Africa: The Continent of Many Colours

"Motion is created by the destruction of balance." —Leonardo da Vinci

Each time I write a post I'm sharing a distinct section of my travels (even if this section is a little delayed...). Each has a beginning and an end that I can mark and usually find a title to go with it. The places are very different and each shift is like going back to square one, relearning how to adapt to the new set of logistical challenges of this new place. After five months this transition has gotten easier, and before I knew it I had seamlessly slipped into East African culture. The culture here is so radically different though, that I found myself missing the familiarity of home more than usual. Each time this happened I was quick to remind myself of all the snow and winter weather awaiting me back home in Canada. Nah, I'll take Africa thanks!

Landing in Nairobi, my body was still running on adrenaline from the last few days' adventures in Cairo. My first glimpse of the city left me wide-eyed in amazement; the sun was rising, turning the sky pink and illuminating a landscape of savanna-esque grasslands and gnarled, leafless trees, leading into the towering skyscrapers of the city. Hello Kenya! Nairobi, fondly known by locals as "Nai-robbery," is made up of many different neighbourhoods like most large cities. Each has its own reputation and "ethnic flavour," such as the rougher are of Eastleigh, where many ex-Somalis have settled, and many private enterprises are (allegedly) financed by piracy money. This area has great shopping for designer knockoffs among other things if anyone's interested. While I was in the Kenyan capital I had a bit of Canadian nostalgia as I visited Amanda, who has become a friend as well as my boss. It also meant that I got to see much more of the city through local contacts and friends, that I would have otherwise missed out on. There was the added bonus of getting to fuss over little Malaika (Amanda's 3 month old daughter), who is absolutely adorable, even when she decides to let everyone know she's having a bad day.

From Nairobi, it was off to the "outback of Kenya," in Western province. I visited Amanda's development project that she manages between being a new mom and running her own business that stretches across two continents. This was my first taste of village life in Africa, and I loved it! I stayed with two other volunteers for a week, and got to know the school, community and observe the lifestyle in this not-so-travelled area of the country. Here a village really means a collection of houses that share a common road, and maybe market area. Everything is spread out because it's still very agricultural and each house is on a separate plot of land. This part of Kenya is also at the heart of its sugar production, with large plantations employing many villagers to work in the fields. Western province also taught me a lot about the typical Kenyan was of life, which is best described in the Swahili phrase "Pole pole," (Po-lay, po-lay) meaning literally, "slowly, slowly." Everything runs on African time (much slower than its cousins, "Greek time," and "Arabic time"), which means that arriving 2.5h late to a meeting is perfectly acceptable. In development projects, this is where the volunteers come in. The introductions of the words "follow-up," "accountability," and "schedule," into daily vocabulary help set plans in motion that may have been in the works for months. The concept of saving-up towards a long-term goal is also a scarce commodity, so one of the challenges volunteers may face is to ensure that existing projects are profitable over time and money isn't squandered away in the short-term.

At the school, known as Tumaini, there are 135 students who range in age from 3 to 9-10 yrs. and are split between six classes. Everyone's favourite subject is phys. ed. where they can run around and burn off some of their very infectious energy. The second Stacey, Rachel (the other volunteers), and I arrived at the school we were mobbed by the most adorable children I've ever seen. They were all dressed in their blue school uniforms, shouting , "Mzungu! Hello!" (Mzungu = White-person). It only got worse whenever someone pulled out a camera, then of course they all wanted to see their picture... School life is basic compared to the many luxuries we've come to expect here in Canada, but every child truly values their ability to attend school and as a result puts extra effort into their studies. The classes sit together on wooden benches as the teacher instructs from the blackboard. The teacher's position doesn't come equipped with the wide range of materials and resources that Canadian teachers have access to, or even teachers in urban areas of Kenya, so these teachers have learned to become much more creative in their lessons so the children still learn the curriculum. By the end of the day I had enjoyed my fill of adorable, shouting kids, and I could see that the other volunteers loved it just as much as I did.

Western province also introduced me to the adventure of African public transport. I added a few new words to my vocabulary through many fun and fearful rides throughout the countryside. Here's a page from my travel dictionary:

Matatu: (ma-ta-too) A 14-passenger mini-bus that often gets crammed with up to 24 people and if you're lucky a few farm animals to make the ride interesting. Wooden planks are put between the seats to make more space, but people still hang out the door for short distances, or just pile on top of one another if it's a longer journey. Roofs are piled with any baggage that doesn't fit inside the vehicle (in a cartoon-like heap tied down with ropes), and the ceilings are usually padded to avoid possible concussions from the massive potholes and surprise off-road experiences. Matatus are apparently not subject to the rules of the road, and drive wherever they please to avoid the potholes (large enough to swallow a small car), oncoming traffic, and weaving motorbikes, this often means not on the road at all.

Piki Piki: (pee-kee pee-kee) Motorbike taxis that will go anywhere that matatus won't. They navigate mini-ravines and forest trails to deliver passengers to their destinations. Generally the drivers take pity on foreigners and go a little slower than usual, but once in a while I got a crazy driver to sped along at about 50kph, over bumps that sent me airborne off the seat many times. This is when the "holy shit handle" comes in handy for white knuckle rides. Drivers usually don't wear helmets, or provide them for their passengers (except in Rwanda). In Uganda they are called boda bodas and in Rwanda motos.

Kenyan cuisine was also something I got to try in Western. At the volunteer house we ate more traditional things, like ugali (oo-gal-ee), the local staple made of maize flour cooked with water into a mashed-potato type paste. We also had maize and kidney beans (so heavy!), matoke (ma-toe-kee) and green grumbs, which is boiled, mashed, green bananas and lentil sauce, which was all punctuated by copious amounts of "tea," the code-word for any hot beverage, and fresh mangoes. Yummm!

I knew I had to leave Western if I wanted to see other parts of East Africa, so it was off to Kampala, the Ugandan capital. Kampala is a big, crowded, and polluted city in the heart of southern Uganda, not far from the shores of Lake Victoria. The traffic has a reputation for clogging the cities roads for hours at a time and winding its way up and down the city's seven hills. I arrived at night and got a bit of a shock: the streets were dark and eerily lit by occasional ditch fires and roadside shops, because there were no streetlights. A harrowing piki piki ride later I was relaxing in a little slice of paradise surrounded by tropical gardens and great company at the hostel Amanda had recommended. First impressions of Kampala: it's HOT! Situated less than 100km north of the equator, even a leisurely stroll in the city was strenuous. I had never been this hot in my life!

The highlight of my time in Uganda wasn't actually in the capital, but a smaller city closer to the Kenyan border where I went bungee jumping over the Nile river. It was a spontaneous day-trip, and together with a friend from the hostel, we took the plunge, jumping from a 44m high platform above the river. There were many moments where I wondered what I had gotten myself into this time, but I had paid my money so I wasn't about to let it go to waste. The scenarios of: "3-2-1-Bung-" "No! Wait!" happened a few times, then I finally just closed my eyes and bye-bye platform, I was flying through the air with the river rushing towards my head. After my first bounce I realized that my arms were wet and the only conclusion was that I had not only touched the water, but gone elbow-deep in it! Several bounces later, and a lot of screaming, I was being safely lowered into a waiting raft, and all I could think was, "I want to do that again!"

Heading into Rwanda the next day was an adventure of another kind. At the border crossing I was politely informed that I didn't have the necessary visa, as the requirements for Canadians had changed last November. Oh. Now I needed to pre-arrange a visa for my stay, which would mean going back to Kampala and waiting for my application to be processed. A lot of pleading and reasoning later the border guard decided to take pity on me, and let me buy my visa at the border. (Travel rule: always carry cash when crossing borders, because you never know what could happen...) Once in Kigali, the capital, I encountered more challenges. I had changed about $5 worth on the border, and I couldn't get Rwandese Francs in Uganda, so I was expecting to just take some cash out of an ATM to avoid a bad exchange rate. Surprise! not a single bank in the country will accept Mastercard or Maestro cards, only international Visa cards are accepted. Oh. The only way I could get cash was to take an advance on my credit card, which could only be done during business hours at a single bank, and it was already closed for the night. Not the best situation, but not impossible, just another travel lesson learned, and re-learned: do your homework!

After these initial mishaps. Rwanda got a lot better, with good food, clean streets, and European-style organization. This was a big shock for me to find in the heart of Africa. It was the beginning of the rainy season in Rwanda, so I grew accustomed to daily downpours and sporadic electricity. I paid a visit to the genocide memorial centre in the capital and learned a lot about a part of this country's history that I'm just a little too young to remember. The centre is beautifully designed and made a fitting memorial to those who were buried in the centre's gardens.

The prospect of travelling across the width of Tanzania to get back to Kenya had lost its appeal to me, so I opted for an impromptu 25h bus ride back into central Kenya. Two border crossings later I was in Kenya and headed for Lake Naivasha to do some, "safari stuff." There, I went to bed every night listening to the hippos grunting from my lakeside cabin. I cycled through Hell's Gate National Park on my kind of safari, where I saw zebras, antelope, gazelles, baboons, warthogs and even a couple of giraffes. I didn't see any elephants, lions or cheetahs, but maybe that was for better, since there was nothing between the wild and me. By the end of the day I was thoroughly exhausted, but happy and my camera was full of great pictures.

Next it was out to the Kenyan coast, and after another overnight bus I found myself sitting on the beach, looking out over the Indian Ocean. I enjoyed some time relaxing by the ocean with a group of British volunteers who were working with street kids in the nearby city of Mombassa. The seafood was delicious and my favourite were the whole fish seasoned and thrown on the grill. Seaside nightlife was a blast as we went for a night out, Kenyan style! If I could describe the atmosphere of the bar in one word it would be "raunchy," but as the only mzungus in sight we stuck together to laugh at the comedy act going on around us, and help eachother up and down the stairs made of sticks.

My last stop in Kenya was further up the coast to a small city called Malindi. I thought Kampala was hot, but Malindi was hotter! It was very humid here, making the heat more intense. I bought a chocolate bar (that the store kept in a refrigerator) and it had melted after an hour. Wandering around I practised my bargaining skills in the markets and wandered along the beach. The beach wasn't the typical pristine white sands with palm trees blowing in the wind. It had all of these things, but with a twist: the sand was covered in pieces of old driftwood and torn fishing nets from the many boats lining the coastline. It had a more rustic than tropical feel, it was a nice change from typical tourist spots. While I was there I took a day trip a few kilometers out of the city to the site of some old Islamic ruins. The Gede ruins are of an abandoned town, complete with many houses, mosques, and even a royal palace. What's left are a collection of half-walls and columns in the middle of the forest, and surrounded by massive trees. It was cool to be walking on an around all of these ruins, with no one fences or barriers, far more relaxed than anything you'd find in Canada or Europe.

Finally it was back to Nairobi. It was a bttersweet return, while it was great to be someplace familiar (yes, I would consider Nairobi familiar after a few visits), I knew that I was coming back to leave for something totally different in Sierra Leone. Travelling, backpacking, and staying in hostels has become so easy. This had been my life for the last, almost six months. Getting to a new city, figuring out how to get to the hostel/hotel and just taking it from there. I never knew who I would meet, or how each day would turn out, it was always a surprise. Navigating guidebook-sized maps and finding new ways to see the touristy things have now become regular occurrences. So has laughing over language barriers, sometimes even in English! Meeting new friends all the time who are doing the same thing, or something even more outlandish than I had planned for myself, was such a high point. I could never consider this work, at least not in the mundane, obligatory sense. It wasn't always easy, and more often than not, exhausting, but I wouldn't do it if I didn't love it, even the hard parts. It was so strange to think that this East African part of my adventures was also marking the end of travelling as I knew it up to this point. A lot of things were about to change, whether I was ready or not.


I have posted photos for this entry, but I put them up a while ago, so chances are if you're following my adventures you've already seen them. Here's the link just in case you missed them:


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