Sunday, April 29, 2007

Sisters Attacked!

The large community house on the north side of the Sisters' compound

While I was away in Mombasa over Easter vacation I heard reports from Nairobi that the Sisters of Notre Dame in Malava were attacked in the night by men trying to break into their house. Now that I am back in Malava, I have had a chance to talk with the Sisters and some others to get an account of what actually happened.

Apparently, on Tuesday, April 10th eight men approached the Sisters' compound at night. The Sisters' compound is a gated plot of land about 2 kilometers from where I stay, at St. Teresa parish, in Malava. It contains two large community houses and a small “shamba” or farm. It seems as though these large houses are well-known in Malava and give the appearance of wealth. The gate at the front of the compound is guarded by John, the watchman, every night. However, although John is there, he does not carry a weapon and, in all honesty, could do little if there was an intruder with a gun. Mainly, it is his job to keep watch over the night and to report any occurrences to the Sisters' and to contact the Kenyan Police, if need be. On this night, John was approached by eight men that easily over-powered him and placed a metal object to his head that was shaped like a gun. Fearing for his life, he stayed still, but when he noticed that the object was only a piece of metal pipe he began to fight back. When the Sisters' realized that they were being attacked from outside they called the police and secondly made a call for help to the priests at St. Teresa parish. Unfortunately Maurice, the priest’s cook and groundskeeper, was the only one home. The priests had gone out of town. He, being a good friend of the Sisters' decided to act. He grabbed the only weapon that he had at the time, a large stone, and together with the police headed to the compound.

The large community house on the south side of the the Sisters' compound

When they arrived at the compound it was dark and quiet. They had no way of telling what had happened. Had the intruders finally broken into the Sisters' house? Were the intruders armed? Were they still inside the compound? That’s when the Kenyan police devised a brilliant plan! They would stand, with guns drawn, at the entrance to the compound while Maurice, armed with only a stone, would go into the compound and try to chase the intruders out. When the intruders came running out of the compound, for fear of being stoned, the police would shoot them on-site.

Fortunately, for poor Maurice, when he entered the compound he found that the intruders had failed to break into the Sisters' house and had already fled the area. Sadly, John, the watchman, was hit on the back of the head with the metal pipe and suffered a head injury as well as a broken arm. Luckily he wasn’t killed.

The eight men got away and no one has any idea of who or where they are. We don't live in fear, but we do continue to be cautious, especially at night. Although Malava is a fairly safe place to be, we all realize what can happen. In the meantime, John is in bandages and will need many weeks to recover, while the Sisters' are looking for a new watchman. Although it seems as though he could use the money, Maurice has turned down the job.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Rainy Season

During the rainy season the dirt roads become rushing rivers of water and mud
It is now the rainy season in Kenya. Actually, from what I am told, it is the first of two rainy seasons during the year. In the States, we, of course, have the four seasons and they are, for the most part, distinct from each other by the amount sun, rain, or snow. In Kenya, the four seasons still exist, but the temperature doesn’t vary as much and so the seasons seem to be defined more by the amount of rainfall. Furthermore, many Kenyans are farmers and so tend to think of seasons in terms of planting and growing. So most Kenyans only talk about two seasons the rainy season and the dry season.

I collect as much water as I can during the rain storms

When each season is supposed to occur seems to vary by who I talk to, but roughly the first rainy season starts in March and ends sometime in May. In June and July the heavy rains will slow down to a drizzle. Then August and September the rains will continue until finally in October the dry season begins and lasts until February.

Rain water collected in buckets is never clear and needs to be filtered before using

During the rainy season the dirt roads can become rivers of rushing water and sticky red mud is everywhere. It can be tough to keep the clothes and shoes I have spent so much trouble washing from being soiled once again. Also, with the rain it makes drying clothes that have been washed very difficult. It most cases they have to be dried on a line inside the house.

Water is collected in a large water tank from the gutters on the roof

I suppose the biggest downside to the rainy season is that the power tends to go out very frequently. I try to keep the laptop and cell phone charged, but even so, without recharging they don’t last very long. Also, without light the house tends to be very dark and there isn't much that can be by the dim light of a kerosene lantern.

Water can now be used from the tank

The best thing about the rainy season is that there are buckets and buckets of free water just falling from the sky. This means water for cooking, drinking, washing, showering, and, of course, toilet flushing. We may tend to take these things for granted in the States, but here in Kenya, they don’t always come so easy during the dry season.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

St. Julie Centre - Week 12

One of the greatest challenges of being the Volunteer Supervisor at the St. Julie Centre is communicating with the volunteer staff. I continue to learn more and more Swahili every day, but it also seems important that I learn the local tribal language as well. The tribal language of Malava and the surrounding area is Luyha (LOO-YUH), after the tribe of the same name. So I have been trying my best to learn what I can of both languages so that I am able to speak at least a few words to the staff.

Besides learning the national and local languages to be able to verbally communicate with the volunteer staff, I also have had to learn a lot about the cultural of Kenya. There is an obvious dynamic between men and women in Kenya that isn’t as prominent in the States. In Kenya, there seems to be specific roles assigned to both men and women. There are certain jobs that seem reserved for men that women would not do. While there are certain jobs for women that men would not do.

An example of this comes into play everyday when it is time to clean the Centre before everybody leaves for the day. The volunteer women of the Center dilute cleaner in buckets and use rags to clean and sanitize everything from the play therapy toys, to the floor mats, and even the floor itself. While they do this Ryan and I sit and take tea and bread. It seems to be unthinkable to the Kenyan staff to allow us men to do such a job. It actually makes them feel uncomfortable to have us clean or mop the floor. On the other hand, Ryan and I don’t feel comfortable having these women do all of the cleaning, but, at least for now, it is their wish to do so and so we don‘t interfere.

Together, the language and the culture, have been areas in which I have learned the most about how to be a better Volunteer Supervisor.

One thing that drastically improved the communication between myself and the volunteer staff was the recent volunteer meeting. We have had meetings before where we reviewed contracts and various paperwork, but this was the first time that I feel I really had the chance to speak directly to the staff and also hear from them. I planned the meeting for March 30th and asked David, one of the occupational therapists, to help translate my English into Swahili. It made me nervous to think of how they would respond to what I said. At the meeting I spoke with the staff openly. I explained that there was a lot that we could learn from each other and that we had to work together as a team. I spoke, but then allowed the volunteers to speak, and one by one they did. I asked them to share stories about their experiences about volunteering at the St. Julie Centre. I asked them if they think the work that they do will actually help these disabled children. At first, it was quiet, but slowly each of them stood and began to tell of their best experiences at the Centre and why they know deep in their hearts that they are doing good work. They told of children that couldn’t walk and now are walking. They told of children that couldn’t talk and now are talking. By the end of the meeting I had forgotten how nervous I was and truly felt closer to the staff that the previous day seemed so foreign to me. We shared stories as well as concerns and slowly became comfortable with each other. I even receive many compliments from some of the volunteers saying that it was the first time that they had actually spoken at a meeting. It was the first time somebody asked them how they felt about anything.

Although, the volunteers still refuse to let Ryan and I clean the floor and I know there will continue to be language and cultural difficulties between the staff and I, that day many barriers were broken down and now what ever problems we will face in the future of the St. Julie Center we will face them together.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Fort Jesus

The meter-thick coral walls at Fort Jesus

Fort Jesus is Mombasa’s biggest tourist attraction. Kenyans will tell you that you haven’t been to Mombasa until you have seen Fort Jesus.

Two years after the arrival of Vasco da Gama Mombasa was sacked by the Portuguese and in 1593 they built Fort Jesus to establish their dominance over the coastal harbor. The Portuguese regarded themselves as representatives of Christ rather than of Portugal. So they sailed under the flag of the Order of Christ and Jesus became an obvious name for the new fort.

Cannons lined up inside the walls of Fort Jesus

However, the Portuguese failed to hold on to it very long and between 1631 and 1875 the fort changed hands at least nine times before falling to British control.
The remains of a Portuguese soldier found at the site

In Swahili, Mombasa is called "Kisiwa ya Mvita," which means "Island of War", due to the many changes in its ownership during this period.

From 1895-1958 Fort Jesus was used as a government prison.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Gede Ruins

The Gede Ruins are in an area about 4Km from Watamu. They are one of the principle historical monuments on the coast and also one of the principle reasons why it was so painful to lose my camera in the Indian Ocean.

Gede was a city built of stone between the 13th and 14th centuries. Sometime around the 17th and 18th centuries the city was abandoned by it’s inhabitants and became lost when it was swallowed up by the overgrowth of dense forest. Mysteriously there is no historical record of Gede’s existence or it‘s people.

When the ruins were rediscovered around 1920 they uncovered an advanced and prosperous city surrounded by two walls. Excavations found ornate tombs, mosques, and the ruins of a great palace.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Vasco da Gama

Vasco da Gama was the first known European to visit Mombasa in 1498, but after just one week relations with it’s people fell apart and the Portuguese thought it necessary to sail to the friendly nearby village of Malindi. Here Vasco de Gama and the Portuguese erected a bell-shaped pillar used as a navigational aid on the rocks at the northern end of Casuarina Beach. The pillar is made of coral and topped with a cross made of Lisbon stone.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Camera Problems !@#$

When I first arrived in Watamu I was amazed by how beautiful it was and wanted to take as many pictures as possible to show all of you back home this incredible place. On my first day at the beach I took my new digital camera out in the ocean where it was shallow, but I was hit by an unexpected wave that knocked me over and flooded my camera with salt water.

Unfortunately, there was no CPR I could do on my camera and it drowned and is now dead. The only pictures I have of my trip to Mombasa are the few I was able to take before this tragic incident. I know that a picture is worth a thousand words and so I am now shopping for a new camera, but until then we may have to rely on high-quality "mental" images. My apologies.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Easter Sunday

"Peace be with you.
As the Father has sent me
so I send you."
John 20:21

On Easter I woke up early in the morning and went to a nearby café to enjoy two mandazi and a cup of chai tea. Having given up mandazi for Lent they were especially enjoyable and they seemed the perfect way to celebrate the day of our risen Lord.

After breakfast my fellow volunteers and I attended St. John the Baptist Church in Watamu for 9:00AM Mass. Mombasa and the surrounding area being predominantly Muslim it can normally be difficult to find a Catholic church, but thanks to the large number of Italian ex-pats the nearby St. John the Baptist church had Masses in both Italian and Swahili.

The small church was full for Easter mass and for many only standing room was available. Inside it was hot and sweaty as the people packed closely together. The Mass was in Swahili and I didn’t understand everything that was said, but there was one thought that came to me on that day. “I’m in Kenya in an area of the country that is most densely populated by Muslims and here I am sweating uncontrollably with all of these people packed into this tiny Catholic church celebrating mass on Easter Sunday. All I can think is God Bless!”

Saturday, April 07, 2007


Watamu beach
After spending a day in Mombasa we boarded a matatu for the small village of Watamu. Watamu is a beach resort on the Indian Ocean that is frequented by European and American tourists as well as many Italian ex-patriots. The beaches are covered with powdery white sand and the ocean is blue with scenic rock formations and caves carved out by the erosion from the water. When the tide is low the cove drains out to sea and people can walk across the to offshore islands. Small pools of sea water that have not drained can be seen containing various ocean life.

Scenic rock formations

An island in the cove that can be reached by foot when the tide is low

The local beach boys are self-appointed guides and will take you around to show you fish, crabs, starfish, eels, and octopi. There is even a large eel named Georgio (Italian influence) and a starfish called Michael Jackson (it‘s arms appear to do the moonwalk). The beach boys rely on the tourists to make money and will offer to prepare grilled fish and bread as you lie on the beach as well as take you fishing and snorkeling.

Roadside stand in Watamu

The Indian Ocean

It was surprising to my fellow volunteers that live on the east coast in the States that I had never been to the ocean…that I had never swam in salt water…but there I was at the ocean for the first time and the Indian Ocean of all oceans. How about that?!!!

Friday, April 06, 2007


Rooftop view of a busy street in Mombasa

On Good Friday, after boarding our second Akamba bus at 9:00AM, Ryan and I, now with Sandy and Arielle, were on the road to Mombasa. The road was incredibly smooth compared to the one leading to Nairobi and in the morning we could see spectacular views of golden grassy plains with mighty Baobab trees. We finally arrive in the city around 6PM.

Golden grassy field on the way to Mombasa

The mighty baobab tree

Mombasa is the second largest city in Kenya after Nairobi. It was the first capital of Kenya under British rule. Mombasa is a port city on the Indian Ocean that was founded by Arab traders in the 11th century and it quickly became the most important trading center of East Africa, mostly exporting ivory and slaves. Due to it's foundation by Arabs and past involvement in the trading of thousands of slaves, some Kenyans refuse to recognized the city's former glory as the capital of Kenya. Some Kenyans even refer to Mombasa as "the third city" even though it is Kenya's second largest.

A mosque on a busy street in Mombasa

Mombasa seems as densely populated as Nairobi only the climate is much hotter. The city is predominantly Muslim and contains many large and ornately decorated mosques. The call to prayer can be heard, five times a day, anywhere in the city starting at 4AM. Muslim women wearing the black cover-all "bui-bui" are also very common and can be seen walking on the streets and in the marketplace.

*According to my guide book, there can be some anti-Western sentiments among some Kenyan Muslims in Mombasa and hostile graffiti and Osama bin Laden T-shirts and demonstrations against Israel and America are increasingly common.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Road to Nairobi

I spent Holy Thursday on an overnight bus bound for Nairobi. Ryan and I had a week off from the St Julie Center for Easter vacation and so we decided to meet Sandy and Arielle in Nairobi and then head for the coast and Mombasa.

From Malava we took a matatu to Kakamega, 30 minutes away, and then boarded the overnight Akamba bus for Nairobi. Akamba is a bus that seems to have a reputation for being unreliable. We boarded the bus at 9:00PM, and after many unsuccessful cranks to the ignition the engine finally started, and at 9:30 we were off.

On the road, I slept as much as the pothole-filled road would allow and listened to music on my Ipod as we crossed the Rift Valley in darkness. We finally arrived in Nairobi at 7:00AM, 2 hours behind schedule. It ended up taking 10 hours to get to Nairobi. Thank God we did not break down. We had just enough time to meet the girls and board our second bus for Mombasa.

Running at the Equator

Fierce competition between the runners on the track

I have recently taken another volunteer position in addition to my work at the St. Julie Center. I am now the assistant coach of the cross-country running team at St. Antony High School in the neighboring village of Kakoyi.
The St. Anthony boys cross-country team and I

I enjoy the children at the Center, but I thought it would also be good to have an opportunity to work and play with children that are healthy and active. At the Center, most of the children are a lot younger and can’t compete in games or sports as well due to their disabilities. This is certainly not the case with the cross-country team at St. Antony. They are all fierce competitors and I am the one who is finding it hard to compete.

I met with the principal of the St. Antony several weeks ago to see about a position in athletics when he mentioned that the school had a cross-country team. I told him that I used to be on the cross-country team back home in the U.S. This is when he offered me a position to help coach the team. He thought I, having known the sport of running, might be able to give the team some good advice. He introduced me to Akumba, the athletic director of the school, and Edwin, the head coach, and we agreed that I would come to St. Antony twice a week to help coach the team.

My first day was the following Monday and once again I met with Akumba and Edwin at the school and they called for all the runners to gather around. Only, on this particular day I was in for a surprise. I sat in their small office on a simple wooden chair when they called out to a student outside the door saying, “assemble the marathoners.” At first, I thought there must be some mistake because I was there to help coach the “cross-country team.” I looked to Akumba and Edwin with a confused expression, “marathoners?” “Yeah,” said Edwin. “Are cross-country team is made up of marathoners.” That was when I started to feel drastically under-qualified for this position.

The runners all gathered into the office and I introduced myself and gave the “I’m from America” speech. Most of the small children that I’ve met in Kenya love to hear about America, but this group was different. They seemed unimpressed. I said, “If you have any questions about America I’d be happy to answer any of them.” I got nothing but stares.

Then Akumba stood up and told the group of teenage boys and girls that I was a cross-country runner and that I was there to coach them. This is when their eyes lit up. “If you have any questions…,” I repeated. Many hands were suddenly raised all at once. I took a question from a boy standing in the back of the room. He asked, “How can I compete as an international athlete?” Caught off guard and not having any real advice for him I said, “keep running” and quickly moved on to the next question.

All of the questions after were very similar. They seemed to be serious athletes looking for serious advice. So I told them everything I know about running. I told them to drink lots of water, to not eat junk food, to stretch before running, to pay close attention to injuries, etc. They listened intently, but I could see that much of my advice was having little effect on them. That’s when I had to remind myself that I am in the third world. Almost none of my advice I gave was relevant to them. In the third world there are droughts and the children can only drink the water that is available. Poverty and famine are high and children can only eat what their families can afford. There is no such thing as junk food. Also, most children don’t have access to health care so injuries can be overlooked and go untreated. I didn’t feel like I help them out much that first day, but they were happy to have me nonetheless. So I began coming to St. Antony every Monday and Wednesday afternoon to run with the team.

Practices are usually long distance runs along the dirt roads through the “interior” of the country. I usually wear my New Balance running shoes, Adidas t-shirt, and Nike shorts when I come for practice, while the team usually comes barefoot wearing whatever second-hand clothes they can afford. Sometimes a runner will run in the stiff black dress shoes that the students wear as part of their school uniform.

The views along the practice runs are incredible with beautiful blue skies, green fields, mud huts, and rolling hills. But it is also some of the most difficult terrain to run on. The hills are nice when running down them, but upwards can feel like running in slow motion. The air is also thin at this higher elevation and it makes it difficult to breathe and can cause headaches. The sun at the equator can be very intense and is directly overhead when we begin and it usually doesn’t take long before I feel like I am baking in an oven.

When we start the run I get an amazing feeling. I can hear the Rocky theme song playing in my head. The runners seem to run as a single unit. They run as a wave sweeping across the hills and I am in the front. Nearby primary schools have ended by this time and the children along the roadside walking home cheer us on as we run by. They cheer even more when they see that I am white. Some shout, “Never give up!,” in Swahili. Some try to run along with us. Many of the villagers will come out to the roadside to see the show. The distance can be anywhere from 7 kilometers to as much 30 Kilometers. By the end of the run I am thoroughly exhausted and can hardly keep up even a jogging pace. Although the team can run much faster without me they consider me a part of the team and refuse to leave me behind. It is such a privilege to be able to run in their company.

Periodically, they compete with the other schools in the area and they allow me to run the race with them each time. I am not a serious competitor by any means, but when I run it helps to motivate the team and so I am glad to do it. Due to the fact that I am the only white runner on any team I tend to attract a lot of attention. When this happens, the runners at St. Antony like to tell the other teams that I am an international athlete from America, but rather than fearing me this usually helps to motivate the other teams to try to beat me.

St. Antony Track & Field
(I'm the white guy in the middle of the back row.)

Tim on the track

Girls sprinting

Girls running in skirts
(It is not proper for girls to wear shorts in rural Kenya)

High jump

Javelin throw

Although they are the cross-country team there are some competitions that are run on an oval track that is marked with grease lines on a grass field. There are also typically field events such as high jump, long jump, shot put, discus, and javelin throw.

In March, I ran in a race that was somewhere from 15-20 km. In rural Kenya, the distances that are run on the winding roads in the “interior” are always estimated. If I ask three people about the distance of a race, I will get three different answers and the difference between them can be as much as 10km. I am also told that the coaches will tell the runners a shorter distance in order not to discourage them.

The race was easily the longest distance I’ve ever run and I didn‘t think I would ever finish. When it started the runners took off at the pace of sprinters and left me far behind. I knew I had long way to go so I maintained a pace only slightly faster than jogging. As the race went on and the runners near the back of the pack began to get tired and some fell back to where I was positioned and then it got really interesting. It was clear that not all of the runners in Kenya had the motivation to win. I observed some runners that would literally walk the race until I caught up with them and then they would continue to run. I also saw one runner actually resting under a tree until a group of runners behind him caught up and then he continued. It was very surprising to see. But the best part was when I actually had to stop to let a heard of cattle pass on the road before I could finish.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Palm Sunday

School children on Palm Sunday

When the great crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, they took palm branches and went out to meet him, and cried out:
Blessed is he who
comes in the name
of the Lord.
John 12:13

It is Palm Sunday in Malava and at the parish of St. Teresa nearly one-thousand villagers were in attendance for the one and only 9:00AM mass.

The mass began outside at the nearby Isanjiro Primary School on the parish grounds. Father Paul, the pastor at St. Teresa, began by blessing the crowd with holy water and then read from the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 19.

There are many other churches of many other denominations in Malava that make a lot of noise in the village every Sunday, but today it was our turn.

Palms were raised by the crowd and the procession began.

Father Paul directs the people in procession

Choir members sing with palms raised

An altar boy with a cross leads the procession

Led by a single altar boy and followed by a 30 member choir, the crowd, with palms in hand, paraded, danced, and sang through the village and proceeded down it’s main road for all to see before arriving back at the church.

The procession coming down the road to St. Teresa Church

Children dance with their palms in the procession.

A little boy takes part in the celebration

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such a public display of faith in the United States.

Kenyans have a real passion for what they believe.