14 June 2006


So apparently the word safari in swahili means adventure.

We had an adventure.

Imagine the Mara...endless grasslands of the Great Rift Valley...the next ecosystem down from the Serengeti...land of zebras and elephants and giraffes and impalas and warthogs and, oh yeah, lions.
Now, imagine late afternoon. The prime time for a safari drive. When all the animals come out...
Now imagine a dirt road through the national preserve, a small van amidst the grasslands...
Now imagine the driver of the van turning around and asking a passenger "do you know what this light means?"
That passenger didn't know. But I did. "It's the check engine light," I said.

Imagine an engine overheating. Imagine the radiator hissing. Imagine the two passengers nearest the engine (an engine which resides under the front passenger seat) getting blasted by the scalding heat of the steam as the radiator cap is loosed and leaping from the van out onto the dirt road that runs through the grasslands and it is late afternoon when all the animals come out.

Imagine these two passengers staring off into the grass looking for rustling as the driver and the passenger who happened to have formerly been captain of a fishing boat in Alaska try to fix the engine. Imagine the seven passengers digging through their backpacks to find out whatever bottles of water they have so the driver can empty them into the radiator.

Imagine a van limping along the road at 15 km/hour for about 7 minutes until the engine overheats.

Scenario repeats.

Four times over.

Passing vans are stopped and asked for donations of water.

Eventually we reach the river and fill up all the empty bottles. A long slow drive to the hotel begins, but now we are to the point where the hotel knows we are on the way.

A full moon is rising over the distant escarpment. Dusk is falling.

Now imagine a flat tire.

Imagine all the passengers out on the dirt road that runs through the grasslands and it is late afternoon when all the animals come out. Actually, by now it is evening. Dusk about to turn into night. All together now, pull the luggage from the back, pull out a spare, all hands lift up the side of the van so the jack can be positioned, tire changed in haste, luggage thrown back in the van as passengers still eye the grass for telltale rustling as dusk deepens.

I will say that the next morning when we were able to do the game drive we saw a staggering number of animals, including lions (and lionesses, later in the afternoon), elephants, hippos, giraffes, and pretty much everything else in the park. And yes, I am taking pictures and will post indiscriminently when I return.

Safari adventure. I recommend it.

10 June 2006

Name that tune

At breakfast with some of the folks from Kenya and DRC the second morning, our conversation about politics was interrupted when the guitarists from the evening before walked by the dining room and talk turned to music and singing. Most of the conversation was in Swahili, so I asked for some clarification.
“Congolese sing very well. Perhaps he will sing for you if you ask,” a Kenyan says of our DRC colleague. And then looks at me.
“I am a terrible singer. I can’t sing to save my life,” I say. [ those of you who know me know who dreadfully true that is]
And at that point we return to our conversation about a man who used to be a minister in the government.
“Why is he no longer minister?” I ask.
“Well, when you are minister, you must know how to sing. To sing the tune of the government,” one of my companions says.
And then another adds, “Like you, he could not sing to save his life.”

What do you use Flickr for?

I made my presentation the first day of the workshop. Since we had gotten a late start, everything was time compressed, so I had about 10 minutes. Basically, I talked about involving community members in data collection and dissemination efforts (leverage those social networks!) and a variety of technologies that could be used in disaster relief and humanitarian aid efforts. I ran through a bunch of Web 2.0 technologies and mobile phone services that might be useful given the range of projects people in the room were working on, including using Flickr as a way of helping affected populations reunite with family members or identify injured…etc. When you’ve got populations spread out over large areas, children who are separated from their families and difficult to identify, it seems like this might be a viable way to leverage community input to track down family members and others.

Sleeping quarters

Our hotel is quite posh, and the rooms are in two and three-story stacks perched along the escarpment of the Great Rift Valley, up above Lake Naivasha. An amazing view, and turndown service includes loosening the cascades of white mosquito netting canopied around the bed. Very romantic. And reassuring since I didn’t pack my deet.

The first evening, walking back to my room with Christine, the woman who happened to be next door, we picked our way carefully down the steps leading to our entrances. Up the path the other way we saw an askari (guard) standing silently in silhouette, his radio squawking. A large dog was in the shadows next to him, just as still and silent. Christine and I made note together, a fully approving note. Remoteness can be both security and vulnerability.

I woke us this morning to the sun rising over the Great Rift Valley. Nice. But as I pulled open my curtains my attention was grabbed by two small yet clearly well-fed kitties on my porch. About Vanessa size (for those who knew her), but much more robust. I wondered what had drawn them there, and was mostly hoping they had chowed down on whatever it was.

The Great Rift Valley

We made the drive from Nairobi to Lake Naivasha, and the road out of town took us variously through posh upper end neighborhoods and then slums, then back to posh, and etc. etc.

Not far into the drive we got a great view of Mt. Longmont, a former volcano, which quickly opened into a remarkably breathtaking view of the Great Rift Valley. It’s improbable, the feeling of being here. I got the same feeling I had when driving from Almaty to Bishkek and watching the sun set over the steppes – being thrown unexpectedly into massively significant geography that I pretty much had no idea existed until just then.

I think my favorite thing we saw – other than the group of baboons that crossed the road in front of us, halting our minibus for a few moments, was the yellow fever acacia tree. It’s an acacia (favored snack of giraffes) with a yellow-green bark that is almost florescent. The name, I’m told, comes from the British settlers who first though malaria was caused by those trees. The trees do, however, grow near water…

We were warned the last stretch of road was bad, but after Cambodia, it was like superhighway all the way.

07 June 2006

Do I look like the kind of woman who would walk the check?

Just checked out of our nairobi hotel, about to pile into minibuses for the trek to Lake Naivasha. Only to be told that the guy flying in from Sudan was delayed. So now a crowd out front is debating whether we wait the hour for him to get through the traffic from the airport.

Meanwhile, the routine for checking out of the hotel went something like this. Long wait in line at cashier. Pay bill with visa. Get slip with room number. Show slip to guard at door before being able to leave hotel. It was sort of like checking out at Costco.

Games kids play

So when Ouko and I were doing our circuit of Nairobi internet cafes, I mentioned that I also was curiosu about game arcades that might attract kids. This would be part of my work that looks at games as the technological entry point for kids. So after a few visits to cybers, we headed toward an arcade that he remembered from his childhood. It took a while to find it, and it was in one of the buildings off a main street. We walked down three dingy flights of stairs well underground and stepped into the 1970s. No xboxes or nintendo here; this was space invaders and pacman and pinball galore. Arcade games that had been there over 25 years, with the scuffs and grime to vouch for their age. About five men in their 20s or 30s hanging around the pool table, and a sign on the door saying absolutely no children would be allowed in without their parents consent.

I was told the place would be full of kids once school let out. Without parental consent.

That infamous traffic!

I think Nairobi is supposed to have dreadful traffic. I haven't seen it yet, but I've heard people complaining. I still think the worst I've experienced, though, is the "leave three hours to get to the airport" in Bangkok.

So last night we headed out to dinner, a bunch of folks from the workshop piled into a couple cabs. Me and my colleague Mark, a prof from USC and his wife, a public health professor from Kinshasa, and a woman in the aid community in Zambia. And Ouko joined us later. It was 7ish, and rush hour was full upon us. So was darkness. (One thing about being basically on top of the equator; the days are pretty darn short when compared to summertime in Seattle.) The cab took a detour off the main road to avoid traffic, a quick right turn across incoming traffic (left side of the road drive in Kenya), up what looked like a residential road that climbed a hill. And there were two men with guns (as Mark noted, very large guns, looked like machine guns) waving the car over, and there were spikes in the road. Traffic police, I assumed. The cab driver started to pull over then thought better of it, maybe not wanting to risk a possible "fee" request. So then he pulled back into the road and accelerated. The man with the machine gun ran after him, yelling something. The cab driver laughed and yelled back, waving his arm. The police officer was impressively persistent, reaching into the car through the open window to grab the driver as he manuevered the car back on the road. The cabbie shook him off and drove, still laughing. The debrief Mark got in response to his questions was somewhat unsatisfying. Were they really police or not, he wanted to know. Consensus is that they were, and that they were there to help catch carjackers (common in Nairobi), but that they might have been looking for a salary supplement as well.

At dinner, still curious, I asked the public health professor what the conversation consisted of during those few moments. Apparently the police officer was telling the driver to stop or he would shoot. The driver was laughing and saying go ahead then, and shoot.


(a long post, accumulation of a couple days)
I was in Bangkok a few weeks ago, and I got to meet up with my friend Ivan. When I told him I was headed to Kenya, he clued me in on the nickname for the capitol. So I dutifully packed one of those under-the-clothes money belts and suited up during my stopover in Amsterdam. (mid-journey routine: wash face, have double cafe creme, find wifi, take malaria meds, pick up miscellaneous tech gadgets at Schipol duty free). It turns out that the fashion thing about low fitting jeans doesn't work out so well when you've got a money belt strapped around your waist. Think of the Monica thong issue and you'll get the picture.

It was an easy trip overall -- empty seats next to me on both planes (hallelujah!), and a really smooth visa-on-arrival and ride actually waiting at the airport. A really nice woman named Elizabeth and a guy whose name I never learned drove me into town, and I got some quick Swahili lessons -- all of which I'm sure my jetlagged brain will forget overnight. As we rode into town I saw stars in the sky. I don't know why I was so startled by that (too much travel to megalopolises maybe). Nairobi is high up, about 5000 feet, and the air is cool. I had dinner outside, some local beer, and read some of Jeff Sachs' book. There's wifi in a relatively grim hotel room, so I'm not sure whether or not to complain. I may have to post a pic of the bathroom, though.

Oh, why am I here? Primarily to attend a workshop on ICTs and humanitarian relief. With a side visit to a place called Sauri.

Today I spent sometime in downtown Nairobi with Ouko, a former MIT colleague of my friend Mike's. I wanted to get a blitz introduction to public ICT usage in Nairobi, so we visited a bunch of Internet cafes. I learned a new noun: “cybers” they are called here. We started at a highbrow center in the basement of a banking high rise catering to businesspeople – well, they used to get a lot of students, but when they started blocking P2P sites, the students evaporated. Then we went to a place a few blocks away in another highrise, walking up four floors, past the soaring chorus of lunchtime religious celebrants, to a crowded, cluttered place full of loiterers, emailers, and people in pursuit of online dating. In the hallway of the building outside was a guy who’d started a VoIP calling business, and we chatted a bit about his clients and business model, and the varying costs of calling different countries. Canada is the cheapest, he said, at about 2 shillings per minute. I asked which country was the most expensive, and was told it was Somalia, a country that actually shares a border with Kenya. It’s about 65 shillings per minute to call the country next door.

04 June 2006

it begins...

My friend David has been pestering me to start a blog for, well...a long time. I've finally succumbed. I'm still not entirely sure about this, but since yet another person chimed in last night that I really really need to have a blog, I'm willing to give it a try if only to stop the helpful advice.

I'm leaving for Kenya tomorrow, stuck in my office late tonight finishing up grades for the end of the quarter and various and sundry tasks associated with my research in Central Asia (see depts.washington.edu/caict for a really out-of-date website thin on details, but check back end of June for some real stuff).

Basically, travel is a huge chunk of what I do these days. I've got my routine pretty well down, and good stocks of zithro and hand sanitizer. But I took a break from grading yesterday to go out and make some last minute trip purchases, including some anti-malarial pills. I had a bunch left over from Cambodia last summer, but needed a few more for this trip. So I went to a pharmacy near my office and was about to hand over the scrip, when it occured to me to ask a question. Those of you who aren't in Washington state might not know this, but we're one of the states that lets pharmacists dispense Plan B (aka the morning after pill) without a doctor's prescription. But the ready availability of Plan B is increasingly under fire. So I asked the pharmacist if they dispensed Plan B. He said no, but dodged the question with some ramble about doctor's profile that I couldn't understand. So I stared at him a moment and then gently removed my malarone prescription from his hand. "I'll get this filled somewhere else," I said. And when I found a pharmacy where they said yes, they did dispense Plan B (and did I need some), I said no, I didn't need it, but I didn't want to give my business to someone who was reneging on their professional duty to provide health services.