Monthly Archives: February 2015

Weekend Adventures: Longonot and Lake Naivasha

IMG_2462Mount Longonot presiding over the Great Rift Valley

The matatu drove along the winding highway, shaking from both the bumpy road and the loud Swahili music blasting from the speakers. A friend and I sat cramped in the second row of the minibus with our belongings creating a little fort around us, watching out the windows as the billboards of the city gave way to the countryside. Street vendors selling Masai blankets and cobs of roasted maize blurred as we passed by.

We were off on our first trip out of the city, bound for Naivasha, a little town an hour and a half north of Nairobi. Naivasha, however, was just a quick pit stop as we headed towards our final destination. This destination appeared to the west as the matatu crested a large hill, standing out impressively amongst the parched grasslands of the Great Rift Valley. Mount Longonot, a long-inactive volcano with a crater a kilometer in diameter at its peak, was beckoning us. By the end of the day, I thought excitedly, we will have seen the view from the top.

Getting to the mountain proved to be a bit of a challenge. Since there were no matatus that would drop us off directly at the park gate, we opted for a cab ride with a friendly yet alarmingly pushy driver named Sammy. He offered to wait while we climbed the mountain and to take us to our campsite on Lake Naivasha afterwards, and while the price was a little steep, I agreed for the sake of convenience (and because it meant I wouldn’t need to carry my camping gear up the mountain).

The hike was much tougher than I had anticipated. The dusty trail leading up towards the crater had very little traction, and was on a steep incline. I found myself breathing heavily within a few minutes, my legs burning with effort and my face dripping with sweat in the Kenyan heat. Along the way, I found some more hiking companions in a school group. They were a group of girls climbing Longonot to prepare for their trek up Mount Kenya at the end of the year. Many of them were more out of shape than I was, which I must guiltily admit made me feel relieved.


A tiny area of Longonot’s massive mountaintop crater.

After losing half of my body’s water content in sweat, I finally reached the summit. The crater was even more impressive than I had imagined, tracing an almost perfect circle out of the mountain’s rock. In the forest far below I could see tree branches rustling, hinting at the presence of animals in the enclosed mini-ecosystem. Beyond the crater’s edge, the Great Rift Valley stretched out in all its yellow-green glory. I stood there at the top for a while, beaming with awe and endorphins, and exchanging high fives with my high school climbing buddies. My friend and I sat with our legs dangling into the crater, snacking on Chex Mix and looking down at the forest below. We contemplated making the two-hour walk around the crater rim, but since I had run out of water I was hesitant to spend any longer in the sweltering heat than I had to. We snapped a few top-of-the-mountain victory shots and descended back into the valley.


Lake Naivasha, where hippos are sneakily hiding out of sight

Sammy dropped us off at Carnelly’s Camp, an adorable campground on the shores of Lake Naivasha filled with expats and British vacationers. Exhausted from our trek, the first thing we did was gorge ourselves at the campsite’s restaurant. I scarfed down a massive pile of pasta with the signature Lake Naivasha crayfish, in a way that made me thankful the restaurant was empty. After dinner we pitched our tent and took a walk along the shore, spotting monkeys playing in the trees, blue herons standing elegantly in the shallows, and massive hippos peeking out from beneath the lake’s surface. It was the perfect place to end the day, and that night we fell asleep to the sounds of hippos snorting just feet away from our tent.

This weekend was a much-needed escape from the urban chaos of Nairobi. In Kibera, there are people absolutely everywhere – walking down the narrow dirt streets, crowded onto tiny matatus, calling out at you from storefronts. Even at nighttime, the slum doesn’t sleep – the sound of music, barking dogs, and rumbling trains can be heard through my open windows. Spending some time outdoors gave me a respite from the city’s chaos, which I hadn’t realized how much I really needed.  It also gave me the opportunity to see more of this wonderful country – a place with which I am slowly but steadily falling in love.

Another update on this past weekend’s adventure at Hell’s Gate National Park (the inspiration for the Lion King) coming soon!

Belonging, New Friends, and Angela’s Care Group

Mzungu, mzungu! How are you, how are you!”

I am walking along the street behind CFK when I pass by a group of schoolchildren, standing outside their school’s gates in their forest-green uniforms. As I stop to greet them, they swarm me, hands outstretched, all very insistent on finding out how I’m doing. I laugh and say, “Sasa?” the Swahili word for “now” that is often used as an informal greeting in Kibera. “Poa!” the children reply, looking both surprised and delighted that I was speaking their local slang.

After handing out a few more handshakes, I am able to extricate myself from the mob of children and continue down toward the railroad tracks.  I passed by the same huge garbage pile that I had seen on our journey to Taka ni Pato. Today, a couple more garbage fires are burning, and I sputter as the smoke fills mt lungs. The children walking by don’t seem to notice the smoke (potentially because of their proximity to the ground), nor do the dogs picking their way through the smouldering trash.

I am headed to Soweto West, a village in Kibera that I have not yet visited. Were I alone, this would not bode well for me – there are no street signs in Kibera, or even street names, for that matter. The dirt paths wind around in a seemingly never-ending maze, with mud houses sometimes packed so close that there is barely room for one person to squeeze through. If I ever got lost in Kibera, I would probably never find my way out. Luckily, I have Cathrine today as my guide.

Cathrine is a project worker with the Sexual and Reproductive Health department at CFK. One of the program’s main focuses is maternal health – teaching mothers in Kibera how to take care of themselves and their babies throughout their pregnancy. This is done through a system called care groups, which are weekly meetings of 10 to 15 women, run by a Community Health Worker. We are on our way to one of the many Soweto care groups now.

We reach the road dividing Soweto West from Kianda, and soon spot a middle-aged woman in a long green short-sleeved dress waving at us. She has crow’s feet that are intensified by her warm smile, and her graying black hair is pulled up into a tight bun. She introduces herself to as Angela, shaking my hand. “Karibu, you’re welcome,” she greets me. She then leads Cathrine and me to a bright blue building on the main road, which consists of one very tiny, very dark room. Inside, a pregnant woman named Rose welcomes us to her daycare.

Eight children are taking a nap, lying widthwise on a twin bed in the corner. Another little girl who couldn’t be more than six holds a sleeping baby in her arms. She smiles at us curiously as we walk in. We take a seat on one of the two benches set up along the walls. Within a few minutes, the pregnant women begin arriving – about eight of them in total. Cathrine introduces me and another intern in Swahili. I am able to pick out the word wanafunzi – students. “Jina langu Campbell”, I say in broken Swahili, immediately wishing I had used my Luo name instead. After the introductions are completed, Angela sits on a chair in the middle of the room and leads the discussion. Today they are discussing warning signs of pregnancy. Cathrine quietly translates the rapid Swahili in my ear.

Rose is the first to speak. She has issues with her cervix remaining open, and has had three miscarriages as a result. She’s now worried that it might be happening again. While I didn’t understand her words, I could see the pain in her eyes as she spoke about losing her children. Angela recommends she go to Tabitha Clinic to get some medical attention. Another woman is concerned about the baby always lying on one side. She says she hasn’t felt it move in a day or so. A more experienced mother tells her not to worry, that the same thing had happened to her. Then one day, the baby shifted and before she knew it, she was in labour.

I feel uncomfortable being in this room. It wasn’t the heat, or the children staring at me, or the details about womens’ cervixes. I felt like I didn’t belong there – and, really, I didn’t. I’m not from Kibera. I don’t know anything about pregnancies. I don’t even speak the same language. This unease was compounded by the fact that the other intern was snapping pictures of the group throughout the meeting. Cathrine had asked her to take photographs of the care group for the CFK website beforehand. Even though the women had consented, it felt wrong, almost voyeuristic, taking photographs of them as they shared the fears and struggles of their pregnancies. I tensed up every time I heard the shutter click.

As we leave, I shake everyone’s hand. Rose, the young mother who owns the daycare, clutches my hand with both of hers and looks up at me. “I am so happy you are here,” she says, as though she had been reading my mind throughout the entire meeting. “Asante sana.” I thanked her, blinking back the tears stinging my eyes, and stepped back out into the Kibera heat.

Angela insists on us visiting her home before we return to the CFK office. She guides us through a street behind the daycare, and opens a small gate into an even smaller alleyway. She gestures to a door on the left, and I duck beneath the low doorway to enter my first real Kibera home. Angela’s entire was about the size of my first-year dorm room. Pieces of white lacy cloth draped the walls, presumably to cover the mud walls lying underneath, and another piece of cloth hung towards the back of the room, partitioning the space into a bedroom and a living room. I sat down on one of the two small couches, whose cushions were as solid as a rock. There was no kitchen, just a small charcoal stove used for cooking. A large jerry can in the corner provides the water for the home. A miniscule TV sits on a shelf in the corner, upon which Angela’s youngest daughter, Lucy, is watching a wedding show. Angela introduces us warmly as her “new friends”. We stay for chai, milky Kenyan tea, and Angela tells us about her family. When we finally leave to go back to work, she urges us to come back anytime.

Rose’s genuine welcome and Angela’s hospitality made me realize that much of the insecurity I felt about not being wanted in Kibera was coming from myself, not from the people around me. My fear of being judged or of people thinking I don’t belong had been keeping me from really integrating into the community, from getting to know the people of Kibera – the reason I came here in the first place. Truth be told, I will never fit in completely. It’s time for me to accept that and move on.

I am a mzungu, always have been always will be. I will never completely understand the lives of those who live in Kibera. They see the world through a totally different lens than I do, filled with experiences and memories and tribalism acquired in a world far away from my own. But still, I’m realizing, the fact that I’ll never understand shouldn’t keep me from trying.

First Expedition to Nutrition

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Children at the Lishe Bora Mtaani Nutrition Centre
Image via Carolina for Kibera

It is Friday morning, and I am walking an unfamiliar route along the Kenya-Uganda railway that bisects Kibera. A big, jovial man named Francis is acting as my guide this morning, chatting with me and stopping to greet various friendly faces along the way. Francis is a Community Health Volunteer with CFK, who goes out into the village of Kianda and educates households about proper hand washing, hygiene, and maternal and child health. He was chosen for this role because he is a prominent and well-respected member of the local community – “I’ve lived in Kibera for 30 years,” he tells us proudly. The Community Health Volunteers also assess the nutritional status of children under five, and refer those who may be malnourished to the CFK Nutrition Centre, where we are headed now.

The building is a one-story wooden building with two offices, three playrooms, and a kitchen around the back. We walk into the closest playroom, where about fifteen young children between the ages of six months and three years are waiting for me. A nutritionist named Esther, wearing a large CFK logo-emblazoned apron, is setting up a scale to begin the children’s weekly weighing. She invites me over to help out. Many of the children are unable to stand, either because they are too young or because their developmental milestones have been delayed from malnutrition. Esther has me stand on the scale and hold the child in my arms. Meanwhile, Esther takes the child’s left arm and measured their mid-upper arm circumference – a tool that gives a good idea of how thin or “wasted” the child is. The information is recorded in a little notebook, and the process is repeated with another child.

The children spend the majority of the day in this little playroom, most of them napping away on large spongy mats strewn about. Other more adventurous ones go for strolls around the rest of the centre, or watch the educational children’s videos playing on the television. The day is interspersed with snack times, wherein the children are fed various therapeutic foods including Plumpynut, a peanut butter and sugar concoction to help them gain weight. They also get a big delicious Kenyan lunch of ugali, spinach, and chicken.

After lunch, a little girl named Isabella* who had been napping for most of the day woke up. Veronica, one of the centre’s early childhood educators, asks me to give her some porridge. I pick her up, and am amazed by how light she is. Her arms and legs are so small that I can wrap my entire fist around them. She looks like she’s about six months old, but to my shock, Veronica tells me that she is nearing her first birthday. Stunted growth is a very common effect of chronic malnutrition, and many of the children in the centre look much younger than they actually are. Isabella has a good appetite, though – she wraps her tiny hands around the cup and eagerly drinks all the porridge without any complaint.

Isabella’s mother stopped feeding her breast milk after two weeks, because of a pregnancy with another child. (In the mother’s culture, breastfeeding while pregnant is believed to be detrimental to the developing fetus.) Instead, she started feeding Isabella warm water and cow’s milk, which has led to her becoming underweight and suffering from multiple nutrient deficiencies. The hope is, though, that after the prescribed eight weeks in the in-patient program Isabella will be back at a normal weight. Furthermore, her mother will have a better idea of how to take care of her and her future sibling – the parents of the children enrolled in the program receive training sessions, where they learn about young child nutrition and how to keep their babies healthy.

The Nutrition Centre is a relatively recent initiative by CFK, having recently celebrated its one-year anniversary. Although the program has been touted as a success so far, they are still in need of a lot of help – mainly, with organizing the massive piles of data they have accumulated since the centre’s opening. That’s where I come in. Over the next few months, I will be organizing the data in the centre and tracking individual children’s progress, as well as creating documents outlining the procedures of the centre. These documents will help ensure the long-term success of the centre, and allow the CFK staff to more effectively care for children along their road to recovery.

Alright, and maybe I’ll end up playing with adorable babies sometimes, too.

*Name changed to respect patient’s privacy