Monday, July 27, 2009

Karibu: Welcome to Kenya


Talk about an exhausting journey!

After 2x 7.5 hour plane rides and a 4h layover in Heathrow, we finally made it to the Serena Hotel in Nairobi, Kenya at approximately 9:30pm East African time... That's 17h of traveling, folks!

Friday in Ottawa, we had a full day orientation session, which was full of intellectual stimulation. It really got me thinking not only about what my interest in international development and how it compares to those of some younger, more accomplished people taking part in this trip. It also reminded me how much general/historical knowledge I do have, and how much I love learning about this kind of critical thinking about world poverty, etc.

I also realized that I'm pretty blunt on this and other topics, mostly about the real motives behind aid. Maybe it's because I have a more overall approach and I don't believe "it's just altruism" B.S.. Human beings, ultimately, are selfish. It's part of our nature.

I took a lot of other notes on my perceptions of the day and the topic of the day, including some good quotes from the little extract of the Monk debates that we watched, but I think I still need to internalize it all before I'm ready to share. I should also wait until I'm more awake ;)

The plane ride from YOW to Heathrow was great! Megan and I switched up our assigned seating to sit together... and no one sat in the third seat in our block! We were therefore able to stretch our legs out during the long flight, which was definitely helpful. I didn't get much sleep, however, and wasn't even able to sleep during our London layover!

Once we got on our Kenya Airways flight to, you guess it, Kenya, I made myself sleep... and I did, after attempting to watch a movie. I then finished one of the books I had brought along with dinner, then slept some more, then had a snack, and dozed off a bit before landing. I got some great shots of the Alps and of the red Saharan desert from the sky... Gorgeous!

I still need to go through all my pictures though, because you can bet I'm taking a whole lot of them!

The only problem with my flight was sitting behind someone who had her seat back the WHOLE TIME, and next to a man who seemed to be sick and was constantly coughing/wheezing and picking his nose. SO not cool!

Upon arriving in Kenya, Megan (who has been my amazing roommate from Ottawa to Kenya, and is also blogging for her company, AbeBooks) and I checked in, showered, and basically went straight to bed.

Sunday morning, we were up early (1am EDT, which is about 8am EAT). We did the buffet breakfast with the rest of the group, then left for a mini-safari trip to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, where we saw some orphaned elephants, some warthogs (PUMBA!) and a couple of rhinos. They were absolutely adorable! I was able to get some good pictures and videos, including a few good macro-mode flower shots for my mom :)

We then proceeded to the Giraffe Centre where we obviously saw giraffes. We were also able to feed them, which provided some great pictures too! They were very friendly, with nice long eyelashes and a long tongue... which was actually kind of prickly! It felt as if there was hair on it or something.

Then, instead of going to lunch (which we all really needed!) and then to the Nairobi National Park, we decided to make our way to the Aga Khan University Hospital/School of Nursing because the Aga Khan himself, the Imam of the Ismaili Muslims, was in town for some meetings. We tried to get in through a contact, but weren't able to make it in time. Instead, most of the group lined up on the sidewalk with other Ismailis to await him crossing the street from the Campus to the Hospital, hoping to get a glimpse. A few of us retreated to the Hospital entrance, because we figured that it would provide a better sighting angle, and indeed, it did!

One of the guys in the security team allowed us to stand nearby, and the Aga Khan passed by a mere couple of feet away from us. He seemed happy and much more relaxed than during the millions of Golden Jubilee outings he has been taking part of recently. We were not allowed to take any pictures or videos because of media exclusivity rights, but it was nice to see him and his daughter, Princess Zarah, in such a casual setting.

Finally, after many hours of waiting and pacing and starving, we went back to the hotel for a quick change of clothes and made our way to Nairobi's famous game meat restaurant, Carnivore. It was amazing to see the city at night! During our day trips, we got used to the insane traffic, the crazy passing cars, and the colourful matatu buses. There is a good balance between buildings and green space, and giant billboards border the roads. It is very different from North America, but in many ways, it is the same. Since we already had the general feel of the landscape and were used to the bumps, the night trip was pretty enjoyable.

So was dinner! It started with a delicious soup that was probably a cream of some broccoli-like veggie and lentil. Then came serving after serving of beef sausages, chicken breast, chicken wings (which tasted awesome!), ostrich meatballs, lamb chops... in unlimited amounts! For desert, I chose the Black Magic cake, which was fantastic! It was definitely the best of the choices, at least from the ones I sampled from other people's plates ;) The mocha- flavoured Italian ice cream was a close second though...

Today was the start of another long day, the first official day of our trip. Our 6:45 am wake-up call was just early enough to make our 8am bus for a village outside of Nairobi, where we met with the CEO of Frigoken, whose name currently escapes me, and two guys name Peter, who were part of the regional and farming management team. We drove down tiny slanted dirt roads to make our way to the farm lands, and stood amongst the flowering green bean crops as we got a briefing on the company's structure, activities, and their relationship with the farmers. There was so much information shared with us at this point, so I will need some time to put deeper thoughts together, but what I remember the most is the CEO explaining that Frigoken takes all the risks, and if the crops don't turn out, the farmers don't lose anything. This, and other transparent operating policies, creates what he referred to as a relationship of trustworthiness with the farmers and the villagers.

Each farmer needs to meet a good list of requirements, including easy access to water and land ownership. The trading posts should be no more than a 30 minute walk from the crops/village, they need to respect the principle of fallow farming, and they are not allowed to cultivate more than one 250 meter square plot in order to ensure high quality. Frigoken provides the seeds, training, fertilizers (if needed), organic pesticides and their application, as well as many other resources. One plot/farmer will provide about 20 kilos of green beans, which are then hand-packed into approximately 800 cans, if I remember my numbers correctly.

It was actually quite interesting to hear about the whole process, from the business perspective to the farmer's perspective, and to get a little glimpse of what it's like to live in a small Kenyan village. One Peter actually used to be a farmer in this village... it was his home! He got promoted to centre supervisor, then technical supervisor, and now overseas the activities of 8 centres, or villages!!! Pretty impressive, isn't it?

It wasn't lunch time yet, though we were all getting pretty hungry! Instead, we made our way to the actual Frigoken factory and were guided through the whole plant, from receiving to labelling. Again, there was a lot to absorb in this portion of the trip... and I'm too tired to recall it all! One thing I do remember is that there were a lot of women working in the factory, both in the green bean and butternut squash portions of the plant. That is not a coincidence, but it's also probably not what you might think.

The factory planners, when they were deciding on how they wanted to run the plant at its inception, decided that women would make better labourers because they are hard working and knowledgeable. The idea is also that these women provide a secondary income to their families. They live nearby and walk to work. There are about 20% of permanent workers (mostly women and male factory floor management), and the rest are casual employees who get more work in busy seasons and less when it's calm like now. The farms also employ more women than men, though that's more because of the culture than earning a secondary income. About 85% of the primary farmers are women, though the whole family works on the crops. At the factory, there is a small daycare centre for women who need to bring their kids to work. We were able to visit the space and it's spotless and gorgeously decorated with Kenyan interpretations of typical North American childhood characters like the Teletubbies, Winnie the Pooh and, get this... Bart Simpson!

We finally went to lunch at a great Indian restaurant near a grocery store in the Ukay district - though I initially thought that was UK ;)

Unfortunately, the food was perhaps a bit TOO good and we were all pretty sleepy during our tour of the Aga Khan University Hospital/School of Nursing. It's a fairly small campus, but the hospital definitely had more to offer. Today, unlike when we found ourselves there yesterday, we did not see any medical emergencies. Which was a relief, because they were pretty painful to watch and felt like an intrusion on the patients family's privacy.

After a quick meeting with the head of the Aga Khan Development Network in East Africa, we headed back to the hotel and parted ways. We all needed a good shower after walking in the red dirt roads. They're gorgeous and make me look nice and tanned, but the tiny sand gets a little bit cakey after a while.

I really enjoyed today's drive because it allowed me to see more of the true Kenyan landscape: bidonville-style villages, quick road-side matatu pick ups, all kinds of people walking or running alongside the highway, rickshaw delivery/transport guys going at car-like speeds in the middle of traffic, small tin markets, railroad tracks, the insanely huge Del Monte fields, and some very pretty lakes!

I am pretty well aware that I'm in Africa now, though it took a long long time to sink in. It still doesn't always feel like a different continent, and I believe I'm become quite used to the sounds and sights, and after only 2 days!

I do miss my alone time and my guitar... Even though I don't necessarily play it every day or for that long, I miss being able to reach over and strum a bit. Perhaps what I am really missing is the music... African favourites seem to be old 80s music!

I will post pictures when I have the time to sort through them, which probably won't be for a while. But it'll be worth it just so you can see the Obama matatu buses! :)

Tomorrow, we visit the Nation Media Group and have a briefing with the CEO of Aga Khan Foundation East Africa before heading to the beautiful (or so I hear!) coast city of Mombasa. I can't wait to see the ocean!

Stay tuned...

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Ndoto: Countdown to Kenya

This blog post is very special. Not only does it mark the beginning of my first overseas trip, it's also my first ever blog-by-email (NOTE: Blog-by-email failed. VIA free-because-it's-slow-and-not-really-working-station-Wi-Fi worked). Let's hope the formatting doesn't get too messed up!

You might also notice that my grammar and spelling is poorer when I'm typing on my BlackBerry. I blame it on the fingers. I promise my brain is fully functional.

"Ndoto" is the Swahili word for "dream". I found it when I first leafed through my brand new Lonely Planet Swahili language guide, and it seemed oddly appealing. I have been using it for the past week or so in my Gtalk and Skype status messages but now, I am finally ready to make it public!

This trip truly is a dream. It definitely seems like a dream. Until last night, or even this morning, this whole experience didn't feel real. I guess the fact that I'm spending an extra day in Ottawa before the group arrives probably contributed to that, but it's mostly because I just don't know what to expect!

Luckily, we received a lot of guidance from Aga Khan Foundation Canada, who is organizing the trip. I am also fortunate to have a good friend who is from Nairobi and who could enlighten me on weather patterns and local customs. I'm very thankful to be staying with her mother for a few days after the AKFC portion of the trip is over.

The purpose of the trip, as I think I might have mentioned in an earlier post, is to provide promising volunteers with an opportunity to visit the project sites we work hard to raise funds for through the World Partnership Walk and meet the people whose lives we are attempting to change. There is no doubt in my mind that this will be a life changing event. For one, I will probably learn the benefits of packing light.

More importantly, I think I will be humbled by the simpler way of life, one which I have always admired but never seem to be able to adopt. I will be using my laptop to backup pictures but I probably won't be online much, if at all. Sure, there are some health concerns, but if I'm smart with my choices, there shouldn't be any problems. I am a little concerned about theft based on the research I did on various travel sites, but people like to complain a lot... So I'm taking their feedback with a grain of salt. Or two.

I am very excited about the opportunity to see for myself how poverty affects not just individuals but whole communities. I can't wait to be amazed at how happy children are to go to school or help out on the farm. I know that I will feel pain at some of the sights and wonder at parents' smiles even though they live in conditions that developed countries would term despicable.

On a personal note, I am SO excited to be going to Africa much earlier than I had planned. To be honest, I had penciled-in Europe and Australia beforehand, but my first real overseas trip - I don't think trips I took as a baby count - and first exploration of a different continent couldn't start at a better place: East Africa, where my mom's family grew up, a mere border away from where my mom was born!

I am also thrilled that I will be able to do a safari. The plan is to do a one-day trip locally, probably to see some giraffes and elephants, and then, once the AKFC portion of the trip is done, do a 2-day, 2-night stint in Masai Mara.

All in all, it's sure to be an unforgettable, once in a lifetime trip. *insert more clich├ęs here*

I will be keeping a journal throughout the trip and might post them directly to my blog, so keep checking this space over the next 10 days!

Bonus trip update: My VIA train to Ottawa was delayed by 45 minutes due to technical problems. Then they canceled it and put us on a train leaving one hour later. That's a 1h45mins delay. My dinner plans are definitely ruined, but I wonder... Is this a bad omen for the whole trip or just a coincidence? Also, could these "technical problems" be a pressure tactic? Inquiring minds want to know!

Stay tuned...