Friday, December 31, 2010


A lot of people have asked about Kakuma, what it was like. As with my recent accident, I don't have the words. I met a lot of beautiful people in the camp, and in the surrounding Turkana region. Survivors.

It was hard to get through the day there. Accept your condition, William, my friend and guide, said to me.

That's how it's done.

The Drug of Choice

What you see here are crewmembers chewing qat (as it is called in Somalia) or mirra (as it is called in Kenya). Mirra is or is not a drug, depending on who you're talking with. In any case, it's legal in Kenya and the attitude towards it is extremely accepting, even among highly religious people. It seems to viewed as something as harmless as, say, a shot of espresso.

Mirra comes from a slow-growing tree or shrub that grows well in Northern Kenya. Its use is pervasive in Kenya, Yemen and Somalia. Consumption causes mild euphoria and excitement.

In Lamu I was told that nearly all the men partake (the estimate 90% was tossed out) and that this is why the town is so sleepy in the morning. The plane with the mirra doesn't arrive until 10-11am. Our guide told us that when journalists are arranging interviews, he always tells them to wait until around 11. Then the subjects will be very talkative.

In Kakuma refugee camp, I saw women and men relaxing with a bag of stems during the long hot afternoon.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Obama Street

This photo was taken in the Ethiopian section of Kakuma refugee camp. On Obama Street there is also an Obama Restaurant ("Yes We Can").

It would be impossible to overstate the importance of Obama as a symbol of hope, status and recognition for the people of Kenya and all of Africa. It was the first thing that people said to me when they learned that I was from America--Oh, Obama!--and sometimes the only thing they wanted to talk about. On elevators. On the street. In taxis. In the refugee camp.

On Lamu Island, one of the elders said: We have a Luo [Obama's father's tribe] in the White House. Now if only we could get a Massai prime minister in the UK, things might finally change ...

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Images of Kenya

Here is a little video with some of my favorite images from Kenya. My camera, damaged in the car accident (see previous post), functioned pretty well with some fiddling.

The women with the bead necklaces are Turkana, the tribe that lives around Kakuma refugee camp. Married women have a metal band around the neck, in addition to the beads, that serves as a wedding ring.

The town with stone buildings and very narrow pedestrian streets is Lamu. It's an island and that's where the water shots were taken.

I only took two photographs in the refugee camp. Those photos will be in separate posts, along with more about my wonderful Turkana guides, William and Peter. And Paul, who rescued me when I flew into the wrong airport.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Open Mic without the Mic

Last night I was too sick to go to the open mic reading that is part of the Kwani Litfest here. But I heard that the government yanked the permit to use a mic at the last minute. Dangerous minds at work, I guess. The readings went on as scheduled, they were just very hard to hear.

It has been good to see many exiled writers come back safely to read at these events. And yet there is still some nervousness about how free the Kenyan writers living in Kenya really are. Now I see why.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Price of Things in Nairobi

Saline solution: $15
Cell phone time: pennies/minute

I have a cold, which is very bad timing as I leave for Kakuma refugee camp tomorrow.

Monday, December 6, 2010

A Conversation with a Kenyan "Freelance Guide" About the Weather

I am walking into town. A black man falls into step beside me.

Karibu! he says. Welcome to Kenya. Where are you from?

The U.S., I say.

Oh, he says. You do not look like an American. I thought Australia. Where in the U.S.?


Ohio, he says. A very important state. You voted for Obama.

Yes, I say. We did.

Do you like him?

Yes, I still do. But change has been slow.

Yes, yes, he says. Change is slow.

What about you? Do you like Kibaki? I ask, referring to the Kenyan president who also ran as an agent of change.

Mmmm, he says. Change is slow.

We walk in silence for a while. After a while he asks brightly, What is the weather like in Ohio?

Cold. I hear it's snowing.

Snow! he exclaims. It is always warm here. Do you know what I saw? In the airport a man was crying because he had to go home. He said he was sad to leave our climate. Can you believe that? A man! Crying!

Yes, I say, I can believe that.

This snow, he asks. I don't understand. Once, I went up Mt. Kenya. My hands, they went like this. He shows me his hands, like a claw. Is it always like that?

Yes, I say. It is.

What do you do then?

We stay inside. In our houses.

Inside! he says. That is bad.

Now you understand why that man was crying, I say.

Yes, yes, he says. It is because he has no freedom.