Monday, June 26, 2006

A Moveable Beast

So I have a confession to make, dear reader. I haven't been fully open and honest with you. I led you to believe that I had posted the best of my game drive pictures from Maasai Mara. In reality, I've held out on you... the following series of pictures is undeniably the most badass of any that I've taken on this whole trip. I'm not even lion to you. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

This was almost right at the beginning of our game drive. My friend Dickson knew a spot where the lions typically chill early in the morning. Sure enough, he was chilling about 15 yards from the road, allowing us to pull up right beside him. He didn't seem to be too bothered by our presence, but as more and more safari vehicles started to swarm around him like flies on dog turds, he got a little annoyed, and let out a mighty roar, which I was lucky enough capture in the above sequence of images. Yet they hardly do the event justice. Hemingway aptly describes this sensation in True at First Light, which I've been reading throughout my trip, writing: "You cannot describe a wild lion's roar. You can only say that you listened and the lion roared. It is not at all like the nose the lion makes at the start of Metro Goldwyn Mayer pictures. When you hear it you first feel it in your scrotum and it runs all the way up through your body." Suffice to say, I identify with the first 2/3s of this quote much more than the last 1/3, but at the same time, unlike Hemingway apparently, I am not in the habit of puting my junk in the general vicinty of lions' mouths.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

I Want Your Skull. I Need Your Skull.

...And another week goes by. As you can probably tell by the fact that I've completely fallen off of the face of the blogosphere (yeah that's right you can fall off of something which has no spatial damn!) in the past week, I was in the field again. This time, I went with David to some group ranches in Southern Kajiado district, which like Kitengela and Narok are Maasai Communities which border a wildlife park. In this case the park in question is Amboseli national park, which is a bit smaller than either Maasai Mara or Nairobi National Park, and which is notable for having a TON (or if you really want to nitpick MANY TONS) of elephants and a spectacular view of Mt. Kilimanjaro (Amboseli, like Maasai Mara is right on the Kenya-Tanzania border). However, when I was there, I wasn't able to get a good shot of Kili (as the locals call it) and we didn't get into Amboseli proper. The main thing we did while we were there was go to several community meetings that Shauna BurnSilver, another ILRI affiliated PhD student was holding in the area. Shauna is in the process of completing a dissertation in the field of Human Ecology on mobility and diversification among Maasai pastoralists in several group ranches in Kajiado district. In a follow-up visit last year, Shauna held a number of focus groups in her study communities, on the topic of the major development issues facing these communities; the leading issues that group participants brought to light were the breeding of drought-resistant cattle, the subdivision of group ranches, and diversification of Maasai livelihoods away from pure pastoralism. The purpose of the community meetings to address these issues, using the findings of Shauna's research (and other work by ILRI researchers in the fields of vetrinary sciences, ecology, and economics) in order to help inform household and community-level decision-making processes. I'll probably talk at more length later about why this is an interesting cool model for doing research, but suffice to say that it was another compelling example of how to do work that is both theoretically compelling and meaningful to the community that is the subject of the research.

But that is another post for another today. In spite of the lack of touristy pursuits on this trip, I was able to take lots of photos, which I leave you with now. Look for a bunch more actual, real posts this week.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Slingin' Mad Game

As predicted, the trip to Maasai Mara has once again generated a substantial backlog of pictures, anecdotes, and profound earth-shattering insights about the creation and operation of social and political institutions. Okay, so maybe the last bit is a great big fib, but I definitely have plenty of the first two. In the interest of getting the ball rolling, I’m going to throw some of the most choice photos out there, and will update with more thoughts and impressions as I go along. Because lets be honest, even though you find my experiences and stories interesting, the awesome pictures of cute and exotic animals and gorgeous landscapes are what keep you coming back, right?

And what animals there were! In the space of two days I saw three lions, 10 or so elephants, a bunch of hippos, a troop of baboons, some cape buffalo, a family of warthogs, and more gazelles, antelope, and other deer-like horned mammals than I could possibly count. The best thing about getting to see all of these animals is that it was under the auspices of “research”. As I’ve mentioned, I’m working with David Nkedanyie, an ILRI graduate fellow who is writing his PhD dissertation on the drought-coping strategies of Maasai pastoralists. Specifically, he’s interested in understanding what might influence decisions of families to take their cattle across National Wildlife Reserve boundaries during droughts. National parks are often replete with good forage during droughts (because they are grazed only by game, rather than by large herds), but it is illegal for herders to take their cattle across these lines. David is trying to get a sense of the empirical incidence of this behavior and what social, economic, and environmental factors may influence the risk calculations of families by doing household surveys in 4 communities that border national parks; Kitengela, which borders Nairobi National Park, Narok District, which borders Maasai Mara, communities around Amboseli National Park, and one of Tanzania’s national parks (clearly, I know more about the ones I’ve visited. Expect more detail on these last two as time goes on).

Normally doing household surveys in four communities this far apart in a country with poor roads and low population density would be extremely impractical. What is allowing David to proceed with this research design is that ILRI already has established projects in each of these field sites, with local community facilitators in each who are in charge of both helping ILRI organize research on the ground, as well as disseminating the results of this research to the local communities. David is one of these community facilitators for Kitengela; through this project (which is in its 4th year), he’s developed a good enough relationship with the community facilitators that they’re willing to help him recruit and train survey enumerators from the local community.

The purpose of our trip was to meet and train the survey enumerators that Dickson, the ILRI community facilitator for the area around Maasai Mara, had recruited. My role in the whole operation was as “survey monkey”, helping with the selection of the random sample (stratified by group ranch), stapling questionnaires, and assisting with other various and sundry errands and logistical things that popped up. What was cool about this is that in exchange for this relatively small bit of work, I was able to gain a free, firsthand look at how a small scale field survey is run- what the questionnaire looks like, how to get a good, reliable list of the population you want to survey (the sample frame in technical jargon), and what constitutes a good, reliable, enumerator.

And as a free bonus, Dickson took me and David on a animal-watching drive at daybreak on Friday morning. What is great about this arrangement is that before working for ILRI, Dickson had worked for the Mara Wildlife conservancy, meaning that he knows the park and its resident species like the back of his hand, allowing us to see more animals in a short drive than some tourists see in whole trips. Here are some of the highlights that were tough enough to photograph that they could benefit from a little extra narration.

When we stopped to look at the Talek river, one of the main water sources that runs through the park (the other being the eponymous Mara River), we were lucky enough to spot a big group of hippos. Unfortunately, they spend most of their time submerged, so they're kind of tough to photograph. At the same time, if you can see more of them than their eyes, you probably don't want to be close enough to photograph them. I was however, very very tempted to get a bunch of volleyballs and stage a real life recreation of "hungry hungry hippos". How internet famous would I be if I could pull that off?

This one's a bit tough to see, but if you look at the big fur ball by the one tree, you'll see that its a baboon. Unfortunately we didn't get to chill and watch them a bit. We actually saw this troop once we had left the park and were driving back towards one of the neighboring communities- I snapped this picture on the move, and didn't realize anything had come out until I was loading the pictures into my computer. At the same time, I'm pretty glad that I wasn't too close to these guys: I've heard that "tourist baboons" that have gotten pretty comfortable with humans (as these guys probably have) are pretty obnoxious in terms of stealing food and such. Still, that didn't stop me from pointing and going "MOOOONKEYS!!!!" as we zoomed by.

You might be able to tell that these two grey blobs are elephants browsing from the tops of some trees. This was right across the Talek river from our campsite at sunset. I was limited by both the fading light and the fact that you really don't want to get too close to these guys, so I was only really able to watch them and go "OH MAN THAT IS AWESOME. OH MAN. OH MAN."

Stay tuned for even more images from the game drive and a comparison of the communities I visited there with Kitengela…

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Odds and Ends

No major news to report for today, folks. As I get into the rhythm of this trip, it seems like the pattern will be a few days of EXTREMELY AWESOME EXPERIENTIAL OVERLOAD followed by a few days of 8 HOURS SITTING IN AN OFFICE READING PAPERS I FOUND ON GOOGLE SCHOLAR. It definitely oscilates in a beautiful sine-wave kind of way. As I'm about an hour away from my next major outing (to Narok, the district that borders the world famous Maasai-Mara National Park), I'm definitely at a trough with respect to new, interesting experiences, coming off of three straight days of reading lots of (very interesting, but as of yet still unapplied to the real world) articles. That said, I do have a backload of pictures and anecdotes from the last week or so that have fallen by the wayside because they didn't fit in with any of the other stories I wanted to tell, so I'm going to throw them all up in this piece without a real attempt at cohesion. Think of it as a blog equivalent of a "clip show", just without a lame framing device (or is this the lame framing device... OMG I AM META!!!!!!!!!)

The other day, I was walking in downtown Nairobi, and I saw a young Kenyan couple walking down the street holding hands; the boy was wearing a Tupac shirt, which is itself pretty unremarkable, given the widespread incidence of american hip-hop culture here. What made me do a double (or triple-take) is that the girl was wearning an Alan Jackson Shirt. I feel like this is something that you could ONLY ONLY ONLY see in another cultural context. I mean, I know that Nelly did that crappy song with Tim McGraw, but can you imagine two people who are t-shirt wearing rap and country fans in the states speaking to one another, let alone dating?

I haven't commented too extensively on food since I've been here... partially because I haven't experienced so so so much of what could be called "really typical Kenyan food". As I've remarked elsewhere, most of the really accessible food options available to working-class Kenyans are a range of rather standard westernized fast food joints, with a few Indian/Mediterranian flourishes, such as Samosas and Kebabs. That said, I have been able to have a few good " authentic Kenyan" meals at one of the food court stands at the Saritt Center (the big mall near my apartment) and at the dining hall here at ILRI (which puts the Prospect Street food carts to shame, BTW-really good meat, veggie, starch, and soda for $3). From what I gather, typical meals are usually a meat stew of some kind (usually beef, mutton, or goat) or a roast chicken, along with a starch, usuallly either Chapati, which is an indian fried flatbread, or Ugali, which I would describe as a slightly more soid version of grits or polenta. So far my favorite "authentic" Kenyan meal i've had was the beef liver and chapati that I had when I went to Kitengela for the first time- I'll keep a running account of my attempts to seek out new and exciting African dishes.

And finally, here is my traditional post-ending picture from my balcony... this time in sunny, late-afternoon light.

That's all from now, expect tons of photos and musings sometime late Friday, when I return from the Mara.

Today's post was brought to you by the fine fine people at Wikipedia.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Hey, You, Get Off of My Cloud!

Yesterday I went back down to Kitengela again for another visit; although Joseph had been able to give me a good introduction to the town and the problems it has been facing, the range of our exploration was limited due the fact that we didn’t have a car. Luckily, David, my ILRI counterpart who is based in Kitengela, was free yesterday and had one of the ILRI 4-wheel drive Suzukis for the day.

I’m glad that I went back; we spent the afternoon driving around the pasture land, traveling primarily by traversing unpaved jeep tracks that connect the two main tarmack roads, which lie about 15 km apart. In the course of the afternoon, we encountered numerous large herds of cattle, which David remarked looked remarkably healthy, given that the entire area had been suffering from a severe drought in the first few months of this year. In addition, to the numerous cattle and small stock, there were TONS of wildlife, in many cases coexisting in close proximity to the livestock. In the 3 hour drive I saw probably close to a hundred zebras, lots of Thompson’s and Grant’s Gazelles (which David and Joseph could identify and differentiate at about 300 or 400 meters), a large group of vervet monkeys, and a few wildebeest. Where was also more birdlife than I could identify, most notably a large pack (Troop? Clatch? Murder?) of Ostriches, and my two favorite punnable birds, (victoria’s) Egret and the (old dirty) Bustard. OMG I AM HILLARIOUS…HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

Indeed, seeing the splendor of the countryside that begins just a kilometer outside of the town center confirms why the uncontrolled expansion of Kitengela that I was describing the other day is such a big problem. Close to town, there are not yet many houses built, but many of the plots have been subdivided and fenced off into tiny plots of about 1/8 of an acre. What is fascinating is that according to David, these plots aren’t usually developed after they’ve been marked off; for reasons that I don’t precisely understand, the exclusive right to own land has become an end in and of itself, rather than a means to anything else (most notably agricultural investment- but hey, even commercial or industrial development would be productive in some way). While one tiny, fenced off patch of land, might seem like a trivial island in an ocean of forage, the aggregate effect of these many small fenced areas is to severely restrict the usual patterns of both wildlife and pastoral migration. When the wild animals have problems with the fences they often run into them, often getting tangled, or maybe toppling them if they are in a large, fast-moving herd; when cattle-herders come across the fences. they are quite likely to cut the wire of the fence and let their cattle feed in the plot. This outcome is especially likely in cases such as the recent drought when the existence of a patch of fresh grass in a sea of over-grazed burnt out scrub is particularly difficult for pastoralists to accept.

If you’ve been following my adventures semi-closely, you might remember that my last post about Kitengela ended on a bit of a downer (or if you’re an optimist, I guess you could say that it was “open ended”); I posed the problem that the rapid in-migration to Kitengela has lead to a crisis of governance, without offering anything by way of a solution. What I learned yesterday is that an institutional solution is currently in the process of being hammered out, largely due to the initiative of the Kitengela Landowners Association, of which David is one of the leaders. In fact, the reason that David wasn’t free to show me around on Wednesday when I was in town was that he was in meetings with the local government, the Kenya Wildlife Service, and the national Minstry of Land to develop a plan for the use of land in Kitengela over the next 10-20 years. The central achievement of this plan is that it secured an agreement from the government to create a firm boundary for development; essentially drawining a firm line, beyond which all land will be used primarily for extensive grazing. An additional feature of the agreement would be to provide incentives for fence-less demarcation of land, essentially disaggregating the property rights, allowing open access for through traffic, but keeping rights of cultivation and usufruct under the exclusive control of the title holder.

This agreement is unprecedented; according to David and Joseph, this is the first such case of the government taking steps to develop a long-range land use and development plan. Because of Kitengela’s unique proximity both to Nairobi and to the National Park, is is thus well situated to be a laboratory for institutional design. That said, many questions remain; with respect to both of the main features of the plan (the sprawl line and the fenceless plots), enforcement and the credibility of commitments seems to be a potential problem. For instance, the enforcement of the “sprawl boundary” is largely in the hands of the county government, which has the authority to approve and deny building projects -what is going to prevent local government from abrogating the agreement and allowing development? I could imagine that well placed bribes from would-be developers could change the current resolve of some officials- in order to prevent this, there needs to be a way for the broader community to hold these policy makers accountable. What I’m getting at here is not only the point that institutional design matters, but that institutions work in bundles, and ulitimately are sustainable only if they provide incentives for the various stakeholders to enforce the rules. Thus, while what is happening right now in Kitengela is exciting and offers lots of hope, the long-run prospects are still rather open-ended, if I might say so myself.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

I Don't Wanna Grow Up

So today, I went to Nairobi's "Giraffe Viewing Center"- and I present to you a "Mini-webcomic" entitled "Giraffes R Awesome".

Captions To Follow When I'm Less Tired...

Friday, June 09, 2006

Seeing Like a Goat

On Wednesday afternoon, I embarked on my first excursion outside of Nairobi, to a small town called Kitengela, which is located in Kajiado district in the Rift-Valley Province, about an hour south-east of Nairobi proper. Kitengela is noteworthy because it is the first major town on the southern border of Nairobi national park. Nairobi national park (to which I have not been just yet) is an extreme example of the fascinating pattern of suburbanization in Kenya that I was discussing before- it is a 113 square kilometer area south of the city of Nairobi proper that is a Wildlife reserve. Just 20 minutes south of city center, you can see Zebras, Wildebeasts, and Lions- I can't think of any comparable phenomenon anywhere else in the world.

Kitengela's unique location right on the border of Nairobi National park makes it interesting and important for a number of reasons. First off, it is a rare and unique place for human-wildlife interactions. The park is not fully fenced in, but rather has an open lane to the south to allow for seasonal migrations; as a result its normal for farmers or pastoralists to see these animals roaming through their fields/grazing lands. However, because it is the first town outside of the park, Kitengela is experiencing MASSIVE population growth (which I’ll discuss more below) as a commuter town for Nairobi, meaning that development is starting encroach on the lane that has been traditionally allowed for the migration, leading to an increase in what experts call "human-wildlife conflict", or what I would call "various and sundry maulings and tramplings".

The lack of planning to manage wildlife, agricultural, and pastoral land use is indicative of broader problems of governance and resource management in Kitengela. Early in the 20th century, Kitengela (and Kajiado province more broadly) were primarily inhabited by Maasai pastoralist communities. Although it could be a whole other series of posts, it is worth noting that this territorial pattern was itself a result of a series of broken treaties and forced moves during the early stages of British rule-sound familiar to any episodes from American history?

According to numerous sources, Maasai land tenure during the colonial period was collective; although individual familes owned their own cattle, all Maasai were able to access grazing land on their reserve, an institutional arrangement that many agricultural economists have recognized as a strategy to manage and mitigate risk in environments in which rainfall is highly variable. At independence, the Kenyan government formalized a form of joint property ownership, in the form of group ranches. Upon the enactment of the land settlement in 1968, families joined one of these ranches-which frequently approximated customary lands as held by clans and lineages, the major difference being that there were to be rigid boundaries between group ranches. Thus, even though families could graze their cattle anywhere on the land of the group ranch of which they were a member, they could also ONLY graze their cattle on that land, a strong break from the prior system, in which rights to land use were collective AND overlapping. In addition, individuals or families who did not join a group ranch were given a single ranch. Often these farmers were supported heavily with subsidies by the ruling party; its unclear whether they were transplanted urbanites with connections to the ruling party as described by Robert Bates in "States and Markets in Tropical Africa".

An additional feature of the group ranch plan that is of vital importance for what is happening in Kitengela right now is that there is a clause in the law that created the group ranches that allows for the possibility of the dissolution of the ranch and its subdivision into individual plots. For a variety of reasons, there a was a wave of subdivision throughout Kajaido district in the 1980s, which led in turn to the widespread sale of individual plots, and the rush of development I was describing above. This expansion has happened so rapidly that it has gone forward largely unplanned; residential, commercial, industrial, and agricultural units are all jumbled together in one haphazard heap. For instance, the slaughterhouse, which used to be on the outskirts of town, is now completely surrounded by houses.

Many aspects of the layout of the town of Kitengela reminded me of images I’ve seen of the American West in the 19th century: buildings cropping up at odd angles, a hogepodge of new buildings that have sprung up around an only slightly older city center, dusty, crooked, unpaved roads, covered with piles of assorted garbage, and livestock wandering just blocks from the main commercial area. At the same time the contents of the garbage served as reminders of the distinctly modern nature of the pollution; coca-cola bottles were among the smashed bits of glass in the street; many of the trees around time were filled with tangles of discarded plastic shopping bags.

According to Joseph, a Kitengela resident who was my guide for the day, both the proliferation of trash and the lack of any kind of zoning or planning are the result of failures on the part of the local government; according to him, both problems have appeared roughly following the moves to subdivision in the 1980s. As Joseph described (and my prior reading had indicated) the traditional structure of Maasai local governance was structured by a combination of clans and age-sets. Both of these were relatively apparent to some degree just by observing the extent to which Joseph seemed to know everyone we came across in our walking tour; it seemed that we couldn’t turn a corner without running to someone whom he he knew. We also ran into both his mother and his father and two of his brothers, all of whom live in town.

When I remarked to Joseph that he seemed to be quite well-connected in town, he shrugged and said that things had changed a lot; compared to when he was young (in the early 80s), there are non-maaasai, meaning that they have by and large not been assimilated into Maasai social networks. At one point we were passed by a pair of young toughs (one of whom was carrying a crowbar and Joseph remarked, “You see these guys- I don’t know them- if they would have done something to us, we wouldn’t have been able to do anything about it- they’re strangers.”

What I take from all of this is that the clan and age set systems played a role in Maasai society similar to the Law Merchants in the Champagne Fairs described by North, Weingast, and Grief. Without taking another massive detour into the Political Economy field examination reading list, the gist is that institutions that allow for the sharing of information can promote social cooperation among reasonably large groups of people, even in the absence of a strong state. In the Kitengela of Joseph’s youth, nearly all of individuals in the town were connected via a dense network of kinship and clan linkages, as well as cross-cutting age set relationships. In such an interlinked community, a separate police force is in some ways superfluous; individuals who litter, steal, or do other socially undesirable things can be easily identified and shunned (Bates provides a similar analysis of the Nuer in his “Essays on the Political Economy of Rural Africa). As the percentage of people in the town who are part of these networks decreases, the efficacy of these institutions will decrease. Thus, whereas a lack of state presence was not a big deal (and was in fact rather desirable to many Maasai) during the 1970s, the rapid population growth has made the status quo untenable, leading to a massive surge in pollution, crime, and unplanned urban growth. Without some kind of institutional innovation, a reversal doesn’t seem likely, leaving Kitengela’s future rather uncertain.

This set of problems facing Kitengela convinces me that what I’m here to study is important and worth studying, while at the same time revealing that actually solving these problems is exceedingly difficult. While talking to Joseph and walking around Kitengela certainly affirmed some of my impressions and intuitions, it also made me realize that as soon as you step out of the library and into the field, things stop being as analytically neat as you’d like them to be. Yet, even though thinking about “specialists in violence”, “collective action problems”, and “the Weingast paradox” seems a little silly when you’re standing in the midst of piles of trash with the wind blowing dirt from the street all around you, it as also clear that the need to answer the questions that these concepts are designed to address is no less salient.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Kenya, Dig it?

So in lieu of a real substantive post about my visit to the Maasai town of Kitengela yesterday (which I'm still digesting and will probably write on a bit tonight), I'm going to post this month's edition of my "Kenya, Dig it" mix CD series. About 50 per cent of the people who read this regularly probably care at all, so this is for all of you. If I were more technically savvy, I'd podcast this or some such. For the time being, you'll have to cobble this together on your own, or wait for me to burn a copy for you when I get home. Let me know if you want a copy.
1. Ache (Jawbreaker Cover)- Jeff Caudill & Drive Till Morning
2. I was Born a Unicorn- The Unicorns
3. Grounds for Divorce (2nd EP version)- Wolf Parade
4. Reciept- Lil' Wayne
5. Ask- the Smiths
6. Warm Panda Cola- Boy Least Likely to
7. She Don't Use Jelly- Flaming Lips
8. Your Little Hoodrat Friend- The Hold Steady
9. Fistful of Love- Antony and the Johnstons
10. U Not Like Me- 50 Cent
11. All the Wrong Reasons- The Like Young
12. Stay Hungry- Talking Heads
13. Give Me the Cure- Fugazi
14. Put you on The Game- The Game
15. Transatlanticism- Death Cab For Cutie

And also, just because it doesn't get old (at least to me), here's the view from my balcony at sunrise this morning.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Culture Shock?

My brief post the other day about playing Alanis Morisette with a Kenyan band was meant to be a longer essay reflecting on the exportation of American culture, the possibility of “authentic” local culture and the implications for our understanding of globalization (or ontologies thereof, as my friend Luc would say). However it didn’t happen for the following reasons:
1) ) Wireless internet is 3 shillings per minute- which doesn’t seem like a lot (it’s slightly over 2 dollars an hour), but it means that I generally am going to want to have any kind of substantial post written before I go to the purveyor of internet.
2) I’ve made a bunch of friends here: not surprisingly I’ve found that you’re a lot less likely to spend a few hours a night reflecting, writing, and reading when you’re not forced to by the fact that you’re all alone in your hotel room.
3) The bus to ILRI leaves at 7:45 AM. That means As this is the first thing resembling an actual real 9-5 job that I’ve had since my time at the National Center for Health Statistics (JPSM IN THE HOUSE), I’ve had a bit of trouble adjusting, and as a result, have been tired kind of all the time (I swear, this is even more of a shock to my system than jet lag was-it makes me realize how ingrained my habit of rolling out of bed and heading straight to Koffee was).

All this adds up to mean that as I settle into more off a rhythm of “everyday life” here, the posts will probably come a little less frequently (I suppose that you could say that I was blogging 2 fast and 2 furious- HAHAHAHAHAHAHA). All idiotic references aside, it seems pretty clear to me now that the first two weeks of blogging were a coping strategy that was helping me deal with the loneliness and isolation that can be typical of traveling alone in a new place. Interestingly, this isolation stemmed more from the fact that I didn’t have any kind of compelling place to be at night time other than my hotel, rather than from some kind of larger “culture shock”.

As I’ve hinted at in previous posts, one thing that has repeatedly struck me since I’ve been here is the widespread incidence of American culture. Its impossible to walk 10 paces without seeing a logo of some kind of American sports team, and the matatus (Nissan minivans which fill most roads here and serve as cheap public transportation) are emblazoned with the iconography of American hip hop. Standing by a major road for 15 minutes, you’re quite likely to see images of Tupac, Biggie, Luda, and Fitty flitting by in quick succession. In addition, he nightly TV lineup here is almost all American- and its generally a mediocre cross-section of mainstream American TV: Alias, Joey (is that even still on?), some idiotic sit-com with Amanda Bynes (however they are still airing Arrested Development here, in syndication, I guess. for those keeping score at home: Kenya 1, America 0) There’s also a Tanzanian channel that specializes in hip-hop music videos; the first thing I saw when I turned on the TV here was not any kind of home grown artist (although there are a lot of really awesome low production-value Kenyan and Tanzanian dance-hall and reggae videos), but Houston’s own MIKE JONES (those of you who don’t follow hip-hop, just be assured that that is funny). And it seems that anywhere you go here, you’re bound to find a kiosk selling Coke (in glass bottles, which is just better).

At the same time, this penetration is neither exhaustive nor complete; for instance there are no McDonalds here at all. And there are interesting intersections that I’m only beginning to make sense of… my favorite of which is a fast food chain called Steers, which is a Halal American-style burger joint. That’s right folks, Jihad and McWorld- ALL IN ONE!!!

As I’ve used my allotted writing time for the day, I think I’m going to leave a more detailed discussion of how western culture is ignored, appropriated, and ultimately chaged here and on why culture matters for politics (both in the day to day sense and in the study thereof) for a later time.

Tune in tomorrow for my report from my first trip down to Maasailand (which I leave for shortly)!! Meanwhile, here's the living room of the apartment where I'll be living for the remaining six weeks (if anyone has any bright ideas about how to take pictures of small rooms, let me know) and the view from my balcony (lens flares are fun!).

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Morisettian Irony

On Friday night, I got to see my first live music since arriving here in Kenya. My friend Rio, an Indonesian works for Worldvision (a christian relief organization) and I were invited out by another friend of mine, Ekuru, a Kenyan lawyer who runs a legal services NGO for residents of northern Kenya. I was expecting music that was "African" in some way-you know like what David Byrne was listening to in the months before recording "Remain in Light" (although I know that that was Fela Kuti and that he's from West Africa, but you get the point). However, much to my amusement, the band's repertoire primarily consisted of covers of American pop songs from the mid-90s. It also happened that Ekuru was friends with the band, so when he learned that I play the drums, he wasted no time in getting the band to let me sit in as a guest drummer. During a break, the singer showed me their repertoir, and in the absence of the Spice Girls or Fugazi, I chose "Ironic" by Alanis Morisette. I have to say that it was probably the single most astounding musical experience I've taken part in to date. My only regret is that I didn't bring a camera.

What was really fascinating is that the crowd (almost entirely 20-30s Kenyan business types) was COMPLETELY into the whole thing. Let me tell you, seeing a room full of Kenyans jumping around and enthusiastically sing along to all of the words of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" by Deep Blue Something is mind blowing. The moment that really did me in, however was when the band played "complictated" by Averil Lavigne. Sitting in a bar in Nairobi with an Indonesian and several Kenyans listening to a band play a song by a Canadian teen-pop vixen was I think the most tangible evidence of globalization that I've witnessed on this trip. Isn't that Ironic? Don't you think?

Friday, June 02, 2006

Use Your Allusion II

So interestingly enough, there was a less-than overwhelming response to my blog-post-title allusion guessing contest. The only one that got any responses was "You Have Died of Dysentary" which the Matts (Cushman and Wrather) both correctly identified as a reference to Oregon Trail.

So yeah. It occurs to me that there is a bit of a selection bias that renders this "contest" kind of irrelevant; if you care enough about me to read this blog regularly AND to get the references (obscure or otherwise), I was probably already going to be getting you something anyhow

In case you care:
Use Your Allusion-Not only The classic Guns 'n Roses album, but also a reference to the name of Gob's magic act in Arrested Develompment, which itself alludes to the G'N'R album
City Center (used to be the center of our scene)- From "Your little hoodrat friend" by the Hold Steady
Occam's RAZR- refers to Occam's Razor, the philosophical principle that states that the most simple explanation is most likely to be true
Getting Organizized- Refers to Travis Bickle's shirt in Taxi Driver that says something like "one of these days I'm going to get organizized'
Out Here We Call Them Pirates- From The Life Aquatic; when the Bellafonte is being attacked, Ned proclaims, "Hijackers" to which Stevsie, replies, "Out Here We Call Them Pirates"

In other news, check back to the "You Have Died of Dysentary" post to see a ridiculously goofy photo that I took on that night but haven't uploaded until now.

Rockin' the Suburbs

Yesterday morning, I moved out of Nairobi city center into the Guesthouse of Missionary Sisters of the Precious Blood, a lodging run by a German Catholic Religious Order in the Nairobi suburb of Westlands. Its somewhere in quality between a hostel and a hotel, and for 1800 Kenyan shillings (approximately 25 US Dollars) a night, is definitely the best value of the three places I’ve stayed so far. Unfortunately they’re already completely booked up when the high tourist season picks up in a few weeks, meaning that I can’t make it my long term home, but with its beautiful gardens, friendly staff, and good hearty German-style meals (taking me back to my days as an exchange student in Altoetting) its going to be a pleasant base of operations as I look for a more permanent place to stay in this area.

When I say suburbs, those of you reading from the States probably think of images of sprawled sub-developments, strip malls, and SUV’s. While these photos definitely hint at the fact that “suburban” in Africa means something different than it does America, they hardly can convey just how big that difference is. Let me try to illustrate with an anecdote; the headquarters of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), which has been kind enough to give me a desk and some logistical support here, is situated about 10 km outside of the city center, meaning it definitely falls within what should easily be called “suburban-Nairobi”. However, the area around ILRI is covered with rolling, grass covered hills that remind me strongly of the less residential areas of Lancaster County. At one point, I remarked to David, a graduate-affiliate at ILRI that I’ll be working with while I’m here, that seeing the countryside was pleasant relief from downtown Nairobi; he gave me a quizzical look and then smiled broadly and said, “You haven’t seen the countryside yet”. (In related news, on Saturday, I’m going to visit David in Kitengela, a Maasai community about an hour southwest of Nairobi where he does his primary field work; my sense is that even that may not qualify as countryside).

While I can’t quite put my finger on it just yet, my intuition is that the major difference between “classic” suburbanization in the U.S. and what is called by the same name here has to do with the relative lack of a middle class in Kenya. There is a massive slum about halfway between Westlands and the ILRI campus. The first time I drove past it, I saw what seemed like miles of corrugated steel shanties, cobbled together market kiosks, and thousands of people milling about on both sides of (and across) a four lane highway, and I thought to myself, “This must be that big, famous slum that I’ve heard about that’s so terrible”. As I passed it again, later that day, when one of the ILRI researchers was giving me a ride back into town, she remarked, “So, this is Kangemi- its one of the middle class slums”. When you’re in a place where “middle class slum” isn’t an oxymoron, you know that there’s a damn good chance that many words that you assumed to have completely unproblematic definitions in fact don’t mean anything near what you think they mean.