Wednesday, May 31, 2006


As many of you may know Kenya’s capital has come to be known by this relatively unflattering nickname (and its not because there has been a sudden in-migration of dudes named Rob). This was definitely one of things I heard about the most as I prepared to come here, “Oh watch out, you’re going to get mugged” or “Dude, its rough there, there are kids with syringes… they’ll mess you up”. Frankly, this hasn’t been really substantiated by my experiences so far . I mean maybe part of this is that I’ve been dealing with the Shakespeare Lady and kids on bikes for the last six years, and so I’ve learned some common sense about living in a city with respect to watching my pockets and bags and generally being vigilant. And to be fair, I’ve also taken extra precautions to be in my hotel by nightfall.

That’s not to say that I haven’t been “mugged” in far more insidious ways, specifically by con-men and other people with various long, sad stories. Again, I came prepared for grifters to a certain extent; hardly a month passes in New Haven when I don’t hear a version of “My car needs a new oil filter and I just need X dollars. Give me your address and I’ll pay you back”. In fact, I even encountered a version of that one here, and when I did, I had no problem dealing with it. Yet there seems to be a trend in grifiting in Nairobi that seems particularly well suited to the kind of mark that I represent (White American College Student). On three separate occasions I’ve been approached by men who have introduced themselves to me as students, following small variations on this script: “What is it like in your country to be a student? I was going to go there soon to the university of to study . But I tell you, do you know ; that is where I am from, and I have had to flee. You see, we are staying with a church organization here, but I have no visa here and I must leave within a day; we are have been offered a safe place to stay in , but to get there we need for .” On first blush, this kind of story is very plausible (and I’m sure that at least one of the three that I encountered was being at least partially honest), but the tough thing about it (and the thing that makes it kind of suspect) is that it starts as a conversation, and then morphs into a request for money once you’ve gotten in too deep to extract yourself, which leaves you feeling kind of misled.

In some ways, I’ve had the opposite kind of interaction with the various taxi drivers/ safari operators stationed all around the city. The strategy for these fellows typically is to yell “TAXI, TAXI, TAXI” or “SAFARI, MASAAI MARA, SAFARI” at every white person that walks by. Sure, I’m certain some of these guys are simply not to be trusted, but by and large these guys make their money from their reputation, and they’re competing with each other. And in addition, they don’t start conversations under false pretenses, but rather put their wares right out there. Maybe this is overly simplistic, but it seems like a rule of thumb to follow is that the less someone tells you what they’re selling up front, the less likely you’re going to want to be to buy it. Moreover, a number of these guys continued to want to talk to me, even after I convinced them that I’m not going on a safari any time soon (and indeed some of the field locations I’m going to visit could very well make such a trip kind of irrelevant). Thus, some of the more interesting conversations I’ve had while here have come from “Safari?” “No, I’m not a tourist?” “You’re not? Well then why are you here…”

An Actual Real Post?

An actual real post?
Hardly. So although this whole adventure began just over one week ago, I’ve yet to really post that frequently promised “real substantive” Kenya post just yet; you know the one where talk about all of the crazy experiences I’ve had and food I’ve eaten and people I’ve met, with long laundry lists of “and then I went with my new friend_________ to______ And it was SO _______. OMG this is such a totally __________ experience.”
So if you’ve been reading thus far, its not going to be a huge shock to learn that I don’t have a really strong interest in writing that kind of blog; no, no, my interests are far more pretentious than that; I want to craft cleverly worded observations that cut to some deep, eternal truth about the world around me (in 500 words or less). Okay, maybe that’s not quite it either, but I do see a few different aims of this blog.
1) Posting semi-regularly just so that family/friends/others who might care know that I’ve survived another _____days
2) Forcing me to actually think about and reflect on what I’m experiencing here and trying to coalesce it into some kind of coherent idea; that is to understand through writing.
3) Try to connect what I’ve learned in the last three years of studying academic political science to the “real world”; that is to try to connect the world of theory (which is definitely my comfort zone) to the world of “doing” (see what Luc has to say about why attempting this is both important and difficult)
4) Practicing writing in a clear, easy to follow way (READ: picking up on journalistic skills that I have missed by quitting the Yale Daily News after the first semester of my Freshman year).
5) Putting some kind of travel information for Kenya/Nairobi out there on the web. I found that good information on travel resources here was a little tough to come by, so I’ll try to make this a repository of hotel/hostels/guesthouses/restaurants/safari companies, both good and bad that is somewhere in scope between disjointed messageboard posts (which rarely have any kind of comparative perspective) and guidebooks of the lonely planet/rough guide variety, which are so voluminous that it is hard to make a decision just by looking them.

That said, I’ve found it hard to really sit down and write those kind of posts thus far. Its not that I haven’t been having experiences; but rather the exact opposite; I’ve taken so much in that at the end of each day I’ve been too overwhelmed to really make sense of all that I saw in that day. What makes this tougher is that its not that I’ve really DONE anything extraordinary yet; for the last week I’ve been figuring out how to LIVE here, and thus have been doing relatively un-glamourous things such as looking for housing, figuring out public transportation, and buying food; topics that are both too trivially inane to write about and at the same time still too much for me to totally comprehend and describe adequately. However, I’m going to have to start somewhere (I only have so many more posts in me like the RAZR or the malaria that I had been thinking about before I came here, and thus which made me react only minimally to my environment before launching into rants I’ve ranted before), so I’m going to try to put down a few paragraph-length observations over the next day or so, hopefully to be expounded upon later.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

You have Died of Dysentary

As I write this, I am sitting on a small bed in the Parkside hotel in downtown Nairobi, underneath a massive mosquito net. It consists of a tightly woven white mesh that resembles a wedding veil, suspended from a large wooden hoop above my bed, covering the perimeter of my sleeping area like some kind of “Dream Princess Daybed”. Upon noticing that were a few dime-sized holes in the net, I was careful to patch them up with some electrical tape. In addition, I’ve covered all of my exposed skin with a bug spray that is nearly 100% pure pesticide, producing a vaguely medicinal scent and making my arms feel simultaneously oily and “burny”.

Why these dire measures? I’m in a mid-range hotel in a big city, not camping rough in the middle of a dense forest next to a brackish stream. However; compared to the hotel where I stayed for my first three nights; this is “roughing it” somewhat. My room at the $60 dollars a night Hotel 680 was equipped with the luxury of a oscillating fan meaning that I could keep my windows sealed shut at the same time; upon relocating, I discovered (in line with my expectations) that the Parkside possessed no such amenities. Almost immediately, I became rather worried about coming into contact with the dreaded anophales mosquito (and the malaria that it caries) for the first time in my trip. Indeed, within a few minutes of settling down at the desk in my room to do some reading, I saw a solitary mosquito buzzing around the room; that was enough to send me scurrying for cover.

My ongoing “Malaria Terror” over the last few days lead me to become increasingly skeptical of Acemoglu, Johnson, and Robinson’s (hereafter AJR) contention that the rates at which European settlers died of tropical diseases is not correlated to current levels of economic growth. For those of you who don’t closely follow the literature on the Political Economy of Development, I’m referring to a paper by three economists about the effect of institutions on economic performance that has received a considerable amount of attention over the last few years. They argue that the problem with studying institutions and economic performance is that it is difficult to make sense of any relationship that you might observe: are countries rich because they have good institutions or does wealth allow countries to create institutions that protect property rights and encourage investment? The novel aspect of this paper is that AJR use the fact that the extent to which potential colonies became heavily settled seems to correlate heavily with the extent to which initial settlers died due to tropical diseases such as malaria and yellow fever. Areas in which Europeans did not fall ill in large numbers became densly-populated settler colonies (like Kenya), with attendant European-style institutions, while areas with high rates of settler mortality became “extractive colonies” which were governed with minimal concern for property rights, a pattern which AJR argue persists to this day and can explain differences in economic growth across the post-colonial world.

Pretty cool, right? Except for one thing, which I alluded to above- the extent to which this logic works depends crucially on the fact that settler mortality isn’t related to economic growth today (other than through the way that it influences institutions). Discounting the fact that I am overly frightful, the fact that I’m this worried about getting bit by a mosquito indicates that the problem of tropical diseases such as malaria is far from gone.

The millions of Africans that die from this disease every year are even stronger evidence than the paranoia of one American grad student. Moreover, as Bono and Angelina Jolie (not to mention slightly more reliable sources such as Jeffrey Sachs) tell us every day, Malaria is a huge economic problem that helps to perpetuate poverty around the world by decimating workforces, ripping apart families, and clogging the healthcare system. I haven’t gotten out into the most affected areas yet, but from what I’ve seen so far, the impact of malaria on every day life of many Kenyans (let alone other diseases such as AIDS, Tuburculous) is impossible to ignore. Thus the fact that the continuing worldwide malaria epidemic calls AJR’s empirical strategy is trivial; however even after spending only a few days here, its impossible to ignore the fact that Malaria is an enormous social and economic problem and to see that any attempt to understand and alleviate poverty and promote economic growth in Africa must take that fact seriously.

Use your Allusion

So its come to my attention that the titles of nearly all of my posts so far (including this one) have been allusions to something (usually a movie quote, indie rock song, or something similarly dorky). In order to make this interesting (and also drum up interest from readers) I propose a mini-contest: if you think you get the reference in my post title, e-mail me ( post a comment; the person who provides the first correct answer for each post will get a small tchotchke from Kenya. The contest closes 24 hours after a given post (for all of the posts up to this point, the clock starts ticking now).

Have fun (actual real post to follow shortly)!

Friday, May 26, 2006

City Center (used to be the center of our scene)

Some might say that pictures are worth a thousand words. I say that's the coward's way out; whatever a picture conveys can easily take a thousand more words to contextualize, nuance, qualify, and analyze (Art Spiegelman makes this point beautifully in his cover article in the current Harpers on the Danish cartoons and the ensuing controversy... I'd link to it, but it doesn't seem to be up on the web yet; get out to a newsstand and pick it up... now!).

That said, the pictures/words ratio in this post is going to be rather high. I haven't taken a ton of pictures just yet (most of the areas of Nairobi I've been hanging around in are not really touristy, so a white dude with a digital camera sticks out just a wee bit), but its 8 PM and I haven't had dinner yet, so I'll get a few things up and comment on them a bit down the road.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Occam's RAZR

*DISCLAIMER: This post was written while I was in the air, high above Darfur (I shit you not). Actual real first Kenya post (with pictures and everything), coming tomorrow. However, giving the fact that I'm posting this, I got here alright and am finding my way around okay. Like I said, substantive details to follow. That said...

I hate the Motorola RAZR (pictured above for those of you who have been living in a cave for the last few years). Until approximately 10 AM GMT on May 24, 2006, I was convinced that this hatred was pure, unrelenting, and eternal, admitting of no exceptions or qualifications. I indiscriminately referred to strangers using wielding this hypersleek mobile phone as “Douchebags”, and regaled any of my friends unfortunate enough to have purchaced it with long, moderately incoherent tirades about how using the RAZR was a crime against society. I even once circulated a petition attempting to get Cingular to pull the RAZR from the menu of phones available with However, as I was in the line at Heathrow boarding my flight to Nairobi (or I guess over there, they’d call it a queue, but hey, who’s keeping score), the man in front of me was using a RAZR, and I thought to myself, “Self, That’s pretty awesome.” What made this RAZR different from all other RAZRs was that its owner was holding a Kenyan passport in his other hand.

On the face of it I appear to be quite the hypocrite; my staunch anti-RAZR beliefs were easily washed away by the first Kenyan citizen I saw using one. Maybe I’m even a closeted RAZR-lover whose position was in fact thinly veiled self-loathing. Looking even a little deeper, my fascination with this subject is vaguely orientalist; the RAZR, the sleekest most hypermodern cell phone of them all, is only cool to me when it is wielded by a citizen of a country whose daily headlines frequently include reports of cattle rustling, armed banditry, and tribal conflict. All issues of ethnocentrism or whatever aside, this contrast is fascinating; and in someways its both troubiling and intriguing that in a country wracked by drought, famine, and disease epidemics, even residence of the most rural areas have cell phones.

An alternative hypothesis is that what I hate about the RAZR is something culturally specific to America; and is more likely to actually be about our society than it is about a stupid phone. My hatred of this phone was engendered two years ago by a thick-necked Cingular employee who thought it looked cool for him to pop the collar of his tight black polo shirt and bleach the tips of his spiked brown hair. When I approached the register to puchase my humble, entry-level clunker of a phone, Sir Cingular looked at me with a gaze that approached pity. “You don’t want to buy that; that’s no phone. This… This is a phone”, he proclaimed, brandishing the RAZR from his belt holster. From that moment on, I have seen the RAZR as an metonym for much of the arrogance, materialism, and statatus obsession that irk me about mainstream American culture. Out of this context, the RAZR was drained of its symbolism and became simply a sexy sexy block of plactic and wires.

While these explanations are certainly plausible, none of them stand up to the standard of Parsimony, that vaunted method of evaluating scientific theories by favoring the one that can explain the most variation in the most simple way. What then is the most, elegant, concise explanation for my sudden willingness to grant the 1,547th RAZR user I’ve seen clemency, wheareas the prior 1,546 had not been spared my derision? A combination of terrible British airline food (and attendant stomach cramps), the beginnings of jet lag brought about by the deadly combination of a 5 hour time difference and a turbulent 5.5 hour flight, and a general feeling of personal griminess left me desperately grasping for some, any bright spot, and the gentleman with RAZR happened to simply be in the right place at the right time to reinvigorate me for the last leg of my trip. At the very least by inspiring me to write this diatribe, it gave me a way to burn a fraction of my 8 hour flight (OMG, I’M SO META!!!!!!!1).

Thursday, May 18, 2006

One Track Mind

So when I was tooling around on Animals have Problems Too, when I saw a guest panel by the author of another webcomic that I (somehow) had never seen before: PIRATE AND ALIEN .

You gotta love a product that really puts its premise right up front like that (and what a premise it is). A pirate captain is getting kicked off of his ship in a terrible mutiny. Meanwhile, many light-years away, an alien is getting ready to go to his first day of work of observing czarist Russia (i shit you not... he's a SCIENTIST), but winds up finding our friend the pirate captain (and his trusty parrot Bartholemew) floating at sea.

Incidentally, this reminds me of a joke of the caliber that my grandfather frequently tells... what do you call a guy with no arms and no legs who is in the middle of the ocean? Bob... Get it? BOB! HAHAHAHA Its a pun on the shortened form of the name Robert, which is a homograph of a verb that means "to move up and down repeatedly", much like an object floating in wavy water might HAHAHAHA. I AM AWESOME

Anyhoo...Alien invites pirate on board, and through some technical SNAFU they wind up in the 21st century and HILARITY ENSUES. It still seems like a relatively new comic, but the artwork is great, and like I said before, its hard to argue with the premise.. Its good to have another solid regular webcomic to add to my rotation of AHPT, QC, and Dinosaur Comics.

I swear this blog is going to be about more than pirates (I do go to Kenya in 5 days, so once I get there I should have a bit more to stimulate me than idle thoughts of loot and plunder). In fact, later today, I may even write about other specialists in violence ... stay tuned!

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

getting organizized

So here I am at my parents' house in Lancaster trying to get prepared for my trip to Nairobi, and I'm finding myself mentally aimless and easily distracted by inane things- in other words, I'm procrastinating hardcore. The weird thing is that I don't usually get this way with school work, and in fact I'd give anything to be writing an academic paper right now, rather than pulling together a billion different logistical details. Part of the nature of what I have to get done before I do is that there are a ton of little things to figure out: travelers checks, housing, travel money, mosquito nets, luggage, phone cards; however, rather than figuring these out one at a time in some kind of orderly, rational manner, i sort of bounce distractedly from one to another, leaving a trail of half-finished tasks.

I guess part of this procrastination is because this trip is rather high variance: on one hand I could find some make some big strides in understanding the political economy of development in Africa or could become an instant internet celebrity by virtue of this AWESOME BLOG; on the other hand I could get kidnapped by pirates, come down with malaria, and have to have my remains repatriated. I understand that the reality will most likely be somewhere between these two, but rather than converging on some weighted average of the two, I vacilate between being really psyched and completely terrified; right now I'm mostly the latter.

Speaking of Pirates, I couldn't help but notice but three of the four pirate articles that I linked to in the last post used the same photo of "somali pirates".

If I were a somali pirate, I would totally hire a publicist, and maybe an agent to deal with what could amount to a HUGE publicity problem.

In case you didn't notice, today's fun bloggig skill was posting photos, as well as continuing to practice links!

Monday, May 15, 2006

Out Here We Call Them Pirates

So for all of you that don't follow pirates-in-the-news religiously (i.e. most of you), it has been brought to my attention (thanks to my friend Dominika) that an Anti-Piracy Center just opened in Mombasa. In some ways, its quite appalling that I sat on this for over a week before actually blogging it, but hey, this is like my second blog post ever and my first actual real substantive post, so cut me some slack: I don't quite have a rhythm down just yet. In addition, I'm still building my blog-related skill set- today's skill is links- yeah, I know that's a pretty basic skill, but hey, you have to crawl before you can walk.

So for all of you non-piratephiles out there, the reason for the cration of this center is that there has been a surge in pirate attacks off of the coast of Somalia in the past year or so, with the biggest headlines being grabbed by attacks on a UN Food Program ship and a cruise ship.

While this might bring images of peg-legs, parrots, and Johnny Depp to mind, the reality is much different. The Somali pirates typically pilot small motorboats with a capacity of 4 or 5 men, usually armed with automatic weapons, and often with rocket launchers. The purpose of the center in Mombasa is to serve as a sort of "regional pirate attack call center" ("Press 1 if the pirate has an eye-patch, press 2 if he has a hook for a hand...") which is designed to facilitate rapid response to attacks.

I'll get into why pirates are intellectually interesting at another time (specialists in violence...wooo!). For now, suffice it to say that between the opening of this center, the ongoing trials of captured pirates (also in Kenya), and the likelihood of more attacks in the near future, this is probably only the first of many pirate-themed-posts over the next few months.

P.S. Q: What's a pirate's favorite indie rock band?
A: The ARRRRRRRRcade Fire

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

A New Beginning

So here it is... the first real post of my first real blog.

The funny thing is that I've actually had this blog since August 2004, and never posted to it, save for the two posts I made on the day I created it.

Since then much has changed with respect for my need for a blog. At the time, I was starting my first year of grad school, and I wanted a blog for the typical reasons: talking about indie rock. As a result, I picked a title in a reasonbly standard way: grabbing the title of a song by a band that i liked a lot at the time (in this case it was Gang of Four) and coming up with a clever, pithy description. As with many endeavors, my ambition far outstripped the time I was willing/able to committ, and as a result the blog was dormant for two years.

Which brings us to now. I'm finishing the second year of grad school, and am gearing up for my first trip to the field; I head off to Kenya in less than three weeks. Keeping a blog seemed like a reasonable way to keep my family and friends apprised of my adventures, as well as to force myself to write and record my impressions and experiences in a semi-regular way.

And by a stroke of dumb luck, the name is still apropos.

So here we go. Thanks for reading.