Friday, December 17, 2010

The ICC and Kenya's 2007 election, Part I

A lot of people have been asking about the ICC indictments announced yesterday for 6 Kenyan politicians and opinion leaders. What is going on is actually a really important moment for the testing of the international court, the concept of international intervention on issues of genocide and crimes against humanity, and more importantly, accountability in Kenya for years of planned violence around elections.

Since many of you have most likely not been following this story I’ll try to provide a little background and context. Since this could get a little long, I’m breaking it into two posts. The first post here is a very basic primer on the history of elections in Kenya, including the 2007 election. I promise it’s not as boring as it sounds…

Kenya suffered through a pretty brutal dictatorial regime under Daniel Arap Moi from 1978-2002. He had banned parties, divided up the wealth of the country for his supporters and routinely locked up and roughed up those who did not agree with him. Most if not all of the politicians in power today come from his era, at various times fighting against him and other times working with him (The current Prime Minister and his father were accused of leading a coup against Moi and were kicked out of the country in the 1980s).

In 1992, pressure from the international community and from within his own country led Moi to reintroduce a multi-party system, but he clutched on to power for another decade. The ensuing elections were characterized by pretty severe violence in contested areas, all organized and funded by political and business leaders (particularly in 1997). (A quick side note-none of these crimes have ever been addressed in a court or reconciliation process). Finally, in 2002, he agreed to step down and de-politicize the electoral commission responsible for ensuring the fairness of the election. And, unsurprisingly his guy (Uhuru Kenyatta) lost. This ushered in a new era of hope and progress in Kenya. The people saw the power of their vote and believed in their ability to make change in their own country. They were able to speak openly on the street for the first time, criticize the government and not fear they would be locked up or beaten up for doing so.

In 2005, a referendum on a new constitution only further strengthened the perception of a new and forward moving Kenya. The population voted down the constitution for fear it over empowered the executive branch and did little to ensure better access to government at local levels. Out of the referendum campaigns grew the presidential campaigns for the 2007 elections. President Kibaki, who had pushed for the constitution, headed the ‘yes’ team, symbolized by a banana on the ballot (most African countries’ ballots contain symbols next to party and candidate names since at least in the past a sizeable percentage of the population couldn’t read). Then government minister, Raila Odinga (now Prime Minister) headed the ‘no’ team, symbolized by an orange. He then formed the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) building on his success in the referendum. I’ll leave out a whole mess of very complicated political backstory on the relationship between the two of them and their various supporters, but suffice it to say it’s nasty and confusing.

This brings us to 2007. With all of the success and excitement of the past 5 years, the Kenyan public and international community expected another watershed election. Assuming that all would go well, people had already moved ahead to excitedly noting that Kenya would only be the third country in Africa to undergo 2 peaceful transitions of power (believe it or not, Somalia was first). Busy making plans for the creative governance initiatives that could come and example about to be set for the region, people failed to pay close enough attention to what was really happening in the electoral preparation. A few months prior to the election, the president had let the terms of the election commissioners lapse. Barely a month before the election he dismissed several commissioners, and replaced them with a slew of new people with no experience in election management and administration. Though concerned by the move, most people noted that the well-regarded election commission chairman had remained in his role and could handle the lot of under-trained and most likely politically motivated appointees. Unfortunately, as we would later find out, Sam Kivuitu was quite ill.

As the election approached there was a palpable excitement and pride. Campaign rallies were held across Kenya. ODM, perhaps the most animated, painted their headquarters-a big house in the middle of the city-bright orange, and decked out their supporters with orange cowboy hats and sunglasses with lenses spelling out Ralia’s name. Everyone knew the election would be close and expected a long wait for a final count. When the day came, voting went off without much of a hitch. There were a few reports of extra busloads of ballots and the usual minor attempts at electoral fraud. But there were many more stories about long patient voting lines, high turnout and few issues.

Where the trouble began was at the counting stage. Elections in much of Africa are run a bit differently than in the west. Because there is such a history of electoral malpractice, every party and often-independent observers deploy people to watch events at the poll. They are in the polling station from opening to closing, and then remain to watch the counting. There are countless images of electoral officials crowded around a table, counting large piles of ballots by candlelight. In the best election situations, election administrators must take a ballot, hold it up, declare its vote, and place it in the requisite pile. Everyone counts together, making it much easier to identify fraud at the next stages of counting. After ballots are counted at the polling location, a special form is filled out, and the form and ballots are sent to a regional tally center. The votes from polling locations are combined and tallied at the regional level and then sent on to the national headquarters for final checks and tallying.

Where things went wrong was in the transit. Unfortunately, no independent monitoring group deployed observers to count at polling locations so there was no independent count to verify the totals at local levels. Something happened to many of the verification forms en route to the regional tally centers and the counting slowed significantly. Though reports had been streaming in during the first day, on the 2nd day it abruptly stopped. Suspicious of tampering (many of the votes yet to be counted were from areas favorable to the president), crowds of people rushed to the national tallying center. Completely overwhelmed by the aggressive crowd, the Electoral Chairman shut down a public meeting reporting on the counting process. Information stopped dead in its tracks. No television cameras or reporters were allowed in the center and there was complete silence from the commission on the status of the vote. Finally, 3 days after the election, Sam Kivuitu appeared suddenly at a press conference, announced President Kibaki the winner, and disappeared back into the headquarters. It was announced that a mere half a day later, the President would be sworn in for his second term on the lawn of State House. Now just a reminder here that in the US, while the president is elected in November, he does not take office until February. This is intentionally designed to leave time for any challenges to the vote to be fully addressed. Now consider what happened in Kenya. The sudden and immediate swearing of the President opened a flood of anger and suspicion across the country.

I often recall a newspaper picture from this day. President Kibaki is standing on the lawn of his official residence, being sworn in for a second term by a white wigged judge (a bizarre hold-over from British colonial times), while smoke begins to rise from riots in the background. Kenya was literally burning. Mass pandemonium had instantly erupted. ODM supporters, claiming that the election was stolen took to the streets in anger. Many of the ODM supporters were among the poorer residents of Kenya, attracted to Odinga’s more populist message. They saw this as yet another instance of the elite ensuring they had no access to power or basic resources and rights. The most well-known and largest slum in Nairobi broke into horrible violence. Houses were burned, angry young men took to the streets and key parts of Kenya went into bunker-mode. At this point, all media across the country was shut down.

In the midst of this chaos, some ODM leaders took advantage of the anger to organize horribly violent retaliatory attacks against PNU supporters. These are those awful images you most likely saw in the New York Times of churches full with frightened people burnt to the ground, and others where people identified as Kikuyu, were pulled from cars and hacked to death. The violence took a dark turn. I should note here, that while up to this point the electoral violence had very little to do with ethnic identity and very much to do with class identity, this changed very quickly.

Politicians and leaders looking to capitalize on the chaos began manipulating long-standing tribal differences into political fights. While it is true that the majority of PNU supporters came from the central province, composed mostly of Kikuyus, and the majority of ODM supporters came from the Rift Valley, composed mostly of Luo (and in this case, allied Kalenjins), the turning of tribe on tribe was very much orchestrated.

In the next post I will dive into this post-election violence, the organized element, and how the conflict was brought to an end. Read on…

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Farasi- My Trusted Steed

If you want to get around Nairobi you have a few choices. The first is a decent public bus system. You’d be hard-pressed to find a schedule or map but a few conversations with local folks and you can figure out the basic route and pick up locations. The second option is matatus- usually VW mini-buses, almost always pretty broken down and driven by questionably-licensed and certifiably insane drivers. They also run set numbered routes, stopping along the way to shove as many passengers as possible into the small vehicle. As horrible as it sounds they are a really good way to get shorter distances during the day for the cost of about 25 cents. The third option is a taxi, which surprisingly ends up being about as expensive as in Washington D.C. None of these options, except for specific taxis are acceptable for after dark.

Which leads me to my car. Between the post-dark transport restrictions and the 1.5-hour commute each way between Nairobi proper and my school, I decided I either needed to get a car or kiss my sanity good bye. This raised a new question…how does one purchase a car in Nairobi?

The used car market in Nairobi is an interesting one. Every shopping center has a dedicated space for posted advertisements for everything from homes, to cars, to appliances, to entertainment. Each topic is given a separate board. People post pictures of their cars with listings on price, year, and contact information. If searching the boards doesn’t do it for you, you have two other used-car options. One is to work with an importer to bring in the car you want, most likely from Japan or Singapore. They only problem with that is that you have to pay duty taxes on the car, which usually ends up almost doubling the cost. If that doesn’t do it for you, you are left with the car bazar.

The car bazar is pretty wonderful. Imagine Craig’s list, but in person, on a field. People trying to sell their cars, buy a spot at the bazar and park their cars for the day. People looking to purchase a car pay the equivalent of $5 to walk through, ask questions, test drive, and arrange a possible deal. Knowing I would need some back-up, I asked a taxi driver I had been using quite a bit if he would be willing to go with me and check out the car options. Luckily, my friend Emily was in town at the time as well so she agreed to tag along. We went there on a Saturday morning and were amused to find the bazar located just down the street from the giant tent church and across the road from the polo field.

The bazar is pretty big, with hundreds of cars all organized by size and type. One section has predominately sedans, another has cross-over cars, another with small SUVs and yet another with large SUVs and trucks. Interestingly, the valuation of cars in Kenya is very different from many other places. A Toyota of any make and any year always goes for the most. A not so nice 1997 Toyota Corolla could easily go for $6000 and would not decrease much more in price as it ages. On the other hand, older Nissan sedans can go for $3000-$4000. With all of the cars, year doesn’t seem to matter as much as make and model. Trucks are always more expensive than SUVs because people who buy them expect to make money with them (use them for work). As a result, no one purchases trucks commercially.

After looking around for a few hours I exchanged contact information with the owner of a 2000 Subaru Impreza, that my friend Emily noted was “Colts blue.” Over the next few days the owner and I negotiated until I got to a price I was ok with. Once we had agreed, he prepared the car agreement and I took the car to a mechanic of my choosing. Unlike in the US, mechanics tend to be in the informal sector and it is very hard and extremely important to find a good and honest one. Lucky for me, my friend Leah and her husband had been using a great mechanic for years who agreed to take a look at it for me. He gave the car a clean bill of health so we signed the documents and made the exchange.

Unlike the US, cars are registered as themselves not to an owner specifically, so no need for DMV visits or new license plates. The number on the plates signifies the year the car was brought into Kenya and stays that way throughout. Technically you are supposed to register the car under your 'pin' (a national ID number). But since foreigners don't have pins, I'm still working on transferring it...thus is Kenyan bureaucracy.

Since Emily had so aptly pointed out my car was in-fact two obnoxious shades past Colts blue, I decided to name my car Farasi, or Horse in Swahili. She has treated me well on the insane roads of Nairobi, which deserve a blog posting of their own. Until next time...

Monday, December 6, 2010

New Intellectualism? (warning, very nerdy post)

So just a quick post while I sit here studying for my finals. My Wednesday exam is for an Advanced International Relations Theory course. The material can be dense and occasionally in my opinion removed from reality (I'm an impatient political scientist). Reading a mixture of scholars pulled from the Greek empire all way to the present is sometimes disorienting and it is often hard to contextualize those we are studying within their times and the current events they were reacting to. This only serves to make theory and theorists all the more inaccessible.

Tonight, while doing a basic search to confirm the era of a scholar, I stumbled across a wonderful resource from UC Berkley. They have a Youtube site on which they have posted a series of interviews the school has done with the great modern IR thinkers. Instead of continuing my course outline, I have sat here for the last 3 hours listening to the (mostly) men who have most greatly shaped our understanding of politics and international interactions describe their upbringings, political ideologies, collaborations, reactions to other theories, and thought processes behind their own theories. It is fascinating.

It got me thinking though. In this age of technology, I am able to connect directly with the great thinkers. Rather than solely wade through their dense prose and attempt to guess at their mindset and rational for writing I can watch them interact with another professor and explain what they were thinking when they wrote their great works. I can't help but wonder how this changes academia and the process of gaining information at an intellectual level. Ten years ago this would have been impossible. Should we regard this as yet another blow against reading and thoughtful intellectualism, or celebrate it as a wonderful use of new technology to expand our academic engagement and knowledge?

Nerdy food for thought. Now back to 21st century studying

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

Last weekend I was finally able to connect with one of Nairobi’s many Rotary clubs for a service project. The club of Nairobi east has been partnering with Wangari Maathai’s organization, “The Greenbelt Movement,” to help plant trees and lessen the extremely destructive deforestation that is plaguing much of Kenya. While it may sound like a touchy-feely event, land issues and deforestation in Kenya affects water access, sanitation, farming productivity, and all sorts of related territorial conflicts.

In Nairobi proper, there are two reserves in the middle of the city. One, Nairobi National Park, is a game park complete with much of the wildlife you would expect to see on Safari. The other, the Ngong Forest, borders Kenya’s largest slum, Kibera, and faces serious deforestation issues. Since it hits the back of one of the poorest areas in central Kenya, the edge of the forest is continually hacked down for valuable timber or simply wood for cooking. The area can be so unsafe that one is prohibited from entering without an armed forest guard. It should be noted that these guards are often part of the problem, as they make so little they are easy to pay off to ‘turn the other way.’ Regardless, they are your company as you dig.

The morning of the event about 10 Rotarians and I met at a local shopping center where we carpooled to the Kibera site the club had planted last year. The Kibera site is really quite something. To approach it we drove down a main road and just past the car bazar, before a row of furniture makers at Dagoreti corner, we turned down a bumpy dirt road into the forest. Ten minutes later we reached the entrance to the Africa office for the World Organization of the Scout Movement, yes that’s the same organization as the boy/girl scouts. (Who knew, but the Scottish founder of the world-wide Scout organization is buried in Kenya and as such there is a major Scout Center in the Ngong forest). We drove into the center where were met by our armed guards and led on a short hike through the forest. One of the Rotarians got an earful of mocking for wearing brown leather dress shoes. With it having just rained the rest of the group donned rubber wellies or hiking boots and were thankful for it while traipsing through thick red mud.

A few minutes into the walk, the tree line broke and all I could see in the distance was row upon row of corrugated roofing combining into a smoking, living slum. The juxtaposition is jarring and only becomes more so as you walk out onto a close-to bare hill. The forest just stops and the empty land descends into the massive slum. The image surely makes the point about the conflict between human resource needs and environmental stability.

After we had learned a bit about the Kibera site we headed off to a different area of the forest to plant some trees. There may have been more speeches and ceremonial planting than working, but in the course of 20 minutes we had planted 300 trees. Afterward everyone headed for Nyama Choma (Kenyan BBQ) before heading home for the day. I’m looking forward to some more remote site visits in the new year!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A quick hello

Since I have lapsed in my commitment to more frequent blogging I figured I'd give a quick update and promises of posts to come. I just took my last midterm (make up exam) tonight and am now turning to my 20 page research paper due in 2 weeks. That combined with some serious proposal writing for my old organization makes me very excited for the serenity of the upcoming holidays. There are not enough hours in the day!

In the coming days I hope to write some posts on:
- A Kenyan politician's attempts to derail the ICC process that would prosecute him for crimes against humanity during the 2008 post-election violence in Kenya
- Planting trees with the Nairobi East Club in the Ngong Forest
- An update on the research I'm focusing on....yay Somalia, radicalization, and democracy!

For now, I am going to bed so I can get up bright and early and keep on truckin'

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Insert clever quip about finding a house here

Just a quick note and update to everyone, to keep up with my pledge of better blogging. This was my first weekend in a long time both in Nairobi and not sick. My excitement was made even greater by the fact that I finally found a new place to live and moved in today! I came across a great group house, currently occupied by 2 Americans and a Brit in a beautiful, quiet, and safe area of Nairobi. It has huge yard, a garden, and 2 cute 'lil pups that come with. I also benefit from someone cooking and cleaning and doing laundry 6-days a week. Oh, and internet! Pretty darn swank.

Anyway, I spent the day moving my stuff for the 6th time this year and making my final negotiations for the 'mad-men' couch I had made about a month ago. I am now sitting in my new chair avoiding typing yet another term paper. Last night was Halloween Nairobi style, which consisted of costumed, drunk adults, and believe it or not, some cross dressing men, in 100% Indian garb. Very interesting. More interesting than my paper at least!

This week is bound to be pretty insane since I'm contracting with my old organization to help write a very big proposal for a political party program and trying to prepare for 2 school presentations and 2 papers! Then off to Uganda on Friday for my former bosses' kid's 4th birthday party and some R&R.

Cheers to everyone wherever you may be!

P.S. The picture is of Kenya's version of changing leaves (Jacaranda Tree)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Jump shake Djibouti

First, my apologies for the horribly offensive title of this blog post. I just really could not resist. Before I began reading obsessively about US counter-terrorism efforts in the Horn of Africa and working in the region, I, like most Americans in a middle school geography class, always found the city-nation-state’s moniker to be a bit giggle inducing. I mean how can you really resist a name like that. I think it goes without saying that I never thought I would find myself actually in Djibouti, with the opportunity to jump shake my….well you get it.

I used to work for a wonderful non-profit organization that works worldwide to support democracy’s institutions and advocates. It does some work with various actors in Somalia but because of the security situation has to fly them out to places like Djibouti to meet, train, and organize. I was brought on temporarily to help plan a conference and do some training on messaging and communication. We only had about 2 weeks to pull it all together, which when dealing with visas for Somali nationals, flights out of the war-torn country from two points, and an array of interests, is not very long. Regardless, it brought me to Djibouti for 3 interesting days.

Djibouti, though now thought of as a strategic base for western military (French, American, German…), was actually part of the original pre-colonial Somalia. If you look at a map of the horn of Africa, you’ll see that Somalia is basically the entire coastline of the Horn. The beaches are among the most beautiful in the world and include the coveted Gulf of Aden-the most important shipping route for Europe and the majority of the world (think pirates). As a result, a number of colonial occupiers were very interested in the land and eventually agreed to divvy it up. You have Italy, France, and England, and each country took its piece. For the most part, what we know as Somalia today was Italy’s share. What we call Djibouti, was France’s. As a result, Djiboutian people are Somali. They speak Somali, they are of Somali ethnic groups, and have close alliances with the indigenous Somalis found throughout Kenya, Somalia, Puntland, Somaliland, Djibouti, and formerly in Ethiopia. They also speak French and like their Baguettes. Many Somalia Somalis speak Italian and make some darn good coffee.

As one of my Somali colleagues explained to me, Djibouti (the city) feels just like Mogadishu. It was quite interesting to be there since Mogadishu is now so unsafe and bullet pocked that my chances of visiting are pretty low. The city center is marked by a number of low sitting ornate cement buildings, painted white, or pealing with grander days of color. The tops are carved with Arab designs typical in North Africa or the Swahili coast. The heat is pretty legendary, averaging between 97 and 105 degrees Fahrenheit. You’d expect the wave of hot to hit you as soon as you walk off the plane, but it surprisingly took about an hour for the constant sweat and frizzy hair to begin.

It is a very Muslim country, and I was reminded of this as soon as I passed through immigration. The call to worship from the multiple minarets rang out across the city, as I was greeted by some fellow staff and our cab driver Ahmed- A young Djibouti Muslim who preferred uncensored Tupac to traditional music and had Nike swooshes painted on his requisite green cab side mirrors.

As we were whisked through town it was explained to me that Djibouti is very safe. You can walk outside until 3am, leave things lying around without fear of it being stolen, and generally not feel like you are in Nairobi. I can vouch for this as we saw plenty of young foreign women running by the beach at 9 or 10 at night and no fewer than 5 police per street corner after dark….say it with me…police state.

The stranger dimension of Djibouti is the substantial foreign military presence. Our hotel serves as the temporary German consulate and as a result had German Military Police walking through it at all hours. My flight had about 7 French Servicemen and I saw countless American former-military, now contractors, wandering around the small city. It gave me a chance to play my favorite game: Guess the nationality and service. Camo without an American patch: French. Bald head, black polo shirt, khaki cargos, and an altimeter watch: some American you don’t want to know more about.

The French have had bases here since they “left” as colonial occupiers. The Germans helped train the early Somali police. The Americans came after 9-11 to chase Al Qaeda in North Africa and Yemen. Now the Americans run an entire command out of Camp Lemonnier (AFRICOM), and have expanded significantly to run its black ops and address pirating in the region.

This makes for a very strange place. In the middle of a street that looks and feels like Mogadishu you find a market place for Khat (the mild high-producing root chewed by many Somali men) and a few blocks later a brigade of armed American soldiers exercising outside the base. From what I can tell though, local Djiboutians have a very good relationship with their military guests.

As safe as the place is for foreigners, my last day I was exposed a bit to the hardship Djiboutians deal with in everyday life. The hotels do not allow taxis to enter their property without a passenger (or in some cases at all), so when I was heading out to the airport I walked out of the hotel gates to meet my pre-arranged ride with Ahmed. A bunch of the other cab drivers, sitting on cardboard boxes by the road were yelling at me, but as I’ve learned to do I just kept walking figuring they were catcalling me or trying to get me to choose them for a cab. When I got into Ahmed’s cab they became very angry and started yelling in Somali at Ahmed who of course had to respond (through my window). Though I kept encouraging him to say I was in a rush to catch my plane and drive away he said “just let me talk to them for a second.” He then proceeded to get out of the car and throw a punch. This started off a fight between him and about 5 other guys, one of whom picked up a large rock and was about to smash it into Ahmed’s head when luckily one of my colleagues came out of the hotel and broke it up. I had at this point debated running (bad idea since all my stuff was in the car), or driving away since he left the keys (might create a more tense situation with people chasing me), but instead chose to roll up the windows, manually lock the doors, and sit steaming the car wondering if my cab driver was about to be killed (no cell phone at this point). Luckily my colleague calmed things down and eventually we were off to the airport. The whole time, all Ahmed could mutter was….”there are very bad people here in Djibouti.”

I conclude instead, there are very strange groups of people here in Djibouti. As you can tell the place still fascinates me, but we’ll see if I can explore it another time. I am now pitched in exam mode, made a little worse by lost luggage on the way back from the trip, and a nice little bacterial infection to slow me down. Keep on truckin!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Long overdue update

My apologies to all you blog readers. I have been a horrible blogger, but I hope you’ll bare with me. The past month and a half has been pretty tough. Those of you who know me, know I don’t come to that conclusion, or admit that easily. While I pride myself on being eternally positive, even I have a limit in how many body blows I can take.

Shortly after arriving I found an apartment. I had a plan to write a posting on the interesting way to find an apartment here, but I think I’ll have to save that for later. After being taken by an “agent” to maybe 15 places over about a week, I found a place in a great, safe neighborhood, part of a complex of 3 houses, with a nice big yard and garden. The place used to be a detached servant’s quarters, and had two bedrooms, two baths, and an outdoor wash area. After the first week I realized there were some plumbing issues so I began working with my landlord to address them. I spent two weeks straight, stuck at my house, waiting for random workmen to fix the kitchen sink, the water pressure and my shower. Nothing quite worked, and when I raised the problem one more time with my landlord he said the only way to fix it would require me to leave for 2-4 weeks, or just move out.

Two days later, I told him I would need to move out and he said that I had to move by the following day or he would withhold my security deposit of 2 month’s rent. When I arrived later that day with some folks to help me move, it turned bad. He basically forced me out then and there, trying to withhold money from my security deposit with false claims of lease terms and move in dates. I drove to my old office to grab a Kenyan friend for some support and my car stopped working right as I pulled into the parking lot. Someone else drove us back to my house where an hour of haggling and yelling resulted in me shoving everything I owned into two cars, a check being written for my security deposit, less $150, and me homeless. During the whole process, the guy even had the guts to bring someone else to the house to try to show it…while we were still arguing and my things were still there.

This all happened after someone tried to steal my purse and successfully stole my ipod in my car while I was in it, my car breaking (yea I bought one…a post on that later), some furniture I had made (and paid a deposit on) not being given to me, working full time, being a student full time, the government failing to finalize my immigration status…and then getting sick.

So I’ve decided this is all a result of one of 3 things. One, Kenya is allergic to me and wants me out. Two, I harmed many many people in a past life and karma is getting me back. Or three, this is one really really rough slate of bad luck. Maybe all I can conclude is thank goodness for friends.

Regardless, I am declaring an end to crappiness. I got pretty sick a few days ago, which prevented me from going on a rotary site visit to one of the Thika club’s projects. As disappointed as I am to have to cancel, I suppose this is my body’s way of saying slow it down. I’m trying to get myself better, complete my midterms and start fresh.

I promise my coming posts will not be so depressing, but I had to write about something! Things to look forward to...posts on a trip to Djibouti, posts on some work I’m doing, posts on work with Rotary…and let’s cross our fingers for a post on me finding a place to live ASAP!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

School books, finger scans, and privilege

I started writing this post September 9 and am hoping that on this, my third try, I will finally post something! Not having regular internet access is making the blogging a little tough. I planned on getting a mobile modem from a company called Orange but that is proving harder than anticipated. After visits to 3 stores across the city, not only have I been unable to locate a unit, but have also been informed it won’t work on my computer. Tomorrow I will give in and buy the more expensive, but working Zain version.

But enough complaining for now. I owe everyone an update post after my first two weeks of classes. I like to joke that USIU in some ways is a metaphor for Kenya- a thin veneer of shiny modern efficiency covering a whole mess of disorganization and non-sense. USIU scans my fingerprint every time I go to the library, but the library catalog system can only be accessed on (some) library computers. They make the effort to provide all course texts as books loaned for the semester, but they give you books your professor has not selected.

This brings me to an interesting non-academic learning moment. I firmly believe that education is the answer to development in the third world. In my first week I have come to appreciate just how difficult gaining that education is. Imagine you come from a working-class family outside of Nairobi. You work hard in school and work odd jobs to help support your family and pay your own school fees. You make it out of a less than stellar secondary school and work for a few more years, saving up money to apply to a University, likely in Nairobi. You get into school, pay the fees, and manage to move yourself to the city. Perhaps you live on campus or maybe you find a servant’s quarters that someone is renting out and you settle in for your studies.

You’ve worked hard and made it all the way to University (a feat in itself) and during your first class you are assigned weekly readings from books you can’t even locate to buy. You and your whole class rush to the library to look at the one copy at the University. After working out with your classmates who can have the book when, if you can afford it, you take the book to a copy shop and have them photocopy the whole thing. That’s just for one week. Now multiply that by many classes, many weeks, many years. You spend just as much time trying to access course texts as you do reading them. Mind you in the middle of this, you don’t have regular internet access to lazily surf the web for online resources or scanned articles.

Now compare that to the typical American college student, who at best, struggles to pay for their course books, and at worst never opens their brand new books, purchased at the school book store across the campus. Add in the 24 hr/day internet access and largely residential University set-ups and you’ve got quite a comparison.

Now some of my classmates experienced what I just described, and some of them went to schools abroad. But all of them are accustomed to strategic reading and book use in higher education. I, however, am not. I have spent the last two weeks with my friend in the library trying to locate the one copy of books to read, or books on the same topic as our reading. It’s frustrating. It’s inefficient. It does not serve my academic education. But it is exactly why I am here. Lesson number 1.

Class wise, it’s a little more straight lecture than I’d like in one class, and too basic in another, but bits of interesting information throughout. I am going to have to be highly self-motivated and a bit self-taught to get the most out of it. I am also going to have to learn not to shutter every time my country is mentioned unflattering or my leaders quoted inaccurately. Unlike my usual self, I’m sitting back and watching more, feeling less ownership over some of the conversations, but enjoying a different perspective and a class full of people intimately knowledgeable about South Sudan vs. North Sudan, the conflict between Somalia and Ethiopia, historical alliances between Tanzania and freedom movements, and Uganda’s backslide of democracy. East Africa nerd heaven.

Monday, September 6, 2010


As you may be noticing, I am playing around a bit with my blog design. I'll settle on something soon enough, but in the meantime, feel free to let me know what you do and don't like.

Orientation Day

Still catching up…

Communication with USIU has been at times strained. They didn’t let me know I was accepted into the program until a month before I left, and then only provided me with a calendar brochure, a health form to fill out, and a note that orientation would be held on Friday August 27 starting at 9am. I scheduled my flight for the 24th, planning on arriving late on the 25th, and having the 26th to rest and get a bit settled.

A few days before leaving for Nairobi, I emailed a former colleague of mine who is doing the same program and asked if he could give me a ride to orientation that Friday. He replied that I could of course ride with him, but it was going to have to be on Thursday because they had changed the day of the orientation!

Needless to say, no one had notified me of the change, and I immediately started to wonder if I would show up to campus and be greeted with a “Rose who?”

So flash forward to 6am the morning after arriving in Nairobi. I’m up, delirious, and a little cranky. At 7am, Dickson picks me up and we set off for the traffic nightmare that is Thika Road, and the only way to my new school from central Nairobi. We maneuver through the traditional Nairobi maze of matatus (vw vans used for public transportation that drive with a death wish), giant SUVs bumping over gaping holes, and little 4-door sedans doing their best to squeeze into the open spaces.

2 hours later we turn into our well-groomed campus and begin wandering from building to building. After following some students into an undergraduate orientation session we finally find our slightly older group of graduate students across the grassy quad on the far end of the campus.

At 10am when the 9am orientation still has yet to begin, I follow vague directions to the accounts department to pay my tuition. Bounced from one line, to another, I finally find out how much I actually need to pay, tell the accountant a number, and pay. No official statement, no one-stop shop, no automatic calculation of what’s due. Just a scrap of paper someone has scribbled a number on, slid underneath a window.

Satisfied with my accomplishment I walk back to the lecture hall where they have just begun the day’s orientation. Looking around I am certainly the only muzungu (white person). The IR and Business school orientations are held simultaneously, but it seems that my classmates are all a few years into their professions, fairly successful, and all curious as to who I am.

Surprisingly, the first question I’m asked by just about everyone is if I am from Kenya. I am not asked if I’m an American, Italian, Brit, or Japanese (as is usually the series of guesses from folks in Uganda and Tanzania). It’s refreshing, Even if it’s fairly obvious I am ‘other’, my classmates start with the premise that I am of them.

After a long day of not so helpful orientation, we make our way home around 6pm and I just about fall asleep in my chair. Tomorrow is Promulgation day, and then I begin the search for an apartment. No rest for the weary.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The BIG Move

The past year has been quite insane, filled with three moves (involving 3 states and 2 countries), 3 international and 5 domestic trips, two jobs, a grad school application, family crises and celebrations, and clearly a lot of change. As you know, my most recent major life change has been a move to Nairobi, Kenya as a Rotary Global Ambassadorial Scholar. I will be living here, in Nairobi, for the next two years, studying for my Master of Arts in International Relations at USIU.

Since I have gotten off to a pretty bad start of keeping this blog updated, I’ll try to recap the past few weeks. I left for Nairobi on August 24 from my family home in Indianapolis, IN. As expected, getting packed was a pretty heavy lift, but after weeks of preparation, a lot of family and friend support, and a few days of actual packing, I had fit my life into three large bags, a guitar case, and a backpack.

I flew from Indianapolis to Boston, where I met up with my good friend Meg for my 6 hour layover. I will just say here…Meg=hero. After a wonderful lunch and catch up time, I boarded my Delta flight for Amsterdam, where I connected with a KLM flight for Nairobi. I arrived around 8:15pm a day later, quickly moved through immigration (they now give you visa’s upon entry for $25!), and then stood by the baggage belt for about an hour. After clumsily loading my man-sized bags onto a cart I awkwardly balanced my guitar on top, and slowly rolled to the pick up area.

I quickly spotted my very tall and very blond friend John out of the crowd and we made our way into the city. My former colleague, John had agreed to pick me up and let me stay with him until I find an apartment (he also=hero). Before heading home, we picked up another former colleague and friend of mine who happened to be in town, and went out for dinner and a drink. A pretty great way to start your time off half-way around the world.

I then collapsed into bed, not looking forward to my early wake up the next morning for school orientation...

Friday, August 27, 2010

Promulgation Day!

Today is “Promulgation Day” in Kenya. What does promulgation mean you might ask? Well, technically it means an official announcement, but today it means an incredibly unexciting word being used to represent an unbelievably exciting and important day.

Kenya gained its independence from England in 1963, and at that time introduced its first constitution, largely influenced by its colonial occupiers. The next 40 years were filled with stilted efforts at constitutional reform, including the banning and then reinstatement of multiparty democracy, and a failed effort of reform in 2005.

On August 4 of this year, Kenya held a referendum on a new constitution and it passed by a significant margin. The constitution includes important sections on land reform, human rights, and a significant limitation on the power of the president and political party leaders. It is not perfect, but it is an incredibly important step in reforming the political, justice, and policing systems.

So back to Promulgation Day…
Today, the Kenyan government formally presented the new constitution to the public. News outlets have been calling it the 're-birth' of the country and there is a palpable excitement on the streets. The whole day is essentially a big party. More than half a million people crowded into Uhuru park for the formal ceremony. Lots of dancing, singing, speeches, cheering… and balloons.

I am watching on television from the comfort of my friend’s apartment, but can still appreciate the Kenyan oddities: white wigs for judges, Bashir of Sudan on the stage (yes his ICC arrest warrant should mean he can’t be in Kenya), and balloons that someone forgot to fill with helium.

Since this is my second day in Kenya, it’s now time for me to sign off, procure myself a cell phone, and get acquainted with my new city.

Welcome to Kenya, me! More to come on the journey later.