Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Dirty Laundry

Washing clothes in my courtyard

When it comes to laundry and doing it the Kenyan way, Sister Jane, one of the Sisters of Notre Dame, says, "It's all part of the experience." So this is what I tell myself when work has to be done. If I want to live in Kenya, I must do it the Kenyan way.
Every weekend I gather my dirty clothes in the morning and take them out to the courtyard to wash. Although sleeping in always crosses my mind, the thought of having clean, dry clothes always gets me out of bed. As with many things in Kenya, laundry is done all by hand. I start by getting a wash basin and a bucket filled with rain water, laundry detergent, a bar of soap, and also a stool, because I know it’s going to take awhile. I have to pour the water for the basin and bucket through a strainer to remove all of the bugs, leaves, dirt, and debris. The basin is used for washing while the bucket is used for rinsing. I add a small handful of detergent to my wash basin before I begin.

Kenyan washing machine

Washing clothes by hand is a lot of work and it really gives my hands a workout. My shirts tend to be fairly easy to clean, but my pants seem to be a magnet for stains when I walk along the dirt roads. I use a bar of soap and lots of scrubbing to get out any stubborn stains. I can usually get the stains out of my pants, but nearly all of my white socks are permanently stained with red Kenyan soil.
When I am finished washing my clothes I make sure to wring them out thoroughly and place them in the rinse bucket. Despite my best efforts, by my second or third shirt, the rinse bucket usually is just as sudsy as the wash basin. After rinsing, I must again wring my clothes out thoroughly to lessen the time they will take to dry.

Kenyan automatic clothes dryer

I will then hang my clothes on a line in my courtyard to dry. In Kenya, there is very little privacy when it comes to laundry and nearly anyone at the parish has an opportunity to see everything I wear inside or out of the house, including my underwear. The sun at the equator can be very intense, especially around 12-noon. So I turn my shirts inside out to prevent them from fading or bleaching. When they do eventually dry, if I haven’t completely rinsed the soap out of my clothes, they will become stiff and will feel like sandpaper against my skin.

Early morning is the best time to do laundry because it allows the most time for the clothes to dry in the sun. Usually I try to do my laundry on Sunday just before church. After a 3-hour mass at St. Teresa, most of the drying will already be done by the time I get home.
Once I have finally finished my laundry and it becomes almost completely dry on the line sometimes it will rain and soak them all over again. On those days, I must pray that I have something else to wear! "It's all part of the experience."

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Malava Market

Vendors line up along the roadside at the Malava Market

Every Friday is Market Day in Malava. It all begins just after the sun comes up. Many people come from miles around to sell fruits, vegetables, clothes, shoes, hardware, and more. The vendors will sometimes walk many kilometers in the darkness of the early morning from the surrounding villages to make their journey to Malava. They all want to be ready when the village wakes up. No daylight is wasted.

The market begins around 6AM along the roadside just north of the main intersection in my village. Some of the vendors have simple stands made from any available pieces of wood, but others will simply lay a blanket on the ground to display what they are selling.

Fruits and vegetables are always very popular on market day. Some fruits and vegetables, such as bananas, mangoes, tomatoes, and onions can be available any day of the week, but the selection is always better on market day. Then there are some foods that are only available on market day like dried fish, fresh garlic, or roasted groundnuts.

Secondhand clothes for sale at the market

Clothes and shoes are also sold on market day. Shirts or pants can be seen neatly displayed on the ground or on hangers, but mostly they are found in a large heap that requires the buyer to dig and sort. There is usually a man shouting the prices over a blaring loudspeaker that can be heard from anywhere in the village center. He speaks so loud and fast the he reminds me of an auctioneer. Most of the clothes are sold secondhand. One element of irony that one vendor made me aware of is that most of the used clothes are donated to Kenya from the United States, and now I have come from the United States to buy them back from Kenya. I think, if I ever buy any used clothes, I may just try to donate them back to Kenya before I leave. Or, to save on shipping, I just may ask someone back home to donate any clothes I might need this year to Africa and then I’ll just pick them up at the market.

My new tire sandals

There are a few styles of dress shoes and sandals available, it only takes finding the right size. I have recently bought a pair of the only custom fit sandals available in Malava. They are made out of pieces of old tires. The vendor cut the straps to fit the size of my feet and used nails to secure them to the soles. He then cut each sole with a very sharp knife to the exact size of each foot. They are a perfect fit. My pair were made out of Firestone car tires, for 50 “bob” (50 shillings), but some nicer pairs are made out of Goodyear tractor tires and can run almost 500 “bob” (500 shillings). So far I have already had a few complements on my sandals and one villager says that I look like a white member of the Maasai tribe.

One item that is surprisingly very popular for dress shoes is Kiwi brand shoe polish. Walking on the dusty roads in Malava, it’s hard to believe that anyone would even attempt to maintain the shine on their shoes. It seems hopeless to me, but then again the dusty road is probably the reason why it is so popular.

At the market, there are no price tags on anything. Whether you are buying an imitation Sony radio, tiny minnow-sized fish called omena, or a Bob Marley t-shirt, the price is always negotiable. At first, before I got used to bargaining for everything, it was a very confusing. I didn’t know how much to pay for anything. I had no idea how to tell what anything was worth. Many times after buying something I would find that I paid almost double what the item was worth. In doing so, sometimes it has made bargaining more difficult for me because I have already shown some vendors that I can afford to overpay. But worst of all, has been the pain and humiliation of facing the laughter of my friends and co-workers when I told them how much I spent.

Ryan, my roommate, is bargaining with a vendor.

Bargaining is everywhere in Malava, and probably most of Kenya, with few exceptions. Although sometimes I wonder how much bargaining the locals really do. All of the locals already know the lowest price to pay for anything and are unwilling to pay more, but tourists or missionaries aren’t always so sharp. Many times foreigners will pay what is called the “mzungu price.” This simply means the higher (sometimes a lot higher) price. It comes from the perception that a white person can afford to pay more for an item and therefore will be charged more for just about anything.

This is why it has become increasingly important for me to develop very good bargaining skills.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Nairobi - The Big City

Nairobi skyscrapers
When I first came to Kenya, about two months ago, I stayed in Nairobi for a week and had the chance to experience this big city.

Nairobi is both the capital of Kenya and it’s largest city. Nairobi has the highest urban population in East Africa at between 3 and 4 million people. The city was founded in 1899 and in 1901 it became the capital of the British colony after the former capital, Mombasa. Unfortunately, almost all of the colonial-era buildings have been replaced by bland modern office buildings following Kenya’s independence in 1963. Nairobi is a relatively new city and almost all of the buildings have been built in the last 100 years.
Before the 1890s the whole area on which Nairobi now stands was an isolated swamp. It was after, that the East African Railway established a depot on the land at the edge of a small stream. The Maasai, a prominent tribe in East Africa, called the small stream uaso Nairobi, meaning “cold water.” In 1998 the US embassy on Moi Avenue was bombed by militants linked to Osama bin Laden killing more than 200 Kenyans. Four suspects were convicted, but lenient sentences and a meager compensation still anger many Kenyans today.

Kenya's National Conference Center in Nairobi.

Nairobi is very modern compared to the rural villages and has rush hour traffic and skyscraper buildings. Many of the things that we take for granted in the United States can also be found readily available, such as running water, electricity, post cards, pizza, and ice cream. At first glance, it is a very cluttered city. There is a lot going on in a relatively small space. The buildings, traffic, and people seem to be stacked on top of one another. In Nairobi, unlike the rural villages, the streets are named and have signs to label them. The two major streets are Kenyatta and Moi Avenues, named after the first and second presidents of Kenya. Street names tend to be preferred for giving directions over the landmark and fingering-point approach used in the villages. But don’t let this fool you into believing that there is any kind order.

Nairobi matatus are the most outrageous in Kenya.

The streets are congested with cars, trucks, buses, and matatus. Matatus are easily the most popular and most outrageous form of travel in Kenya. The traffic seems to flow wherever there is a space on the ground that nobody is using, even the sidewalks. There are lanes painted on the streets, but it seems rare that anybody uses them. Standard traffic is full of near misses until there is an accident. In the midst of all this chaos, there always seems to be at least one car with a student driver. Surprisingly, there are many driving schools in Nairobi. It’s hard to believe that behind such madness there is actually a learned method.

In Nairobi, there are also many high-class hotels and exotic places to eat. The Norfolk Hotel, built in 1904, is the city’s oldest and was the place to stay in colonial days. While on the southern outskirts, the Carnivore restaurant serves all-you-can-eat nyama choma or “barbecued meat” where one can taste camel, ostrich, or crocodile.

Nakumatt is the "Wal-Mart" of Kenya.

Downtown Nairobi contains many restaurants, shops, and cyber-cafés. The various restaurants offer Kenyan, Ethiopian, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Italian, and Western-style American food. The shops are many, but the obvious stand-out is the huge Nakumatt Supermarket, which is very similar to America’s Wal-Mart. It proudly carries the slogan, “You need it, We’ve got it.” The cyber-cafés are popular and scattered throughout the city. Internet access is a standard 1Ksh (Kenyan shilling) per minute, roughly $1 US per hour.

The National Archives in Nairobi

The City Center contains the National Archives, official Parliamentary buildings, and also the residence and offices of President Mwai Kibaki. One heavily guarded building contains the tomb of Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya's first President.

The Holy Family Basilica Cathedral

Lastly, I visited the Holy Family Basilica Cathedral in Nairobi and while I wasn’t there for mass, I was told that it is much like it is in the States. Mass on Sunday is offered at many times and is in English and only lasts one hour. This alone is very different from the churches in the rural villages.

Holy Family Basilica Cathedral Interior