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!