Site hosted by Build your free website today!

Africa Day Seven

(Thursday 12/16/99)

So I decided to take a couple of days off from writing to charge up my internal batteries. I thought that I would use that time to work on the website’s appearance and to make the pix ready for consumption. Instead of charging up my batteries I feel really run down. Computer technology is an all-consuming, if you’ll excuse my language here, pain in the ass.

It takes so long to make a program work properly, that by the time you’re ready to work on it it’s three in the morning. Computers are on the same reward schedule as gambling: random payoffs at random time intervals at a random rate.

“Maybe if I try this one last thing, it’ll all work…”

Then you DO get it to work and there are sooooo many options. I found myself spending huge chunks of time trying to decide exactly what shade to use as a background for the home page. Is this one a little too yellow? Is this one a little too red?


I finally got some of the picture software and hardware to work together. There is one picture on-line now (Test Picture), but it took me hours and hours to get on, and it is really huge. I spent another couple of hours trying to figure out how to make it more presentable and easy to view, but, honestly, I was bored to tears with the whole thing. I’ll try to get it on before we leave town for Christmas and New Year’s.

And the fonts!!! Can I go on for a moment about the fonts? First you gotta load them on, because you only start with five or six. Then, once you get them all on, you’ve gotten them all on. There are thousands of fonts to pick from, and you end up doing the same thing as with the colors. “Is this one too Gothic?” “Is there a significant difference between Blackadder and Brushscript?” On and on and on.

And then, once you have finally settled on a font that is just right, you find out that the vast majority of browsers won’t even recognize it.

Goody, how do you do this stuff all day? It must become more enjoyable once you know what you are doing.

For me, forget it about it.

So I’ve given up on that for the moment and thought I would return to the part that was considerably more interesting to me.

So here we are on Thursday, December 16th. On Wednesday, Kim’s boss, Feiko, invited me to come out with them to “The Field.” I love that researchers call it that. It sounds so playful, so innocuous.

“Let’s go out to The Field today!”

“You’re going out to The Field!?! Can I go too!?!”

It sounds like so much fun.

It doesn’t sound at all like, “Let’s go into an impoverished village where we are measuring incidences of deaths and sickness caused by disease-ridden mosquitoes, poor hygiene practices, contaminated water, malnutrition, anemia, and AIDS.” I suppose if you had to face that with some frequency, then you’d have to call it something cheerful like, “The Field.”

Before I came here I saw a lot of information about all of this stuff. Mostly maps set up like those weather maps on the evening news that shows the bands of high temperatures across the U.S. The blue blobs are the cold spots (usually Michigan) and the red and yellow blobs are the warm spots (California and Florida.) In this case, all of the red blobs indicate areas where there is a high infection rate for the disease highlighted on the map. For Kenya, and for the Kisumu area specifically, all of the disease maps show a blob of angry red. Malaria, AIDS, anemia, all present, all the time. (I’ll try to find some maps to link to on the Web.)

I saw all of these maps before I came and I guess I had formed some unconscious expectation of what that would mean walking around town. The fact that Kim was coming here to study malaria, and that I have to take little pills once a week to keep from becoming infected, probably also colored my expectations. I don’t know that I really expected to see people with malaria stumbling down the streets, but I guess I expected to see some evidence of the presence of malaria besides the mosquitoes themselves, which are in constant evidence. In point of fact, this city seems like any other, as I suppose only makes sense. You don’t see people who are really sick shopping at the supermarket in any city. Why? Because they’re home in bed! Duh! And if you are trying to make it through malaria with limited access, at best, to medical care then you aren’t going anywhere for a while.

So with that in mind, I was going out into The Field with Kim and Feiko. We were going to a village northwest of Kisumu called Asembo Bay. Kisumu is at the most inward point of a narrow bay on Lake Victoria, and Asembo Bay is on the north shore of that bay, but closer to Lake Victoria proper. It is a fishing village mostly, but there is also a bit of a mineral industry, as I will explain. It is not very far from Kisumu by distance (I would guess about 20 miles) but it takes over an hour to get there from the guesthouse. The first portion of the drive was very pretty. When our boxes get here I might videotape the drive. The north side of the bay is an escarpment to a larger mountain range heading towards Uganda. The road that leads to Asembo Bay flirts with the escarpment for some distance and then turns onto a series of rolling foothills by the lake. Large brown boulders are strewn across the hills perched precariously atop one another like a natural Stonehenge multiplied by hundreds. As we continued down the road, I was struck once again by the number of people on the roadside, all carrying or doing something. And the Matatus don’t stop at the edge of town: they go everywhere. We passed them by the score with people from floor to ceiling, from back to front, and the roofs piled high with their bags and bundles.

We passed through several roadside villages on the way. You know how things in the US are increasingly paid for by corporate sponsorship? For example, the United Center in Chicago, the Alamo Car Rental Bowl, The Prudential Half-Time Report, the Sunkist Orange Bowl, etc. You know what I mean…They have the same thing here! If you want your building painted for free you just have to agree to have the corporate sponsor’s logo on your building (usually one entire street facing side.) We would drive through a village with maybe thirty small roadside business buildings and half would be ramshackled and the other half would be freshly painted with huge advertisements for Tusker Beer (“Your Country, Your Beer!”) or Trust Condoms (“Let's Talk”) or, almost ironically, Sandolin Paints (“Color Your World!”). Corporate consumerism really does run the world!

We arrived, somewhat late, at the field station. Scheduled for the day was a two to three hour meeting with the supervisors and sector supervisors of the Bednet project that Kim is working on. Really, I am not quite sure who was meeting with whom, as I didn’t stick around for the whole thing. They set up a table, some chairs and benches outside in the shade of the little three-room office building that is used as the administrative field office (this is not where Kim will work all of the time, she will mostly be working out of the KEMRI office in Kisian, to be explained later…) As the “honored guests” we three wazungu were given the chairs facing the benches set up in rows with the table between. As Kim would be working with them over the next year or three, formal introductions were made. Lacking another easily explainable title, I was introduced as Kim’s “husband-to-be.” It turns out that the idea of boyfriend/girlfriend is fairly non-existent here; even the idea of fiancé didn’t seem to make much sense to them.

They introduced themselves by name, rank and sector. Everyone has a first name, usually a Christian or Muslim name, such as George or Mohammed, and a name in the local language, which are usually descriptive in some way. Family last names are not common here. If they were they would have their own series of problems. I had thought that my family connections were complicated to explain and name given families, step-families, half-siblings and ex-step-families, but African families put mine to shame. Julius, the guesthouse caretaker, tried to explain his family to me and I was overwhelmed, mostly by the generic use of son and daughter to describe several different relationships. Once you throw polygamy into the mix it’s a real mess. If I can come up with a system to explain it all, I’ll post it somewhere.

As to their rank, if I understood correctly the study is set up with several different levels of supervision: village monitors on the bottom, supervisors above them, sector supervisors above them and an overall supervisor above them all, all report. It seems that not only is it important to get things done, it is also important to get jobs for people. Consequently, sometimes there are layers upon layers upon layers. It certainly explains why there are so many people working in the supermarket. I am not sure that this is necessarily the case here, I may be exaggerating, but it is often the case. Anyway, Feiko told us as an aside early in the meeting, you not only hire people you hire their family and friends and the problems of all of them. During the meeting we spent a little bit of time talking about Feiko’s efforts to get one of the assistant supervisors out of jail (for murder! - the charges were trumped up, Feiko reassured us).

After introductions, they began the meeting. They started off the meeting with some pretty disturbing reports, namely, the death reports from the last two months. They went sector by sector and reported how many children had died and from what cause. This particular group of assistants was in charge of the “Cohorts” program, and not vital statistics, so they didn’t know, for sure, all of the causes of death. I am not sure what the “Cohorts” program does, but, man, doesn’t it sound cool! (sort of villainous in a cooperative, chummy kind of way) I’ll find out from Kim later what they do.

It was difficult to get an idea of how many children they were talking about. There are about seven sectors, and most of them had zero or one deaths (though one of them said three deaths), but I am not certain of the size of the populations or the length of time under discussion. I think it might have been about five hundred per sector and over the last half year. But I have no idea what this means really. How many children dying over a period time given a size of population is the “right” amount? And how many is “too many”? I don’t know. I’m willing to guess that this is an area where children die far too frequently for a variety of reasons. We were looking at some general statistics that someone left on the wall of the guesthouse room and they say that the life expectancy of the average Kenyan is 40 years, but that statistic is weighted heavily by the infant mortality rate. It doesn’t mean that you can expect to live 40 years. Once you make it past being a kid here, you’re pretty tough.

They moved on to more administrative matters, and, quite honestly, my attention began to wander a bit. Fortunately, Feiko had been very thoughtful and provided me an opportunity to escape the meeting and go on a tour of the village with one of the men that works as a “Quality Controller” (another separate job hierarchy, on the same level as supervisor, I think.)

His Christian name is Henry (I don’t remember his family name, unfortunately.) He took me on the tour of Asembo Bay. We walked through the center of the village and up to the place where he was staying. He told me that he had another home ten kilometers away, but he was staying in a little place in town so he could be close to work. We went inside and all of the kids from the neighborhood came through to get a look at a Mzungu. He brought me some raw maize to eat. Which turned out to be not bad, but very dry. He offered me some water, and I almost drank some before I realized where it was probably coming from, Lake Victoria, home of several unfriendly organisms. Fortunately, I had brought some water with me so I was able to make it through most of a cob of maize (I split some of it with the kids.) We talked for some time in his home, and then headed out for the rest of the tour.

As I mentioned earlier on, I am more than a little paranoid about taking pictures of people here. It just doesn’t feel right to me. You could eat like a king for a month on the cost of the camera. It also feels rude to record people in an unflattering light as an outsider. These are problems I’ll probably work through at some point. Because I knew that we would be driving a long way out, I thought that I should bring my camera to take pictures of the landscape at the very least. Since I had it with me, I thought I should ask Henry if it was O.K. to take pictures in the village or of him. I could not believe how excited he was! He was actually a little bit upset with me that I hadn’t mentioned it earlier so we could take pictures of his house. We went back to his house and he and his two sons went in to a back room for at least ten minutes while I stood around. It took me a little while to figure it out, but I finally understood that they had gone back to change into their nice clothes for the picture.

Here’s the first picture: Henry and Kids Inside

And here’s the second: Henry and Kids Outside

This was the first real Kenyan home that I had been in and I’m not sure how to begin. Fortunately, I have a picture here as a starting point. It was tiny. The room we were sitting in, the turquoise one, was clearly the largest room in the place (if you look you can see the water I almost foolishly drank on the table.) And it was hot, really hot. It had a corrugated metal roof, which is a sign of some amount of wealth in a village. It was a little oven, cramped and with a dirt floor. Although this was a sunny day, and definitely on the hot side, I’m sure that it gets much hotter here. I can’t imagine what it would be like living here then, after ten minutes I was dripping sweat. If you look, you’ll see that one of the little boys is wearing a sweatshirt and sweatpants. I guess you must acclimate.

We continued on our circuit of the village, walking down towards the lake. We tried to go into a compound where they refine gold that is mined a little ways up in the hills, according to Henry. The guard wouldn’t let us in, as we didn’t have permission and the fact that I was on a tour of the village didn’t sufficiently convince him to bend the rules. I think that Henry was fairly certain that my white skin would be all that we needed to get into the complex. As if white people don’t steal gold…

We made it down to the lake’s shore. Here’s a picture of the woman going through the nets of the fishermen: Fishing Nets

I’m not sure how well it will come out but the white stuff is netting and the thousands of little tiny silver things on the net are fish. Also not visible, but present, are flocks of birds hovering above waiting for the people to get out of the way so they can eat the fish. Henry was quite happy showing me around. I had the impression he was showing me off a little bit.

We went down by the fishing boats where we took another picture of him and the kids that turned out pretty well: Henry & the Kids on Fishing Boat

While we were by the shore there were quite a few kids around. All of them yelling, “Mzungu, Mzungu!” I’m sure that I‘ve mentioned this before, but since it happened so much here and in a slightly different manner, I think it’s worth revisiting.

“Mzungu” means white person. That’s it, I think. I haven’t detected any connotations to the word that mean anything else. When I lived in Japan we were called “Gaijin” which can translate to “Barbarian.” There were definitely times when you could feel that connotation being applied. In Kenya the kids just get excited to see a white person. The kids in Kisumu are a little more used to it, but the kids in the villages just about lose it.

“Mzungu! Mzungu! How are you?” They yell over and over again. Amongst the newbie Mzungu population it is a favorite conversation topic and everyone talks about how sick of it they are. I don’t mind it so much. The kids are just excited, and, for the most part, are quite friendly. The kids by the lakeshore were beside themselves with Mzungu-generated excitement. I should come up with a little routine or something, because I think they get disappointed when nothing spectacular happens.

Also on the lakeshore we stopped at a pier and took another picture of Henry and the Boys on the Pier and also one of Henry and the Boys and Luo Women who were Getting Water. He said that one of the women (girls, really) was one of his wives. I think he was kidding, but…who knows.

While coming back to the field office from the pier a man, probably in his early twenties, started following us. Henry introduced us, and told me his name was translated as “night’ because he was born at night. We shook hands, Africans are big on shaking hands, and I thought he would go about his business as we headed back. Instead he followed us. He followed us really closely. I kept running over him, bumping in to him and stepping on his feet. The first couple of times it happened I apologized, after that I started to worry.

(Did I mention that Luo men are short? I’m not that tall, 5’9”, but I feel like one of the tallest people in a crowd when I walk around. I can’t wait to find a basketball game!)

But this kid, “Night,” was taller and clearly stronger than me. I wasn’t sure if he was going to mug me or kiss me or just beat me up. We walked some distance this way, him walking as closely as possible to me, and me trying to ignore him politely while making conversation with Henry. I kind of figured, in some way, that Henry wouldn’t let anything bad happen to me, but still… It wasn’t until we were back at the field station that he disengaged from my left hip.

The meeting had ended and all of the benches and chairs had been moved right up against the wall to take advantage of the tiny sliver of shade still remaining. In the sun it was quite hot. I sat down with Kim and Feiko, and joined them in the afternoon tea they were having. I know it’s supposed to help, but hot tea in the middle of a hot afternoon makes no sense to me. Even though I was in the shade and finally sitting still for a little while, I burst into a new round of profuse sweating after the third sip. Kim and I talked about her meeting and Henry’s tour, for a while. I then noticed that that guy, Night, was sitting on the doorstep ten feet away from us, just staring at me. No expression on his face, just staring. I continued talking to Kim, keeping her head between him and me, but I could still sense him staring at me. I started to get more than a little freaked out.

We sat like that for a little while and, when Feiko had finished up, we got in the truck to leave. I was sitting in the front passenger seat with the window open. As the driver was getting in and getting situated, Night came up to the truck and looked at me from not a foot away. I tried to be friendly and say good-bye. I even shook his hand, but he just stood and stared at me, his head inside the window, with me shrinking as far away as possible. Finally, some of the guys from the station pulled him away. It was a good thing that he cooperated and just somberly backed away with the same mostly blank expression on his face, because he looked like he could have put up a helluva fight.

The rest of the way back was fairly uneventful. We did blow right through a couple of police checkpoints. The police set up roadblocks and search and “fine” Matatus and public transportation as they enter and leave town. They set up those tire spikes and stand by the side of the road with guns. A little bit scary, but Mzungus are apparently exempt.