William and Mary Law School

Arrival at destination, Vihiga, Kenya!

I thought I’d go ahead and make a post, just to confirm that I am in fact alive and have reached my destination (Vihiga, Kenya)even though I haven’t really gotten a very good sense of my work yet. I arrived here on Friday, after landing in Nairobi on Thursday and then flying Friday morning to a closer city, Kisumu, which is in western Kenya on the shore of Lake Victoria. Didn’t see much of the city, as I was waiting for the man I’m working with, Evans Muswahili, to pick me up from the airport.

Once he arrived along with a driver, we started toward my home for the summer. The roads here are not good. That may prove to be my biggest understatement of the blog. When I say not good, I mean sometimes there are potholes that would easily swallow a small child whole. They’re mostly made out of red clay (just like the soil in VA!) and when it rains they can get quite messy. I’m well on my way to ruining my newest pair of Pumas, or at least dying them permanently red – guess I should have brought black shoes. The two big events of the drive were crossing the Equator and blowing a tire, which happened in quick succession. There are some paved roads, one of which I enjoyed today, but Muswahili informed me that often road repair is used as a political tool, employed just prior to elections in order to bolster support rather than being based on need.

Once in Vihiga district, we continued on to the office, where I met a number of Muswahili’s co-workers. They work primarily for NOVOK (National Organization of Volunteers of Kenya) and he shares an office with them as he is currently heading a project for NOVOK that involves traveling around the district and establishing groups to monitor human rights abuses and brainstorm ideas for community projects and their implementation. So far, I’ve attended two of these meetings, which unfortunately for me are conducted primarily in the local dialect. I definitely miss a lot (jokes go straight over my head as I look around at everyone else cracking up) but I can still assess the general mood and tell when people are more passionate about certain things. Generally, there are enough random English words thrown in that I can track the topic shifts. The hot topic this summer is a proposed Constitutional reform, which goes to referendum on August 4th. I’m sure I’ll talk about this more later, so I’ll leave it at that for now.

Backtracking a little, once we hung around the office for most of Friday afternoon, we headed for home. We walked up the street a bit to the permanent motorbike congregation, where about eight drivers immediately started vying for our business, primarily because I happen to be white. I have yet to see another “muzungu” in this area, so let’s just say I attract a lot of attention. I’m not trying to be vain in this comparison, but I’m going to go ahead and liken myself to a unicorn in these parts – maybe you’ve seen one in a book, or on TV (The Last Unicorn, anyone?) but probably (at least for children) never in person. Though Muswahili, his wife, and all the other adults I met at the office speak English, most people on the street, if nothing else, know a single phrase in English, which is, “How are you?” So essentially I go down the street to a chorus of people pointing out the muzungu to one another and a repetition of, “How are you? How are you? How are you?” all the time. If only I could achieve such celebrity in the U.S., I’d have it made… Actually, it’s a bit disconcerting, and I’ve made a couple babies cry. I can only assume they think I have some sort of horrible disease that makes me pale and thus sickly.

I’m getting used to the motorbike rides, but the first one was terrifying. Lines on the road are non-existent, they drive on the opposite side from us, and the potholes make swerving a necessity. And of course, when you’re on the wrong side and facing oncoming traffic, you don’t want to get back over until the last possible second – don’t want to seem like a wuss out there.

Muswahili’s family has been extremely welcoming (well, aside from the two year old, who at first viewed me with extreme suspicion but has since warmed to me by at least a few degrees – let’s face it, I’m just not that great with babies) and I am still staying with them as of now. I feel that it’s too much of an imposition to maintain for the entire summer, so I’m still trying to work out some of those details with him. They live a much much different life than we do. No running water, no electricity. That being said, I’m pretty much in total awe of what they’re able to accomplish (like the food his wife conjures up from over a fire), lacking these services that we deem essential.

Though this entry was focused more on personal and cultural observations, I’ll try to focus more on my work in future entries. One of my main assignments from IBJ is simply to document Muswahili’s project, so for now I’m just learning as much as I can about his work and his accomplishments as a JusticeMaker fellow over the last year as well as Kenya’s legal/justice system.