Thursday, July 14, 2011

Big Love, Nyanza Style

The HIV prevalence in Nyanza Province (where I am currently staying) is the highest in the country, with rates of up to 40% in some areas. My awareness of this disturbing fact comes from knowledgeable friends working locally in the field of public health as well as the high visibility of NGOs and VCT (voluntary counseling and testing) clinics in the area. More recently, I’ve observed the consequences of the AIDS epidemic on a more personal scale. In almost every village we visit I have met large numbers of widows and orphans. I realize that AIDS is not the only explanation for their presence but it seems likely to be an important contributor.

One particularly striking consequence of the AIDS epidemic in this region is its impact on polygamous households. I have now encountered a number of households headed by multiple “co-wives” whose husbands died years ago. The other day I visited a homestead where 11 co-wives were still living together, 28 years after their husband had died. The late patriarch had been a District Officer; his grave (with birth and death dates marked as “Sunrise” and “Sunset”) dominated the impressive homestead/ I asked a colleague how these women supported themselves and he explained that they probably had grown children who helped them out. Today we met six co-wives who were widowed four years ago. The three senior wives had each brought a relative to the family; their younger wives were either cousins or sisters. The co-wives casually motioned to an old photograph of their late husband, explained that they live in harmony and have no desire to remarry.

The decision to remarry is not always a choice, however, as I learned today. In villages where wife inheritance is still practiced, a woman of childbearing age (under 40) must be “inherited” if her husband passes away. Traditionally the late husband’s brother was the inheritor but more recently inheritance has been open to other men. My colleague explained that wife inheritance is becoming less common as people’s awareness about HIV has grown, but it has not gone away entirely. And there are consequences associated with forgoing this tradition. For instance, today we met a young couple living in rented housing, which is extremely uncommon in this area. We learned that the husband’s mother had been widowed, and refused to be inherited though she was still of inheritable age. As a result, the young man had not been allowed to build a home on his family’s plot, since the necessary rites could not be carried out before his mother consented to remarry.

After explaining these traditions in detail my colleague asked if there were similar practices in the U.S. I decided against attempting to tell him what little I know about Mormonism or the plot of the most recent (read: only) Big Love episode that I have seen and simply answered, “not really.”

Monday, July 11, 2011

You can take the girl out of L.A., but...

I am now happily settled in Migori after one last visit to the Lasjona Hotel to pick up a few things I had left there. Good riddance! I am now staying at the home of the cousin of a friend of one of our interviewers, and in addition to being about half the price it is MUCH nicer to be staying in a place with a full kitchen and a functioning toilet.

But anyway, before I get too excited about my new digs in Migori, I figure I should devote some space to writing about the last week, which I spent in Nairobi. Though I spent the majority of my time there supervising data entry, I did have a few days to explore, and found myself really liking the city. It has a much more modern, cosmopolitan feel than Dar, and I could see myself living there for a while. The “Nairobbery” moniker strikes me as inappropriate; indeed an op-ed piece in one of the local papers recently defended the city, asking whether any Kenyan has ever called it by this nickname. Perhaps it would better be interpreted as a reference to the prices, which were the main reason I was happy to curtail my stay there. My only other complaint was the weather: Nairobi in July is cold!! At least, colder than my good-for-Africa wardrobe had prepared me for.

Anyway, after spending my first 5 days in Nairobi in a quiet guesthouse close to the Uwezo office, I decided to shift to a place called Wildebeest, which had come highly recommended, particularly as a good place to meet interesting fellow travelers. Wildebeest is a tented safari camp in the heart of the city – a bit silly, perhaps, but the wazungu love it. On my first night there I got in pretty late and spent a restless night shivering in my tent, kept awake by the cacophony of the nearby disco. I was seriously regretting my choice to shift from the pleasant guesthouse, and planned on leaving as soon as I woke up even if it meant forfeiting my deposit. But then at the communal breakfast table, I struck up a conversation with the woman next to me, after overhearing that she was a fellow PhD student in Political Science (at Harvard, no less). We nerded out for a while about our respective research this summer, and then when she mentioned going running later I asked if I could tag along. On our run she asked me how I like living in L.A.. I told her that I was enjoying it much more than I had anticipated and feel like being there for grad school is kind of the perfect situation since you can take advantage of the good (weather, beach proximity, people-watching) and avoid the bad (freeway traffic, vapid industry people) though the Hollywood scene can be fun to check out once in a while. At this she responded, “Or you can take in the Hollywood scene here.” When I looked bewildered she explained that one of our fellow guests at the breakfast table was a fairly well-known child actor, having recently appeared as the kid in Date Night and starred in Bedtime Stories with Adam Sandler. At dinner that night I learned that his father (who was accompanying him) had worked for a number of years supervising films for Disney. This “supervision” appeared to mainly consist of managing famous animals – whether organizing airplane transport of the elephant in Operation Dumbo Drop, or corralling 150 dalmations in Paris (apparently they needed a few extra). At the mention of 101 Dalmations, an older British guest piped up, “Oh, so you know my friend Glenn Close.” This guy explained that Glenn was “lovely” though did not exactly explain how he had come to meet her. He did, however, share a colorful story about drinking tea in a Masai village: Having been invited into the chief’s home while on a safari, and asked what he would like to drink. When he requested tea, he was made to wait while someone cycled 20 km to the neighboring village in order get him a teabag (there being none available in the village he was in). This unfortunate courier got stuck in a massive downpour but returned triumphantly with the teabag, which the chief then proudly brewed for my British friend with cow’s milk and fresh blood!

In the end I decided I could handle another slightly chilly night at Wildebeest, given the interesting company. And after chatting with them over two generous glasses of wine I hardly noticed the cold.

Friday, July 1, 2011


Tonight is my last night at the Lasjona Hotel and if I shed any tears over the matter, they will be tears of joy. The other night my fellow Rongo-based field coordinator asked where I thought we should have dinner and I replied, “well, Richard, my philosophy is A.B.L…. Anywhere. But. Lasjona.” He said this was a philosophy he could get behind.

It’s not that I expect four-star accommodations while working as a research assistant in rural Kenya. Rather, what’s annoying about the Lasjona is that it advertises itself as being semi-luxurious and is priced to match, and then fails to deliver in terms of the most basic amenities. As in, my toilet has been broken for the past week (albeit in a variety of new and intriguing ways each time someone tries to “fix” it). And on a number of days the hotel has lacked water – either for bathing or drinking. I would happily trade the mirrors and speakers embedded in my headboard for either of these more basic comforts.

Anyway, I am off to Nairobi tomorrow morning and am looking forward to a week of city life. I will be working at the Uwezo head office but should also have some time to explore. My goals include eating delicious, non-ugali-based meals (not that an ugali-based meal can’t be delicious, but I am craving a little variety), getting a pedicure and checking out some live music.

When I return I’m actually thinking of moving my home base to a different town. I’ve been thinking that it’s not just the Lasjona but Rongo itself that’s bringing me down. I was debating this with one of our interviewers, suggesting that maybe I just need to give Rongo a chance, and he responded, “No. Rongo is dead.” So I’m thinking I may move to Migori, a slightly bigger town about 40 km away, toward the Tanzanian border. I celebrated my birthday there yesterday and had a great time. Not only do a few friends and acquaintances stay there, it just seems to have a bit more going on than Rongo, and a variety of cheaper, seemingly nicer options for accommodation, all of which meet my primary qualification of being A.B.L. Plus there’s a disco and a Barclays Bank!