A Christian, a Hindu and a Muslim walk into a club……………

A Christian, a Hindu and a Muslim walk into a club…………………………….

You would be forgiven for thinking that this is the beginning of a joke but its not.

The Christian, Hindu and Muslim belong to the community of Kitale, a mid sized town of about 200,000 people in the Rift Valley province of Kenya. The club referred to here is not your average nightclub but a country club with a golf course, swimming pool, clubhouse and guest lodges.

What are these people doing in the club you may ask?

In God we trust

A meeting has been called to initiate a community policing scheme. The upcoming elections and the security concerns which have arisen as a result of the violence in the previous elections has the community worried.  People are apprehensive about what may happen if any disturbance takes place. The business community, representatives from the police and prominent townspeople are in attendance.

After waiting for an hour past the scheduled start, it is time for the meeting to commence. To my amazement, the chairman of the meeting (a Muslim) calls for the meeting to start with prayer and a Christian stands up and says a small prayer, asking for the meeting and all further actions to be blessed by God. All different faiths (the Christians, Hindus, Muslims and even one Sikh) stand in respect during the prayer. 

To me, this is quite amazing since where I come from (Pakistan), different sects of the same faith do not pray together let alone interfaith prayer. This sort of harmony is a first for me and I am very impressed by how the different communities are living side by side in Kenya. Unfortunately, tribal and religious conflicts do arise in this East African country, leading to significant bloodshed, but that’s definitely not a factor in this town.

Community steps forward

As the meeting progresses, people step up and highlight the main issues with regards to the community policing scheme and what sort of problems they expect to encounter during the elections.

Some say more police patrols are required, some bring up the issue of disseminating real time updates while others talk about 24/7 monitoring. Regardless of the issues raised, the entire discussion takes place in a very civilized manner, everyone is given a chance to speak and the police also provides an update on their plan to provide security in the town.

Next comes the topic of resources. It is heartening to see people being generous and coming forward with pledges of cash to repair police vehicles, provide food to the police patrols and give their own vehicles (six cars are pledged in total and more were provided later on from those not in attendance).

As the meeting draws to a close, the chairman again asks someone to say a prayer. This time a Hindu steps up and asks for God to bless this meeting and to make this community policing scheme a success. 

What starts in prayer, ends in prayer! I leave the meeting with a sense of optimism. What a small community can achieve in terms of interfaith harmony can serve as a lesson to the world at large.

Half Acre Farm, Lofty Dreams and Fake Mzungu (Will the real mzungu please stand up!)

"It was the first time they have seen a mzungu. They were very happy to see you, you have to come again!” exclaimed Newton, my housekeeper, on our way back home from a visit to his house.

I had promised Newton a visit to his village to meet his family for quite some time and finally got the opportunity. Needless to say, the visit was an eye opener for me in many respects, chief among them being a discovery of how people at the base of the pyramid live and think, in addition to their perceptions of my identity.

Half Acre Farm

Driving for 40 minutes through patches of potholes and then through a dirt road alongside lush green farmland where maize, tea, coffee, potatoes and other crops were being grown, the drive was extremely pleasant to the eyes. Even more pleasant was meeting Newton’s family, who welcomed me with open arms, their first ever “mzungu” visitor (I am technically not a mzungu but this will be explained later).

Newton (extreme right) and his family

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The modest plot which Newton calls his home was spread over half an acre with three small units (his own bedroom with a sitting room, children’s bedroom (five at present, seven in total – two have grown up and work elsewhere) and kitchen). There was a small toilet outside and the remaining area was used to plant vegetables and fruits. Self sufficiency is the name of the game and I found maize, sugarcane, sweet potato, bananas and berries being planted in his small plot.

I was introduced to his wife and children, who are quite excited to meet me, earnestly shaking my hands. In addition to his own children, the neighbours’ children are also hanging out at the house, they are younger but are equally amazed at seeing a foreigner in their midst. It’s the first time (ok not the first time but the first time in Kenya) that I’ve been the center of attention and it felt weird in a good way :P

Yours truly in the center getting a free massage

Lofty Dreams

I get around to speaking with the children, interested in knowing what they do on a daily basis and what their plans are for the future. What really surprises me is their focus at such a young age. They love going to school and have lofty dreams for the future.

The eldest son Daniel (about 16 years old) wants to be a doctor and his favourite subject is biology (how appropriate) while the eldest daughter Karen (15 years old) wants to be a pilot and her favourite subject is physics (even more appropriate). Education is paramount and the childrens’ focus means that they are working towards these ambitions and seek a life where they are able to fulfill their dreams.

Daniel - aspiring doctor!

Karen - promising future pilot!

I forgot his name but he was the most mischievious

Newton, in our private conversations has always stressed the importance of education. The little money him and his wife earn from housekeeping and selling vegetables respectively is invested in the children’s education, leaving little or no savings. He laments his own childhood, when he had to quit education for work to support his family. He does not want his children to undergo the same fate and sees a brighter future for them if they receive good education, hence he is investing his entire effort in educating his children.

The Real Mzungu has to stand up!!!!

Coming back to the question of identity, I was quite surprised on being called a mzungu (pronounced ma-zun-gu), a term used in Swahili for white skinned people, since the correct term to describe me would be mhindi (pronounced mo-hindi), which is used for all brown skinned people (South Asians). I asked him why they called me mzungu when in fact I’m mhindi [or if you go by nationality - Pakistani ;)]. He said, “They have never seen a foreigner before, so for them you are a mzungu” (upon further research, I found out that mzungu actually means “aimless wanderer” in Swahili but is generally used to denote white skinned people).

The neighbours’ kids - I was a “total” mzungu to them

But mzungus are anything but aimless. Of all the mzungus (the real ones of course) I’ve met in Kenya, they are far from being aimless and are particularly focused, be it in the field of economic development, missionary work or business.

Even though mzungu does not describe me, I hope that I get to “wander” more and discover more of beautiful Kenya, hopefully NOT aimlessly.

As I prepare to leave, the children gather at the gate, still looking with bewilderment at their first ever mzungu and sending me off with excited hand waves and sounds of “Kwaheri, Kwaheri” (Bye, Bye). Hopefully, the next time I visit, I will no longer be a mzungu for them, so its time for the real mzungu to stand up!

"Kwaheri, Kwaheri" - Till we meet again!

Democracy, trigger happiness and a bullet in the shoulder

Elections are around the corner in Kenya, there’s a palpable sense of anxiety in the air. The reason? About 1,500 killed and almost 250,000 displaced in the last election in 2007-08 due to a dispute about the true winner of the election. In Kenya’s young democracy a winning at all costs mentality prevails.

Affluent Kenyans and expats have already made plans for their safety by intending to leave the country, opting for neighbouring Uganda, their home countries or other vacation destinations.

Security has been tightened and the police are on edge. This hit really close to home as my boss was shot by a trigger happy policeman while crossing a police checkpoint in Kisumu at night. Fortunately, he survived.

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There was no signal to stop, nothing. The police had stopped a truck and were questioning the driver. While my boss and another car were passing, a policeman noticed these two passing cars at the last minute and at the same time there was some noise in the background as well. Mistaking my boss to be a robber, he just took aim and fired.

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No warning! Nothing! It was a headshot but luckily, my boss ducked at the last moment. The bullet went through the windshield and hit the top of the headrest. If he hadn’t ducked, it would have blasted through his forehead. Although his head escaped, his shoulder did not! Some fragments of the bullet went through his left shoulder and he had to be operated upon to remove the fragments. He is quite a brave man and came back to work after two days, although still in obvious discomfort.

The police refused to acknowledge their mistake and reported an attempted robbery. They even had the audacity to claim that they did not shoot and the bullet came from the robber. The police, in the run up to the elections, is on heightened alert. They are not taking any chances!

My boss is one lucky man, lucky to be alive! I was on a sales trip to Kisumu about 3-4 weeks ago with him and I shudder to think if I had been with him on this trip. What would have happened if I had been??!!

As the elections come nearer, its best to take all precautions but the lesson from this story is that a human life is safe and in one piece.

All’s well that ends well!!!

Happy Hour all the time - Not Good!

Riding along the highway from Nairobi to Nakuru, I was on the lookout for new and interesting things. Easier said than done. Belonging to a developing country myself, I have seen quite a few things in Kenya which may seem out of the ordinary to someone from the first world visiting a third world country for the first time, but not me. While it is very common for the nouveau third world arrivals to express ooohs and aahs to some sights, for me it was life as usual. Allow me to illustrate based on what I’ve seen before:
Animals crossing the road and causing a traffic holdup (in this case, cows) - Check
Huge potholes on the roads – Check
Open sewers and filth - Check
Squatter dwellings on roadsides - Check
Upon seeing all of this, the only thing which came to mind was…. “been there, seen that”. But what I was looking for was something new, something which stood out, an “aha moment”!!!!
Alas, I did stumble upon that one thing, that “aha moment”. 
While traveling, one thing which repeatedly stood out was the large number of alcohol advertisements along the road. I had seen numerous ads in the city in Nairobi, on the highway to Nakuru and also in Kitale, the town where I am based. The ads were for local beer brands and global varieties, mostly emphasizing a party culture while also warning to “drink responsibly”.
Kenya has one of the highest rates of alcohol consumption in the African continent and is Africa’s third largest beer market. Excessive drinking has become a major problem in the country, leading to a number of social and health problems. In a 2011 report, the Kenyan National Campaign Against Drug Abuse Authority, or NACADA, says alcohol and drug abuse are the major social problems in Kenya, with serious public health ramifications. And, the consumers are starting young. NACADA estimates that half of all alcohol and drug abusers in Kenya are between 10 and 19 years old.
Apart from the regulated varieties of alcohol, there is a cheaper bootlegged variety. This home brew, called chang’aa - literally meaning “kill me quick” - often contains methanol, a toxic, non-drinking type of alcohol that can cause blindness and even death. Drinkers in poverty-stricken rural and slum areas are particularly vulnerable to its effects. 30 people died in September 2011 after consuming poisonous liquor and more deaths occur each year.
With alcohol usually comes smoking but cigarette ads were noticeably absent although international brands have been targeting developing countries after facing excessive regulation in their home markets.
Should alcohol marketing be curbed just as cigarette marketing has been curtailed? Can excessive alcohol consumption be re-framed as a critical health and social issue inviting attention of NGOs and international development organizations?
As we passed by yet another drunk person walking precariously close to the traffic in a state of semi-consciousness, I thought to myself, this guy can easily die if he veers on to the road and is struck by a vehicle.
Can we save these lives and the countless others who depend on them? Can a developing country afford to lose so much of its young population to alcoholism? What efforts are required to tackle this issue?

Happy Hour all the time - Not Good!

Riding along the highway from Nairobi to Nakuru, I was on the lookout for new and interesting things. Easier said than done. Belonging to a developing country myself, I have seen quite a few things in Kenya which may seem out of the ordinary to someone from the first world visiting a third world country for the first time, but not me. While it is very common for the nouveau third world arrivals to express ooohs and aahs to some sights, for me it was life as usual. Allow me to illustrate based on what I’ve seen before:

Animals crossing the road and causing a traffic holdup (in this case, cows) - Check

Huge potholes on the roads  Check

Open sewers and filth - Check

Squatter dwellings on roadsides - Check

Upon seeing all of this, the only thing which came to mind was…. “been there, seen that”. But what I was looking for was something new, something which stood out, an “aha moment”!!!!

Alas, I did stumble upon that one thing, that “aha moment”.

While traveling, one thing which repeatedly stood out was the large number of alcohol advertisements along the road. I had seen numerous ads in the city in Nairobi, on the highway to Nakuru and also in Kitale, the town where I am based. The ads were for local beer brands and global varieties, mostly emphasizing a party culture while also warning to “drink responsibly”.

Kenya has one of the highest rates of alcohol consumption in the African continent and is Africa’s third largest beer market. Excessive drinking has become a major problem in the country, leading to a number of social and health problems. In a 2011 report, the Kenyan National Campaign Against Drug Abuse Authority, or NACADA, says alcohol and drug abuse are the major social problems in Kenya, with serious public health ramifications. And, the consumers are starting young. NACADA estimates that half of all alcohol and drug abusers in Kenya are between 10 and 19 years old.

Apart from the regulated varieties of alcohol, there is a cheaper bootlegged variety. This home brew, called chang’aa - literally meaning “kill me quick” - often contains methanol, a toxic, non-drinking type of alcohol that can cause blindness and even death. Drinkers in poverty-stricken rural and slum areas are particularly vulnerable to its effects. 30 people died in September 2011 after consuming poisonous liquor and more deaths occur each year.

With alcohol usually comes smoking but cigarette ads were noticeably absent although international brands have been targeting developing countries after facing excessive regulation in their home markets.

Should alcohol marketing be curbed just as cigarette marketing has been curtailed? Can excessive alcohol consumption be re-framed as a critical health and social issue inviting attention of NGOs and international development organizations?

As we passed by yet another drunk person walking precariously close to the traffic in a state of semi-consciousness, I thought to myself, this guy can easily die if he veers on to the road and is struck by a vehicle.

Can we save these lives and the countless others who depend on them? Can a developing country afford to lose so much of its young population to alcoholism? What efforts are required to tackle this issue?

Everyone is friendly in Kenya, even the mosquitoes!!

One thing which has struck me during my stay in Kenya so far is the friendliness of the people. Everywhere I go, huge smiles greet me. The people are cordial and are always willing to engage.

Although I am glad for the welcoming nature of the people, even the animals are friendly!

The monkeys come to the entrance of my residence, feasting on the mangoes in the trees and expecting food handouts.

Rats have been entering my apartment and helping themselves to bread and tomatoes. Monkeys outside the house, I can handle, but rats inside the house helping themselves to food, no thank you. Some “rat poison” therapy seems to have worked its magic, no more half bitten tomatoes!!

Last but not the least, mosquitoes! Over friendly mosquitoes who insist on entering through the small holes in my mosquito bed net and biting me. Maybe they like my blood! But, this friendliness took its toll on me as I was struck down by malaria and spent 5 days battling the illness. Not my most pleasant experience, am still trying to recover from the ordeal.

Message to Kenyan wildlife - “I like you, but I don’t like you in that way”.

Africa - Initial Impressions

“Abey, tu ne kya National Geographic join kar liya hai kya?!” (“Have you joined National Geographic or something?!”) commented a friend when he got to know I would be going to Kenya. “Of course I have. Why else would anyone go to Africa?”, I told him sarcastically. After all, Africa only has animals, jungles, starving children, deserts and exotic tribes – people and places only someone from National Geographic would be interested in.

Stereotypes, of people, places or cultures, do exist unfortunately, and more so about Africa than any other place. The first stereotype was not the only one though, other “gems” I had to hear were:

“How do you commute to work? On foot, lion or elephant?” There are no cars in Africa and every other animal is a lion or an elephant.

“How’s the jungle?”Of course, all of Africa is a jungle, teeming with exotic wildlife.

“Please take pictures of those poor, naked African kids, you will definitely see them running around”Of course, all kids in Africa are poor, naked and they are always running around.

There is some truth to these stereotypes and generalizations. Almost 69% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa lives on less than $2/day and the continent is home to a large variety of wildlife. But is this all there is to Africa? No, there’s more, much more.

Africa has the potential to be the bread basket of the world, possessing 50 per cent of the world’s uncultivated arable land and a disproportionate amount of its resources. The World Bank expects the region to grow at 5.6% in 2013.

Nigeria, one of the region’s largest economies is set to grow well over 7% over the next few years, while Angola – an emerging African powerhouse is reaping benefits on the back of a natural resources boom - will clock an even more impressive 8% in the next two years.

Investor interest in the region remains strong, with $31 billion in foreign direct investment flows expected this year, despite difficult global conditions.

Of Africa’s 48 countries, 22 states with a combined population of 400 million people have officially achieved middle-income status; while another 10 countries representing another 200 million people today would reach middle-income status by 2025 if current growth trends continue.  

Based on these realities, how important is it to dispel our preconceptions and embrace reality?

19th century European colonizers referred to it as the “Dark continent”, but it definitely has a bright future.