November 22-24, 2008
On November 22nd Pnina and I left Zambia, taking our flight to Nairobi, Kenya. The only interesting thing about the flight is that we hit turbulence right as I was getting my fruit punch drink, so I ended up with most of it in my lap. It couldn’t have looked more like I pissed my pants if I tried.
“Single Entry Visa”
Ever since our shock at the $135 visa fee when we entered Zambia, we’ve been very skiddish about making the right choice about which passport to use. For Kenya we thought we needed a multi-entry visa, since we planned to leave Kenya to visit other neighboring countries but then return for our next flight. The unfortunate surprise this time was that you can’t get a multi-entry visa upon arrival in Kenya’s airport – you can only get a single-entry visa there (to get a multi-entry visa you have to make arrangements in advance through some embassy). However, it also turned out that Kenya’s “single-entry visa” behaves very much like a multi-entry visa as long as you don’t leave the set of countries collectively called “east Africa”, which was our plan. Bonus! Also, it turned out that this “single-entry visa” costs $50 regardless of which passport we use.
Couchsurfing with Carole and Nancy
Our first couchsurfing experience with Hannes in Cape Town went so well that we decided to do it again. The trick is that our trip is so unplanned that we generally don’t know where we’ll be on any given date, which is kind of a pre-requisite to couch-surf (you need to give you host some head notice). The only exception is around our flights; in those cases we know we’ll be at the departure city 1-2 days before the flight and then at the arrival city for 1-2 days, so it’s the perfect time to couch surf.
So, just before we went to the chimp orphanage we sent a few requests to couch hosts in Nairobi, and luckily one of them worked out: Carole. Carole lives just outside the city center. She shares a place with her friend Nancy and another guy who we didn’t meet (wasn’t there).
Carole and Nancy both work for non-profit organizations.
Carole’s organization works to reduce violence between some villages in northeast Kenya. Apparently some of these villages have been looting cattle from others. The looted villages looked to the government for assistance, received none, and proceeded to take security into their own hands. Carole’s group tries to foster peace and disarmament
Nancy works with her friend Enouce for a non-profit called Castle Town Soccer League. They use soccer as a tool to teach young kids various messages, in particular how to protect themselves against HIV/AIDS. This turns out to be a popular technique in Africa – we met several other volunteers who similarly use soccer to reach kids.
Pnina is a Common Name!
When we met Carole and Nancy we were surprised how easily they pronounced Pnina’s name – most people have trouble with a p-n combination. Then we were even more surprised to learn that here in Kenya it’s actually a common name! Kenya is majority Christian, and most Christians here have a Christian name. Pnina happens to be a Biblical name, so there you go. But they spell it Peninah.
I had no such luck, though. Shahaf is just not a common name anywhere 🙂
Nairobi has a water problem. The city grew fast and infrastructure hasn’t kept up. As a result, Carole and Nancy only have their water turned on one day each week, for a few hours. During that time they hustle to fill as many containers as they can – a couple large tanks, several jerrycans, and a few buckets. What if they don’t happen to be around while the water is on? Well, they’re screwed. Some people have made a small business of selling their excess water on the black market.
Pimp My Matatu
Most people in Nairobi get around using public bus/mini-vans called matatus. We’ve seen rides like these in other parts of Africa, but the ones in Nairobi stand out because they are fully pimped out. All of them have big stereos pumping local or US-import hip hop at uncomfortable decibels. Most have a flat TV showing corresponding music videos to the passengers. Some have black lights inside or ground effects, and all kinds of decal. It’s pretty impressive.
Also, they drive like maniacs. Most of the time they skip traffic by driving with two wheels on the road and two off, or just completely off. But they hardly ever get into accidents.
The price to get into town varies depending on traffic. If you go during rush hour it’s about 70 Kenyan Shillings (about $1). If you go during low traffic times it can be as low as 30 shillings. Pnina and I are pretty sure that if Carole and Nancy weren’t around to explain this, we’d assume that we were getting special Mzungu prices 🙂
Carole also said that towards the end of the month people get their paychecks and more of them can afford to buy petrol, so the roads get more congested.
Our first full day in Nairobi was a Sunday. Carole and Nancy invited us to join them for Sunday service at church. We gladly accepted the offer. Although we’ve visited a lot of churches in the past, we’ve never actually been to a Christian service.
We grabbed a matatu to the nearby neighborhood called Buru Buru. The church (www.citam.org) was pretty large, maybe big enough for 800 people, but still it was packed full and the overflow crowd sat under a tent outside and watched the service on TV. Inside it was an impressive choreographed show. They had a 40-person choir, a 10-piece band, and several pastors on stage.
The first hour was all music and song. They projected the lyrics on a screen, mostly English with just a few Kiswahili songs, and the melodies were simple enough that we could join in. Then they had the sermon, which was about 30 minutes. The preacher that day was actually a visiting minister, a guy who spends most of his time doing missionary work abroad. He talked about the progress they’ve made in the last year opening so many churches in Malawi. He was a very charismatic guy, full of rhymes like “I aspire to inspire before I expire”. At one point the pastor asked first-time visitors to the church to stand up. Pnina and I were a little shy to do so because we were clearly the only white people in the crowd. But when we stood up, a few people behind us patted us on the back and shook our hands – they were very welcoming.
After service Nancy took off but Carole stuck around to go to a meeting of her female church group. We begged off to look for an internet cafe since we were so far behind in the blog at the time. The internet connection we found was kind of a dud, though, so after a while we returned to the church with Carole and sat in on the tail end of the woman’s group meeting. This was the last of their monthly meetings for the year so it was a lot of thinking back on the the good things that happened and giving thanks. It was a very kumbaya atmosphere and it was a little odd for Pnina and I, total strangers, to be there. Even stranger, at one point they gave out small gifts (cellphone pouches) and we got some too! I gave mine to a little girl that was playing near the tent and Pnina gave hers to Nancy.
That evening we went out for dinner with Carole, Nancy, their friend Bareta (“B”), and Simon. Bareta, a Norwegian gal, had couch surfed with Carole and Nancy just a couple weeks earlier. She managed to score a $100 round-trip flight from Norway to Kenya because there was a last-minute vacancy in a flight chartered by a University class. Simon is an Irish guy doing his PhD on the spread of AIDS in Kenya. He said his research was interrupted at the beginning of the year because of all the post-election violence in Kenya.
Anyhow, we had dinner at a place called Dancing Spoon, which was kind of expensive and not really all that great. B was happy to once again be able to order a beer since she’d spent the last week on the eastern part of Kenya where most people are Muslim and therefore alcohol is rarely served.
After dinner we met a few other gals that B knew, also Norwegian. They came to Kenya to volunteer with a professional soccer team that had won the national championship the day before – a very big deal. They were all heading to a night club called Florida 2000 to meet the team and celebrate, but Pnina, Nancy, Carole, and I – we were too tired to party, so we called it a night.
Next day, our plan was to find a good internet cafe downtown, quickly catch up on our blog, and then head west to Nakuru, our next stop. That was the plan anyhow. But we were so far behind in the blog that it literally took all day to finish all the writing and photo-uploading. We entered the internet cafe around 9 AM and left when the place closed at 11 PM. And even with all that work we didn’t fully catch up, though at least we got close. I think we published about 9 posts covering several weeks of travel. So if you ever wonder why our blog always seems to be so out of date, that’s why – it’s hard to find good internet cafes, and when we do it’s still a lot of work. We’re starting to think hard about getting a laptop so that at least we can do all the writing and photo prep offline.
Anyhow, by the time we left the internet cafe it was too late to Nakuru, so we crashed for one night at the nearby Greton Hotel. We started walking the short distance to the hotel, but along the way everyone told us that we’re nuts to walk around Nairobi at night with all our belongings, so we ended up taking a cab.
Mzungu, Give Me Money!
Short Swahili lesson. There are several languages spoken in Kenya (as is the case with most African countries), but the predominant language here is Swahili or Kiswahili. This language has several roots including Arabic and some local Bantu languages. And because Arabic is similar to Hebrew, it turns out that Kiswahili has a lot of similarities to Hebrew! Especially numbers. Examples: 100 = Mea (Hebrew), Mia (Kiswahili), 9 = tesha (Hebrew), tis’a (Kiswahili). And so on.
One word you hear a lot as a white tourist walking around Kenya and nearby countries is “mzungu”. Apparently this word used to mean “Brittish” specifically, back in the colonial days when locals could tell one European from another by their soldier’s uniforms. But now it basically means white person. It’s a little weird hearing essentially “hey whitie” called out to you everywhere you go, instead of, say, “hello” or “mister” or whatever. But really, they mean no offence at all, as far as we can tell.
The other thing we noticed is that in some places people will bluntly ask for money, as in “Mzungu, give me money”, or “Mzungu, where’s my money?”. My money?? Dude, it’s not your money. We find kids asking for money more than adults. They’ll often precede their request with a greeting like “how are you?”. We’ve had groups of kids run towards us repeating “HOW ARE YOU” like it’s a chorus to a song.
Do we give money? Generally we don’t. We gave money to one blind person, and we gave some food and water to a couple others. We’re always suspicious of giving money to children because in India the kids that ask for money are often overseen by an older “pimp” who ends up getting all the money, leaving scraps for the kids. Children aside, it’s always difficult to know who really needs money and who doesn’t. Africans take appearances very seriously, so you might see very well dressed beggers – they simply prioritize having good clean clothes above other needs. It’s all messed up.
Around the World
- The big 3 auto makers in Detroit are in serious trouble. They tried to petition the government for a bailout. First they were turned down. Now it looks like the $15 billion bail-out might get passed after all. Michigan has already felt some of the worst pain in the economic down-turn, and regardless of the bail-out, it’ll probably still get worse.
- Obama chose a few people for his cabinet, including Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State. He’s spending a lot of time putting together a plan for how to revive the economy.
- Zimbabwe refused to let a peace convoy enter, including Jimmy Carter and Kofi Anan.