Jill Palchinsky , July 2006
Our African adventure began on the night of May 9 after an entire day of traveling. We flew into the beautifully lit city of Nairobi and waited to be picked up by Dr. Mecham and Dr. Owino. We had no trouble with customs; I suspect that they were overwhelmed by our large amount of baggage and let us pass through without undoing a zipper. Dr. Mecham and Dr. Owino were late picking us up, though early considering they had been stuck in a 3 hour traffic jam. Fortunately we did not meet the traffic on the way back. Nairobi driving reminded me of a thrill ride at an amusement park. Without traffic signs or signals, road lines, crosswalks, or any other form of driving guide the driver seemed as if he was playing a video game with people and mutatus (small buses for public transportation) as obstacles. I found the guest house on K.U. campus quite comfortable and the family inviting and interesting.
The next day we took some time to get used to the surroundings and our new home. We then took a trip to the Embassy through Nairobi and Githerai—a part of Nairobi where, according to our friend Liz, 90% of the criminals of Nairobi live. I wanted to take a picture of some roadside musicians, but Nancy reminded me that it wasn’t a good idea to pull out an expensive camera in this part of town, even if we where in a car.
After visiting the Embassy to use the internet we drove into the city where Poly Carp could buy a new phone. Getting around was muck like Jay had described it: “human Frogger.” Clint seemed to be the most skilled at dodging cars and people, probably because he was the smallest of the group, or the savviest. The children, or pre-teens, on the streets were drawn to us as mzungus. They surrounded us, asking for money. I have never felt more threatened by a group of children and was happy to escape into our car.
On Thursday, we took mutatus to Westlands, a marketplace tat happened to be Nancy’s favorite. The mutatus were cramped and rather smelly, but not as awful and we had expected. I actually developed a tendency to fall asleep on them; I suspect something about the bumpy Nairobi roads and the loud reggae music just lulled me to sleep. When we arrived in the city to switch mutatus, Jay and Kitty realized that they had been pick-pocketed. This was apparently the first time of the entire trip. When we arrived at Westlands—a block of shacks where vendors owned small shops of handmade goods—we were immediately attacked, even before we had crossed the street. It was difficult to negotiate prices at first, but with a bit of help and some experience, Justin and I soon got the hang of it. I think Justin had an advantage with his intimidating stature.
The next morning we woke up early to meet our safari van to tour Nairobi National Park. The scenery at the park was absolutely breathtaking! It was, however, for much of the ride, lacking wildlife. We did see plenty of shrubs and trees that were made to look like elephants by our wishful imaginations. Later on in the day though, we were able to see giraffes, baboons, ostriches, heart-beasts along with other deer-like animals, water buffalo, and two rhinos that looked like mound on the horizon on my camera. We were also able to get pretty close to some hyrats. Hyrats are the closest living relative to the elephant, though they look more similar to a rabbit than an elephant.
We also made a stop at the giraffe center where Nancy made a habit of kissing the giraffes while the rest of us were satisfied with feeding them. We also stopped at Kazuri, a beading factory where women made beads and pottery by hand. Kazuri was established to allow women of the community an opportunity to make money. On the way back, we pulled over to take in the majestic beauty of the Great Rift Valley. Its silence and immensity were overwhelming. This was, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful places in Kenya. We ended our day with dinner at Carnivore, a famous Nairobi restaurant where one can feast on, or rather, experience, game meats such as ostrich, camel, and crocodile.
Saturday was the day I had been looking forward to all week. Today we took our trip to Rachel’s Orphanage for our field research. Justin, Pearl and I were finally able to meet Dr. Otieno, a professor at KU who was working directly with Dr. Mecham on the project. He was very polite and seemed excited to be working with us. The area surrounding the orphanage was almost entirely cultivated land for mainly coffee beans. We found a small driveway for Rachel’s where we were guided through makeshift gates into a small, bush surrounded compound. The buildings, like the gates, were made of scrap wood, metal, and advertisement boards.
The place looked worse than a slum. The children’s clothing was hanging on the bushes to dry. The children did look content as they welcomed us with some singing and dancing. Many of these children are orphans because their parents died of AIDS. However, the children are not tested for HIV for fear that they will be shunned from the community because of the intensity of the stigma.
We set up our stations for collecting data. Kitty took height weight, blood pressure and temperature. Professors from KU handled the blood samples as well as translating for the questionnaires, consent forms, and drug distribution. Pearl helped with the questionnaire and Justin and I handled urine analysis. Another KU professor was suppose to be in charge of collecting fecal samples, but Justin and I ended up taking over his job. We didn’t mind, except for the difficulty in instructing the women how to give us a urine and fecal sample with hand gestures. We were thankful for the KU professor in charge of the questionnaire to translate for us.
The day at Rachel’s was an incredible experience. The women and children of this area lacked proper medical attention for treatment and diagnosis. A lack of proper nutrition among the women was especially obvious. We were able to meet Rachel, the founder of the orphanage, and her husband, The Honorable Patrick K. Muiruri, Vice Chairman of Agriculture in the Kenyan Parliament. They arrived in a shiny white SUV with polished wheels. He handed us his card before shaking our hands. Rachel talked mostly with Justin (the male superiority was very evident) and emphasized her dedication to the orphanage. She also gave us a notebook with the expenses and plans of the orphanage. With the looks of the orphanage, where the money went was a mystery. It was obvious that Rachel’s was a political tool for Rachel and her husband. I was able to talk with the children who were happy, and excited to have us at the orphanage. They wanted us to stay longer, which I would have gladly done.
After and unsuccessful attempt on Sunday, we headed to Mombassa on Monday. On the way we saw a bull elephant and some zebras on the side of the road. In Mombassa we took a ferry to the northern part of the city where we visited a center where they performed parasitological studies. One of the researches explained his work with shistosomiasis, malaria, and whipworm. As part of a study on malaria, he worked with pregnant women from the area to test the susceptibility of the child from the mother. We also walked out to the beach to put our feet in the Indian Ocean. We walked around the tide pool searching for critters and stopped to taste some coconut wine from some vendors on the beach. That night we ate at the hotel restaurant next door and had some of the best tasting fresh caught tilapia I had ever had. The next day we took a drive up north to Malindi. We stopped at a snake farm on the way and headed to our hotel on the coast. Malindi was beautiful, but obviously a tourist area for wealthy Italians. Most of the vendors, hotel owners, and restaurant owners spoke Italian. There were plenty of mzungus shopping, unaware of the overpriced goods. It is funny how strange they looked to us. That night we ate at the restaurant, “I Love Pizza,” which was pricey and fancy; probably for those wealthy Italians who want a taste of home.
The next morning, Clint, Nancy, Jay and I woke up early to see the sun rise on the beach. We walked along the shore, collecting shells, though it was difficult because there was not much that had washed up. The lack of organic matter along with the lack of organic material was strange for an ocean. There was also quite a bit of mica that washed up with the sand. It almost looked like ocean glitter. After the beach we headed back to Nairobi.
We spent the next three days at another orphanage outside of Nairobi. Canini was extremely different from Rachel’s with its scenic location, lovely guest homes, and apparent dedication to the children and their education. Nancy was not exaggerating when she compared Canini to a vacation resort. We spent time with Dr. Otieno and his family, played with the children, and took hikes up the hill (it was a very large hill) led by Clint. We also visited a carving shop where we could also see local artists carve the items that we bought everyday in the markets. On Sunday, the Otienos had us over to their lovely apartment for tea and dinner.
For the next week, we visited some high points of Nairobi including the Massai Market, ICEPE, and the Primate Center. ICEPE is a center for research dealing with insects. We received an interesting presentation on the major insect control projects as well as a tour of the silk factory, the Neem factory, and the research labs. The projects dealt with controlling Tsetse flies, malaria, shitosomes, etc. The most amazing part of the work at ICEPE was that the researchers took one step further in their projects to make the technology simple, nature-friendly, and readily available for farmers.
The Primate Center was in the middle of a virgin forest. I was a bit wary of the center because of my sensitivity to the mistreatment of animals, but the facility seemed to be environment friendly and the monkeys seemed content. They were kept outside in cages that were surrounded by trees (where wild monkeys from the forest gathered). It was exciting to see the green monkeys, which carry Ebola, and the mangeby monkeys, who carry the SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus).
For the weekend, Justin, Jay, and I took a three-day hike up Mount Kenya while the others went north for some sight-seeing and park-viewing. We took a 7 hour mutatu ride to the base of the mountains where we met our tour guides, Anthony Karobia and Earnest Kabage. The scenery was breathtaking; untouched and crisp with perfectly blue skies, long, sweeping green grass, and a mountainous horizon. We hiked 12 km to reach the camp just before dusk. Anthony talked us into walking to the mountain stream to participate in “the dip.”
The dip is a strange ritual that, according to Anthony, prepares hikers for the cold, rigorous climb. I had decided to not to partake, until Justin attempted “the dip.” I then felt the competition and had to participate, though I wish I had not. The water was 13 degrees Celsius and I was freezing. Thank goodness for the warm fire and delicious traditional African meal when we got back to camp. At night it was very cold, considering we were so close to the equator. The next day we hiked 16 km to the rock climbing site where Anthony met us with the vehicle. However, it began to rain so it was too dangerous to do any rock-climbing and we headed back to camp after a bit of off-road driving. We had reached a height of 11,400 ft! The next morning we woke up early to make our journey home. Our mutatu, however, was late so we drove into the town of Nanyuki with Earnest and Anthony to catch a taxi to take us back to KU.
On May 30th, Pearl, Dr. Mecham, Justin, and I joined Dr. Otieno to hear a presentation by Julie M. Moore (a visiting professor at KU) about her studies on the immune responses in malaria during pregnancy. That night, Poly Carp had “orchestrated” a dinner, or rather, feast for us. He did not necessarily cook anything, but he had arranged for Esther and Frieda to cook for us. We had chipoti, ugali, fried chicken, stew, saffron rice, cabbage, fried fish, sucoma wiki, and potatoes. It was delicious!
On the following day, we had lunch with the some of the students from the ACU (Aids Culture Unit). Elvis and Moses, two friends that we had made previously, talked to us about their struggle to persuade students to get tested for HIV. Elvis said that with their student-run organization for HIV/AIDS, they had gotten some 700 or so students to receive testing. With the 20,000 students at Kenyatta University, this does not seem like much, but they were proud nonetheless. They explained that the testing center on campus was known as the HIV testing center. Therefore, if a student wanted to get tested, he or she would be seen walking into the center and face the consequences of the stigma. It seems that many Africans are more afraid of knowing that they have HIV than they are of the virus itself.
For the next few days, we prepared to leave Kenya. We welcomed visitors with gifts and good-byes for the family, did our best to fit all of our souvenirs into our suitcases, and took in the incredible experiences we had in the past month.