Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Kenya photos

Fields of tea on Kampala-Nairobi Highway

Entertainment on board the Akamba Coach on the Nairobi-Kampala Highway? Why, Kenny Rogers, of course! 

Just-arrived-in-Nairobi beers on top of our bed and breakfast. 

Understandably, construction moves slowly in Africa, with a lot of deliberation. Notice how many guys there are on top of this building thinking things over

Nairobi skyline from our bed and breakfast

The same skyline

The Daily Nation building

Performers putting on a show for Africa-Middle East Microcredit Summit while the delegates await President Kibake and Queen Sophia of Spain, among others

Robert takes a breather during our safari in Mangelete

Passing out sodas to women who we interviewed to learn rural cooking methods in Mangelete

Robert and Phoebe posing by a couple of stoves on the research trip

Tylor couldn't make it to Erin's house and had to make a pit stop

The ladies, Erin, Ellen, and Rachel in Makindu


The mosque in Makindu

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Lunatic Express (part 1 of 2)

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of going to Kenya for a microfinance conference at the Kenyatta International Conference Center in Nairobi. The trip also provided me with an opportunity to do something I had been dreaming about since I arrived in Uganda: ride a train in Africa. To be truthful, I had ridden once before the train running between Alexandria and Cairo, but the scenery wasn’t too spectacular, just perfectly flat Nile delta farmlands peppered occasionally by a rusting train carcass. Nor did it impress upon you a feelings of colonialism, the train was merely designed to take you from A to, in this case, C, and nothing more. The sub-Saharan lines are different, I was told. They are the ultimate colonial experience, I was assured, and the Mombasa-Nairobi line is no exception. I booked a ticket.

Train travel is also an exciting way to see a country. Paul Theroux, that tireless cynic and the most famous travel writer of the last thirty years, prefers the rail to all other forms. I tend to agree, it is easily the most relaxing way to move about. The course is set and so is the speed, with neither up to manipulation by the passenger, whose only task is to sit back, converse, sleep, eat, walk the compartments or just watch the country go by. To make it even more enjoyable, every railway trip is different. Northern Mexico’s Chihuahua train snakes through craggy peaks and over tall wooden bridges, with stomach-lurching drops on either side. In The Big Red Train Ride, a book about taking the Trans-Siberian Railway during the height of Soviet paranoia, British journalist Eric Newby tells of  endless expanses of Siberian forest, broken occasionally by small stations seemingly miles from a phone line or cold beer. His photographer disembarks at every station and valiantly tries to photograph the Soviet peasant despite the near certainty that his roll of film will be confiscated by a policeman. Theroux provides an endless stream of extremely interesting characters described in his Great Railway Bazaar, including one man who proved so interesting that Theroux went looking for him years later back in Britain. Says Theroux, “I sought trains, I found passengers.”

I wanted to take this train because of what it stood for. I alluded to this in the first paragraph, and may have also in earlier posts, I have a guilty obsession of colonial relics here in Africa, and  there is no more a physical fixture suggestive of colonial rule in East Africa than the railroad. Construction began at the tail end of the nineteenth century by the British, who wanted to link the port of Mombasa  on the Kenyan coast with the commercial centers in the interior. Elsewhere in Africa rails were being built with the same intention. In the Belgian Congo tracks were laid from the port city of Boma to Leopoldville, two hundred miles up the Congo River, too riddled with cataracts to navigate by boat. Rubber and ivory would take three weeks to make the journey by porter, so the railway was constructed to shorten the harvest-to-bicycle tire process. East Africa’s RVR line was built with the same intention, ferrying goods (mainly coffee, tea and ivory) to port at a larger scale, and bringing inland heavy construction equipment. The ancestors of modern Kenyans, Ugandans and Tanzanians  had no system of money at the time of the construction, and coercion was out of the question for the British “moral” colonialist, so labor was sought elsewhere. Asians from the Indian subcontinent were brought in in massive numbers. (The Asians kicked out by Amin in the early 1970s were the sons and daughters of those laborers.) The workers faced hard times on the job, but a  big danger came also at night. Hundreds lost their lives to the maneaters. One particular stretch of track, the bridge built over the Tsavo River, is Hollywood famous. In 1898, Engineer Lieutenant John Patterson was hired to oversee the construction of the span, when his workers began disappearing in the night. Two mane-less male lions were dragging workers out of the tents and devouring them at an astonishing rate, crippling progress and frightening the workers into mutiny with thoughts of ghosts and devils. Patterson eventually killed both lions, but only after, according to the foreman, they had killed 135 workers in one year. The Ghost and the Darkness, that 1996 masterpiece with Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas, is Hollywood’s poorly acted but nonetheless exciting take on the legend. In another legendary image, an Edwardian Teddy Roosevelt takes pot-shots at now-protected animals from a chair mounted to the front of the engine. In 1931 the railway was completed and the “Lunatic Express” made the 900 mile trip from Mombasa to Kampala . Lions or no lions, the British had to have their railway, and their empire. The feat is just as impressive today as it was at the turn of the century, as one African journalist writes “I was jarred out of this tragic amnesia by the sheer size of the 5930 Beyer-Garrat steam locomotive: Some 30 metres long and a quarter of a million kilogrammes in weight, the 5930 is a blunt, graceless dinosaur of the industrial age: Ugly yet charming, its driving wheels more than a metre in diameter, the body heavily riveted, fitted with giant water and coal tanks and an immense boiler, it is said to be one of the most powerful locomotives ever built. This was the concrete vehicle that brought the empire to us. Standing there, feeling slightly weak at the knees, I thought, “If you can build this behemoth, you can conquer the world…’”

In its heyday, the train took passengers from Mombasa to Kampala. However, many things in Africa are quickly reclaimed by the land if they do not receive a considerable amount of attention and upkeep. I am not sure when the last train passed from Kampala to Nairobi, but, gathering from the overgrowth of weeds and semi-permanent open -air markets covering the tracks on the Ugandan side, it was some time ago.

I had the perfect companion to accompany on my journey, an old friend from Portland. Ellen had grown up just a few doors down from me, and our families still see quite a bit of each other, though the same cannot be said for Ellen and me. Repelled by Southern California materialism and fast food chains, Ellen set off several years ago for the greener pastures of Montreal, where she has truly gone native. However, the stars have aligned here in East Africa: Ellen is currently working at a research station on the slopes of Mt. Kenya, and so we were able to get together while I was in Kenya. Ellen is great. She is very smart, a delight to talk to, well read, and has the admirable tendency to forget the fact that male friends become smellier with age and that sharing a miniscule, enclosed railway compartment with them for thirteen hours straight might not be the most comfortable thing in the world to do. We were both anxious and excited when our tuk-tuk pulled into Mombasa Train Station in plenty of time for our 7 pm departure.

Monday, April 19, 2010

I guess this African Time thing is starting to get to me

I should begin by apologizing for my absence--I have been in Kenya amassing much fodder for the blogging cannon. Expect some posts to come about my trip.

I am sitting in an internet cafe in Nairobi at the moment, which has particularly sticky keyboards. This seems to be the norm here in Kenya, and I think it is kept this way to discourage political blogging,or perhaps locals just enjoy taking sugary drinks while they surf. I have found myself typing like I did in high school: two index fingers, hovered directly above the keyboard and perfectly straight, pressing with the ferocity of a concert pianist opening Beethoven's 5th.  I think the people in the internet cafe are starting to wonder if I have some dexterity issues that require medication, so let me leave you for the time being. I shall return shortly with stories from Kenya, which include: arrests, stepping on freshly chewed gum on multiple occasions, buying the board of governors at a radio station lunch, and meeting a long lost neighbor from Portland.