Sunday, December 16, 2012

My Bicycle

 It's been almost two months already since I arrived in Thailand and, as usual, my first blog post is fashionably late. The place I am currently calling home is the small town of Phrae in the northern region of the country, where few travellers come and English speakers have become a bit of a novelty for me.

Even after two months Thailand still feels like a complete mystery to me. The communication barriers have made it very difficult to get to know anyone or to gain any real understanding of the culture. What I know mostly comes from travel guides and the typically cynical perspectives of the few long term expats in town. But I suppose that in this little town of Phrae I am as much a mystery to the people here as they are to me.

My status in town seemed to elevate slightly when I acquired a pedal bike to cruise the town on. No one walks anywhere ... apparently other than tourists and the poorest of the poor (and there seem to be very few from either category). The vast majority drive scooters, while the others use cars or bicycles. With the acquirement of my bicycle, it seems that people went from looking at me as mere tourist to something of a more permanent fixture. I now get nods from other cyclists and motorbikers and feel pretty local when I pull up in front of the open market to buy bananas from my favorite fruitseller.

I've gotten into the habit of going on daily rides in the countryside. My favorite loop (ie. the one with the fewest stray dogs trying to chase and eat me) winds through a small village and then through rice paddies at the base of the stunning nearby jungle laden hills. I still get strange looks from those whose houses and shops line the village streets. I'm sure they are wondering where the 'farang' (foreigner) could possibly be going and why I only seem to ever pass in one direction. Here are a few photos from my sunset ride this evening.

Time for rice harvesting before the dry season sets in
The main irrigation canal. My research focus on those who are managing this waterway.
My research work involves the recent UN award winning participatory irrigation management scheme in the area. The program involves farmers at the grassroots in decision making surrounding the water management. I am talking to those involved about how the scheme works and whether there is anything happening to make water use more sustainable. The work itself fluctuates between being enjoyable and frustrating, often leaning heavily towards frustrating... again, because of communication issues. There has been one lovely soul, however, that has been willing to help with translation when possible and has made my job much easier (Thanks Toon!). There is now the bittersweet prospect of having only a few days left in Phrae before heading back to Bangkok. Good times to come though, with a certain lovely man to meet up with for a couple weeks of touring through Cambodia and Thailand. After New Year's, I'll be heading to a new site which I expect will be just as, if not more, challenging than this one. I'll try to be a bit more regular with my posts!


Saturday, December 10, 2011

Trouble at the Airport

I arrived at the Nairobi International airport at 6:30 this morning with seemingly plenty of time to make my 8:30 flight. I was slightly concerned when I saw the line for the check-in counter looping through the building, out the door, and wrapping around the outside of the building. The line was moving at a reasonable pace until I was inside the building and it ground more or less to a halt. Upon asking an airport staff member if I should be concerned about missing my flight, I was told 'don't worry, you'll be called.' I wasn't. But was comforted by the fact that everyone in the line around me was in the same boat.

I made it to the front of the line at 8:11, nine minutes before my flight was scheduled to be in the air. I'll give some credit to Kenyan Airways - although the process of getting into their airport seems somewhat chaotic and disorganized, they do know how to make it up to their clients when mistakes are made. They immediately booked me on a flight for tomorrow, put me up in a high end hotel, and gave an unecessarily large sum of cash for compensation.

So now me and a lovely Cameroonian girl who was also left behind are hanging out in our fancy hotel. Both aware that we are well underdressed and well out of place, we couldn't help giggling to ourselves when we walked into the hotel, were given hot towels, glasses of fresh squeezed juice, and a concierge to carry our luggage. So if all goes well, I'll be on my way to Madagascar tomorrow.

I'm still trying to figure out how time went so quickly over these last few months. It seems like it was just yesterday that I arrived and yet an eternity all at the same time. There are so many new and wonderful people in my life and so many experiences that I have been blessed to partake in and learn from. Life is such a great adventure.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Something I love (and hate) about Kenya

The public transport.

There are number of positives about the Kenyan system of intra-city transport. First of all, you never have to wait. In contrast to the Canadian system where if you miss a bus you are left standing in the wind, snow, and cold for half an hour, here there is almost always a matatu (minibus) ready and waiting when you arrive at the stop. And if not, you never need to wait more than a minute or two before one pulls up and offers you a ride. This also proves to be the case with the bodaboda (motorcycles used as taxis) on the coast. One of my favorite moments occured when I got off the matatu at the last stop, still a couple kilometers from where I stayed. As the matatu came to a complete stop, a bodaboda driver wearing a white and pink winter jacket (in the tropical coastal climate) saw me through the window and wasting no time ran up, flung his arms open wide, and exclaimed "I am here!!" I broke into a fit of giggles and happily accepted his offer for a lift. How could I say no, really? Where else do you get service like that?

Secondly, it is quite cheap. On the coast I can get a ride to the second village down for a mere 40 cents. In Nairobi, I can get from the outskirts to dowtown for 30. You just need to pay attention to how much everyone else on the matatu is paying and be ready to demand your change when the conductor (the guy who takes your money and opens the door) tries to rip you off. In the case of the bodaboda, you are also able to haggle a price that is even lower than the one first suggested.

Ruthless driving is a characteristic of most matatus. I haven't quite decided if this is a postive or negative. They don't hesitate to drive on sidewalks, cut of lories and motorbikes, or take completely new routes if they think it will get us there faster. In some cases, perhaps it actually does. In most cases, I think it just angers other drivers for the sake of moving one or two carlengths before coming to a standstill in the traffic jam once again.

I've been told that the law enforcement has vastly improved when it comes to matatus and traffic safety. At least in Nairobi. In the big city, drivers are adherent to the rule that each seat must only contain one person. On the coast, where traffic police were few and far between, the drivers and conductors make sure to cram in as many people in order to squeeze out maximum profit. Often there are 5 on a seat meant for 3 plus 3 or 4 additional people standing half in/half out and hanging on to the door frame for dear life. If you're really unlucky, one of the people you're crammed up against might be a woman on her way to a market with a bucket of large fish, the tails dangerously close to slapping you in the face.

The commute in Nairobi has downsides of its own. Namely the constant traffic jams present regardless of the place, day, or time. A couple of days ago, I was stuck in an even worse jam than usual in a stifling bus with windows that refused to open. We had moved about 1km in an hour, breathing in excessive exhaust fumes the whole time. At about that time, the two women in front of me started singing an extremely repetitive, annoying song something like 99 bottles of beer on the wall. They got down to 1 green bottle hanging on the wall, started counting back up again, and I decided I might go crazy if I sat there any longer. So I got off the bus and walked down the highway into downtown.

Overall, I quite enjoy my daily commutes to wherever it is I might be going. There is hardly a day where something amusing (or at least amusing in retrospect) doesn't happen.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Lions and Cheetahs and Buffalo, Oh my!

I realized just how lucky I am today when I heard that the temperature at home is about -25C. At the same time, I was watching lions try to chase down a warthog on the plains of the Maasai Mara National Park. My weekend getaway has included staying at a hillside lodge with an amazing landscape view and watching a huge diversity of wildlife, including cheetahs, hyenas, elephants, jackals, wildebeest, antelope, buffalo, giraffe, and topi.

Apologies that the last entry was added just about forever ago. I got to the point that there were just so many things to say that I didn’t know where to start. Perhaps I’ll jump back to about a week ago. You’ll have to ask me about the events of the missing month when I return home.

Last Saturday was bittersweet, as I had to bid farewell to the Watha community (see last entry) who I had been working with over the last two months. In that short amount of time, I began to develop friendships with many of these people and gained many treasured and valuable experiences. In addition to all that I learned in regards to my research, I was also taught how to greet others in the Watha language, to navigate the complex web of family relationships (figuring out who to call grandmother/grandfather, mother/father, aunt/uncle, sister/brother, etc.) to pound maize into flour, to properly eat ugali (the Kenyan staple made of maize flour) with my hands, to make makuti (the local material used to build thatched roofing), to ward off mosquitos by burning the sap of a specific tree, and to ride on the back of a motorbike wearing a skirt – just to name a few.

We had a farwell/wind-up party to celebrate the work that had been done and the relationships that had been formed. And of course a party just wouldn’t be a party if there was no goat to be slaughtered. Lucky for me, the actual slaughtering is a male role and I only had to help in preparing the meat for cooking. After sharing the meal of goat, ugali, and sukuma wiki (boiled kale), numerous people shared short speeches. It was apparent that there was a high degree of mutual appreciation for the time we had spent together. I shared my appreciation for being so quickly and unreservedly welcomed into their community as a member of the family (the younger children and teenagers had even begun to address me as Batho - the respectful term for an older sister). They expressed their appreciation for the time I took to get to know them and for the way in which I shared my life with them (sharing family photos, telling stories about my home and culture), a common courtesy that a few foreign researchers have disregarded in the past. I am truly thankful for the experiences I have gained over the past few months.

Part of an amazing Watha family - Bao (father), amalo (grandfather), and Godana (my brother/research assistant/translator)

I have been thinking a lot about the Watha people and their place in the social fabrics of Kenya. From conversations with them, it seems that only recently have they began emerging as a proud culture that wants its unique heritage to be known. In the past, they have tended to integrate and assimilate with the surrounding communties and cultures. They admitted a past reluctance to be obviously 'Watha' and the tendancy to adopt the surrounding languages and religions. This may be in part due to some of the practices (using derogatory terms for hunter/gatherers) and beliefs (you will be destined to a life of poverty if you marry a Watha) of other communties. In the recent past, however, they have expressed a desire to be known for who they are. They no longer want to be grouped as 'other' on the census; they no longer want to be shy in using their own language in the presence of others; they want to share their vast knowledge about the forest and their traditional uses of the plants and animals found there. A traditional Watha dance. The movements mimic the courtship display of a forest bird.

This desire to be known as a distinct tribe also comes at a unique period in the broader Kenyan cultural context. Following the post-election violence in 2008, tribalism was identified as one of the root causes of the horrific clashes that occured at that time. Tribal allegiance has also been used to facilitate corruption and inequality in the distribution of wealth and development within the country. Since the post-election violence, there has been a push for citizens to be united as 'Kenyan,' rather than to continue to maintain such strong tribal bonds. Starting with about my generation and younger, a slight shift in this direction is becoming vaguely apparent. I have met a few who identify themsleves first as Kenyan and do not speak their 'mother tongue', but only the widely spoken Kiswahili and English. Even in the Watha community, some of the small children are no longer being taught the Watha language. I asked a small boy "Mankanke oni (what is your name)?" I was surprised when my translator explained that he does not understand the language of his people.

I find this concurrent desire to express individual culture, while at the same time moving towards a culturally united Kenya to be a very interesting contrast. There are so many beautifully rich and unique cultures (more than 42) within the colonial defined borders of this country and it would be tragic if any of them were lost. Finding a way to strike a balance between preserving culture and seeking a new Kenyan identity will be a huge challenge in the future of the country and its people, the Watha included.

I will end my ramblings there for now. I will try to provide more regular updates in my last few weeks now that I am back in Nairobi and have reliable internet once again.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Hadiwa Waqa

The last week in Kenya has been a truly amazing, treasured experience. I have been working amongst the Watha people, a group who traditionally rely on hunting and gathering for their livelihoods and have an astounding abundance of ecological knowledge. They have been scattered across the coastal region and now more heavily rely on agriculture since the remaining forest in this area is now protected. It seems that their main desire, as a community, is to have their name and heritage officially recognized.

Officially, there are 42 tribes in Kenya. The Watha aren't one of them. They have been engaged in a decade long struggle to become known as the 43rd tribe. Here, most people don't identify themselves first as Kenyan as we tend to first identify ourselves first as Canadian. Their first identity belongs with their tribe. Members of the Watha group tell me that it is often difficult for them to get employment or even identity cards because thier name is not officially recognized. They are considered foreigners in their own country.

The amazing Watha family that has spent so much time with me.

The Watha have graciously and readily accepted me into their community. My field supervisor, prof Harry Spaling, was able to spend two days with me for initial introductions to some of the community members. We were shown around and introduced by a father and son, both of whom I now consider friends. It's amazing that after two days of sharing laughs and stories of family, culture, and experiences, we all feel like we've known each other for a year rather than just a few short days. I have even been given a Watha name similar in pronunciation to my actual name. Hadiwa Waqa. Hadiwa is a girl's name that means 'hard worker' and Waqa means 'for/from God.' Introducing myself by this name is always returned with grins and seems to be an instant ice breaker.

This week, I will be visiting and interviewing some of the community members about their involvement in the consultations for the Kenya Coastal Development Project, a regional water and land use plan. I am also hoping to have the opportunities to spend some time with a woman working on her small farm and to go on a forest walk with an old man who claims to know everything about the forest. From the couple of fascinating times times that I've talked with him, I believe his claims are true.

I am staying at a guest house run by A Rocha Kenya, a conservation organization that is located basically right on the Indian Ocean a few kilometers south of Watamu. The people and location are fantastic. Yesterday a few of us went for a dip in the sea just as a huge rainstorm came in. As the waves rolled in and the rain pumelled down on us, it just seemed like one of those times where you think it's just good to be alive.

"Hell's Kitchen" - rock formations near Marafa

Thursday, September 29, 2011


I exchanged the sounds of bustling urban Nairobi for the more nautral hum of cicadas and the ocean. On Sunday, I took the 10 hour bus ride from the capital to the coastal town of Watamu. Nairobi seemed like a strange island of Western culture, filled with up-scale malls, movie theatres, and every variety of food you could possibly want. In my new town, with the help of a local who introduced himself as Captain Stingray, it took a lap around the entire town and a visit to almost every shop just to find a newspaper. Life feels a bit slower again!

From town, I had quite an enjoyable hour long walk watching the local transport (pikipiki - motorbikes and tuk tuks - three wheeled vehicles) whiz by, hearing kids yell ciao (instead of hello, bonjour, or jambo, as there is a somewhat substantial Italian population nearby), and exchanging greeting with a Maasai draped in traditional garb (red checkered cloth) while he adjusted the piercing in his very stretched earlobe.

Research wise, there are days that feel very productive and others when there is frustratingly little to do. I had a good meeting yesterday with a driver from the forest research institute nearby. He is a member of the indigenous community that I hope to talk to for my research and is willing to introduce me to all the right people. Now I just need to talk to his boss to see if he can help me out for a few days. In case I haven't mentioned before, my research deals with looking at how communities are involved in high level environmental assessment and if that participation leads to any kind of learning outcomes that result in sustainable resource use. This particular indigenous communtiy was involved in a series of consultation during the development of a regional land and water use plan. I hope to talk to them about their experiences during the consultations.

Today has been one of those days with very little to be done. Apparently 11 am was the lowest tide of the year, so I went exploring the rock pools along the nearby beach. While I'm getting quite antsy to get on with work, I suppose I can't complain about teh way I get to spend my down time.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

I saw a wild giraffe today. Kind of. Actually it was more like a brown blob in the distance... but definitely a giraffe. I just arrived back in Nairobi after a week long research related trip to the coastal region of Kenya and will likely be going back to that area as it holds a promising study site for my work. I have found that all of the people I have contacted have been extremely accomodating and willing to help. And my potential future accomodation lies about a one minute walk from the ocean and very near a marine park that apparently boasts good snorkelling conditions. Field work is rough...

Last weekend on the way to the coast our little research team (consisting of a Canadian prof, two student research assistants, and myself) stopped for two days in a village called Kisayani where my professor and his assistant are doing some follow up research on a community water project that was implemented about ten years ago. I heard of this project about four years ago when it was presented as a case study in an undergrad environmental assessment course, so it was extremely interesting to see it in person. The project involved a water diversion from a natural spring to feed a few very dry villages with fresh water. Two local women took us to see the beginning of the pipeline at the mouth of the spring and we were surprised to find a new pipeline system currently being built to service another town. The new pipes are almost double the diameter of the ones currently there, and so serious concerns about the sustainability of the water supply for the original communities have been raised. The local women were also quite concerned about keeping adequate distance between themselves and a large hole in the ground which they say is the home of a snake so large that you can't even take a picture of it.

I've decided that any spelling and grammar fanatic could find plenty of work in this country. Signs and menus are more often than not written in English, and provide me with a more or less endless source of amusement. Perhaps in the morning I could get some scrumbled eggs from the shoping centre. For a treat, I can get some healthy sauce on top of my ice cream. According to my official government issued research permit, I am from the Univesity of Menitoba. Perhaps my favorite - not so much lacking in spelling as in logic - is a notice posted in the lobby of a research institute reading 'in case of fire, yell FIRE! FIRE! and then run a fast as possible towards the incident.'

Until next time!