Monday, June 29, 2009

Two Nairobis

Disclaimer: This post is really long. I won't be offended if you just look at the pictures!

Yesterday I spent the whole day reading and relaxing. Sundays are pretty quiet, especially where I am staying because there are no students around. However, this did not change the fact that breakfast is at 7 am here. Needless to say, I ate and then went immediately back to sleep.

Today Clarice met me at the hostel in the morning and we went to her house to discuss my objectives for the summer and go over the roles of the local partners. We also talked about the other students and professors who will be coming later on in the summer and I learned about the different parts of the project that they have been working on. We have a lot of work to do and a lot of people counting on the success of the prototypes that we have been working on in the U.S. Hopefully things will go well.

I'm going to be focusing on piloting the two prototypes that we worked on at Brown this past semester. I did a Group Independent Study Project (GISP) in which we read a lot about Amaranth and Africa and designed and built tools for farming Amaranth. (A GISP is a class that a group of students can create on their own that covers any topic the group is interested in. You have to submit an application including a complete syllabus and reading list and an explanation of how the class will be run and graded.) We will be piloting the seeder and the threshing tool that were designed. Steve (the other Brown student who will be here come this weekend) and I will be building these tools at a workshop in Kisumu, using local materials and then we will bring them to the field and work with farmers to refine the designs.

My other major goal is to map communities and location of resources as well as compile socioeconomic data. Team members from URI and U Hartford have prepared an extensive survey to collect this data, which should be really effective. I am also hoping to have a list of materials and approximate pricing information to help the team with material selection. We will also map water sources, marketplaces, and good potential areas for fish farming. With all of the information we will collect, the students in the U.S. should be able to make some good progress next year.

By the end of the summer, we will have identified very specific projects to work on for the next year as well as target communities to work in. Hopefully we will be able to make some local contacts so that Clarice will no longer be bombarded with our questions. I think the data collection will also help with that. As will pictures.

Once we finished our discussion, Clarice took me for a drive. We drove through the slums of Nairobi so I could see the living conditions there. We also drove through the marketplace there, where there was stall after stall of kiosk owners selling their wares. Much of what they sell comes as scraps from factories or old appliances and other metal and wood objects that have been discarded. You can see men breaking apart metal pieces to be formed into new objects or using aluminum sheeting and hand tools to create pots, pans, and all sorts of kitchenware. There are food stalls, like tiny restaurants, places where they sell meat, charcoal, firewood, plastic containers, and so much more. Many of the shops sell supplies in very small quantities, like enough salt for one meal or enough soap for a day's worth of laundry. There are even people who make wheelbarrows and even paint them. Most people work in factories or the small stalls, so their income is variable, and they live day-to-day. The craftsmanship is incredible and the ingenuity very apparent. They are able to recycle all kinds of things into useful objects. I even saw one man carrying a whole bunch of hangers that someone had made out of wire. The worst is to see the people selling water. The poor don't have access to potable water, so they are forced to pay high prices to get it. The main form of transportation of goods is pushcarts. They have flat beds and a handle in the front so you go behind the handle and push forward. The bed is at an angle as you walk, but they have sides, so you can tie lots of things to them.

The state of the rivers in the area was disheartening. The river and riverbanks were full of trash, and there were even piles of garbage on the side of the road in places. Watching the children play on the riverbanks and in the field nearby, completely oblivious, was saddening. However, I think one thing that has struck me since I've been here is how positive people are. Everywhere you go, people seem upbeat, no matter what situation they are in. Seeing the children playing, carefree, just reminded me that it's the little things in life that really count. Sorry, I know that's super cliched. But most of the people you see are smiling and happy, despite the situation that exists around them. I could go on, but I'll spare you.

Next, we went to a small shop where they grind different types of grain into flour. They had a small, motorized mill that could grind many kinds of grain. Out front, a woman was sorting maize. She had a table with a screen built in so that she could separate out the pieces that cannot be ground, which would fall through the holes. The man working at the shop told us that they sell these pieces as animal feed so that it doesn't go to waste. Clarice said that they have small mills like these in the Kisumu area, so the farmers growing Amaranth would have a place to grind small quantities to make their own flour and sell it. Amaranth flour is more expensive, but the seeds can be stored for much longer. With a small mill like this one, the farmers could store the grain and grind it into flour as they need to.

Clarice and Alice laughed at me when I said that the drive was one of my favorite parts so far, but I think it was a really good educational experience. It's one thing to read about poverty in a book or even to see pictures. In books and on paper, you can still pretend that it can't really be like that. But it's all true. As we were driving around the market, we went slowly. Partially so that I could take a few pictures, which was difficult from the car window, and partially because Clarice was talking to me, telling me about all of the different things I was seeing. The slower we went, the more people would come up to the car and say hi and try to sell things to us. They were saying mzungu, mzungu, which means white person, white person. They assume that because I am white, I am rich. Even Clarice had a lot of misconceptions about Americans, and she has lived in America and gotten a degree from URI. I understand why people think that, but I hate that stereotype. Then again, I'll never understand what they have to go through every day, so can I really complain? The makeshift communities they live in are something that I will never really experience. Most are made of corrugated iron, and the sides are made from what appear to be old shipping containers or other recycled materials. Lots of them have advertisements for random products on the sides. If you look down at one of the settlements, all you see are iron roofs. Several people share one of these single room homes. It's hard to imagine never owning a house that has real value, that can be sold to someone else. But that's the reality of the situation.

Next we drove to the supermarket in the posh section of the city. It was if we had entered a whole other city. There were white people there, and the store was a combination of Sears and a typical American supermarket. It seemed impossible that this could be the same city as the one I had driven around for the last hour or so. It's as if there are two distinct cultures, two sort of human ecosystems existing in parallel with one another, so that they never intersect. It's like nothing I've ever experienced before and I don't really know how to describe it. The supermarket was in this beautiful shopping center. It had a food court and tables, but the roof was open where the tables were - so much better than in the US! I was just baffled by the contrast. I still can't wrap my head around it. And the fact that in the wealthy section, there is a HUGE UN complex and yet there are so many people starving and barely making ends meet. You'd think the answers to some of their policy questions are right under their noses, and yet they stay in their protected area. I guess at some point you become desensitized to all of this. But I'm not really sure how.

1 comment:

  1. I hope you aren't offended, but I just looked at the pictures.

    In fact I really just skimmed by the pictures.

    - <3 Sinnjinn