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Africa: Days Thirty-Seven through Eighty-Nine

Part Five: Moving to Miami

(Tuesday March 7, 2000)


By now you may have already looked at the pictures that are up (Iím not going to keep all of them up for very long, so you may want to take the virtual home tour soon if you havenít yet). If you have looked at them then you have a pretty good idea of how we are living, or at least a visual idea. So all I am going to do in this entry is try to give you a better idea of what it is like actually living here.

I guess Iíll start with moving in.

OhÖyouíve all moved somewhere beforeÖthereís not a lot to say about it. It was the first time I have ever moved in to a place while the landlord (in this case landlady) was moving out. I briefly described her before in Africa Day Twelve. She is a big lady, which in most of Africa is a big asset. In a place where everyone is thin to differing degrees from lack of proper nutrition, it is a status symbol to be overweight. For men it is attractive to have a good-sized belly because this means that you have a good-sized wallet and probably some power, either in the business or political communities. Our landlord, if youíll recall, is the Town Clerk of Nairobi, a position of great power. His belly is moderate-to-good sized. For women it is attractive to have a large bottom. It means that you can handle having many children. Iím not sure how many children our landlady had but she seemed capable of supporting quite a few. Iíve been told that itís considered a compliment to be told that you are getting fatÖ

In preparing to move in we met with her many times, the Mzee was too busy governing Nairobi to mess around with us. We called her ďmamaĒ and she called us ďKimĒ and ďLopezĒ, she couldnít quite pronounce Gerard. Early on she decided that she and Kim were to be friends. Whenever she and Kim met, she would shake my hand, and then hold Kimís hand for a very long time, sometimes walking hand in hand throughout the visit. To explain: Kenyans, and I believe most East Africans, are big fans of hand holding. Not between men and women, mind you, but between men and men, and women and women. It was a little bit strange the first couple of weeks in Kenya, seeing so many grown men walking down the street holding hands. I thought, ďhow enlightened! Itís nice that itís acceptable for gay men and women to express their love publicly. Americans could learn something from this kind of tolerance.Ē I couldnít have been farther from the truth. Africans in general are rabidly homophobic. Iíve been advised not to broach the subject with anyone. Hand holding is just a sign of friendship, so I guess even if homosexuality was acceptable they still wouldnít hold hands, just as men and women donít hold hands. Of course, Iíve never really talked to anyone about it, so this is mostly an uneducated guess. If I find out differently Iíll try and correct it..

So, early on mama decided that she and Kim were going to be hand-holding friends. It was a little later on that she decided that I was put on this Earth to amuse her. I canít exactly explain why I believe she felt this way; I just know that we couldnít make it through a conversation without her laughing at me. I donít even know what we were talking about in most of the conversations, as we didnít understand each otherís accents half of the time. It didnít seem malicious, I just genuinely amused her, and I, admit, I was pretty amused by her on occasion.

My favorite image of her is coming by just before we moved in to talk about the utilities or something. She invited me in to the kitchen where she was making lunch. Lunch that day was fish. I donít know much about kinds of fish, so I canít tell you itís name, but it was over a foot long, and still had itís head and scales, but not itís guts. Not something that Iím particularly used to (I only eat the ďTrapezoidal FishĒ from Long John Silver and secretly itís really the vinegar that Iím interested in thus further proving the Condiment Theory of Gerard Cuisine!), but not really that big of a deal; people eat fish all over the world. So we talked about how to make arrangements for the transfer of utilities to our name. While we were talking, I vaguely noticed that she was fidgeting with the fish. When I looked closer, I saw that as she was speaking she was idly rubbing the eyeball of the fish with her fingers.

I didnít hear another word she said.

All I could do was stare as she pushed the eye around in itís socket. It was almost like the African version of a rich beautiful woman running her fingers around the rim of a crystal champagne glass. Except, of course, that the glass was a fish eye. I was mesmerized. I have no idea what we agreed to, but the bills have been coming in my name, so Iím sure it all worked out.

So, anyway, Mama was moving out the same day that we were moving in. Her vehicle was in the shop for some reason, so she wasnít anywhere near ready to leave yet. She had assured us that it would be ready by the end of the day, so she was definitely moving out that day, but in the meantime she was just sitting out in the yard waiting. While she was waiting there was a group of workers putting the finishing touches on the compound. They had finished almost everything they said that they were going to except for planting flowers or grass. If youíve looked at the pictures closely, you may notice that there still arenít any flowers or grassÖ

While she was waiting, we were cleaning. The place was filthy. We spent hours and hours cleaning the floors, walls, counters, closets, tiles, etc. etc. If she was the outgoing tenant and I was the landlord, I would have charged her for the cleaning of the place.

To make a long tedious day shorter in the telling: Her vehicle showed up, she left and we moved in.

I spent the next three weeks or so fixing things and settling in. While there was nothing horribly wrong with the place there were many things that we wanted to change. So I spent a lot of time meeting, and supervising various workmen. Most of them were fundi of one kind or another. A fundi (pronounced ďfoon-deeĒ, not ďfun-deeĒ although it would be slightly moe entertaining if it were the later) is anyone that knows a craft of almost any kind. Plumbers, electricians, mechanics, potters, carpenters, bicycle mechanics, soapstone carvers, weavers, masons, sculptors, welders, machinists, and anyone else who makes something or fixes something can be called a fundi. I learned fairly early on that it doesnít translate as ďcraftsmanĒ, because there is too much of a connotation of competence or skill with that word. Some the guys that we had doing work must have just wandered in off of the street, despite the recommendations that we received on their behalf. On the other hand, some of these guys really knew what they were doing.

Letís see, what work did we have done? We had a wrought iron security gate welded over one of the doors, we had little latches for padlocks welded onto the two other doors, we had some stumps removed from the compound, we had the compound cleared of flotsam and jetsam, we had the oven wired into the house, we had light switches replaced, we had a toilet replaced, we had our water storage tank cleaned out, and, the largest project of them all, we had a laundry washing area built.

Most of these things went somewhat smoothly. The main problem is that the fundis are a bit hard to get a hold of. None of these guys have phones or anything, so you have to trust a daisy chain of knowing-someone-that-knows-someone. And if you want someone to show up without a couple of days notice, then youíre mostly out of luck.

For example, we wanted to build a little area for doing laundry by the servantsí quarters (yes we have servantsí quarters, more about that in a second). It needed a tap, a cement basin, and a drain. Sounds simple right? This took almost two weeks from inception to completion. It took several days to get the plumber and mason together in one spot to talk about it. Then it took a couple of days to get a hold of the landlord to ask for permission. Then it took another couple of days to get a hold of the mason. We couldnít get a hold of the plumber again, so we switched plumbers. The two never met each other so they had different ideas of how the whole thing should look. Of course, we didnít find that out until after the plumber was already finished laying the pipe and setting the tap. The mason showed up, decided that the design the plumber had in mind was in some way flawed and didnít want to proceed until the plumber changed the set-up. Then we couldnít get a hold of the plumber. The guy that we ordered the cement and sand from, Mr. Pabari, had set us up with the current plumber so I called him from the payphone down the street to try and locate the plumber (we didnít have a phone for a month, as you know. Damn Telkom!). So I walked back and forth several times without success.

The mason wouldnít budge for two hours, even though he knew how to fix the problem. He also refused to contact another plumber fundi. It was like witchcraft: the fundi couldnít meddle with another fundiís spell. After I made it very clear that he was going to have to either find another fundi or quit for the day (it was only 10am) he decided that he would take care of the problem himself. Ten minutes after he had dug up, and relocated the drainpipe, the plumber showed up. Despite the reluctance of the mason fundi at changing the plumber fundiís work, there was no big showdown. The plumber just changed in to his overalls and helped out.

And thatís how most of the stuff went. Things would be slow in starting, they would get going and then there would be some insurmountable obstacle. There are only two conditions of possibility in Kenya: ďno problemĒ and ďnot possibleĒ. If you want something done, you are told from the beginning whether it is one or the other. Thatís only at the beginning, by the end of the day you can go back and forth between the two several times. Some times ďno problemĒ means, ďsure, but I really have no idea what you are talking about or how to do it, but Iíll be glad to pretend if it means that you are going to pay me.Ē Some times ďnot possibleĒ can mean, ďit sounds like a pain in the butt, but if you offer me enough money Iíll do it anyway.Ē Almost any insurmountable obstacle is surmountable in Africa if you are willing to pay for it. None of this planned, licensed, insured, bonded stuff. Your only real guarantee is not to pay them until theyíve finished it exactly the way you want it.

I discovered that being vague in what you wanted was to invite problems. And I was so very vagueÖ

I also discovered the pay scale in Africa. A full dayís work of manual labor is 200/= (/= is used for Kenyan shillings, itís about $2.75). A fundiís wage ranges from 300/= to 400/= ($4.11 to $5.48). A fundiís assistant 100/= ($1.37). One of the first things that I arranged by myself was the removal of two huge stumps from the back yard. After some negotiation we settled on 500/= ($6.85) to have them removed. It took three guys about forty five minutes to get them out. After they were done they wanted to know if I had anything else for them to do. They were so excited to have ripped me off once, that they couldnít wait to do it again. Unfortunately for them, by the time they were done, I was pretty sure that I had been had.

Doesnít that sound ridiculous? That I would even consider that I had been ďhadĒ by being overcharged by a dollar or two? Itís hard to explain reallyÖ

On one level, I know itís not very much money. Beyond that, I know that itís money they certainly need more than I do.

But on the other hand, I hate walking away from an exchange knowing that I paid two or three times as much as I should have. I just hate being thought of as a stupid Mzungu. Itís mostly a given that as Mzungu you are going to pay more for things then a Kenyan would (I like to think of it as ďMzungu taxĒ), but there are reasonable limits. Two or three, or certainly ten times, the correct amount is definitely well past reasonable limits. It also depends on who you are doing business with. If you are dealing with a guy on the street, you sort of expect him to try and run some small scam on you and you are ready for it. It is much worse when you find out that someone that you know, and trusted to some degree, has pulled a fast one on you. Itís not really the money, itís being made a fool of that stings.

In the case of the stump removal, it was Juliusí brother, Maurice. I kind of expected him to look out after me a little bit, and instead, he took me for as much as he thought he could get away with. Consequently, I donít do business with him anymore.

I am getting much better at all of the money stuff. I actually enjoy the negotiation to some extent. I guess I enjoy it when Iím pretty sure of what the price should be. Now I donít take peopleís first offers very seriously, especially taxi drivers. Even though it might in some way be morally reprehensible considering my wealth relative to the person Iím negotiating with, I really enjoy it when I get a really good deal after serious bargaining. I feel like Iíve won something. Before you condemn me, Iím sure that they would never sell anything at a loss. Iím sure no matter how much a bargained them down they walked away with ďa little somethingĒ as they say here.

So part of my time in the first three weeks or so I spent supervising one fundi or another. Most of that has stopped now, though with the coming of the short rains, it looks like I will have to survive another wave of fundis, mostly gardeners.

Another chunk of my time in the first couple of weeks was spent dealing with Godfrey.

Ahhh GodfreyÖWhere to start with GodfreyÖ

Facts first: Godfrey is our ďshamba boyĒ or gardener. He is Juliusí nephew. He is from Kakamega. He is 26 years old. Heís single and has one daughter. He does gardening (not much yet as there is no real yard or garden), laundry, some shopping, he cleans the floors once a week, and does other assorted household chores. He is also the day askari when we are not around. We pay him 3000/= a month plus he is supplied a room, a kitchen, a bathroom, bed, mattress, bedding and mosquito net.

So those are the factsÖ

Heís mostly a nice kid. It seems strange thinking of him as a kid, since we are the same age, but I canít help it. Partly heís shorter than I am, and partly Africans just look a lot younger than they are to me.

I hesitate to go any further as it becomes increasingly personal and decreasingly fun to talk about. Letís just say that I have had some problems having a ďservantĒ. Mostly Iím uncomfortable and just donít know what to do with him. Since Iím home most of the day when he is supposed to be working, it has fallen to me to be his boss. He can work very hard, but he is not exactly a self-starter. He always wants to me to tell him what to do, and most of the time what I want him to do most is to go away and leave me alone. One of the things that he does that drives me crazy is to silently creep into the house and politely say, ďExcuse me? What would you like me to do next?Ē Iíve had to lock all the doors so he canít scare the crap out of me anymore.

It is very strange suddenly having an employee again. I thought that once I left the theater it would be some time before I had another one. But with Godfrey itís completely different. I think most of the difference is that I am rich relative to him. Previously at the theater, it would have been very difficult to describe myself as rich compared to my employees. During some weeks when I was working a lot, Iím sure that I was making less per hour than they were! More than that, it was easier to be friends with the people that worked for me because I worked hard right alongside them. Even though I was the boss, I was also working there. Also, no one that worked at the theater was really looking at it as a job to support themselves and their family, unlike Godfrey.

Part of the problem that I have with him is that he is a temptation. It would be very easy to have him do everything around the house. Cook, clean, make the beds, scrub the toilets, dust, do the dishes, etc. etc. It would be very easy to have him do all of this stuff without paying him a shilling more. Even if he did ask for a raise because of increased responsibilities, it would amount to some cents a day, not dollars an hour.

It would be very easy to live like a king here.

As Iíve already said, we are living in the wealthiest part of Kisumu. We have a big wall and a big gate that is guarded all night long. Our road is even paved (well itís paved one direction, but not the other strangely). In a lot of ways the streets that we live on remind me of Californian suburb for some reason; one of the really hot parts of California, but California.

As I mentioned before, we (intermittently) have running water when large portions of Kisumu donít have water at all. We have electricity as long as itís not raining, and we have a phone. Donít get me started about the phoneÖ

In short, I am living as comfortably as could be expected.

It has driven me a little bit crazy, mostly because I donít have a job or a real sense of belonging here yet. Itís one of the reasons I donít let Godfrey do everything. I need something to do around the house!

I should also mention that we have a second shamba boy named Jackson that comes on the weekends. Heís hardly a boy, I think he is around fifty years old; it is really hard to tell how old Africans are, they donít wrinkle the same way Mzungu do. Heís a great guy, works really hard. Often too hard. We donít tell him what to do; he just sees something that needs doing and does it. If we want something done, he literally runs to do it. We have to tell him, ďpole! pole! Jackson!Ē (literally, slowly! slowly!, but kind of means ďtake it easy!Ē) Both Kim and I wished we had hired him for Godfreyís job, but itís a little late for that now.

So enough about a young househusbandís frustrations with the help!

What do I do day-to-day? And what are my plans?

Between the fundis, Godfrey, getting out utilities set up (which I will spare you the telling), writing, playing basketball, and being sick for a while with Giardia, I was a bit busy for the first month or so. After that I was at a loss as to what to do. As you have already read from the home page, I decided that what I really needed to do was to get out and explore a little bit. And thatís what Iíve been doing for the most part.

As I written a couple of times already, Iím planning on using Kisumu as headquarters for my East African explorations. I have already gone out a couple of times, which Iíll write about shortly, and have plans for a couple of more trip, which Iíll also write about Iím sure. I feel like Iíve made it all the way to Africa and have ended up in a very comfortable spot, not completely dissimilar from the spot I left. I need to get out and see the place. I also need to learn how to deal with Africa on my own. It has been fantastic having Kimís experience to guide me through many situations, but it is definitely time for me to acquire my own African experiences, and develop my own way of dealing with things.

Places I want to go: Mt. Kilimanjaro, Serengeti, Lamu, Mombasa/Malindi, Maasai Mara, NgoroNgoro crater, and Mt. Elgon and/or Mt. Kenya.

So going to most of those places should take me through the end of this month and maybe half way through the next, but what about after that? Honestly, Iím not sure. I really need to get a job. Friends here have been trying to convince me to open an English movie theater here. Weíll seeÖ

Right now I know what I really want to do is to be on the road.


As a P.S.: I heard from my sister that my aunt Stella wanted to make sure Iím eating rightÖDonít worry Stella, I am. Iím actually eating better than I have in the past. I havenít lost any weight since Iíve been. I might have even put on a few pounds here! Strange considering how unsuccessful my attempts were in the States. When we eat at home we make American style food, with some concessions to unavailable ingredients. Generally we make various chicken dishes, spaghetti, chili, Sloppy Joes once, things like that. Iím learning to cook, slowly. Itís been fun, although I must say Chicken a la King is revolting. We only go to three or four restaurants in town, an Italian one (with pizza!), a not-so-great Chinese restaurant, an Indian Country Club (great all you can eat buffet on Friday nights), and Mon Ami, a cafť in town where mzungu hang out. The only thing missing from my diet is a steady stream of junk food, something I can probably do without. Having said that, I do drink way too much Coke. Kenya is seemingly part owned by Coke; you canít go anywhere that doesnít serve it. Since other drinks are sometimes questionably potable, Coke is the safest option. Who am I fooling? I just prefer to drink Coke.