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September 8, 2000

 

 

Did I mention that we have a chicken shortage in Kenya right now?

 

No kidding, a chicken shortage.Not that there arenít a million chickens scurrying all over the place or anything.Not like I donít see at least a couple of dozen on the way to town and back.There just arenít any good chickens right now, and I donít mean in a moral, spiritual or ethical way.I define a good chicken as a chicken that hasnít become tough, stringy and thoroughly aerobisized from dodging cars and little kids with sticks for its entire life.Thereís a surplus of those kind of chickens.What we donít have right now are chickens that have been raised in overcrowded, artificial chicken laboratories.Chickens chemically and genetically altered to be fat, plump and juicy.There are those of you out there that may say, ďGood!Who needs all those chemicals and who knows what far-reaching repercussions tampering with genes will have.And what about those poor chickens raised in inhuman conditions, living their entire lives just to feed people?ĒAnyone out there who believes that has never eaten a free-range Kenyan chicken.Youíve seen those Kenyan runners that sweep all the marathons and all the distance events in Olympics, right?Stringy, bony, tough looking guys, every one of them.Thatís what Kenyan chickens are like, except with feathers.I would even guess that if there were distance races for chickens that the Kenyans chickens would win those as well.

 

And why are there no good chickens?Power rationing.Of course, thatís the excuse for everything these days: Power Rationing.For those of you that donít recall, or havenít read this in a while, Kenya is in the middle of a power shortage, forcing power rationing.Kenya has two main sources of power, Uganda and a series of dams on one of the rivers near Nairobi.The power that Uganda sells to Kenya comes from Lake Victoria and the Victorian Nile River, so itís always available.Unfortunately, Uganda is also using that as a source of power, so Kenya canít get all of it.The other main source of power, that river near Nairobi, has seven dams on it, one after the other after the other.Now hereís the dumb part: there is a drought in the catchment area of this river.The seasonal long rains came late, didnít do much and then left early.Not only that, but they knew that this happened to this river periodically when they decided to base the bulk of their domestic electricity generation on it.I cringe to say it (since we are talking about chickens here), but they put all of their eggs in one basket, and a rickety basket at that.Of course, there are a couple of stories of corruption and ďhey! whereíd all that money go? (wink, wink)Ē Kenyan politics as usual on top of it all.

 

So what does that have to do with chickens?

 

No Rain + (corruption + mismanagement + poor planning + stupidity) = No Power

No Power (to pump wells) + No Rain = No Water

No Power (for egg incubation) + No Water = No Good Chickens!

 

I havenít even gotten to the sugar yet!

 

There is almost no sugar in Kenya!People are waiting out in front of supermarkets for hours for a single bag at triple the normal price when they hear that a shipment is coming.Of course, we never hear about these shipments, weíre mzungu.I just show up at the store every couple of days to look at the empty shelves. Theyíre not even blaming this one completely on power rationing.This one is all about El NiŮo.You remember El NiŮo, donít you?Well thatís what all the agricultural problems are the result of here.Whenever thereís a problem with the weather, too much rain, too little rain,whatever, itís El NiŮoís fault.†† Actually, the governmentís official position is that there is no sugar shortage.They say that itís all just a result of hoarding and market manipulation.So far theyíre refusing to lower the tariffs on imported sugar that they put in place to protect the fledgling domestic sugar industry.At this point it seems a couple of steps lower than ďfledglingĒ as there is no sugar at all!Weíve gotten so desperate for sugar (and Kool-aid mix, Doritos and half a dozen other things) that we just ordered acouple of bags of sugar on-line at netgrocers.com.They should be here in a week or so.Itís hard for me to imagine what life would be like here without the Internet and A.P.O. shipping privileges.Itís best not to think about it<shiver>.

 

So, to summarize: power comes and goes, water comes and goes,phone comes and goes (but thatís just Telkom being Telkom),chicken (good chicken) supplies are low, sugar isnít available.

 

 

How are things with you?

 

 

Actually I feel a bit dishonest writing about it this so flippantly.After all, for the most part it doesnít even affect us where we live.The majority of the time we do have power and water, unlike a lot of places in Kenya.We, along with the rest of the Western Districts, have even been lucky enough to miss most of the drought.Even as Iím writing right now itís raining.Last week I was in Nairobi (as you may have noticed from the sudden appearance of more pictures) and I was shocked at the difference in climate from here in Kisumu.It was so dry and lifeless in Nairobi.All of the shortages hit Nairobi particularly hard.Water is being strictly rationed, power in the suburbs and industrial areas is rationed, and you have to line up for hours for sugar.It made being in Nairobi even more unpleasant than usual.

 

Even when we are affected by shortages, we, unlike most Kenyans, have the means to overcome them (such as ordering sugar from overseas).But these shortages are all that I seem to talk about with the Kenyans I meet and I feelÖI donít knowÖsort of misleading to present them to you as if they are all part of the African Adventure.For a lot of Kenyans they are just the latest in a long constantly growing list of tragedies to be borne.

 

Things for Kenya are serious right now.

 

Although I read the Daily Nation every day and I talk to a lot of people about how things are in Kenya, itís hard for me to get a sense of how serious things are really.Since this is my only exposure to Kenya and nine months isnít really a long time, I donít really trust my sense of how poorly things are going here.I just have my own unreliable sense of mounting dread for the country.I think the same would be true if you read the newspaper or watch the evening news daily in the States.You get this feeling that things are getting steadily worse.There always seems to be another major car, bus, or rail accident, or inferno or shooting or disease or corruption.The more you read the more this sense of doom mounts, until all you notice are the tragedies.But the kind of things that I read about here put everything that I would have worried about back home into perspective.There is just so much more here.

 

Tragedy is so commonplace here.Some of itís natural, some of itís accidental, but so much of it seems to be man-made.I donít know how people cope with it.I think that it does something to them, it changes them somehow.Kenyans, in general, accept so many things, things great and small, that you would think people couldnít put up with.As a small example, can you imagine trying to get thirty Americans to fit into a mini-van, on top of each others laps and hanging out the windows all the while being cursed at by the driver and conductor, without saying a word?Can you imagine riding on such a vehicle and passing through police checkpoints where the police are openly and unapologetically demanding bribes.How do people let things like that happen?So many of the problems in Kenya are avoidable.Thousands of children each year are dying here from diseases for which inoculations exist (measles, mumps, etc.).People die in car crashes because the roads are terrible, people drive too fast, people drive drunk, police donít patrol the roads, and their cars arenít in proper working condition.People canít drink the water from Lake Victoria, the second largest fresh water lake in the world, because they are pouring raw sewage and industrial waste into it.When police are found to be committing crimes, such as extortion, they are not criminally charged, they are not fired, they are just relocated to a different part of the country.Politicians, in general,are known crooks and some are even ex-convicts; they steal millions of shillings from the country, they pass laws to favor themselves and their friends and families, yet they get re-elected.The President himself, the head crook, is nearing the end of his final term allowed by the Constitution, but they are scheming to find a way to bring him up for election at least one more time.And when they do find a way for that to happen, heíll be re-elected, even though heís led the country straight into the abyss.

 

Perhaps itís childish, but I want someone to blame for all of this.I want someone to be responsible for it all, and itís hard not to blame Kenyans as a whole for their problems.I know that the average Kenyan is just looking out for himself and his family and trying to make ends meet.I know that one working Kenyan is probably supporting at least ten others that arenít working.I know that Kenya as a country hasnít even been out from under the thumb of Mother England for fifty years yet.†† And I know that Kenyans themselves are frustrated by their problems.But itís hard for me not to blame them, theyíre so passive about things.They just lay back and accept all the crap theyíre handed, but all the while, I think a great anger builds up.

 

Sometimes, this anger breaks out, in an undirected and usually ineffective way.People get sick ofthings and lash out.††† Sometimes they hit the correct target, often they donít.†† Sometimes people riot, sometimes they form vigilante groups.People have rioted in the last six months because of politics, soccer, car accidents, increases in matatu fees and newspaper articles (my favorite oneÖa college was exposed in the Nation as having a reputation for drunkenness and drug abuse, so they showed up drunk at the Nation Building and tore the place up.)Hereís one of the most chilling pictures Iíve ever seen.Itís from the front page of the Daily Nation.A young boy was found dead and a mob formed to find his killer. They say that this man had a scrap of bloody cloth on him from the boy, but no oneís sure if he did it or not, but he was dead moments later.If you are in any way squeamish donít look at this.A couple of weeks before that, three teenage boys were killed for a crime they definitely didnít commit, and a fourth barely escaped with his life.I can tell you a couple dozen stories just like this, where people have just gotten fed up and lost it.I still havenít been around when itís happened and I donít want to be.

 

Last weekend I was talking with an Indian/Turkish couple, who have been living in Kenya for the last thirty years, about all of these problems.They said that itís worse now than itís ever been.They said that there was a silent exodus of Indian families from Kenya.These Indians, some of whom have been in the country for several generations and are part of the backbone of the economy, were packing up and moving out over concerns about security.We talked for a long time about the details, which I donít think youíll be very interested in; the bottom line was that things werenít going well, and it looks like they going to get worse.In fact, I just read an article yesterday in the Nation saying that the forecast for the upcoming rains in December isnít very good.In all likelihood the next two rains will be disappointing.This means that drought-afflicted areas in the north of Kenya wonít receive relief, the river in Nairobi wonít have itís water levels replenished and power and water rationing should continue for the next year or more.They already know that there is more drought on the way, but the government continues to wear rose-colored glasses.They refuse to plan for the worst, theyíd rather pretend that everything will be OK come December.

 

I donít write this to make you worry about us, things arenít so bad here that weíre in danger or anything.What Iím talking about is a serious deterioration of the infrastructure of the country, and the suffering of millions of people.And as I said before, none of it really affects us.

 

Thatís the strange feeling that Iíve gotten from living here.Let me try my best to describe itÖI feel kind of like a ghost.I feel like everything will just pass right through me without really touching me.Iím here, people notice me, children excitedly point me out, but I feel like Iím floating through it all just observing.I read about all of these crashes and fires and somehow believe that nothing can ever happen to me.One of the busses that I ride from Nairobi to Kisumu crashed a couple of months ago, killing everyone on board, but I still ride it because nothing could ever happen to me.I always believe, somewhere in the back of my mind, that if anything were to happen, I would somehow be spared; that I have the mzungu ďget out of jail freeĒ card in my wallet.I think itís a result of being immersed in a culture without being a part of the culture.There are so many positive things (language, cultural references, equitable friendship, etc.)that you are automatically exempt from all the time, that it feels like you should be exempt from the unpleasant things too.I feel like the matutus that I ride in will never crash, but if they crash no one will get hurt, but if someone gets hurt it certainly wonít be me.†† It doesnít help this feeling very much when you often really are exempt from the negative things, due to money, resources or position.And there really is a ďget out of jail freeĒ card.Itís on the desk next to me, my ticket home (Arrive Detroit Metro Flight BA203 from London on Wed Oct 11 15:50).

 

And donít take the idea of jail too literally, Iím not suffering here, and itís certainly not a jail.Itís really a beautiful place.I was struck afresh when I was flying back from Nairobi last.When you take off you fly right over the Nairobi Game Park.While I couldnít see any animals from the plane I could see the savannah.It was a desolate brown gray dotted with circles of darker gray, like a patch of ground after a very brief rain.As you fly west, across the mountains andinto the Rift Valley, the ground breaks up into mounds and crevices and sudden plains dotted with big lakes and cut with small rivers.When you get to the other side of the valley it slowly starts to turn green, until you reach the surreal green of the tea fields of Kericho.I wish I could find the words or the exact color swatch to capture this green; itís so bright that it doesnít look real, even from the air.Since I was arriving in Kisumu on the 4pm flight, there was a storm coming, as there always is around that time (oneís just finishing up right now).As you drop in you can see the lake stretching off beyond sight and the town nestled up to its edge.Just north and west of the town are the Nandi hills, and over the hills the storm clouds roll in angry gray and purple as the sun starts to set golden over the lake.

 

My home is beautiful.And so many of the people that I meet are nice people.And it seems such a shame that things are heading in the direction that they are.But I pick up the paper in the morning and can only shake my head at the latest painful headline.