Friday, May 13, 2011


Activity at the Kenya-Uganda border, at Busia.
Entebbe, Uganda – I must have seemed illiterate as I presented my immigration documents to officials at the Kenya-Uganda border town of Busia this afternoon.

As I had attempted to fill out the various pieces of paper on the bus, the wavy scrawl of ink had risen and fallen with each pothole etched into the road that carried me from Kisumu. Road crews had mounded entirely insufficient cones of dirt along the road to fill the gaps, but they were of little use just sitting there.

The border featured a slouching metal fence painted in the chipping colours of Kenya’s flag. Buses and trucks alike bunched up as we cleared customs, walked across no-man’s land and into Uganda’s immigration office. Once cleared, we wove between jaggedly parked vehicles to find our bus, navigating through salespeople carrying boxes of beverages and snacks on their heads. Impoverished children slapped at the side of the bus and called up through the open window, making hand gestures that mimicked eating.

Pulling into Uganda, the sky became a watercolour of mottled greys and my nausea increased because of the bus's 1.5-hour late start this morning and the tight deadline I faced for my plane home. Donning sunglasses, a boxer jogged along the road with taped hands, jabbing at the wind. Each time I checked my watch, I felt as though I had taken one of his punches to my gut.

Farther along, a woman raked the dirt out front of her house with a paint roller that had no sponge. A rural field was speckled with scarecrows whose heads were made from black garbage bags. Clever. In a larger town, a giant billboard featured a man with two women draped over him under the banner, “Be handsome, and fair.” It was for fair skin cream for men. What?

My unanticipated home in Entebbe for more than 24 hours.
It was a pleasant ride I enjoyed with my head hanging out the window at the back of the bus. As we pulled into the hills of Kampala, however, the road was stitched with a knot of traffic. The city has a reputation for slow travel on Friday nights and, true to form, we trudged five kilometres in two hours. At the same time, the hands on my watch seemed to hasten their pace as I twisted my wrist. I still needed to find a taxi to take me the additional 40 kilometres to the airport in Entebbe.

Finally arriving at the bus park, I haggled with the taxi driver out of respect, but hit the road soon thereafter, hoping to eke in under the wire. Naturally, he needed to stop for fuel now that he had a fare. Reaching the airport at Entebbe, heavily armed police pulled us from the vehicle to do a thorough search, and the ill feeling in my stomach rose into my throat.

The city is on edge given recent strikes and violence related to the re-election of President Yoweri Museveni, who was sworn in yesterday. I, too, was on edge – but I had hope.

Unfortunately, that is all I had: I missed check-in my 15 minutes.

Hashtag: Fail.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Seeing the Forest and the Trees.

Looking like an Ewok, a Blue monkey snacks.
Kakamege, Kenya – The sky repeatedly cleared its throat, but the drops did not reach us as we set out through the heavy canopy of the Kakamega forest this afternoon.

Only the sun’s rays and shrill cries of birds filtered through the more than 150 species of plant in Kenya’s last remnant of the Guineo-Congolian rainforest that used to blanket the entire continent. Colobus and Blue monkeys swished through the leaves, sounding as though they were sweeping their porches, and a nearby bird whistled like ascending fireworks.

Spiders wove their looms across pathways carved between centuries-old trees – many of which are endemic here – and 40 types of snake lurked, unseen. Shy vipers, cobras and mambas remained hidden in the vibrant palette of green, which was soon washed by heavy drops.

This turn of weather has wreaked havoc on the bumpy red clay roads that are to carry us toward Kisumu – the ditch seems to be welcoming us as a respite from the slippery clay, but we have maintained traction at the last minute each time.

I love passing the nearby villages at dusk, though, as smoke from countless kitchens carries with it delicious smells before hanging in the valleys like foggy ghosts.

Kerosene lamps, meanwhile, begin to flicker like fireflies and I’m left to marvel at life here.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A New Goal.

DC and Titus, plotting World Cup dominance.
Chekalini, Kenya – Although I do not understand many words of their persistent chatter, the children here sound just like those anywhere else.

Excited. Eager. Proud.

In the blazing heat of midday, this chatter wilted as DC, Titus and I first kicked around a couple of guavas, then a ball crafted from rolled-up felt wrapped in a plastic bag and bound by twine. Games transcend the differences of culture and language that so often define our uniforms.

We laughed as we beat the ball into submission its felt unfurling like a tail and we flailed our legs wildly, attempting to communicate through the unspoken language of sport.

Taking my hand, Lincoln guided me the long way around the property to show me his school pointing out trees, flowers and other words he understood in English. With a kind smile, a funny face or an awkward dance, such differences in language can easily dissolve. In fact, sometimes language simply does not matter: some experiences are universal.

And no matter how one says it, I know I have been so tremendously blessed with my good fortune here.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


Titus, DC and Bobo during one of the welcoming dances.
Chekalini, Kenya – A long but beautiful day on the road has carried us to the most incredible of nights.

After wending our way over the clay arteries that lie beyond Eldoret, we arrived at Eric's family's home in Chekalini this evening. We were immediately greeted by a welcoming committee that framed the front of the house.

Eric dissolved into his mother's eagerly awaiting arms as we shook hands with his brothers and sisters, and high-fived the numerous nieces and nephews. There may have been a few tears.

We entered the house and were blessed with a traditional prayer of welcome and offered a meal. All day, the children had made excuses to stay home from school in case we arrived, conveniently forgetting their pencil cases or their homework. There may have been some excitement.

Initially, the children eyed the large white man I am with a degree of suspicion. Then I showed them just how poorly I dance.

Soon, they mimicked every shake of my arms and awkward rattle of my hips as everyone laughed and clapped along. Consider the ice broken. I soon taught them the 'exploding fist bump,' several new ways to contort one's face and "I've got my eye on you," replete with hand gestures.

They gobbled it up.

The children sang us songs in Kiswahili and English, and I showed Lincoln (Bobo) how to take photographs. He insisted on using the viewfinder, rather than the giant screen on the back. Whatever works. Then he and Titus reached up and took my hands to guide me on a tour of the property. It was pitch black, though the night sky was perforated with diamonds.

"Twende," they said as we wove through the dark pasture. There may not have been much we could actually see, but their pride in their home shone through.

Tonight was magical.

Quite a Rift.

A man rides his bicycle through the Rift Valley.
Chekalini, Kenya – As we coursed along its tongue, the cavernous jaw of the Rift Valley appeared to swallow us, its pebbly walls rising as we wound down serpentine switchbacks into dry pastures of scrub and stretching acacia.

Cacti lined the road, standing sentinel with spiny paddles.

The road at the head of the valley, which leads to former President Daniel arap Moi's home region, is well-paved, but silent. As so few vehicles pass by, locals quip it is best known as a resting place for goats and cows.

Sure enough, around the corner lay a goat, nonplussed, chewing on a long blade of grass.

Crossing the equator and descending farther, however, we rattled across pocked roads as the ground blushed with the red of clay, its lips whispering small puffs of dust. Termite hills as tall as I rose from the landscape like stovepipe hats.

Yet, even as the sun threw blazing rays earthward, motorcyclists remained bundled in down coats – the concept of heat obviously dependent on the climate to which one is accustomed. The whole way, we waved at wide-eyed children in school uniforms who double-took at the palour of our skin.

Toward the end of the day, rain set a local market into motion as tarps were drawn like curtains over stick-framed kiosks selling everything from shoes, to fruit, to suitcases. Weather had signaled the end of the show.

We had been on the road for nearly 12 hours, setting out from Lake Naivasha to see the splendour of the Great Rift Valley and to visit Eric's family in the Western Kenya village of Chekalini.

With a thud in Eldoret, though, we heard the now-familiar snake-like hissing and, for the second day in a row, were roadside – covered in ochre – changing a punctured tire.

This is becoming a habit.

Monday, May 9, 2011

An Abridged Version.

Giraffes watch us as we spin out, stuck on a hill.
Lake Naivasha, Kenya – As dusk settled in like a smudge of heavy eyeshadow, a curious giraffe elongated its neck toward us at the side of the road.

It was close enough we could see its eyelashes, batting like fans.

Despite the pacifist nature of our newfound friend, this was not the best time of day to be stranded in a field of wild African animals.

No, ever-dangerous hippopotamus would soon begin stretching from a day spent staying cool in the water, and foraging with mouths studded by tusk-like teeth. Despite being herbivores, they can be indiscriminate in their violence.

And yet, there we were, tipped sideways in the car, hanging precipitously over the edge of a hill in the riparian area behind the house, the vehicle's belly grounded against a crumbling stone bridge. As we tried to lift the vehicle back onto the road, the tires spun, cloaking us in a cloud of vaporized rubber.

It would not budge.

Yup, we were pretty stuck.
We had already had to change a punctured tire on a dusty hill in Karagita earlier in the day – an event that had attracted other curious onlookers as we attempted to loosen bolts in the middle of a roughly hewn, angular road, amidst homes fabricated of mud and sticks.

With a series of guttural cries, we wedged our hands under the front bumper and tried to raise the vehicle onto the dirt path. By mistakenly spreading the fingers of my right hand onto the spinning tire, I soon learned the car was front-wheel drive.

And I wondered if my now-erased prints would qualify me for a future career in the secret service.

Standing in a bush of thorns, we repeatedly heaved the car upward while awkwardly leveraging ourselves against the side of the hill. Still, the car teetered and we remained fearful it would roll down the hill – on top of us, no less. With the help of a couple locals, though, we eventually wedged a large chunk of the bridge that had become dislodged under the tire.

Traction. At last.

Nonplussed, the giraffe continued snacking on its live salad of nettles as we pulled out through a growing number of wildebeest, zebra and waterbuck.

Friday, May 6, 2011

I'm on a Boat.

Hungry, hungry hippos, looking for the marble.
Lake Naivasha, Kenya – Hippos cloaked by papyrus snorted like pigs with megaphones and leapt toward the boat with a seismic splash.

Our captain had backed into the area for this very reason.

With a quick crank of the throttle, the nose of our boat lifted from the water and pulled free of the reeds, which it spat into the air like confetti.

Nearby, three families of hippopotamus lay submerged, their eyebrows shrugging and nostrils flaring as they loudly sprayed water in disgust. Fish eagles swooped by with curved swords extended, plucking fish from the lake with a cry as piercing as their talons, before climbing back into the trees.

I was touring the lake with Western’s Ecosystem Health – Africa Initiative, where we conducted interviews to better understand the relationship between the growing community, the billion-dollar flower industry and the health of both individuals and the ecosystem.

Up one hill lays a sprawling, unplanned village without a sanitation program. Its refuse ends up in the lake. The entire slum works for one specific rose grower in the region and, in direct contrast, the owner lives in a white, castle-like home a farther up the lake. These manufactured communities provide their own schooling, healthcare, housing and daycare for employees.

The industry is big business, employing a quarter of the 450,000 residents around the lake, many of whom came to the area during the 1990s when the population was only 20,000. The environmental impact of both human migration and from the flower businesses has been tremendous on Lake Naivasha.

As one local described it: “The flower companies are the mother of Naivasha – a cruel mother.”