Sunday, August 24, 2008

16th August 2008 - First time south of the Equator!

Grey skies, large boulders on the side of the road, the lack of pavements, the crazy traffic, large storks flying in between electricity poles....welcome to Africa. And the odour of course, a combination of vegetation, pollution, human ... There is something about the most dangerous city in Africa that made us feel immediately at home. Karis the taxi driver of course was not waiting for us at the airport, so after about an hour and a half saying 'no, asante' to the many other taxi drivers and trying to get in contact with Miresi, we managed not to get overcharged and be taken to the Nakumat Westgate shopping store by a friendly taxi driver. We got our first glimpse of Nairobi whilst swerving in between both slow and fast cars, matatus, lorries, taxies, etc. The city initially looked rundown, but as we approached the centre and north-west area, skyscrapers, monuments and large gardens started to appear. This is the richer section of the city, close to the headquarters of the UN and the residential area of its employees. We stopped at the shopping centre to get something to eat and buy a mobile sim card. We also had a look at the shops and tried to explain where Malta is innumerable times to the friendly shop owners. The shopping centre is heavily guarded and the customers were predominantly white and Indian. Miresi came to pick us up with her jeep and on the way we saw a guy with blood on his face, being held at gun point by a police officer. To further remind us about the security problems of this city, Miresi's house was in a guarded compound with barbed wire on the walls, and the doors and windows of her house had metal bars.

After recovering some lost sleep, we spent most of the afternoon walking around the Westlands area and buying food. Bright red soil, fragments of forest in between roads and buildings that are used by some people to grow bamboo, which is cut and shaped into different forms of furniture. Beggers. Matatus passing by at break neck speed. And security stickers everywhere. We managed to visit another shopping centre, where the electricity went off a couple of times. In the evening we helped Miresi make dinner. She taught Lucienne how to make guacamole and myself how to peel pineapple and mango properly. Paolo and Filippo finally joined us with their 2 Italian friends, Erica and Annarosa – they had just returned from a safari in the north of Nairobi. 3 more Italian friends joined us later. all of whom work or had worked with Italian NGOs in Africa: Erica and Annarosa in Benin, Paola in Somalia. It amazed us how Paola talked nonchalantly about the dangers she and her staff faced daily in Somalia, yet her willingness and determination to return to this country have never been undeterred.


In the afternoon, a friend of Karis the taxi driver picked us up and drove through the crazy rush hour traffic of Nairobi to take us to train station. We picked our tickets and waited at the station until our old train slowly made its way to our platform. Our cabin was comfortable, with a leather sofa, a wardrobe and a wash basin. The train departed 45 minutes late, and we were called for dinner with a chime at 8.30. For our colonial style, 'silver service' meal we were joined by Maurizio, an Italian printer who lives in Germany and who is travelling from Cairo to Cape Town in 3 months, and an Oxford alumni who was taking a 5 week break in East Africa before starting his new job in the Middle East. We had vegetable soup, fried fish and then rice with a vegetable stew. For dessert we had the tiniest piece of cake. After dinner we went back to the cabin to try to catch some sleep in between the continuous jittering of the train and the sudden accelerations at the numerous stops along the way. Aaron managed to wake up at 5 am to catch a glimpse of Tsavo National Park in the dark. We had English breakfast with Maurizio and then spent most of the morning waving at the numerous children greeting us at the sides of the railway. On the way we saw some beautiful hills and lots of small, shanty villages with houses made out of mud bricks and sticks. We arrived at Mombasa at noon and we were picked up by Philip, who took us to Nakumat and then to the office of the Baobab Trust. There we were greeted by Sonal and then we went to Jongolulu Cottage. Mohammed, Omari and the two guard dogs greeted us at our cottage, which consists of a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, living room, veranda and large garden. Omari has just started to work as a gardener/caretaker 3 months ago, whereas Mohammed, an old Zanzibari who has been in Kenya illegally for years, who is alone in this world, and who only speaks Swahili and broken English. He takes his job very seriously and admonished Aaron about bringing beach boys back into the house at night several times. We went to have a look at the beach some metres away from our house with Omari, and we were stopped a couple of times by the beach boys. A coral reef about 300 m away from the beach causes the waves to break in a beautiful pattern, and the colour of the sea is almost yellow in places. A number of huge villas are located at the border of the beach, including Dr. Haller's. We also saw a couple of monkeys on our way back to the cottage. Later on, Omari accompanied us to Shanzu, a small town nearby, where we bought some fresh fruit and vegetables. At night, a guard with a bow and arrow guarded our cottage as we slept under the mosquito nets.

Ali the driver and Florence the nurse picked us up in the morning and we went to the Nguni Sanctuary. There we met Michael the bird expert and Michael the boss, who showed us around the sanctuary – biofuel plantations, quarry with fossils, wetlands with birds (we saw a kingfisher, Egyptian geese and river birds building nests before the mating season), ostriches, oryx, and giraffes at very close proximity. We also saw an eagle owl in captivity swallowing an entire bird! Michael took us for lunch at a corner makeshift restaurant and we had chapati with beans and mchicha. In the afternoon we went back to the office to meet Dr. Haller and discuss the projects that we will be working on. He then took us to the demonstration farm (shamba) to show us the work they are doing there, in particular to teach farmers about composting, organic farming, biogas production, irrigation, using fish for fertilising water, and using tobacco to repel pests, as an example. One of the projects tries to show how a family can survive on a farm 1000 metres squared in area, which Dr. Haller predicts will be the average size of Kenyan farms in the near future. We then went through the famous rehabilitated forest. Bamburi Cement has quarried the coralline limestone from this large extent of land a couple of decades ago, and Dr. Haller managed to rehabilitate it into a dense, mixed forest. It is amazing how in such a short time, large trees were able to grow and such a thick soil had developed. It all started with casuarina, and now the landscape consists of a green, lush forest cover with lakes, hills, birds and monkeys. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Dr. Haller picked us up and we did some serious offroading on the muddy slopes outside of Nguni Sanctuary to reach the community of Kimbunga. We were joined by Gideon, who will be our neighbour for the rest of our time here. Gideon is a retired wildlife conservation manager from a village near Lake Victoria who has recently joined the Haller Foundation. The people at Kimbunga are the poorest of the poor in this part of Kenya. Rubbish is thrown in the middle of the street, and the people have occupied land that was owned by Arab landlords. They suffer malaria in the first half of the year, and respiratory problems in the latter part of the year. They subsist on the few agricultural products they produce. Their fields are afflicted by soil erosion. A small school housed a group of children coming from the villages in the Kimbunga community, and these were given something to eat by the Haller Foundation, which might well be the only meal they will have that day. The Foundation is also supporting the communities with building a clinic and providing free medical services once a week, initiating rainwater harvesting projects, etc., but the attitude of the people surprised us. They expected the Foundation to do all the work, and they did not do any of the work they were told to do weeks previously. We spent the afternoon working at the office and we were finally given the bikes we were promised, so we could go to Nakumat and get some food and things, and then cycle back to the cottage through the forest. Aaron had his first swim in the Indian Ocean whist Lucienne was reading a book on the beach.