Foolishly, I didn’t actually keep a diary during this trip, and unlike my stay in Japan, this time around there wasn’t a computer downstairs for me to use. So, I’ve returned from two of the most intense weeks of my life, my head swimming with emotions, ideas, and information, and I hardly know where to begin.
Where to begin…. How about this? I’ll start off with a couple of random thoughts, and then sketch out the overview in this post — the itinerary — so that my subsequent postings can focus in on the particular nuggets of experience.
Random thought one — the smartest thing I did was get a cell phone my first day in Kenya, and I advise everyone travelling to Africa to do this. It cost me just $30 for the phone and roughly 200 minutes of domestic calling time. A phone is necessary, in my view, because the country seems to run on cell phones, even moreso than in the United States or Europe. People even lend money to their friend by transfering cash via their cell phones. Whether one is walking around the glitz of downtown Nairobi, the pristine halls of academia, an impoverished city ghetto, or among subsistance farmers in the country where many people are near starving, one will see cell phones everywhere. It seems to epitomize the paradox of globalization where poverty and wealth, traditional culture and modern technology, exist side-by-side.
And this leads me to random thought number two. The image of Kenya that most Americans have is the romantic Hollywood images of Tarzan, Madagascar, Out of Africa , and The Green Hills of Africa — that is to say, an image of the safari into the untouched wilderness, a journey back in time to an Eden-like pre-modern world. And still today the Kenya government promotes this nostalgic image because of all the cash it generates; it is one of the largest sectors (if not the largest sector) of Kenya’s economy. Ironically, the main cell phone company is called Safaricom. But whether that image was ever really true (or just a convenient motif invented by British colonials to justify their pillaging of the land and violent removal of the indigenous farming communities), it certainly isn’t true today.
Today, except for the national parks and wildlife preserves maintained for tourists, Africa is crowded with people, not just in the cities but also in the countryside — more crowded, it felt to me, than the United States and Europe. Land scarcity is one of the primary causes of ethnic violence; in some areas, the percentage of the populations with HIV-AIDS is 30%; and deforestation and industrial farming has caused permanent environmental damage. Lakes, once pristine and clear, are now repositories of raw sewage, chemical fertilizers, and soil erosion. Whether all this is primarily the effects of neocolonial/neoliberal capitalism or of a corrupt government is still a matter of debate, but one has to acknowledge that the “nation” of Kenya began its history with a serious handicap. After a long fight for their independence, the terms of that indpendence in 1963 left their nation in debt to the very colonial powers that had ransacked it of its wealth for the previous century. It’s hard for a fledgling government to build infrastructure when the largest chunk of its budget goes not to police, education, roads, environmental regulation, or sanitation, but to servicing its debt.
I apologize if my random thoughts are negative and dreary, but I have my reasons. First, I want to disillusion you that this blog will engage in romantic portraits of gazelles leaping through the bushes, but more importantly, it sets the stage for the raison d’etre of our trip — which was to see the many ways in which the people of Kenya are trying to solve all its problems. My colleagues and I were deeply impressed by the Kenyans we met and the work we saw, and we have perhaps never met a group of people more deserving of the title “saint” than those we met on this trip.
So, to finish this blog post and prepare the way for the posts I plan to write over the next few days, I want to give an overview of the itinerary. But of course, before I do that, I have one more prefatory remark. (Come on, you must know me well enough by now to expect endless prefacing!!!) The trip was organized by another faculty member at my university, so the itinerary was his and his alone, though during our few “free” hours here and there, I could pursue my own agenda. Basically, for the most part, I was along for the ride (literally, since we spent quite a bit of the trip being driven here and there), but I am grateful for it — what an amazing ride it was!
However, the goal of the trip was a bit confusing at times. Although the trip was billed as a “faculty development” trip (which is why I went on it), it was in many ways really a “delegation” with two distinct, though related, agendas that I would describe as more “missionary” than “scholarly.” As you’ll see from the itinerary below, the first agenda was to build upon an already existing relationship with a Catholic university in Nairobi in hopes of engendering future student and faculty exchange, and the second was to represent the Catholic diocese local to my university here in midwestern U.S.A. and bolster its “solidarity” with a rural diocese near Lake Victoria in the southwestern part of Kenya. I put the word “solidarity” in quotes because I plan to discuss the complexities of this concept in more depth in a later post. In addition to the two agendas, some time was set set aside for us to be tourists… you know… see the gazelles leaping through the bushes.
So, the trip combined many different goals, and you’ll see what I mean when you see the itinerary. To be honest, I did not expect this trip to have such a missionary focus, and as a non-Catholic, I was uncomfortable with this at times and unsure of my role on the “delegation” — but I’ll have more to say about that later. Here’s the itinerary:
Day Two: we toured the Catholic University in Nairobi in the morning and in the afternoon visited with the Benedictine community close by.
Day three: visited the institute of Islamic Studies (which turned out not to exist, oops!) at the aforementioned Catholic university in the morning and then toured the Nairobi National Park in the afternoon.
Day four: visited with the Kenya Human Rights Commission in the morning; free time in the afternoon. I chose to spend my free time first meeting a friend of a friend who is working on behalf of the Borana Oromo (and is himself a Borana Oromo) – a people indigenous to northern Kenya. After that, I visited an old friend from graduate school, Doreen Baingana, author of the terrific collection of short stories, Tropical Fish, and this fortuitously led to the two of us attending a wonderful play. More on that later.
Day five: visited the Cardinal Maurice Otunga Girl’s Empowerment Center in the morning and then in the afternoon visited the Christ the King church/school/library mission inside of Kibera, one of the largest and poorest slums in the world.
Day six: visited museums and downtown Nairobi (including the famous Masai market) in the morning and in the afternoon met with People for Peace in Africa and its friends in the literary community (which coincidentally included people who knew my friends in the literary community, which turned out to be very lucky for all sorts of reasons as I’ll explain later.)
Day seven (Sunday): in the morning Catholic mass (which I hear was way cool because of the combination of African and Catholic traditions but which I skipped not for any religious qualms, but because this was the only time I could meet with someone I desperately wanted to talk to — a friend of a friend who works on behalf of Oromo refugees from Ethiopia living in Kenya), and then in the afternoon we boarded a plane to Kishimu and there got in a minivan bound for the rural southwestern diocese that faces Lake Victoria.
Day eight: in the morning we met with Catholic Relief Services there, and in the afternoon visited a school way out in the countryside and a hospital.
Day nine: this was probably the most significant day of the whole trip. In the morning, we visited CRS “project sites”, which were the homes of impoverished farmers who had been impacted by the AIDS epidemic in one way or another and which CRS was helping get back on their feet. Talking with them and hearing their stories was an incredible experience. Then we visited a Day of the African Child celebration, and then a festival at a local parish. Lastly, we met with a group of men and women, all subsistance farmers struggling with poverty and HIV, who with the help of CRS had created a ”Savings and Internal Lending Community” or SILC.
Day ten: after a morning boat tour of Lake Victoria, we had lunch with the local Catholic Bishop, and then returned to Nairobi.
Day eleven: our last day was left for last minute shopping, but instead I took two of my colleagues to an Oromo Christian Fellowship meeting in the middle of the Githurai slum so that we could talk with Oromo refugees and so that I could give a brief presentation on Ogina: Oromo Arts in Diaspora. This was set up for me by the person I met on Sunday.
Then we came back to the United States, and I promptly fell asleep.
So… please stay tuned for more Nairobi Diaries….