart with the cancellation of the SLS program, I decided to continue with the trip anyway, so I asked Chris for advice on hotels in Nairobi. Instead, he invited me to stay with him!

I could not have asked for a more gracious, interesting, and generous host. Despite my getting in so late, Chris was up and waiting and we had a glass of wine and got a bit acquainted. I was pretty dead tired, though, so Chris showed me to my room – exceptional! Second floor of the guest house, it was a big open room with bed, sitting area, and work area, plus a bathroom with a big shower. Heaven! Chris provided a cell phone while I was there, and also access to a US government phone line. I got in a short message to Nancy before retiring.

I was awake the next morning before 6:00, ragged with jet lag and lack of sleep, but feeling so happy! Had a large breakfast with Chris, prepared by his cook (a different Bernard). Not only eggs and toast and fruit and juice and yogurt, but also a double cappuccino!

I had scheduled a meeting in the afternoon with Billy Kahora, editor of Kwani?, Kenya’s leading literary magazine, which was founded by the writer Binyavana Wainaina (go right now and get his memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place – I just finished it and it’s beautifully written and beautifully moving). That gave me all morning to wander with Bernard (the driver Bernard), whose immediate response to most of my questions and requests was a spirited, “Oh sure, oh sure!”

A day about town

Traffic was extreme all day. Lots of cars and trucks and matatus, the colorful gypsy buses brightly painted with dramatic images and slogans, all stalled in lengthy backups and navigating the many areas where the roads are torn up and construction equipment blocks lanes because of the China-funded construction of a vast system of fly-overs (elevated roadways) that one day are supposed to alleviate congestion on the roads below.

Bernard seemed fearless, which, it turns out, he was, having previously been a race car driver for the famed East Africa Rally! Bernard told me a running joke in Kenya: because there are so many Toyota vehicles, there is a saying in Kenya that “Every car in front of you is a Toyota.” Then, he said, after Toyota had to recall its cars for brake failure, people joked, “Thank god the Toyota is not behind me!”

The traffic is so bad that many people, including Chris, may start their work day at 5:00 or 6:00 am just to avoid the worst of the traffic jam.  Internet traffic is another problem; there’s not enough capacity to handle the load, so I was told that during business hours between 10:00 am and 6:00 pm, Internet access speed is cut because of all the web traffic.

At one point Bernard took a short cut to avoid the worst of the city traffic, but that instead dumped us into a long line of cars backed up behind  an official sign that read “Friendly Police Stop.” We were never stopped, however, by any police, friendly or otherwise, and I never figured out why the backup. The traffic is truly amazing, but at least the matatus provide some entertainment. One cheerful looking matatu had the words “You are going to shut up” painted in beautiful lettering on its side.

Our first destination was the Sheldrick elephant orphanage. On the way I got a running commentary from Bernard on sites of interest (mostly shopping malls and hotels, of which he was quite proud).  Once we escaped the traffic at the heart of the city, it was a pretty smooth ride out past the Ngong Forest, which is adjacent to Nairobi National Park, to the elephant orphanage. The orphanage was very moving – the place, the people, and the amazing abandoned baby elephants who are rescued, returned to health, then returned to the wild.  When  I can, I’ll try to add some images from my visit.

Next up was the giraffe feeding tower of the Nairobi game park. The tower is in a corner of the park where you can climb up to eye level and feed the giraffes, who all know to wander over for a steady supply of food. Some warthogs also tagged along at their feet to root out the food the giraffes dropped.

From there we headed back into the city to the offices of Kwani? (the name means “So what?”) Kwani? was to have been a major partner in my SLS Kenya program before the program was cancelled for security reasons. I had a very good, relaxed meeting with Billy, the editor, and with another visiting American writer, Ming Holden, who was part of last year’s SLS program and was back in Kenya to lead a workshop with abused women.  The meeting was so relaxed, in fact, (and I was so jet lagged) that I forgot to take any photos, which I greatly regret, since I will be writing an article about Billy and Kwani? when I get back to the States.

We sat out under a tree in the side yard, talked about our work, I got some leads on Kenyan writers and books, left behind a couple issues of Philadelphia Stories magazine (which just happened to include an excerpt from my novel…), and made arrangements with Billy to interview him by email once I get back to the States.

Then it was back through the heart of Nairobi with Bernard, past fancy new homes and the great Kibera slum, past high-rise office buildings and single story roadside markets. All of it– the high and the low – exists tightly packed side by side. Then Bernard took me up to a vantage point where I could look down over the city and see the famed Uhuru (Independence) Park where they have a big Independence Day celebration for Jamhuri Day on Dec 12.

Then my last stop was a craft cooperative that Chris recommended, where the proceeds go to benefit women who have suffered abuse, and after buying some fabric pieces and small carvings for gifts, it was back “home,” where I promptly dropped off to sleep.

A night out

That evening Chris took me to dinner at a nearby café. He described it as a pizza joint in a mall, which is technically accurate, but the description hardly does it justice. After being admitted into the mall by an armed guard who checked Chris’s credentials (security is a big concern in Nairobi, particularly with current threats of terrorism and bombings in retaliation for Kenya’s war with Al Shabaab), we proceeded through the mall to the café, which was a wonderful combination of pizza joint, high-end bar and restaurant, jazz club with live music, and outdoor patio.

The malls here seem to be a great source of pride for many, a sign of progress.  Bernard certainly felt that way. They represent major developments in a place and system where development seems particularly difficult. Both Chris and Bernard had horror stories of developers (and even individual home builders) who lost everything they’d built because a new government administration came along and said that the old deeds for that property were no longer valid.

It was a lot of fun hanging with Chris. He’s a very sharp and engaging guy – very committed to doing good work, very happy with the life he has created here, but also looking ahead. We hit it off quite well for such a short visit. He has some great ideas for getting Nancy and me back to Kenya on USAID’s roster for a program called Storymoja Africa, a big literary festival and reading series in September. Coming back  in 2012 seems a bit ambitious, but maybe the following year? He has already sent me information.

By the time we got back to his house – a beautiful, guarded compound in a northern neighborhood of Nairobi – I was again practically asleep.

Time to move on

Bernard was back the next morning to pick me up (after I’d had another big breakfast with two cappuccinos) and take me to the airport. He gave me his card so that I could hire him again next time I’m in Nairobi. I wouldn’t hesitate for a second, and will be happy to give anyone his info if you’re headed Nairobi way. I gave him a Philadelphia baseball cap as a thank-you gift, which looked pretty fine atop his head there in the Nairobi airport parking lot.

I got to the airport with plenty of time before my flight, so I went to the Kenya Airways waiting area to wait to board. When I checked my bag (Chris said not to count on it arriving in Kisumu, and he gave me his USAID business card to put inside so that he could help me get my bag back in case it got lost), I was told the plane for Kisumu would leave from Gate 1 and that I should go wait there. But on the way I passed a small glass room labeled  Gate 2, and I noticed a small sign in the window that said, “Kisumu.” When I got to Gate 1, a small sign there said, “Mombasa,” so I went back to the empty Gate 2 room to wait.

Eventually others began to show up, and with departure still an hour away, it became filled with people, including African businessmen, American and German travelers, and young mothers with babies. A man came along and handed me a card that he said was my boarding pass, which I soon handed back to him when I walked through a glass door out to the tarmac.

I followed the crowd between painted lines down past several planes until we reached one that we climbed aboard. Then we sat for a long while until, finally, the pilot came on the intercom to announce: “We are delayed for Air Force operations in our air space, which has prohibited all flights. It is not in our control, and we apologize.”

But soon we were in the air and climbing. And soon we were descending. And there, spread out below me, were rolling fields and shambas, then the dirt and paved roads of Kisumu, and there, beyond, the enormous waters of Lake Victoria.

In the Kisumu airport there was a long wait for bags to arrive. The two baggage carousels looked as though neither had moved in a while. While I waited I went to find a bathroom, and once inside all power went out, forcing me to feel my way to the facilities in the dark. When I’d finished, the power came back.

I returned to the baggage area, where still neither carousel was moving. But now a crowd had formed near a closed door, and sure enough, the door eventually opened and someone started carrying bags in, one at a time. Mine was nearly the last one off. I left the baggage area for the waiting room, and standing there was a woman I recognized from her photograph: Eden Grace, my host in Kisumu and, as I will soon learn, my great guide and facilitator in preparing me for Kaimosi.

Next up: My stay in Kisumu


  1. Thanks! And the best stories are still ahead. Am feeling better, too — strength and appetite are returning, and I’ve improved my living situation out here at Kaimosi, which was contributing to the health problem.

  2. Hi David, I asked NB about you just today (via text, can you believe it?) and now here (or there) you are. Glad to hear your voice from afar and can’t wait to read the next chapters of the adventure. Merry christmas later in the week.

    1. Thanks, Leslie! Every moment in Kenya has been amazing. And yeah, texting… Nancy and I finally got our first cellphones. Next, we might check out getting that new indoor plumbing. Hope you and your whole family have a wonderful Christmas!. See you in the new year.

  3. We cleared the supper dishes and read aloud your first posting tonight. It made Paul want to travel if only to write! Thanks for bringing us along, David. I hope you can walk down by the goli goli some early evening – are there fireflies this time of year?

    1. Thanks bro! And yes, there are fireflies at night, and grunting colobus monkeys in the morning, and I went down to the goli goli just yesterday afternoon. Love the thought of you guys reading aloud after dinner — brings back memories of dad doing the same. Both mom and dad feel very present here, I miss them terribly.Will post more soon. Lots of love to all.

  4. We feel as if we’re back home in Kenya, and we’ve never even been there! Hope you’re staying well and safe.

    if your book is half as well-written and interesting as your blog it will be fabulous. We’ll have to read it just to find out what the goli goli is! And to hear more about fireflies and colobus monkeys.

    Hope your Christmas and New Years celebrations are happy ones. Can’t wait for the Christmas letters.

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