Living at Mombasa Pace

We have been in Mombasa, Kenya for almost a week now.  There is much to say but I’ll intersperse with pictures to keep you interested (or do you all just look at the pictures?). Topics to cover:  our house; the city; the work.

Here are some pictures of our sparse but cozy living quarters:

Cute little matresses on the floor (now complete with mosquito net!).

The dining room (the living room is just behind with one comfy chair)

Kitchen.  We can’t drink the water, brush our teeth with it or wash fruits and veggies so we lots of jugs.

Hi-C cooking at our propane tank by lantern light (not that you can tell it is dark; thanks flash)

We have pet geckos frequenting our rooms and ants will infiltrate anything within minutes.  Poor Hi-C has managed to be bitten by some bug or another routinely.  The house itself is situated on an amazing compound run by the Association for the Physically Disabled of Kenya (APDK).  For the first two days we were here we were so busy we didn’t tour and had no idea about everything going on around us.  There are multiple workshops on-site where people with disabilities are employed to make crafts; there is a leather workshop, jewelry, textiles and a shop for creating Kenya-friendly wheelchairs.  A daycare behind the house provides care for children with cerebral palsy.  Even more surprising is the restaurant with rural Kenyan theme-park – recreations of traditional huts from all over eastern Africa and actors playing traditional music or welcoming visitors into their “homes”. 

These big dudes are EVERYWHERE!

I was pretty excited to find an extra-large one. 

Hi-C was a little less excited.

We didn’t even realize what a hub we were in until last night when we stumbled upon a performance of a traditional African dance on the compound only to discover that it was hosted for delegates from all over the world that are here to attend the World Fair Trade Organization summit.  They will all be displaying their wares here tomorrow – uh oh!

I have a little extra cash for fair trade stuff since we can make dinner for under $1.50 for three people using fresh veggies, spices and chapatis or rice.  A delicious, juicy fresh mango is 15 cents!  15 cents!  I’ll say it again – 15 cents!

Swahili update:  I still can’t say much.  But I did finally figure out why everyone looked so confused when I would introduce myself:  my name is one tense vowel away from the word “sit!” in their language.  I’ve started calling myself just “Kate” and it seems to go over just fine.

And now to attempt to explain the city.  I wish that i had more photos but I hate how voyeuristic it feels to whip out my camera in the street here (nevermind the fact that I have a a digital camera when most people live on less than a dollar a day).  The city itself (called ‘town’) is on an island but, like the GTA, it splays outward almost indefinitely.  Surrounding town is a series of “suburbs” which, also like in the GTA, all look very much the same.  The difference being that outside of town there are few stable, permanent structures.  Along the main road where matatus, pikipikis (motorcycles) and tuktuks often jostle past eachother in threes on a two lane highway the sides of the roads are lined in dirt.  This dirt becomes mud when it rains (which tends to happen in rainy season).  After rain the large divots along the road become ponds filled with opaque grey water (I won’t speculate about its contents).  Most businesses are clapboard huts with tin roofs or, like the restaurant we frequent nearby, a frame made of thin tree poles with black plastic walls.  The general layout is veggie shop, veggies shop, fabric, tailor, veggie shop, corner store (ie. pop, cellphone minutes, etc), veggies shop, furniture maker x5.  All of the shops seem to hawk the same wares – especially produce places that consistently offer bananas, tomatoes, mangoes, onions, leafy greens and occasionally cilantro, eggplant, oranges, garlic and papaya.  At the restaurant I mentioned you can get a hot meal of ugali (corn meal mush bread) and beans or cabbage plus a chai (the word for all tea here) for about 50 cents.  Honestly, almost the entire expanse of suburbia beyond the downtown is what I would have initially guessed to be a ‘slum’ and I’m still not sure if it differs much from the major Nairobi slum Kibera (which we will be visiting later in the placement to do some work at a school there).  To call it is slum is not an attempt to degrade it but to qualify in a fairly north american term what this feels like.  The problem with the word slum is that is automatically connotes suffering, hopelessness (helplessness?), and despair.  I don’t feel any of these things walking through the main areas – I have seen fewer people overtly begging for money than on the streets of Toronto – people work hard and live on little but many own their own businesses, support their families and are extremely welcoming. 

The other side of the shilling is that many people do see white skin and assume money.  Children will ask if you have any treats, some people out right ask for money or possessions (give me your shoes) – even people who hold permanent jobs.  Just as we have no real concept of what it is like here until you come (and even now, do I really know?) most do not really know what our lives are like in Canada.  For example, I joined a Kenyan employee of IPDK (who functions something like a community outreach/social worker) out in the field.  I relayed a story that while waiting for her a pikipiki driver had asked my name and then proceeded to tell me that he loved me.  We had a good laugh over this and I felt like we were understanding each other.  That is, until later in the matatu ride when she asked if I was engaged and, discovering that I was not, offered me here brother for marriage.  I can only assume he was in his early 40s based on her age.  I politely declined and laughed a bit, thinking that was that.  No.  About an hour later she turned to me in a quiet moment “So, it is agreed, you marry my brother?”.  I guess I have a way to stay in Kenya if I really want….

The field work itself was interesting and eye-opening.  It challenges my faith in my own usefulness because what the children with disabilities here need is often just parents to talk to them, to get down to their level, to use gestures or pictures to communicate but, with so many other children to care for and mouths to feed it is a constant feeling that even these suggestions are quickly forgotten as you walk out the door.  I’m not sure I can blame them.  I do not know what it is like to be a single monther of four young children living in a one room cement box with a bed, (maybe) a chair, a corner for the coals and small pot and a few possessions.  This was a common scene during field work meaning these mothers also had at least one child with a fairly severe physical and/or intellectual disabilities.

The streets here definitely make those in Toronto feel so dull and boring.

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