Sunday, September 21, 2008

5th - 7th September 2008 - The MAPA project

The MAPA project ( is an ambitious project supported by Google and Tracks4Africa to map all national parks in the African continent. The data collected during the following two years will be used for conservation-related projects and will be freely available to everybody on GoogleEarth.

We had the pleasure to join our friends Paolo and Filippo on the first expedition of the MAPA project and map the Arabuko Sukoke Forest Reserve, located about one and a half hours north-east of Mombasa.

We should have been picked up on Thursday, and Mohammed had spent most of the morning preparing fried doughnuts for us. This being Africa, Paolo and Filippo picked us up a day late (not their own fault!) so we ended up eating Mohammed's delicious doughnuts in the meantime. Our friends turned up on Friday in their newly-bought, second hand green Land Rover. We dumped our bags in the back of the car and drove on the reently surface road for nearly two hours through Mtwapa and Kilifi until we reached the forest reserve. The best thing about participating in the MAPA project is that you get free entrance and camping in the park! We had to hire Jonathan, however, who was to be our guide during our expedition across the last stretch of coastal forest of the entire East African coast. We set our 2 GPS on and started driving through the forest. Initially it was very exciting, particularly when the road started to get bumpier. We soon realised, however, the driving across a forest also means having to stare at a green wall of trees on either side for hours on end. I have to admit that hiking through the forest, as we occasionally had to do, was much more fun. We stopped at the different junctions, entrances, exits and viewpoints to take waypoints. One of the viewpoints was particularly staggering as it was possible to see the entire extent of the park and the succession of forest type from the coast inland. We were hoping to see the famed wildlife in this park, particularly the forest elephant and the elephant shrew. We only saw elephant poop, however, and lots of it, and (perhaps?) what appeared to be the shadow of an elephant. On the other hand we saw numerous different species of butterflies and birds. At the end we set up the tent on a sandy patch of the park near the entrance, and then headed to Watamu to have dinner in this beautiful restaurant where the tables have their individual white tent. We also tried to find an Italian gelateria but were unsuccessful.

The following morning was devoted to mapping the rest of tracks within the park and we also managed to see a large group of baboons running ahead of us. In the middle of the day we drove to the never-ending, white Turtle beach in Watamu to meet Valeria and Tania, who are friends of Paolo and Filippo. We later drove to Malindi, left our stuff at the Gossip Hotel, had a look at the beach, and paid a visit to the local artisan market, where were encircled by many sellers, all wanting us to have a look at their shop. After an excellent dinner at the 'Old Man and the Sea', where we had crab soup, pumpkin and coconut soup, and kingfish, we joined the crowd of mzungus to a beach party at this beautifully-set bar on Malindi beach. The crowd was small so we had the opportunity to talk to most of the mzungus before getting back to our hostel on a tuk-tuk.

8th September 2008 – Thanks ComputerAid!

The computers have finally arrived, so Lucienne spent most of the morning checking them and setting them up.

We always forget to say that electricity and water are out almost every day, which does limit the amount of work we can do sometimes.

This does not affect Aaron so much, however, particularly as now he is in charge of locating and designing four dams for the communities of Mitedi and Bombo, sponsored by trusts and foundations in the UK, and he spends most of his time on site. When he is not doing this he is measuring trees for a survey of the biofuel plantation.

Lucienne spends more time with the locals so she manages to get a better glimpse of their culture and philosophy of life. One interesting chat was about relationships and marriage. Kenyans believe that a married man cannot stay at home looking after housework while his wife is at work, because his main duty is to earn money. Money plays a major role in a relationship. If both partners work, the man has to earn more than the female; if not she has every right to divorce him.

Another chat was about clothing. Florence (who is Christian) thinks that it is indecent for a Kenyan girl to wear a skirt (not short) with a slit at the back and a sleeveless top. whereas it is acceptable for her if Lucienne (a mzungu) to wear such clothing. She believes that the girl, by doing so, is asking for trouble, and that if she is raped, she is to be blamed, and not the man who raped her.

Saturday 13th September 2008

Today we almost killed Mohammed!

We invited some locals that we work with for dinner – Lennox the doctor, Florence the nurse, Michael the boss, Omari and Mohammad who take care of our cottage, and Gideon, our neighbour. As Kenyans are very conservative about what to eat, we tried to cook something very basic – guacamole as an appetizer, then two types of pasta dishes (bolognese sauce, chicken with broccoli and cream), potato wedges, and a fruit salad for dessert. We spent most of the morning preparing the food. Mohammed was in his best attire, which included a white shirt, cream trousers and a matching hat. He instructed us how to welcome our guests through the veranda and then set on his armchair pretending to read a book, in German, starting from the back!

Our guests were told to come at 7.30 pm, but they arrived a couple of hours later – we are used to African time now! They were initially a bit hesitant about starting to eat the guacamole and the pasta, but by the end of the dinner everybody managed to eat his share of food, despite the absence of ugali, about which these locals are obsessed. We think Mohammed never saw so much food on a table in his life, as he was having seconds of almost everything. At one point, while he was eating his fruit salad with ice cream, he collapsed from his chair with his eyes open. Lennox and Omari grabbed him before he fell to the floor and placed him on a nearby bed. We were afraid it was a stroke or something worse, but then we see that Mohammed was smiling and muttered something to the doctor, and everbody burst out laughing. He told them that he fell asleep on his chair and started dreaming. He said that he had never eaten so much and that he always feels sleepy when he eats a lot!

After Mohammed retired to his room, we drove of to Mtwapa in our hired car. We tried to, actually, because the car ran out of fuel half way there. We tried to push the car as a group of goats watched us with great interest, but the petrol station was too far. Michael and Omari walked to the station and came back with a black plastic bag full of fuel and a plastic bottle, and somehow they managed to fill the car with petrol and restart it.

We finally made it to Kembas disco, where a young deejay was entertaining a crowd of locals. As we were enjoying our Guiness with Coke (that is how Kenyans like their Guiness, I guess because it is quite bitter on its own), sexy Maureen (as introduced by DJ Akrakatabra) came out and started pole dancing. This was no gentlemen's bar, and we learnt that it is quite common for Kenyan bars to have pole dancers. It turned out that sexy Maureen was a bit to chubby for pole dancing, which was quite entertaining for everybody, particularly as the dancer extended her performance to every conceivable space in the bar. Sexy Maureen was followed by sexy Terry, sexy Melissa and sexy Joanna, and the trend was for the girls to be slimmer and better dancers, which was quite entertaining for the boys.

Before sexy Maureen came out for her second performance we headed to the Black Havana, where we were the only 2 mzungus on the dancefloor and had a great time dancing (or trying to) to the tune of Congolese music.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Jambos and mambas!

Have you ever tasted crocodile meat (mamba)?

We could not think of a better way to end a crazy day if not by cooking this delicacy, which the locals marinade in lemon juice, garlic, ginger, turmeric and coriander overnight. Its texture is tough and it tastes something in between chicken and fish, but we enjoyed it thoroughly.

Our Saturday started early in the morning. Gideon dropped us at Nguuni while he and Michael met the community of Kimbunga. We spent most of the morning walking around the sanctuary and birdwatching. After that Gideon and Michael picked us up and we drove to Bombo, a new community that has asked the help of the Haller Foundation to provide an adequate and continuous source of fresh water. We arrived when they were having a meeting, so the community leader showed us around the rice fields, cashew nut trees, coconut plantations, indigenous cattle, maize fields, and then we went to inspect the location of the proposed dams. Later Gideon drove us to Kiembeni, where we got off the truck and followed Michael in an alley flooded with rainwater. I had never noticed this alley, but inside there was a whole neighbourhood of shops and houses, including Michael's. He lives with his wife and 3 children (Peter, Beatrice and Tina) in a small house that includes a tiny living room, kitchen and shared courtyard and bathroom. The place is rundown and really disorganised, but it has its charm. The highlight of our visit was when Michael offered us a coke and he loaded a DVD of Westlife playing some old songs. After finishing our drink we got on the first matatu of the day. The driving was not too bad. The dispatcher was shouting the destination of the matatu every few seconds and getting off the minivan every hundred metres to lure potential customers. At one point the traffic was blocked and the driver tried to cut across the central strip. It was at this point that we decided it was time to take the next matatu, which would take us to the annual fair of Mombasa. This fair is the second largest in Kenya and the theme for this year was 'Empowering the people with agri-business'. The second matatu driver was a bit more careless but we managed to make it to the entrance in one piece. We managed to pay the student rate rather than the muzungu (white) rate, and when we handed our ticket to the doorman this was torn apart and thrown on the floor.

What awaited us was a microcosm of Kenya. The fair included outdoor stands, not just from agricultural businesses, but also from telephony, petroleum and many other companies. The stands were simple – hand written posters, faded photographs, and few exhibits. Some of the people in charge of the stands had no idea what they were talking about – a person tried to convince us that one species of shrimp could transform into a telapia fish. Some of the exhibits were really elementary, showing, for example, that maize can be turned into oil. The Haller Foundation had a small stand showing the work it does with marine turtles. It was during this fair, and not during my visits to the poor communities on the outskirts of Mombasa, that it struck me that Kenya is still a developing country. As for many developing countries, the heads of state are adored, and the portrait of President Kibiki was to be found everywhere. The fair was well attended, despite this being its last day. Whilst vans were trying to make their way through the walking crowds, women in burkas squeezed past girls in high heels. Having muzungus interested in your stand is quite an honour it seems, and at one point a stand owner was so proud he was discussing Kenyan culture with us that he wanted to take a photo with us with his stand. Here in Kenya, the current trend is for companies to set up a van pumping out loud dance music and let children have a go dancing to the tune. We saw at least 3 vans doing this. What is amazing is the ubiquitous chaos and confusion, even if the task is as simple as running a bar selling Coca Cola. I really admired the sparkle in Michael's eyes when he saw the train and the luna park. In defiance of all health and safety regulations, kids were being hurled at an excessive speed at 4 metres height on a merry go round.

At the end we walked back to the centre of Mombasa and caught a matatu back to Severin. He was another crazy driver – combine that with no lights in the streets, careless pedestrians crossing, overtaking cars (from both sides), sudden breaking to pick up passengers – and one can explain the life expectancy of 47 years for this country. Michael was so kind to accompany us all the way to the cottage and then catch a matatu back to his house.

The Kimbunga community

On the previous Saturday, We spent the morning with Gideon and Michael the boss at the Kimbunga community centre. We met with the newly elected committee and a number of locals. We sat on benches made out of tree trunks in the shadow of a tree. Despite the setting, the meeting was very formal. The committee members came in their best attire, a prayer was said at the beginning and the chairman made a speech about serious matters for a long while. At least that is what we think because they spoke in Swahili and only occasionally they translated their thoughts for us. At the end the locals were very keen to have their photo taken. We then walked all together to the fields so that the people could explain to Aaron what soil erosion problems they have. We also had a look at a number of dams that provide the locals with the only constant source of water. Aaron's job in the next few months will be to identify the ideal location of five new dams that the Haller Foundation has just obtained funding to build. We went through some of the very poor dwellings of this 1600 people community. The houses are spread out over the hills and we had to walk a long way to reach the highest of these dwellings, where a group of locals were having a break from the work in the field and enjoying a coconut alcoholic brew. From these hills we could see the city of Mombasa clearly; the aim of the committee is to turn the area into a picnic park that could provide some income to the people.

At the end of our visit we stopped at the shamba to collect the most beautiful aubergines and papayas. We had to wait for Chai to milk the cow so that we could get our weekly litre of fresh milk. In the evening we went to Yamas bar on the beach close to our cottage with Omari, where we enjoyed a bottle of Tusker, the local brew, under the palm trees in the company of a few curious crabs.

Daily life

Inevitably a routine had to set in our daily life at Bamburi. We wake up early in the morning, prepare lunch while boiling water for the evening, try to decipher what Mohammed is mumbling in broken English and Swahili, cycle to the office through the forest and the shamba, go past children screaming 'Hello how are you?', cycle past the horny donkey with his two mistresses, try to avoid hitting the monkeys in the middle of the road and spend a long time greeting all the people who work at the office. This week Lucienne has spent most of the week teaching at the Nguuni Sanctuary whereas Aaron was busy writing up a report on measures of soil conservation and rainwater harvesting for the community of Kimbunga. In the evening we stop at the farm to buy fruit, vegetables and milk, cycle back through the forest and go for a walk along the beach before cooking dinner. When we finish cooking Mohammed comes into the kitchen and tells us that our food is smelling really good, and we end up giving him some our food. For dessert we have mangoes or papayas, to which we have become addicted.

Despite our allergy to routine, we have to admit that it was beneficial to us because it has slowed our pace and allowed us a better insight into the daily life and psyche of the local people.

We know that this will sound cliche', but despite being poor, these people are always smiling, polite, kind and helpful. Even the annoying beach boys, who do not leave us alone for a second when we go to the beach, have their own polite way of trying to convince us to buy their merchandise or book a safari. The pace of life is very slow and relaxed. This laid back approach has unfortunately permeated into other aspects of life where it has created disturbances or even dangers. Just look at the crazy driving on the Kenyan roads, where overtaking takes place on both sides of the lane. Or the large volumes of rubbish thrown on the side of the streets, which is collected by a tractor once in a while, and which provides the feeding grounds for goats and chickens alike.

There are the very rich and the very poor in Kenya. The Indian community constitutes the majority of the upper class, and the locals do their best to satisfy their culinary needs - both at restaurants and in the supermarkets, one can find numerous Indian delicacies and ingredients. Few people are educated and fewer have a car, but the people who have received an education, or have had the possibility to travel abroad, are very intelligent. What amazes us is their approach to difficulties and life in general. We have two cyclists collide frontally and a cyclist bump into a parked car. In Malta this would have been accompanied by a litany of swearing and cursing. Here in Kenya, the people just laughed at each other!

P.S.: Thanks for all your beautiful comments, keep them coming!