Sunday, June 3, 2012

Kenya Diaries: Day 14 - The Kisumu Yacht Club

On the 13th day of my trip, I flew from Nairobi to Kisumu. It's a very short flight, but would have been a very long bus-ride. The next day, I arranged to meet a man named Andrew Githeko, who turned out to be kind of a big deal. And by kind of a big deal, I mean that he was part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that shared the Nobel Prize with Al Gore.

When I arrived in Kisumu, I got in a cab and gave the driver the name of a hotel I found online. I had no idea if it was any good, but since none of the hotels I found online seemed to have working phone numbers listed or much information available about them, I was going to take my chances. If nothing else, there was another hotel two doors down I could walk to. But the car didn't even leave the airport parking lot for at least 30 minutes. The road was closed down because the Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, was expected to pass. He was meeting the President of Uganda. Odinga, the cab driver told me, was from Bondo District, where I would spend most of the next week. The streets were lined with Kenyans who wanted to see him.

The hotel was nice enough, and they charged 1500 shillings ($18) for a room without a TV or 2000 ($24) shillings for one with a TV. Only they didn't have any TV-less rooms available. I didn't want to pay for a TV I can't watch anyway, so I walked to the other hotel to see what it was like. They had only one rate, 1700 shillings. So I paid for one night. It was a bad idea.

The place was a mosquito-ridden hole. It was so hot that I got under the mosquito net and then sat there in my underwear, using my computer. The room had two sockets, but only one worked at a time. I had to alternate between running the fan and charging my computer. The light in the bathroom did not work, and the next day I found out the shower had no hot water. Plus there was no toilet seat. After eating breakfast and avoiding the pitcher of milk that had a fly floating in it, I took my luggage over to the first hotel and got a room without a TV but WITH a toilet seat, hot water, and enough electricity to use the fan and charge the computer at once.

Then Andrew picked me up. Initially I planned to visit the East Africa Dairy Development project on this day. I'd been emailing with them and I really wanted to learn about their work. It's funded by the Gates Foundation and run by Heifer International and the International Livestock Research Institute. But my contact had gone totally incommunicado with me, so I told Andrew I was free. Since he was free too, we decided it was a good time to meet. I had NO idea what to expect.

Andrew showed up in a nice car and drove us straight to the Kisumu Yacht Club. We walked in and he ordered a drink - some kind of hard alcohol, I think. I figured this was probably the right time to try Kenya's beer, Tusker, so I did. It's kind of like Budweiser. I switched over to water without finishing my beer.

The yacht club was lovely, as I imagine yacht clubs generally are. It was right on the shores of Lake Victoria, the second largest lake in the world, which Kenya shares with Uganda and Tanzania. We said our hellos to the regulars, and spoke to an American wearing a USAID hat.

It turned out he was in the Peace Corps. His family was visiting him, so he brought them here for the day. He told me to check out the jaboya trade. Essentially, when fishermen bring in their catch, they sell it to women, and then the women sell it to whoever. Only, fishermen often refuse to sell the fish for money alone. They want sex too. Nyanza Province, where Kisumu and Lake Victoria are located, has the highest AIDS rate in Kenya. The Peace Corps volunteer told me they have a project to help these women become proper businesswomen as a way to stamp out the jaboya trade. I replied that it seemed to me they already were businesswomen. The oldest business, even.

Kisumu Yacht Club

(I was assured that this area has hippos but no crocs, usually. They saw one croc a while ago but none before or after.)

Andrew and I sat down and talked about malaria and climate change for a long time. I'll transcribe our interview in the next diary. He was fascinating. You can see him speak here and there's actually a book chapter written about him and his work (Changing Planet, Changing Health: How the Climate Crisis Threatens Our Health and What We Can Do about It).

As we spoke, the club got more and more crowded. When I had asked him every single malaria-related question I could think of, I turned the audio recorder off and we just hung out. We joined a group of others, and they asked if he was going out on the lake today. But the water was rough, and no sane person was going out. In fact, the only person who did go out was a white man, an American who people suspect is actually a CIA agent. He loves rough water and always goes out when no one else will. Everyone else sat around, smoked, and drank.

An enormous black leather couch sat outside the club, and several people asked the staff "Is this where the big man sat?" Then they filled me in. The Prime Minister and President of Uganda ate their dinner here last night. And yes, they did sit on the couch.

After the interview, I wasn't quite sure what I was still doing there, although I had no other plans for the day and knew nobody in Kisumu, and the yacht club was truly lovely. Andrew asked if I'd like to stay for lunch so I agreed. Literally HOURS later, well past noon, close to what I'd call dinner time even, the group got started cooking lunch.

Most of the group was Indian, and I think Andrew was the only Kenyan and I was the only mzungu (white person). Andrew is Kikuyu, the largest ethnic group in Kenya, but a minority in Nyanza Province. Indians, which Kenyans call Asians, have been in the country for over a century, because the British brought them over to build a railroad and many of those who didn't die while building it stayed. Those who were successful in business in Kenya often brought their families over, so now Kenya has a decent sized Indian population and many Indian-owned businesses. Some have never even visited India!

The meal cooked was all meat - a beef dish and a chicken dish - and it was nothing that I recognized as Indian or Kenyan. It was well spiced and delicious, and by the time it was served I was so hungry, I didn't care that there wasn't a vegetarian option. Anyway, it really did taste good.

After a relaxing day of eating, drinking, and shooting the shit, it was time to go back to my hotel, where I would feel grateful as I took a hot shower and then simultaneously ran the fan while charging the computer.

Slums, AIDS, and barefoot, hungry orphans are one side of Kenya, but there's another side that lives in the world of the Kisumu Yacht Club. After such a nice day, I knew the rest of my week would be spent in a mud hut, definitely without running water, and perhaps without electricity. The week turned out to be the best week of the whole trip, but at that point I was really worried about it.

Because the friend I was staying with in Bondo warned me that they didn't have a lot of food around and suggested I buy some to bring with me, I asked Andrew to drop me off at the grocery store, and he did. From there, I took a motorbike home. It seems that Kenyan grocery stores sell two types of food and almost nothing in between. There are basic staples one uses for cooking - rice, beans, wheat, maize flour - and there are processed foods like chips, cookies, and bread made with "permitted class II preservative." I figured they'd have things like maize, fruits, and vegetables where I was going, and I didn't want chips and cookies.

I settled on the largest container of water I could carry, several mangoes and bananas, peanut butter, Kenyan acacia honey, preservative-free bread, organic Kenyan coffee, a few Cadbury chocolate bars, organic macadamia nuts, and some moringa, which I planned to bring home with me. (Moringa's a "superfood" that grows in Kenya, and it actually grows in Bondo, only I didn't know that when I bought it.) Somehow, I was able to carry all of this while riding the motorbike back to the hotel.

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