mid October, 2003

Subject: Life in Kakamega

When we shipped our computers from Canada in July, we shared a container with two other organizations. The ship arrived in Mombasa on Oct 10 and since then we have been waiting for word that the container has been released. We obtained the necessary papers from the Education Ministry, and now need a tax exemption letter from the Treasury.

They tell us it's 'in the pipeline.' Are there truly that number of backed up applications? Is someone waiting for a bribe, hoping that our frustration will break at the escalating costs of storage? Who knows? Some people are euphoric at the attack on corruption spearheaded by the new government. Others are more cynical, and say corruption has in fact increased, but has gone underground, and all the show of firing judges and others is a mere facade for the benefit of the IMF and World Bank. How can you tell the difference between a true campaign and a deception? From a distance they look the same.

In the mean time, we are preparing and renewing acquaintances. Beatrice sells matumba (second hand clothes) in the market twice a week and also cleans houses. She has brought up five children, all at school or university. Her eldest daughter, Joyce, a lovely young woman, finished university but has no job (because of favoritism and tribalism, she says).

We are hoping she will be one of our assistants when the computer class starts.

Lydia sells fruits and vegetables in the market and is called Mama Rose because women are usually defined by the name of their eldest child, not their own. Jacqueline is the nurse whom we helped last time we were here. When she lost her job we sent her to volunteer with another Canadian NGO, and she was eventually hired to tour the villages and check children for jiggers, ringworm and head lice. She is very happy to be working and brought us a generous gift of six eggs in thanks.

We are again used to looking right, then left before we cross the street. We call cookies 'biscuits', air letters 'aerogrammes ' and dish washing detergent 'washing up liquid.' We take practically no notice of the sow and her litter rooting in the garbage by the side of the road, or the turkeys (much hardier than their North American cousins) who stroll amongst the traffic. We know to watch out for speeding boda bodas (bicycle taxis) and politely refuse the offers of the matatu touts who offer to take us to another town.

It's a regular sight to see women and girls carrying baskets, cooking pots and even piles of bricks on their heads. We pay no more attention to the call of the mullah at 5.15 a.m (and every fifteen minutes thereafter for an hour) than we do to the drumming of the church assemblies on Sunday morning.

We switch off our computers at the first rumble of thunder and always make sure we have enough boiled water to last for a while. We enjoy the smiles and greetings, the handshakes with total strangers, the wonderful harmonizing choirs and the children calling out "How are you?"

We skim the pages of obituaries every day. 34,000 children under five die of malaria every year. 700 adults die of AIDS every day. Add the matatu accidents (3,000 deaths a year) and every family is touched somewhere at some time.

School leaving examinations have just begun, amidst tales of students who paid to register but whose names are not on the lists. (They're out of luck, but their head teachers will be investigated.) University entrance is even harder now since there apparently are more candidates. So we are trying to get Severin (the boy we sponsored) into an upgrading course for math so he can do a Diploma in IT. Rod, my husband, is tutoring one of the girls we support in Math and Physics.

In Kisumu, sixty kilometres away, a child was killed when a huge anthill crumbled and buried the hut where she was sleeping. When asked why they hadn't cleared it away, the parents answered that the spirit of an ancestor lived in it. They had tried to destroy it several times, but it was always rebuilt. From which they concluded that the ancestral spirit was determined to stay. Hard to reconcile this to ads in the newspaper for high speed internet and mobile phones on which you can receive the latest soccer scores.

This is a wonderfully vibrant community. So many people everywhere, and life is lived on the street. People make coffins and furniture, roast ears of corn, hawk watches and brushes and clothing. They sell cabbages and shoes, washed and polished within an inch of their lives. You can buy pretty well anything (as long as it's not too exotic) from the jua kali (hot sun) sellers who spread their wares on the ground and string ropes between the trees.

When we went back to Canada last time, the big thing that struck us (after the cleanliness of the streets) was the orderliness and quiet out of doors.