Friday, July 31, 2009

Nairobi to Kampala

After a few nights staying with our fantastic hosts in Nairobi it was on to Nakuru, Kenya to do some more work. The drive there was rather mundane compared with the previous stage of our trip; just a four ride in a rather comfortable van. It was quite scenic however, as we climbed out of Naiorbi over the Rift Valley and then down into one of Africa's most ecologically diverse landscapes. We were able to see some zebras and baboons but not a whole lot else.

Nakuru was an interesting town to visit. We spent the first night in a rather dodgy hotel and were treated to a strange array of nightlife. We ate at a Chinese restaurant where Jay contemplated ordering the "whole fish that looks like a squirrel." It ended up being the high price rather than the name that changed his mind. Following this strange meal we ducked into a locals bar where a band was playing and soccer was on TV. In a scene reminiscent of the one in Animal House where the boys take their dates to a roadhouse, all heads snapped around to see what may have been the only Mzungu (white people) to ever enter the dingy establishment. Astonishment quickly faded into a warm welcome by many of the well-lubricated patrons. Jay had the luck of being sandwiched between a prostitute (who everyone warned was HIV-positive) and a guy who accentuated each word with a volley of spittle. I was seated next to an extraordinarily friendly, and oddly sober gentleman who turned out to be a former Kenyan national soccer player. I know Jay, not fair.

Nakuru is located on a lake encompassed in one of Kenya's famed national parks. Traveling on a shoestring prevented us from entering the park but a hike to the entrance gate allowed us to look out upon masses of buffalo, hippopotamus, flamingo and monkeys.

Our real reason for stopping in Nakruru was not tourism but to meet Rhoda, John and Samuel, three Sudanese orphans who were living with relatives while pursuing their education. I was alerted to their situation by their concerned uncle now studying at Johnson State College in Vermont and by his friend, SSSF super-intern, Julia Van Raalte.

These children have been living with relatives in a cramped Nakuru apartment for several years following an upbringing in a sordid refugee camp in northern Kenya. Today the children are facing yet another obstacle to their educations and healthy childhoods. Their relatives, still supported through a refugee resettlement program, have been given the opportunity to move to the United States. While this is an incredible development for their family it is also one that will leave the three orphans (none older than 17) without a home. This could mean all three dropping out of school to find jobs to support themselves.

We chatted with the children in an effort to find a way for the South Sudan Scholarship Foundation (SSSF) to support their education in the absence of their family. Fortunately, we were able to find a caretaker for them in Nairobi. Now SSSF will look for a suitable boarding school for them to attend this coming spring. Please help by logging on to and donating to help Rhoda, John, Samuel and the rest of the SSSF students.

(John, Rhoda and Samuel outside their Nakuru aparment)

We left the children and Nakruru for Kisumu, Kenya, a city on the eastern shores of Lake Victoria. The trip from Nakuru to Kisumu wound through some beautiful Kenyan highlands including a major tea-growing region. Single plantations wound on for miles with images of their colonial origins dotted throughout their lush, green rows. Hundreds of small, white blockhouses inhabited by the workers are set far away from the road while several luxurious mansions abut the regions main thoroughfare.

We arrived in Kisumu with little knowledge of where we could stay. A long, extraordinarily hot walk throughout almost the entirety of the city took us from a bustling city-center to green suburbs and back before we found our place to stay. Kisumu is a weekend spot for wealthy Nairobians and, as such, is quite expensive. We were finally able to negotiate with a surly hotel manager for a spot to put our tent on the hotel's roof. This turned out to be quite fortunate, not in the least because of the extraordinary view our perch provided. However, it was also on the roof of this hotel that we met some British medical students working for a small NGO, The Keyan Orphan Project (KOP) (they were quite bemused by our living arrangement). When we explained our trip to the students we were invited to Hope for Victoria Children or HOVIC, a local shelter for the street children of Kisumu.

(The staff of HOVIC and our friends from KOP)

One of the first things we had noticed in Kisumu was the multitude of young children living on the streets. They huffed glue to keep away the hunger and cold of nights on the street. In contrast to this harsh reality, HOVIC is a truly happy place even with every child weighted by a tragic back story. To give some perspective to their lives, we met a boy no older than three or four who had wandered in to the shelter the previous day. Both of the tiny boy's parents had died and he was left to fend for himself. We were told by some of the older boys that the night before the Kisumu police had caned him in an attempt to drive him back to his home. While HOVIC provides an upbeat environment it was incredibly depressing to learn that only about 100 children have discovered the support provided by HOVIC while more than 20,000 other street children continue to live on the streets alone. Thank you to HOVIC and KOP for an amazing visit. Keep up the great work!

After our day spent at HOVIC we returned to our lofted abode and shared some farewell beverages with the British students. At one in the morning we left for the bus station. The short, dark walk left us with a poignant memory of Kisumu as street children jockeyed around us for sleeping arrangements, glue and bits of garbage to eat.

Unfortunately we were unable to see much of the scenery on this bus trip as we left Kisumu at one-thirty in the morning for Kampala, Uganda's capital.

Today we are in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. We are staying here with Acen, the first caretaker for SSSF, and her family. This is the most exciting part of the trip for me as I will get to introduce Jay to the SSSF students and to check on their progress since I last saw them in Sudan. We will be sure to update you about them and the next leg of our trip soon!

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Hardest Road in Africa

Our day in Moyale, Kenya started relatively late considering the five in the morning departures we had become accustomed to in Ethiopia. We ate breakfast at a small shop (75 cents for the two of us) and were able to get dollars to pay for our visas, which we did without hassle.

The next task was to book a spot on a truck to Nairobi. The typical route takes you through the Kenyan desert and into the highlands past Mount Kenya, something we were excited to see. We were informed however, that this two-day route was far too dangerous. Tribal conflict was making passage impossible. Instead we would have to travel East into the Somali region and then South. This was a much safer options for the Kenyans, but Somali-American history added another element of danger for Jay and I (see Blackhawk Down).

After quickly talking our way down from the Muzungu (Swahili for white person) price of 2000 schillings to 1000 each we found ourselves on the top of a steel cage that covered the back of a late model Mitsubishi lorry. Our fellow passengers included 2 Kenyan soldiers who we quickly made friends with, several other Kenyan travelers, and about 20 cows standing below our perches on the steel frame.

Jay and I both could not wipe smiles off our faces as we descended out of Moyale and into the desert. We could hardly comprehend the comfort of being able to breathe fresh air rather than the nauseating, stagnant air commonplace on Ethiopian buses. The metal bars cut the circulation from our legs, and the charging of the bus over nearly nonexistent roads was harrowing, but being outside was a liberating feeling.

Before leaving the last signs of civilization we were stopped several times by Kenyan police to check passports and IDs and in the process picked up more passengers. Now our relatively comfortable spots became precarious inches on the metal bars; an old woman's foot rested on my hand and a younger girl laid her legs squarely in Jay's lap. Fortunately these new, unwelcome travelers stayed on for only about two or three hours. In retrospect this does not seem terribly long, but at the time we had no idea the length of this new route.

Turns out the trip, on top of this cattle truck, through nothing but desert, on nothing but a bumpy, sandy track would take us 14 hours. We were able to keep the trip in perspective for most of the time, knowing it was a once in a lifetime experience and that the discomfort would not be repeated after the trip was over. However, when the light began to fade and one of our soldier friends informed us that we still had six hours to go, we began to recognize the absurdity and danger of this adventure. Furthermore, our palms were becoming calloused from gripping the metal bars and our legs had long since gone into a painful sleep. Sore, exhausted, hungry and now a bit scared we lunged on, well past a blazing-red sunset. Our driver decided that now that he couldn't see the oncoming potholes that they no longer existed. So he sped up.

Now this wasn't exactly an express journey. Our fellow bovine passengers were sleepy from the outset and apparently, we weren't told why, the cows could die if they lay down while traveling. So, at least 15 times throughout the trip, we had to stop for their "caretaker" to tie a strap around their mouth and nose, suffocating them until they stood up to fill their lungs. Their gasping and eyes bulging from terror probably mimicked our reaction to the technique. We also stopped at various police checkpoints. The police always made a point of grilling our passports in an attempt at proving their power. We stopped once late in the afternoon in a town with far more camels than people for spaghetti with potatoes and beans and no silverware. The gruel was washed down with a cup of warm chai and ten minutes later we were hustled back aboard the truck.

We were able to see some of Kenya's famed wildlife while on the truck: Giraffes, DikDiks, Ibex, a snake (fortunately Jay didn't see this one), Jackals, Ostriches and Gazelles. At one point that night, just seconds after a hyena crossed through our headlights, we had to stop for the cows again. Our stopping place was not fortuitous. The truck struggled to restart in the deep sand and we were told that the increasing rustling in the bushes meant hyenas had honed in on the distressed mooing of the cattle. Finally, with a few brave soldiers helping to free the truck, we jolted out of the sand leaving a pack of disappointed hyenas in our wake.

Finally, as exhaustion neared delirium, we made it to the Somali (Somali people, not in Somalia) town of Garissa. Or almost made it. The truck decided to stop at a police checkpoint for the night 10km outside of the first eclectic lights we had seen in hours. Luckily the soldiers we had befriended, one a new father, were just as eager to reach Nairobi as we were. They borrowed the police phone and called for a taxi that we split into Garissa. The relief at sitting in the comfortable seat of that car was unbelievable.

We made it to Garissa at 2:30am, a half hour after the last bus to Nairobi had left. So, we spent the next 3 and a half hours in a hole of a Somali-owned "restaurant" playing cards, drinking tea and eating the scraps of the food left over from what they had made for the guests who arrived at normal hours. Beyond our bruised bodies, hunger, and exhaustion, an angry Somali not pleased with our arrival yelled at his friends while staring at us (the only word we recognized was "American") making the stay just a little bit more uncomfortable.

Plenty ready to leave we eventually hopped a bus for Nairobi at six that morning. Again, unaware of the actual distance, we expected to arrive around eleven. Instead, after about 30 police checkpoints and plenty of moneyed handshakes by the driver we were dropped in Eastleigh, the Somali part of Nairobi around four in the afternoon. Thanks to Peter, one of the soldiers, we found the right Matatu (one pumping massive amounts of base into our already delirious heads) to Westlands where our amazingly hospitable hosts, Nate and Jill, live. After taking probably the most needed showers of our lives we went out for even more needed food heading straight for a pizza place that I remembered from my first visit to Nairobi. Beer and pizza have never tasted more gourmet but, having not eaten a meal for two days we went directly to the burger joint next door after each finishing a pie.

It looks like we will be heading to Nakuru, Kenya tomorrow to interview children for The South Sudan Scholarship Foundation ( Later next week we expect to arrive in Kampala, Uganda where we will meet the original SSSF students and stay with their caretaker, Acen.

Out of Ethiopia

Sitting here in an Internet Cafe in a modern Nairobi mall that I had frequented two years previously, it is truly astounding to think back to the leg of this trip Jay and I completed just yesterday; down what is known as the most dangerous road in Africa.

We left the comfort of Dr. Abebe's home in Addis Ababa on Monday at around 4:30AM to catch a bus to the border town of Moyale (there is a Moyale, Ethiopia and a Moyale, Kenya). Unfortunately, the bus was full by the time we lugged our massive and aptly named, Jandd "Goliath" packs through a bustling station. Thanks to the wherewithal and successful jockeying of Abebe we were instead able to catch a bus to Dilla, a university town about halfway between Addis and Moyale. Completely underestimating Ethiopia's environmental diversity we both expected to find ourselves in increasingly flat and more arid landscape as we got further South. Instead, we rose out of Awassa and Shashamene into the high mountains of what we were told is the place of origin for coffee (not sure if any South American country would argue this point). Dilla itself was beautiful and a nice stop. This was especially so considering the bus driver, who we later discovered had never driven this route before, seemed hellbent on launching us off one of the mountains. He had no idea how to downshift, so in order to make it up hills he would put the petal to the metal on the preceding downhill to get momentum for the uphill; oncoming traffic, pedestrians, corners be damned.

We left the next day, again at 4:30. Surely this time we would be heading into more arid terrain. Again, we were mistaken as we climbed even further into the lush green mountains. After a breakfast break in one of the mountain villages our bus, not unpredictably, broke down just on the outskirts of town. We got off to wait and were soon surrounded by probably 30 or 40 kids. For some reason the "you you you" and incessant begging had been left behind in Dilla and these kids simply wanted to practice their limited English and play soccer with us. The hour and a half break turned out to be a great experience.

After the bus was revved back to life we finally began our descent out of the Ethiopian highlands. The ubiquitous herds of sheep and goats turned into camel trains and we were soon in desert scrub-land. We had no idea how long this part of the trip would take. Whenever we passed over any sort of vertical change in the landscape we would hopefully look ahead for signs of a town. We looked for buildings for hours until finally, 10 hours after leaving Dilla, we pulled into Moyale, Ethiopia.

Being late in the day we half-expected, and feared, that the border would be closed. Instead we passed easily under the make-shift gate and into Kenyan customs where, ironically, they would not accept the Kenyan Schillings for which we had exchanged our Ethiopian Biir. No, the Kenyan Government only accepts American Dollars. After much hassle we were able to convince the border agents to allow to return the next day with dollars and were allowed to spend the night in Kenya with out a visa.

It was a neat feeling for me to return to Kenya having worked there two years before. That night we naively asked the Somali owner of our hotel where we could have a beer. As a Muslim he said he did not drink and furthermore, that all of Moyale was Muslim. Then, in a hushed voice he told us of a secret bar hidden behind the local prison. Here, the Christian policemen stationed in Moyale could sneak away for a drink. We thanked him and made our way, rather nervously, to the speakeasy. Once there we met a friendly Kenyan engineer who offered us a free stay on the Kenyan coast. Unfortunately those resorts were never part of our itinerary.

The next day we were to leave for what would probably be the hardest part of our journey.

Our first, belated, Africa Update: Ethiopia

Hey everyone! Sorry about the delay in getting this first post online. Whether it was a lack of power, internet, or this site being down we haven’t been able to get this long overdue post up for weeks.

Anyways, 17 days into Africa and things have gone well, if not without the predictable chaos. First, in a place we foresaw no problems, Frankfurt, Germany, our plane aborted it's take off with a screech of breaks just as the nose was lifting off the tarmac. We were hurriedly evacuated from the plane to the not so comforting image of smoking wheel-wells and the entirety of the airport fire brigade. We were shuttled into awaiting buses, the first of which promptly broke down as we entered the tunnel leading into the terminal. We were forced to remain inside the overcrowded and stifling-hot buses for near-to an hour with a crowd already in panic-mode from the experience aboard the plane.

We did finally make it safely to Ethiopia on July 3rd, about 5 hours late. Luckily our host, Dr. Abebe lives near enough to the airport that our late arrival was not an enormous inconvenience. He and his family have been incredibly hospitable, driving us in and out of downtown Addis Ababa and feeding us the delicious local cuisine (a fermented wheat flatbread called ingera)…and beer...and, Jay’s favorite (wink wink), plenty of Johnny Walker.

Our first scheduled visit was to the future site of Christian World Foundation’s Acacia Children’s Village, about an hour outside Addis Ababa. When completed, this impressive undertaking will feature a dormitory for 250 orphans awaiting adoption along with a chapel and health clinic for the children as well as the local community. We were particularly impressed by CWF's inclusion of the local population in a project intended to benefit orphans from all over the country. Our visit culminated with a heart-wrenching visit to CWF’s currently operating children’s home. It was difficult to see so many children who had lost their parents in one place, but it was also encouraging to know that the ones we met were on their way to a new life in the United States. Ethiopia is a country with over five million orphans. These were, in fact, some of the lucky ones.

Our next venture was to the south of Ethiopia, to the city of Awassa. Awassa is a very attractive city set amongst a few sparse hills and overlooking a large lake. Although there were a few “ferengies” (white people) in the restaurants, we were the only two who took to exploring the streets. Most traveled in NGO vehicles from restaurant to hotel to office. The novelty of our wanderings showed as every child we passed would chant the only English words they knew “you you you.” In our time in Awassa we meandered through the town and its large market quite a bit, hiked a local hill that gave a beautiful view of both the rural areas and the lake, chatted with college students, and got a taste for Ethiopian nightlife (which essentially means bars packed with men and everyone heading home by 9).

Our reason for heading south first was to visit Lon Kennard and the Village of Hope. 15 years ago Lon and his wife adopted several children from Ethiopia. When they went to pick up the new additions to their family they were stunned by the poverty they saw and their children’s heart-wrenching stories. They decided to try and make an even greater difference in the lives of even more Ethiopians. The difference we witnessed first hand was nothing short of miraculous. Beyond their home for at-risk children they also have “reinvented” agriculture in the local area and begun to spread new practices and strategies to prevent famine across Ethiopia. They have also expanded their work from the site we visited to the South of the country where they are working to provide education and healthcare to a small rural tribe, a program for street children in Addis Ababa and even a new project in Uganda. We wish Lon, his family and, the Village of Hope the best of luck in their current and future endeavors!

Our trip back North to Addis was, to say the least, an experience. We were able to catch a bus from Shashamene (the land of the Rastafarians) to a town about 2 hours outside of Addis; that was the only indication we had as to the location of this town. That part was relatively easy if not cramped, hot and quite smelly. We arrived in this small town in the dark and were fortunate to find a van to take us to Addis. Jay was pampered in this section of the trip as he got to ride in the front seat. I was given a wooden stool on the floor in the back, and we both got to watch through the windshield as the van darted, near 100 mph, through oncoming trucks and buses as our driver munched incesently on the local narcotic, "chaat." When we did arrive in Addis, six hours after our departure, we decided not to push our luck in the dark bus park and took a cab to a well lit cafĂ© to meet Abebe. As we pulled away from a traffic light we noticed that both the engine and all electricity in the cab had ceased and we were simply rolling, unlit and un-powered, down Addis’s busiest street. “No problem” the cab driver assured us as cars narrowly avoided us as we coasted our way to the curb. After tinkering with the engine a bit the cab driver got back in and instead of the car firing up again he simply rolled it back into traffic. This time when the car rolled to a stop he exited the car and sprinted away with Jay and I locked in the backseat. Only after climbing through the front and, in the process, ripping off his passenger side door panel, then using a jackknife to pop the trunk to get our bags were we able to get free. As we walked away the driver came screaming back out of an alley demanding payment. We refused and he finally gave up after pummeling Jay's bag a bit.

Our next venture, after a recovery day at Abebe’s, was to Gonder in the north. We caught a bus Addis at 5am (left at 6:15, we still haven’t mastered Africa time) and began what would eventually be a 13 ½ hour bus ride to the far north-westerly city (Gonder is known as "The Camelot of Africa" as it was once an imperial capital and remains home to several castles). The ride north in a private company’s coach was quite comfortable and the scenery was spectacular. We rose out of Addis into high farmlands that could easily be mistaken for Vermont (the pouring rain and 50F temperature also drew a resemblance). Then, in an incredible change of scenery, the highlands dropped away into a massive gorge with the Nile River lying at the bottom of what is about an hour-long descent on cliff-edge singletrack. The charred-wrecks of trucks, and not so encouragingly, buses could be seen strewn across the cliffs for the duration of the descent. Once across the Nile we again rose to a high plateau and then hours later, after again crossing the Nile, into the Simien Mountains. These mountains, as featured on Planet Earth, are incredible. Their high, pointed spires are dotted with tiny farming communities. Jay and I both remarked that they look more like something you would expect in Southeast Asia or the Andes.

We arrived, once again in the rain, at our government-run hotel at dark and were too tired to venture into the city. The site of the hotel is amazing, set atop cliffs that overlook the city. The hotel itself? Not so fantastic. Anyways, we were greeted the next morning by a beautiful sunrise over the mountains. The castles of Gonder below lay in mist creating a most fantasy-like image.

Our first task, before we could enjoy the sites, was to find transport back to Addis for the next day. After some struggle we found the private bus company’s office where we were informed the next available bus was 4 days later. Not a good situation. Fortunately we were able to find a public bus headed for Addis the next day and were able to enjoy the sites of a great city for the rest of the day.

The next day started at 4:00 and not well. Again it was raining, our taxi driver hosed us ($7 for a 5 mile ride? Absurd by Ethiopian standards), and Jay had to battle the guys putting our bags on the roof. They asked for money because, as they said, “it’s a long ways to Addis.” “Ya, but it remains the same distance to the top of the bus” Jay countered. He eventually came out victorious with the help of an onlooker embarrassed by her countrymen's attempt at extorting visitors.

Three hours into the ride and it looked like the public bus may only be a few hours slower than the private but it was certainly not comfortable. Like our trip to Awassa the bus was overcrowded and again, no one opened their windows. A man dying of tuberculosis lay and moaned in the isle next to us. Nevertheless, our spirits were leveled by the fact that we remained ahead of schedule even after pit-stops for an elderly woman who had soiled herself, two flat tires and a 75-cent lunch (Coke included). We passed through the biggest towns of the trip and the Nile Gorge – this time I think we both said a few more Hail Mary’s as the old Fiat bus made the descent – and were still on a good pace. The passing of these landmarks served to alleviate some of our fears of spending the night somewhere along the road. We had been warned of this uncomfortable fate by a student we had met and ate dinner with the night before.

We were just three hours away from Addis when our hopes were sunk. The bus pulled-off the road and into the corrugated steel gate of the aptly-named “Africa Hotel.” We were horded by the hotel's owners into a tiny, dingy room for the night. We had no idea what town we were in, met no one who spoke English (except a few young men who were upset Obama visited Ghana and not Ethiopia), and were not so excited about sleeping in what amounted to an Ethiopian flop-house. In the end, a night sleeping fully clothed on top of the sheets was not as terrible as we had anticipated. Nor was the 4AM departure.

We arrived safely back in Addis and have spent a few relaxing days here at Abebe’s, preparing for the next leg of the trip. Tomorrow morning we will leave Addis on another public bus for the border of Kenya, a town called Moyale. From there we will look for a truck to Nairobi. Our reason for taking a truck is the safety of the convoys in which they travel. Northern Kenya, near to the border of Somalia, is renowned for its dangerous bandits and warring tribes.

As difficult as our trip may sound to this point I could not be happier to be back in Africa and Jay is enjoying his first time here. We are both looking forward to the changing scenery and challenges Kenya will surely present!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Off to the Great Continent

6 months of planning, the addition of so many great sponsors along with a considerable amount of time convincing Jay that snakes are more afraid of him than he is of them (may be a lie) and we are finally off for Africa! We leave from Boston this afternoon and after a brief layover in Frankfurt will arrive tomorrow night in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

A brief intro to our project: our goal is to capture through video and writing the people that are making a positive impact on the lives of children of Africa today. While this may seem simplistic, think about those images of Africa that you probably have from the media today. Most likely those pictures are of indiscriminate bloodshed and, children with bloated bellies and flies on their eyes. These images serve only to create a feeling of despair to the viewer. We believe that along with this despair comes inaction as those problems seem too vast to overcome.

While we recognize that Africa faces problems unprecedented in most of the rest of the world, we also know that people are making positive and enduring changes for the Continent, even if it is just one child at a time (we will be posting the links of these organizations as we go so you can check out the great work that they are doing and hopefully contribute to the effort).

Ideally we want to share with you, and hopefully many others, the stories of the people and programs that are working towards what we believe is a universal right; the right to a happy childhood.

We hope to update this blog as much as possible. So stay tuned and pass on the link!