Sunday, August 15, 2010

Hello from Dubai!

Behold, the magic of free wifi at the airport. The flight from Nairobi to Dubai was uneventful, and I'm now waiting to board the plane to New York. I already miss Kenya but am looking forward to all the things to come in the next few months, including my trip to San Francisco, starting classes, and working on my thesis. Oh, and figuring out how to get myself back to Kenya soon. As much as there are times when I think I will break if someone calls me muzungu one more time, I really feel at home there in some way. Not sure why.

The last day in Nairobi was fun. I met up with a friend, Ilana, for brunch, and met a few of the people she works with as well, then just hung out with another friend for the afternoon. I had intended to meet up with some of the folks from University of Hartford, but by the time they were back in town I was about 30 minutes outside the city center, so I decided not to go back in since it wasn't on my way to the airport.

I somehow managed to fit everything in my suitcase, even though I've gained a lot of stuff during the trip. Not sure how I managed that, but I did. I'm looking forward to getting home and sleeping! The last plane was pretty uncomfortable, so hopefully this one will be better.

Anyway, that's it for my blog this summer. Thanks for reading! Love, Sharon

Last Day at ARO

Thursday was my last full day at ARO Centre. We got to a slow start in the morning, especially because the laser cutter was not working. There was some sort of communication problem between the computer and the machine and we couldn't figure out how to fix it. Fred, Rodgers, Kevin, and I did a mini photo shoot after much nagging on my part, which was really funny. I wanted to have some pictures of us to keep.

Afterwards, Kevin returned to his post, tending to patients, and Fred, Rodgers, and I headed to Bondo so I could use the ATM and to print some photos. When we got there I was fortunately able to withdraw enough money to cover all of my bills from the last two weeks, and then we walked around the town for a while. We bought some sesame seed balls, sesame seeds = sim sim in swahili. They had a bit of honey (or some other sweetener), sesame seeds, and a few groundnuts (peanuts). They were definitely a different sort of taste, but they reminded me of something one might find in the middle east and they were good.

I happened to see an electronics store, so we went over to check it out and see if they had any components. Buying components anywhere near Majiwa is quite difficult, but Bondo is just a 10 minute drive away, so having components available there would really help in terms of the sustainability of the lab. After our failures in Kisumu, I was not very optimistic, however, I was wrong. They even had a list of all of the components and ICs that they carry. We wanted to photograph the list so that people in the lab could know what was available when designing their circuits, and after a LOT of convincing, the shop owner finally allowed us to do so. She also told us about two other electronics stores. The first one again had a list of available components, so I took photos of that list as well. The last store didn't have any consistent stock, so it was not as helpful.

The power has been in and out all week, and unfortunately the power was out while we were at Bondo, so we ended up having to find a place powered by a generator to print our photos. Fred and Rodgers had been hinting that they were going to make me a picture frame, but I wasn't sure. Unfortunately, the girl who was assisting us was dreadfully slow, so we waited almost an hour to print 5 pictures! I told Fred and Rodgers that they need a Kinko's. They were amazed when I explained that they could do all of the work themselves in a timely manner if they were in the US.

Finally we were back in the matatu, headed to Majiwa. I had a very late lunch, then began finishing up some various taks, including settling my bill and going shopping at the small outlet run by the Majiwa Modern Weavers. By the time I went back to the lab, Fred and Rodgers had managed to fix the problem with the laser machine. I'm not sure what they did, but I came back to find it working. I think they reinstalled some software or drivers on a different computer and got it to work. We were supposed to go meet Fred's mom in the afternoon, but it was raining and starting to get late, so we didn't have time.

After dinner, Kevin, Fred, Rodgers, and I spent the rest of the evening in the lab, as we do every night. I was working on some emails and blog posts until the internet turned off, and then just hung around for a while. Another guy who had been away for most of the time I had been around came by to say hi/bye to me, so I talked with him for a while, then went and packed most of my things. Fred and Rodgers were hard at work on something secret, which they had hinted was a gift for me, so I let them be and went to watch a movie with Kevin. I finally watched the whole movie of Up (I had seen the first half before). Even Kevin liked it, and he doesn't like cartoons usually.

Fred and Rodgers both slept over at ARO, in Kevin's little apartment. Friday morning, they were up at about 6 finishing up some wooden boxes for me to take to display at Maker Faire RI. After breakfast, I went and found them in the lab and they gave me my gift. They made me a picture frame that has a picture of the three of us and each one of them picked out a quote for me. It was so sweet of them that I almost started to cry. I'm really going to miss them. We had such a fun two weeks. We headed back out to where the taxi was waiting for me and they went to wake up Kevin. He came out half asleep and I said goodbye to everyone. Then it was off to the airport. The taxi driver was crazy and going way too fast, but luckily I made it safely.

The day in Nairobi went by very fast. I met up with Lawrence, another guy from the lab, to interview him, and he ended up roping me into helping him with a bunch of errands, so I didn't get home until early evening. I met up with Claudia around 7:30 for dinner and we hung out for a while, catching up and stuff. She left early this morning (Saturday) for safari, so I'm sure she'll be having a great weekend. I was supposed to see some people from University of Hartford yesterday as well, but it turned out Clarice had arranged for them to go to Mount Kenya, so they won't be back until this afternoon.

I can't believe I'm flying out tonight! This trip has certainly flown by and I'm not sure I'm ready to face reality back at home quite yet. At least I just have to get through one week and then I'm off to San Francisco! Can't wait.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Ndori Part 2

Today (Wednesday), we spent a while in the morning cleaning the lab since we were to have a visitor. The visitor was Dominic, a friend of mine, who was coming to check out the lab and find out what could be brought to Maker Faire from here in a few weeks. Hansel will be going to represent ARO Fab Lab, and Fred is talking about trying to get there as well. Hopefully they'll both make it. Hansel is really into electronics so I think he would meet some interesting people there.

After cleaning, Fred and I headed again to Ndori, hoping to find the guy that we had looked for yesterday. All of the matatus headed in our direction were full of people going to Akala (it was a market day today), so we started walking. About halfway there, we flagged down a motorbike to take us the rest of the way. It was my first time on a motorcycle, so I was a bit nervous, but it turned out to be fun. Fortunately, we found the guy that we were looking for and I got my interview done and took a few pictures. We also ran into Tom! It's crazy that I run into people I know around here considering I only know about 10 people.

After I finished the interview, Fred put me in a matatu going toward Kisumu since I was meeting Aggre at a place called Obambo. My first solo ride in a matatu. A bit scary, but then I worry too much. It was a longer ride than I thought, but I finally made it and Aggre was there to meet me. We took a motorbike toward the lake and hung out for a while, then I went back home. When I got out of the matatu at Majiwa, I looked up and there was Marvin! He's another one of the guys who works in the lab, though he's been very busy at home and not able to come for several days now. What are the odds that we were in the same matatu! He said he had seen me but he was sitting in the front, so I hadn't seen him there. Anyway, he walked me to ARO since it was on his way, so that was good.

When I got back, Dominic had already come and gone, and Tom was about to leave to go to Kisumu and then on to Nairobi. I said goodbye and thanks and then he headed out. I hate that my time here is ending! He said he'd like for me to come back, so I really hope that I can make that happen. We shall see, though. Tomorrow is my last day here so I'll be running errands and tying up some loose ends most likely. Will write more soon!

An Adventure in Ajigo

Tuesday I spent the morning with John, a local artisan who uses the Fab Lab to make some wood pieces for his jewelry. He took me to see several of his customers and found me another local artisan who makes hand-woven scarves, kikoi, rugs, table mats, and other items. I bought several things from both of them and had a really fun morning hanging with John and learning more about him. I'm really starting to get used to riding in matatus as well, which is good I think. It makes me feel a bit like a real Kenyan. As we were about to leave to come back to Majiwa, it started to pour, so we were stuck at John's house for a while until the rain began to let up and we were able to go back to Majiwa.

In the afternoon, Fred and I went to Ndori, which is a nearby market center. It's a few kilometers away from Majiwa, but there weren't many matatus coming by, so we decided to walk. It was good to get some exercise, and I really enjoy spending time with Fred. We were hoping to find an artisan there who has worked with Tom but he wasn't around. I bought a sheet of plywood for Fred so that he can make me some of the small wooden boxes that someone designed (and I happen to like) as well as some other items for me to display (and hopefully sell) at Maker Faire RI, which is coming up in a few weeks. Steve wants us to have a table representing Maker Faire Africa, which will be happening at the same time. We're hoping to even have a live feed between the two events. It should be fun.

While we were at Ndori, I decided to buy a stalk of sugar cane, which is grown locally. You can eat it by peeling back the outer shell with your teeth and then biting off some of the inside and chewing it until there is no more sugar left inside. It's hard to do, but I had great coaching from the guys in the lab, who spent about as much time teaching me as they did laughing at me. Rodgers took some hilarious pictures of me, though I doubt I'll be showing those to anyone!

I finally got around to interviewing Tom on Tuesday night, and when we were just finishing, the power went out. It's the first time that the electricity has gone since I've been here, so I'd say I have been very lucky. Fortunately, we had a bunch of rechargeable lamps around since the Fab Lab has been working on a project with them, so they really came in handy. A new guy, Hansel, was around the lab on Monday and Tuesday, so we all hung out and joked around for a while before going to sleep.

What Would I Do Without Fred?

Sunday was a bit of a lazy day. Not many people were around and Tom was still gone in Nairobi taking care of some visa stuff for his trip to the Fab Lab meet-up in Amsterdam next weekend. I spent most of the day working and reading and relaxing after an eventful day on Saturday.

Monday I did more interviews at ARO. Fred helped me with translation, especially with the consent forms. He's been so great to have around and I hope that the amount I am able to pay him will help him with his college fees. He holds the record for the highest score on the primary school exams (8th grade) for his primary school and is now struggling to afford to stay in school. He was lucky enough to go to a provincial level secondary school (with help from a kind neighbor, who paid some of the fees) and because of that, he has been awarded the lowest level of government loans for school (the government assumes that if you were able to afford to go to a provincial level school that you're well-off financially). Anyway, it so frustrating to see someone like him struggling to get an education. He's so smart and hardworking and a really nice person too.

We've been watching movies most nights since I've been here, and between Sunday night and Monday night we watched Rush Hour 1, 2, and 3. I forgot how much I love those movies. Rodgers loves Jackie Chan, so we all had a really good time. I'm going to miss being here a lot.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Adventures in Kisumu

On Saturday I needed to go to Kisumu to change my plane ticket. I'll be heading back to Nairobi next Friday morning to attend a few meetings and just have some time to rest before getting on the plane to New York. Since I didn't want to go alone, I asked Fred and Rodgers if they would come with me. I figured that it would be good to have company, and I also wanted them to have a fun outing. We left Majiwa at about 9:15 and walked down to the highway to wait for a matatu. The wait was not so long this time, and soon we were on our way. When you're in a matatu, the degree of cramped-ness is always variable, depending on the guy who is collecting the money, since he is the one who determines how many people are allowed inside. There's constant push and pull between wanting to get more money and the number of people who can fit somewhat safely. On this particular day, there were 24 of us in a 16 passenger vehicle, so you do the math! I was wedged between two men for most of the ride, and was sitting on the space between two seats. Not that I would have been able to fall anywhere!

When we reached Kisumu and got out at the main bus station (or, as they say here, the stage), everyone was coming up to me, trying to take me to Nairobi or Mombasa or a whole range of places. We walked quickly out to the main road and toward Oginga Odinga street, which is the main road in Kisumu. We headed to Mega Plaza, where the Kenya Airways ticket office is located, and I changed my ticket. This whole process took about 15 minutes, and then we had the rest of the day free just to hang out. I was interested to see what sorts of electrical components could be purchase in Kisumu and also wanted to know if they sold very small solar panels, like the ones that might charge a mobile phone. Fred and Rodgers helped by asking around, and we set out first to an electronics shop that Fred had been to once before with another friend, Lawrence. On our way there, we ran into Kevin, who is the doctor at ARO Centre. We knew he would be in Kisumu for the weekend, but it was definitely a nice surprise to run into someone that we knew. He decided to join us in our quest for a little while.

We headed first to this electronics shop, but found that they mostly had replacement parts for radios and TVs and things, but no electrical components. They directed us back to Oginga Odinga street, where there is a row of hardware and electrical stores that sell quite a range of different things. However, our search came up mostly empty. We didn't find a place to buy electronic components and there were no small solar cells to be found. The smallest size was a 10 Watt solar panel, and the price would definitely be out of reach for those in the village, who are the primary target of the solar rechargeable lamps that the Fab Lab is working on. However, we did find a solar charger for a mobile phone, so I bought that to bring back to ARO. The way it works is it has solar panels charging a battery, and then that battery is portable and can be used to charge other things, like a phone. At the very least it will be a good example of the circuitry involved in charging a battery from a solar cell, so it may help in developing the solar lamp further. Also, it will be a good way to get an idea of the specs needed for a solar cell than can effectively charge a battery. The ones I brought aren't working so well, so I'm hoping that this may help move the project forward.

Fred also was able to buy a new phone charger (his had been melted by high voltage), so overall I would say that our quest was somewhat successful. We had fun, anyway, going from one place to the next, each time being directed to someplace new. We also met up with Aggre, who happened to be in Kisumu for the day, running some errands, and the four of us went to lunch together. I had been craving tilapia and ugali, so we went to Railway Beach, as Westerners call it. The locals refer to it as the place with lots of flies. It's just a small strip of tiny restaurants that serve fish located right on the shores of Lake Victoria. It's a pretty place to eat. When you walk in, you see a table full of different fish. You negotiate with the restaurant owner as to what price you'll pay for the fish you want to eat. Then they fry them and serve them with ugali, kale, and broth. It's a very messy lunch, but so much fun to eat. While you're eating men come up selling all kinds of different things. I bought a few DVDs for us to watch this week and a gospel CD for Fred. It's about $2 per DVD, and each has maybe 8-10 movies on it, so it's a pretty good deal.

When our food came, we all dug in and barely came up for air. By the time we had finished, we were all stuffed, so we just sat and digested for some time. I had also spoken with Kalie, from One Acre Fund, earlier in the day. She said that she was in Kisumu and would be hanging out at Kiboko Bay, a resort right on Lake Victoria, but south of where we were eating lunch. Once we were ready to go, we found a tuk-tuk to take us to Kiboko Bay, which is in a place called Dunga. It was my first time in a tuk-tuk, so I had a lot of fun, despite the bumpy ride. We met Kalie at Kiboko Bay and I caught up with her a little bit. I talked more about my trip so far and asked her some questions about One Acre Fund. I learned that they employ mostly Kenyans - about 200, and then there are 7 ex-pats who work in Bungoma. They primarily do the strategic planning work, while the Kenyans are executing the programs and serving as field officers. The ex-pats help to kick off implementation of new programs or innovations, but afterwards this is run by the Kenyan staff. They seem to be doing quite well, and I know the organization is very focused on measuring results, which is always nice to hear.

After Kalie left, we took some pictures by the lake and just relaxed for a bit. When it was time to head back to town, we realized that we hadn't gotten the phone number of the tuk-tuk that dropped us off, and were worried we were going to be stranded. We were told to take a boat back to where we had come from, but that would be about $20 as compared to a $1.50 tuk-tuk ride. Luckily, a few minutes later, a tuk-tuk came to drop off some other people, so we got in and headed back to town. I stopped at the ATM to take out a lot of money to pay for the car on Tuesday and then we went to Nakumatt, which is the largest grocery store chain in the country. I wanted to get some chocolate for myself (I've been missing it!), something small to bring back for people at ARO, and some mangoes. Unfortunately, there were no mangoes! The season is really not here yet, sadly. After we finished our errands, we headed to the petrol station where we could find a matatu back to Majiwa. Luckily we arrived just in time to claim the front seat, which is arguably the most comfortable position.

The ride was uneventful, though when we were at Akala, a drunk guy wouldn't leave me alone. Our driver had to get out to do something and was gone for what seemed like forever. I could smell the alcohol on this guy, and he was just mumbling things that I couldn't fully understand. Finally, our driver returned, and we were again on our way. We arrived in Majiwa safely and it was just about to rain. Luckily we reached ARO before the rain began. My dinner was waiting, and Susan (the woman taking care of me) was very happy to see me. I managed to make it through dinner and to my room before the rain really came, then packed some things and walked over to the lab to watch a movie. Overall, it was a really fun day, and I was happy to bring Fred and Rodgers along. When we came back, Patric said I must have fed them well because they looked a little bit brighter. Rodgers and Fred both agreed that it had been such a good day that it was like a day and a half. I was happy to be able to give them a day of just relaxing and having fun.

And the Interviews Begin

Thursday was my first day of interviewing. Even though my main reason for coming was to conduct interviews, I had been holding off, waiting until I got to know people here and earn their trust before starting. Since a week had now passed, I decided it was time to get moving. Tom came up with a list of people for me to interview, but he has been away since last Tuesday, first to vote, then to Nairobi to get a visa for an upcoming trip to Amsterdam for the Fab Lab International conference/meet-up. However, Fred has been kind enough to help me with organizing people and with translation as needed. Thursday I was able to do three interviews, starting with those I know fairly well, which made me a bit more comfortable as I was feeling apprehensive about getting started.

The first set of interviews went well, and I learned a lot about people that I had been interacting with for about a week now. There are always things about someone that don't come up in casual conversation, so it was really interesting to learn more. I was able to do almost all of them in English, as many of the people here are fluent, and Fred helped me with translation for one of the interviews, specifically with translating the consent form. It's funny, when I ask people to sign the consent form, they look at me funny, and I have to explain that doing research in the U.S. is very strict, so we are forced to have those who are interviewed sign consent forms. Not much to report on the interviews. It was nice to have busy days on Thursday and Friday, but interviewing is more tiring than I thought! I don't think I can do more than 4-5 per day without exhausting myself since they last about 60-90 minutes each. I have tried to be very thorough and ask each question in more than one way to ensure that I get complete responses from everyone. I should be finishing up next Monday and Wednesday, though for the remaining interviews I'll be doing a bit of traveling. Not far, just maybe to a few nearby town centers.

I have also arranged to visit One Acre Fund, an organization that works in a place called Bungoma, which is northwest of where I am. A Brown grad named Kalie came to Brown to talk about the organization and just about what it's really like to do development work in the field. This was during spring semester. I talked with her after and told here I would be in Kenya, near Bungoma, during the summer and was hoping I might be able to visit their operations. She gave me her card and I contacted her a few weeks before I was going to be traveling so I could get her local contact info. I'll be heading to Bungoma on Tuesday. Professor Agong arranged for me to hire a car from Kisumu, which I have decided is a better option than public transport, even though it is really expensive. My cost of living has been much lower than anticipated, and I'd rather be safe than have to worry about getting a matatu to and from.

Otherwise, that's about all I can say about the second half of last week. I've been having so much fun here, hanging out and also doing the interviews. I feel like I've made some good friends. And, I almost forgot. Rodgers and I decided that on Friday we were going to try to fix two broken computer monitors. We weren't very hopeful, but figured that if we opened them up and tried, the worst thing that could happen would be that we still had two broken monitors, and we'd be no worse off than we already were. After taking them apart, we did some crude investigations into what the problem might be, and seeing as how we had no prior knowledge about how LCD monitors work, it was a bit slow. However, we managed to find an issue with one of the wires in one of the monitors - it had been damaged by too much current - and we cut off the damaged part and resoldered it. Otherwise, there were several loose connections, and after fixing those, we had two working monitors! It was a good day.