The World’s Most Perfect Climate

Nairobi city on a typically beautiful day

A photo I took of Nairobi city on a typically beautiful day

Imagine if you could design your ideal climate. What would it be like? For me, it would be like this: Partly cloudy and mid-70’s °F (low 20’s °C) nearly every day of the year. Beautiful blue skies. The warmest days accompanied by a nice breeze. Cool evenings, but never cold. Very little humidity. And just when things get a little too dry, a rainy season begins. But it is short, and the showers come and go delicately.

That is perfection. And lucky for me, I have just described Nairobi. National Geographic once said Nairobi has the world’s “most perfect climate” and I can’t help but agree. People back in the U.S.A. often ask me what the weather is like here, and most of them assume it is beastly hot and harsh. I made the same assumption because Nairobi is very near to the equator, but because of the city’s elevation (5,889 feet or 1,795 metres above sea level), extreme weather conditions are prevented. I have yet to enter a building with air conditioning or heat, simply because there is no need for either.

I have tried to explain to my Kenyan friends the type of weather I experienced growing up in Minnesota. Unfortunately, the weather in Minnesota cannot be adequately understood unless you experience it for yourself, but I will try to explain it in mere words. Winter is cold. According to Wikipedia (and my own life experience) “temperatures as low as −60 °F (−51 °C) have occurred during Minnesota winters.” Those are extreme cases, but temperatures regularly hit 0 °F (−18 °C). Imagine this: if you wash your hair and venture outside before it is completely dry, it freezes and becomes hard instantly. The boogars freeze inside your nose. Your body parts literally go numb because they are so cold. School gets cancelled some days because kids could actually DIE waiting for their busses to arrive. Then there is snow, which can pile up so high you can’t even open your front door; and freezing rain, which makes you fall on your butt when you try to walk. And the worst part…winter can last for a solid six months of the year! Springtime bursts with life as the snow melts, but can cause major flooding. Summers are lovely, though very hot and humid, causing regular droughts. Autumn is vibrant and colorful as leaves change colors and the air turns cold once again, giving way to violent thunderstorms and tornados. In Minnesota, you can never predict the weather.

The funny thing is, if you ask most Kenyans, they will not describe Nairobi’s weather like I have described it at the beginning of this post. They might talk about the extreme heat of January (80 °F, 26 °C) and the freezing cold nights in July (60 °F, 15 °C). They might say things like, “The weather in Nairobi is so unpredictable!” or “I’m sure you’ve never experienced heat like this in the U.S.!” But hey, if you grew up in the world’s most perfect climate, wouldn’t you react this way too? I would!

For the record, I have almost completely lost my Minnesota “thick skin.” Like my fellow Kenyans, now 60 degrees feels dreadfully cold and 80 feels painfully hot. That could be very problematic when I return to Minnesota…

Merry Christmas and a New Pair of Shoes

It is difficult to be far away from family and friends this Christmas, but something has made the season a little brighter. This week I had the opportunity to help give away 500 pairs of new shoes to kids in Kibera who have probably never received a Christmas gift and certainly have never worn a new pair of shoes. Swahiba Youth Networks, a wonderful local organization that works with young people in Kibera, raised money to purchase the shoes from Kenyan shoe company, Bata. The shoe giveaway and celebration was called “Tabasamu,” meaning “smile” in Swahili, and included a dj, entertainment, snacks, and other fun activities for the kiddos. Here are a few photos to brighten your holiday as well. Merry Christmas!!

*Click on an image to scroll through the gallery

To learn more about Swahiba Youth Networks, visit their website at http://swahibayouthnetworks.org/

Kibera Celebrates Obama

I have to admit, it was good to be in Kenya for the 2012 U.S. Presidential election. I didn’t have to listen to the candidates argue or slander one another, I was spared from the negative campaigning, and was able to vote by mail about a month before election day in America. While most Kenyans are not deeply informed about Obama’s politics, they do find him inspiring and feel a deep sense of pride in the fact that his paternal roots are Kenyan. After watching the election results online early Wednesday morning, I ventured out into Kibera and heard about some celebrations going on just down the road (I live in an area where the majority of residents are Luo, which is Obama’s father’s tribe). Sure enough, I came upon an American flag waving high in the air, a wall of speakers blasting music, a photo of Obama, people dancing and kids singing “America, America.” Despite the fact that half of America was disappointed about the election results, I think it is fair to say my neighbors were pretty happy.

The photos below are from local media outlets that captured the celebration (click to enlarge).

Graffiti Art in Kibera

*Click on a photo to scroll through the gallery.

Kibera may be one of the world’s largest slums, but there is always abundant beauty to be found in unexpected places. Recently, I opened my eyes to the graffiti art around my neighborhood and I have become enthralled by its expression of creativity. Last week I set out with my camera to capture as much as I could, resulting in the images above.

As you can see, much of the art incorporates a message of peace which is likely born out of the horrific 2007 and 2008 post-election violence that crippled Kibera and the nation of Kenya as a whole. In fact, I found most of the graffiti in and around old structures that were burned down during this time and never rebuilt. My neighborhood saw the worst of the post-election violence. After capturing these photos, I did a little digging in order to find out more about Kibera’s most prominent graffiti artists whose tags I found. Some of them include Solo 7, Bank Slave, Gomba, and two guys that call themselves Maasai Mbili. These young men are establishing art camps for children, running art galleries inside the slum, speaking at conferences, and even traveling the world to share their talents. They were all born and raised in Kibera, and have lived through the community’s best and worst times. To them, it seems, graffiti art is not a form of vandalism or simply a hobby, but rather an expression of peace, justice, and a way to share their message with the whole world.

To learn more about Kibera’s graffiti art, visit: www.StreetArtOnTheRun.org and click on “Kibera.”

University in the Slum??

The reason I came to Kenya was to pursue a Masters in Transformational Urban Leadership (MATUL) through a partnership between Azusa Pacific University in Los Angeles and Carlile College/St. Paul’s University in Nairobi. The MATUL degree is focused on community transformation within urban informal settlements (slums) around the world. When I tell people I am a master’s degree student, they usually imagine me sitting in a fancy university classroom discussing theoretical ideas about how people in slums might improve their lives, or writing papers about hypothetical solutions to pressing economic issues. But this is far from the truth. Each class I take involves working right alongside the members of my community as I learn from and with them.  And in fact, Carlile College has taken this concept to the next level by placing their classrooms right in the heart of Kibera slum.

In 2003, Carlile College opened the Tafakari Centre for Urban Mission in Kibera where many of its local trainings and university courses are facilitated. I strongly believe that this is exactly where we are supposed to be as MATUL students. After all, how can we possibly learn about slums (and from those who have the most knowledge about them – the residents) if we never spend any time there? To get to the Tafakari Centre for class each week, we walk through the lively streets of Kibera surrounded by small homes made of iron sheets or mud as far as the eye can see. As we sit in the classroom, we can hear children laughing and playing, women washing clothes, roosters crowing, and men arguing over who-knows-what. We are delighted with the scent of samosas cooking and assaulted by the smell of sewage and garbage. Much of the time the electricity doesn’t work in our classroom, but we make do, just like everyone else.

My local MATUL class is comprised of NGO workers, pastors and professionals who all desire to see change in Kibera. Some of the students were born and raised in informal settlements themselves, while others come from middle income backgrounds. We grapple with difficult social, physical, and spiritual issues, all while surrounded by the vast expanse of Kibera. Our professors are local experts in their fields with years of experience as doctors, microfinance facilitators, and pastors who can guide you through every nook and cranny of Kibera and who have more knowledge to share than could ever be absorbed in one semester.  Even though I may be met with puzzled looks when I answer the question, “Where is your school?,” I could not be more grateful for the learning experiences I have had there and for Carlile College’s bold move to have a “university in the slum.”

Meeting President Obama’s Grandmother

So, I met President Barack Obama’s grandmother. Seriously.

This past weekend I spent several days in a rural village with a friend’s family in order to learn about Kenyan life outside the big city. My friend’s family’s home happened to be just seven kilometers from the Obama family home which is in the village of Kogelo, an area several hours from Nairobi that is home to the Luo tribe of Kenya. When I found out how close we’d be to the Obamas, I decided I had to make a visit. Perhaps, I thought, I could see the area where the President’s father grew up or get a glimpse of the family’s homestead.

On Sunday afternoon, we all piled into the car – my friend whose home we were visiting, his cousin, my friend Abby, and me. We drove through the luscious, rolling green hills and powder blue skies of the Kenyan countryside into the village of Kogelo. I knew we had arrived upon seeing signs like “Senator Secondary School” and the “Barack Obama Shop.”  After a few more winding roads going further into the village, we came upon what we believed to be Sarah Obama’s homestead, the grandmother to President Barack Obama. There was a police officer guarding a large gate into the area. We got out of the car and my friend walked up to the police officer and asked if we could visit Mrs. Sarah Obama. I was taken aback by his request, thinking he must be crazy to assume we might be able to meet her. The police officer looked at us hesitantly and asked for our passports. Abby and I did not have them with us because we had no idea that this opportunity might come up. Did we have our state ID’s? No. Our student ID’s? No. A friggin’ business card? No. The police officer asked my friend for his Kenyan ID, and he pulled it out from his wallet. The police officer saw money in it and suddenly became very friendly. Sure we could come in – he would just “close his eyes.” Plus, he said, Sarah Obama did not have the heart to turn down visitors.

The police officer led us up to the home…and there she was! Ninety-year-old Sarah Obama, sitting in a chair on the lawn. She was wearing a dress made of the traditional, brightly colored Kenyan cloth and her head wrapped in the same cloth. She had kind eyes, soft wrinkles, and a hearty laugh. There were a few other people sitting in chairs around her, and the police officer whispered to us that they were some of President Obama’s extended family members who had come to meet her. Then, we were led right up to Sarah Obama. I shook her hand and said the only word I knew in her tribal language of Duluo – “Erokamano” which means “Thank you.” She laughed loudly and shook my hand firmly when she heard me say it.

A woman brought out chairs for us to sit on and cool sodas to enjoy. For several minutes we sat there with Sarah Obama and her family members as she shared stories in Duluo about the family and the President. She laughed about how much life had changed since the 2008 election – now she travels all over the world and people come to visit her nearly every day. She laughed about how people think she’s rich. She talked about how electricity and roads had come to the village after the election. She cracked jokes in Duluo, and our friends were in tears from laughter as they tried to translate what she had said into English through their giggles. She explained that she had spoken to the President on the phone a few days prior. He had sent her a Mother’s Day card and was planning a visit. Just a hundred feet or so away, she pointed to the President’s father’s grave and explained that as a young man, Barack had visited and stayed in her home.

After some time, several important-looking men in suits showed up demanding her attention, so we politely excused ourselves. On the way out, my friend handed the police officer a few hundred shillings for his trouble (a few dollars). He smiled and said we were welcome back any time.

(FYI, Sarah Obama asked that we not take any photos of her, so the photo of her above was not taken by me. The other photos I was able to take on the way into the homestead.)

Robbery Attempt

First of all, let me say this: I love Kenya and I feel very safe here with my host family and local friends. The last thing I want to do is paint a negative picture of the beautiful place that I call home. But to be completely honest, there is a major problem with crime in Kenya. Nairobi has been nicknamed “Nairobbery” because of how common theft and robbery have become. Even the police are often involved in crime due to high levels of corruption.

Since I arrived in Nairobi five months ago, I have come in contact with crime in a few forms. Today I was pick-pocketed and my phone was stolen. A friend of mine was held at gunpoint and her laptop was taken by thieves as she walked in her neighborhood. Another friend was captured by police after he refused to give them money, held for three days with no food or water, accused of being a terrorist and then drugged (yes, drugged by police). Every Kenyan has stories about their wallet being stolen or their home or car broken into. Personally, I have been the victim of a few robbery attempts, one that I will share about in detail here (don’t worry, it’s actually kinda funny).

Abby (my fellow student) and I were taking a matatu from home to church last Sunday morning. As soon as we got in and sat down, a man entered and settled into the vacant seat next to me. I was instantly suspicious because he sat next to me when the rest of the matatu was empty – something that people rarely do. He also had a large backpack that was flat and empty, which is a typical tool for robbery (you’ll see why in a moment).

A few moments later, a girl got on the matatu that was lost, so I explained to her how to get where she wanted to go (and stopped clutching my bag momentarily). When she was getting out of the matatu I suddenly became aware of the guy next to me again and realized he had his large bag covering part of my arm and the corner of my bag, and his hand was partially into it! He was trying to rob me! I pulled my bag away suddenly and looked at him, and he got spooked. The poor guy caught me on the wrong day…I said in a loud voice for the whole (now full) matatu to hear: “I am a visitor in your country, and this is how you welcome me? By trying to steal from me?” Then I turned around to address all the people in the matatu and pointed to the man, saying: “This man is a thief!”

The guy motioned for the conductor to let him out of the matatu immediately – he was nervous and embarrassed. As he stepped out I said, again loud enough for everyone to hear, “I hope you are going to church so you can repent for your sins.” The whole matatu was in shock, in disbelief that this Mzungu girl confronted the thief. I was a bit worried about how people might react, until an older Mama looked a me, smiled, and gave me a thumbs up! I was satisfied in my small piece of justice.

Check out my previous post on matatu culture here: https://kenyafeelit.wordpress.com/2012/02/04/getting-around-a-lesson-in-matatus/