Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Kisumu, Kenya

Friends: Compared to Uganda and Tanzania, Kenya seems like the promised land. Restaurants have pitchers of water, boiled and fit for drinking. They also have menus and offer more than beans and rice. There are road signs and the speed bumps are more sanely sprinkled along the roads and aren't obnoxiously bone-jarring.

The people are civil and courteous. They are well-educated and well-spoken and have an air of self-respect. People read newspapers. The most common billboard advertises the national newspaper "The Nation" with two words--"The Truth."

I regret Kenya has the shortest segment of Lake Victoria's shoreline, just a little over 200 road miles for me. I thought I would extend my time in Kenya by heading north out of Kisumu towards Uganda rather than going west, the direct route closer to the lake. But then I learned the road west out of Kisumu would take me through the town where President Obama's father was born and his grandmother still lives. The town's secondary school has been named in his honor.

I had heard about the Obama school, but I thought it was here in Kisumu, Kenya's third largest city, a port right on the lake. On my way into the city I detoured out to Hippo Point in hopes of spotting some hippos. Lake Victoria is the only lake among the ten biggest in the world with hippos and crocodiles. I had yet to see any.

The hippos were all out feeding elsewhere, though there were boats that could be hired to go in search of them. Hanging out with the boatman was an older white man. He was a missionary from London, and a very friendly guy. He was accompanied by two teen-aged Kenyan boys. I asked them if they knew where the school named for Obama was located. They told me it was on the road to Uganda well beyond Kisumu, and gave me detailed instructions on how to find it.

The two boys had both seen Obama in Kisumu when he gave a speech at the city's soccer stadium several years ago when he was a senator. They had arrived very early to be among the lucky thousands to get in. I told them I too had seen Obama in Chicago on election night along with thousands of others in Grant Park right along Lake Michigan, a lake slightly smaller than Lake Victoria, but without hippos.

The missionary had been in Kisumu for eight months and lived in a nearby slum, the second largest in Kenya with 400,000 people. He frequently came to the lake shore and verified that hippos could be seen here on occasion. One of the lake's few beaches was a mile away. He'd seen three hippos there just a couple days ago.

I asked what precautions he took for malaria. He said the preventive medicine was too expensive for him, a daily one dollar dose, so he just applied repellent and slept under a mosquito net. The two boys were too poor to have mosquito nets. I told them that in Tanzania the government supplied people with nets. They said that aid groups did send nets to Kenya too for distribution, but corrupt government ministers gave them to friends to sell, so that the poor and needy never got them. All three spoke matter-of-factly of how rampant corruption is in Kenya. Western governments stopped sending money for education, because it never got to the people, rather ending up in the pockets of government officials.

One boy showed me a row of mosquito bites on his forearm he'd gotten the night before, not knowing whether they were from malaria-carrying mosquitoes. The missionary said that malaria is quite common in the slums, and the nets would be a great deterrent. Female mosquitoes are the ones that transmit it and they ordinarily don't come out until well after dark, so one doesn't have much of a concern of being bitten by a malarial mosquito during the day. Every guest house I have stayed at has had a mosquito net over my bed, though some have had holes big enough for moths to fly through.

As the three of us talked I was filled again with the pleasure of being in Kenya, impressed by the depth and breadth of the conversation, and particularly how bright and articulate and self-assured these teen-aged boys were. It has been a relief not to have clusters of people staring at me when I eat and telling me how poor they are and demanding something of me. On my last day in Tanzania when I stopped at a grungy open-air road-side cafe for some shade and a drink and a bite to eat, a drunk wandered in and asked, "Is that your bike over there?"

"Yes, it is."

"Give it to me."

"No, I need it."

He jabbed my shoulder and said, "I want it, give it to me."

I responded with an off-handed laugh, pretending that I thought he was just making a joke. "No, no, its my means of transportation," I replied. "I'm biking around the lake."

There were several other young men in the cafe hanging out, neither eating nor drinking, just taking advantage of its shade. None said a word. It was left to the woman proprietor to intervene. The guy huffed and went over and sat with the other men and then several minutes later returned and asked for it again in no less of an aggressive manner.

I'd experienced not even a hint of such a thing in Kenya my first two days here until this morning. I spent the night on the second floor of a guest house. It took three trips for me to carry my gear and bike up and down the stairs. This morning as I was reattaching all my gear to my bike the security guard, in awe of all I had, commented, "You white people are given everything."

"Given?" I wanted to exclaim, but it was too early in the morning to take offense, so I ignored the comment.

Then he asked, "Where are you going on your bike?" I told him I was headed back to Kampala and that I had come over 2000 kilometers around the lake already.

"2000 kilometers!" he exclaimed, "That is unbelievable."

"Yes, we white people like adventure and aren't afraid of challenges."

He laughed, understanding fully where I was coming from. "You're right, we Kenyans are lazy, but can't you give me something."

"Our government gives Kenya all sorts of money and aid, but your ministers steal it. Why don't you go to them and ask for what has been meant for you."

The night before I had stayed at a very bare bones guest house that a radio reporter took me to. He had come to my assistance when I discovered my front brake cable was frayed and needed replacing, explaining why I hadn't been getting such great braking power lately. Only four of the twelve threads of the cable were still holding. I was very fortunate to have discovered it before it broke, as I had some steep descents ahead of me that would surely have finally snapped it.

I was just five miles from the large city of Kili, fifty miles into the country from Tanzania. I asked him if I might be able to find a guest house there for less than 300 shillings, about four dollars. He said probably not, but there was a cheap one across the street for even less than that. I gave it a look. It was no worse than others I had stayed at though there was no running water, just a well, and a communal squat toilet for the four rooms. At least there was water, something I didn't always have.

The reporter was impressed that I was willing to stay there. He said that none of the Kenyans he knew who had been to America would stay at such a place. "They think they have been to heaven and are too good to stay at a place as rustic as this," he said. We sat and talked for a good while. He'd recently been in South Africa for three months and hoped to get to America. All he wanted from me was my email address in case he came to America.

Later, George


Andrew said...

This trip is a great read George, I'm enjoying every minute of it.



Stan said...

A scientific study is making waves in the Internet today: Beer drinking attracts malarial mosquitos. I guess they can't resist the beer smell that comes out of the beer-drinking human's skin pores.