Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Negotiating Your Way through East Africa

I live in a culture of constant negotiation. If you lack skill in this area you may not last long here.

Prices in stores and shops are ‘fixed’ but I really doesn’t hurt to ask.

In open air markets everything must be bargained for. It’s expected. I’ve noticed at the craft market things are so inflated for the ‘first price’ so as to gouge the tourists who may not even try to bargain. I usually tell the seller before I ask the price, “Now don’t scare me away when you tell me how much. I’m not a tourist.” Even if they start me at a ‘resident’s price’ they expect to bargain. Honestly, it’s half the fun.

Why? It builds a relationship. Since I am not a tourist, I will be back if I get a good price and a quality product. And the building of a relationship is what makes it so fun.

This weekend I was the first in my small group to arrive at a restaurant where we were gathering for an afternoon social. I was surprised to find they were serving a buffet and really pushing it, not wanting to cook off the regular menu. I told them we weren’t expecting to pay so much for a whole heavy meal. Eventually the ala carte menu came.

While they arranged the tables for our group, the manager told the buffet is normally 1500 but for us he would make it 1100 each for us. And half price for the kids. I hadn’t even tried.

One day I was at a new doctor. I asked after the initial appointment for the cost of the visit so I could pay. I was honestly a bit shocked it was so high and I said as much to the receptionist. She immediately shaved 1000 shillings off the visit. I was equally as shocked, but proceeded to try to get her to come down further, almost without thinking. It’s must be in my blood.

There’s a line from a movie, “Nothing is final until you’re dead. And even then I’m sure God negotiates.” Certainly the first half of that statement is true.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Big Bird

I know you’re thinking of that yellow, fluffy guy from Sesame Street. But in Kenya we have an assorted variety of big birds. I think I can safely say the biggest is the ostrich. On Saturday I went with some of our visiting faculty to a nearby ostrich farm.
Did you know that ostriches have two sets of eyelids? Or that the males dig a nest in the ground for the females to lay their eggs? A single egg is the equivalent of 25 chicken eggs!
Mike Paulsen felt a sense of victory after his ride on an ostrich.
Caroline Paulsen wasn’t too sure it would be fun, but just look at that face.
The males have red necks.
The ladies are just gray in color. But they have a certain beauty of their own.

Friday, March 26, 2010

A Twirl and a Smirk at the Back Gate

Sometimes this place just makes me smile.

It was a busy day for me here in campus. I have several student interviews; students that I’d scheduled appointments with to check-in and write up their semester reports. A couple more students popped in catching me in between things. I was also trying to track down some ‘missing’ students. A couple that had either been attending classes on the opposite campus we thought or ones that had cleared their classes and weren’t in session this term but would be back for graduation.

I was up and down from my office, running back and forth to a few places on campus. Just about anywhere I go from my office means I walk right by the rear exit gate of the campus. I noticed this afternoon that there was a small crowd of staff and students gathered, chatting.

I heard enough conversation to know that they were commenting on a pretty girl’s matching hair flower and suit as she twirled around to show off. A smirk must have crossed my face because the chaplain that was facing my direction shook his finger and laughed and smiled at me.

I’m not sure why, maybe he didn’t think I knew Swahili and could catch the banter. Or maybe he was just enjoying me enjoying the moment. Either way, there are some days that find myself so grateful for the privilege of living here.

I wonder if you love where you are as much as I love it here.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Another Cool Give-away to Benefit Haiti

I noticed that another pendant has been added to the Junk Posse site. I think this one is even nicer. Please enter.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Walking Into the Wind

The other day I walked from campus to the business area around the corner. The whole walk was only maybe 10 minutes to my destination. Unfortunately it was a windy day and the dust was blowing up in my eyes. That hot day I saw a very typical sight. I mother carrying a baby on her back with the baby bundled in sweater, knit cap and swaddled around baby and mom was a crocheted baby blanket.

I often wonder how babies don’t over heat in the beating-down sun. But this time it occurred to me that perhaps this was a good way to keep that baby clean and perhaps even the dust out of his eyes. And a way to keep the exhaust fumes out of their lungs and face. I don’t know exactly why babies are always bundled up, but it could be because there is so much dirt out there.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Junk Posse

Several weeks ago I stumbled on to an art blog through a link on a blog I read regularly. When I saw the beautiful design of the blog I thought, “I’m going to like this one.” It turns out the blogger is an artist that’s in business to benefit others. Some of her work go to help the recent disaster in Haiti. Currently she’s doing a give-away, and asked others to point new readers to the contest. Check it out!

Art with a purpose is really something I can get behind! Maybe I should start doing something like that.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


A friend tells the story of chiding his firstborn as a young girl saying, “Why are you so contrary?” the question was answered with an obstinate reply, “I’m not contrary!” This struck us as quite humorous.

I don’t always catch the humor in irony. Maybe because it’s not always funny. Regardless, Kenya is a land full of great examples of irony. More times than not, when I go to pay my monthly bill at the Kenya Power and Lighting office at a nearby shopping center, they can’t enter my payment into the computer system because the electricity is out.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


When I first came to Kenya in 1993 I worked with refugees in a little self-help ministry called Hope Craft. Today I help with our international students that are on scholarship at Daystar. Some of them are refugees and some are here by themselves on a student visa; also away from home and family.

Regardless of the circumstances, I find myself drawn to the needs of those that are away from their own cultures. Maybe for the simple reason, I am too. I recently read an article that tells about an African refugee far from home and family. I wanted to share it here so that you can get a picture of what sometimes happens and how it feels.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Could she really give her baby away?

I saw this blog post at Justin Taylor's blog just after I wrote the last post here. Although Justin's is mainly about American birthmothers, it is a helpful summary of thinking about this topic.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Offer from a Street Woman

In Nairobi, there are street people – I imagine it’s similar to any world class city; sometimes they are thought of as beggars. Unlike Minneapolis though, the people you see on the streets of Nairobi are mostly women and children. I must say, there are far fewer street people now than there were 12 years ago. (That probably means there are many more kids in children’s home than before, whether orphaned, or having a parent that simply can’t take care of them.)

Nonetheless, there are still women who beg. I have made it a personal policy not to hand out money. It’s a bit easier to have that decided before being asked for something. In the 90’s it was common for kids to be hooked on sniffing glue. A few coins could keep them high and their hunger at bay. Or their collected money might go to a bigger street boy who does more serious drugs. Back then I would hand out some bread to a child asking for something.

Today I passed a lady I think I have passed before. She was sitting on the side of the path along a busy street getting coated with dust and exhaust fumes. Across the sidewalk from her was a person sleeping in the dirt, perhaps an older child of this woman. She had a baby sitting beside her on the walkway.

As I passed the woman said something to me. I was two steps beyond her when I turned and asked what she said because I thought it an unusual request. I wasn’t sure if I heard her right. She repeated in English, “Take my baby. Can you take my baby?” I looked down at the baby. She looked too small for being able to sit on her own; then I realized she is probably much smaller than she should be for her age.

I told the mother that I would pray for the baby and her. We talked a bit more and I repeated my promise. I wish now that I had turned back and gone to the grocery store for some milk. Praying is good, but I did nothing for the immediate need of this woman.

After walking about another block, I swallowed hard as her offer dawned on me. The mother had only one eye. I don’t know if her other one worked well. I don’t know how she came to have a small child and no husband. But she seemed earnestly willing to give up her child. This gives me one little taste of the kind of desperation some folks live in.

I know I won’t forget to pray for her, because I can’t stop thinking about her. What would you do?

(In the comments, please identify yourself if it won't be clear who you are.)

Friday, March 12, 2010


I wish there were some way to write blog entries while driving. It’s when I get most of my ideas. But driving is challenging enough without trying to figure out some way to jot down ideas or even make a mental note of something.

Because traffic itself is so often on my mind while driving (a good thing), I often think that I could probably write a whole blog on traffic related topics. But as I sit at my desk now, I can’t think of anything that struck me while I was driving earlier today. I also went on a walk and I know I thought of blog topics then, but staring at a blank page didn’t bring them back to memory.

It is the reason I have switched my banner to a traffic photo, though. This photo is taken just a short distance from Daystar’s Valley Road Campus. The scene is very typical of this stretch of road. In fact, it’s typical of most of Ngong Road, most of the time.

The stretch between say, campus and the church I attend is about 6 or 7 kilometers long, and it’s always got a slow train of traffic chugging along it. Which direction is going slowest usually is determined by the time of day, but not always. And don’t be fooled into thinking that the weekends are really any better.

Traffic here is not all that predictable. But Fridays are the worst, usually. Having said that, I’m about to head out into the Friday afternoon rush – going west into the sun. Fun.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Pray Like a Child

I have been reading a book on prayer that was given to me as a gift. I am finding it surprisingly good and helpful – and realistic. I like that. One thing the author talks about is being child-like in your asking.

When I saw this post on a friend’s blog I choked back some tears then realized a little more what it’s like to ask like a child asks. I want to be more like that too.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Chinese Saying

A friend of mind wrote about what the people in her country say when in a traffic jam. I was trying so hard to think of the best way to say this in Swahili:

Usikufa katika jam, umeshinda

Sunday, March 7, 2010


Not sure how the term got its name, but schrubbing refers to a Kenyan speaking English but mixing up letters in words to do it. Usually it’s r’s and l’s that get switched. Those are the main two in Nairobi that get swapped. I think other parts of Kenya have folks that have trouble with b’s and p’s.

There are favorite schrubs. Recently one of the preachers at church caught her schrub, “We need to play for our situation.” This orator caught it right away and corrected the mistake. Another pastor’s proclaimed ‘favorite schrub’ is the quote from Hebrews 12, “since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses…” He likes it because it works just fine to say, “crowd of witnesses.”

There is a plot I pass often that has been working on becoming some kind of business. They have made the neat gravel drive and have tables and chairs in the garden. I don’t know if it’s a restaurant or is it a beauty salon. It could be both. The other day I was passing the sign for it and finally made an effort to read the scrawling font on it. It’s called Subrime. What more can I say?

Friday, March 5, 2010

When a tree falls on empty clothes lines, does it make a sound?

The answer to this non-philosophical question is yes. Last night about 9:30 I was minding my own business, already in my jammies, when I heard an all too familiar sound; that classic falling tree noise. I tensed every muscle waiting for it to hit the building. It didn’t. But as soon as the noise stopped, I put on a wrap and some shoes and grabbed my keys to dash out and see what had happened.

A tree fell from just outside out compound wall over on the clothes lines. We have 18 units in our compound, half are 3-bedroom and half are 4-bedroom. This is the laundry hanging area for the entire place. (I’m sure no one has a dryer!) And oddly enough, this was an evening when no one had forgot and left laundry out.

What makes this all particularly odd is that about 2 months ago a tree fell over that same wall, into our parking lot and damaged three cars, the wall and electric fence. This is only about 10 yards from where the tree last night fell. This is so random, since it wasn’t storming or anything either time.

Since shortly after our first tree fell and the folks across the street cut all their aging trees down, our compound is getting more and more sunny. It’s all fairly minimal on the big scale of recent worldwide earthquakes. But between these two trees and our personal flood, I feel I have had more than my fair share of natural disasters lately.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Habari Mzee?

Generally speaking, old men are the safest and wisest people in Kenya. I’m generalizing here, but it’s generally true. I have advised new-comers from the US working the in slums, “If you are ever in some kind of trouble, look around for an mzee to help you.” (Mzee means old man – but it’s a term of respect.)

The other day I was picking along a muddy road when I noticed an mzee coming towards me. I rehearsed in my mind my respectful greeting in Swahili. As he got closer he smiled and stretched out his hand, I took it into a hand shake and greeted him. But he didn’t let go. He started with how happy we are for the rain even if it means our shoes get muddy.

Still gripping my hand, he then began a story about how he lost his job because of advancing technology and how needy and poor he was. This produced in me a very uncomfortable feeling. I have made it a matter of practice to never hand out money. But I should have been carrying something I could give him, why wasn’t I carrying some peanuts or bread?

Inevitably, the mzee asked for some money. The moment came for me to refuse him. I kept wishing I had been more ready, more practiced for how to handle his request. I’ve been through this enough times. I said I was sorry him, but I couldn’t help. I walked away feeling so badly.

Why couldn’t that have been different? I’m praying for him, and for my next encounter with the same kind of request.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Whining Toto

Not far from my apartment here in Nairobi is a little side street that I enjoy walking on. It’s not really paved (it might have been at one time), and it’s only about two blocks long. Not that we have ‘blocks’ here. On it is a lonely compound. It has a large yard and an old, simple, single-story house on it. The yard is neat, but just the basics. There are no flowering bushes or lawn furniture. In fact, I have often wondered if anyone really lives there. It seems a little deserted. But the grass is cut, it’s not over grown. So it’s not totally forgotten.

Last Saturday, I was on my way back from a walk and I could hear the whiny cry of a toddler. You know the type – perhaps a “crabby, just up from a nap cry”; or an “I need some attention fuss.” I thought to myself, “Ohh, poor toto. No one is minding you.” (Mtoto means child in Swahili; often used mixed into English, the “m” is left off.)

It took a moment to realize it was coming from this place that I often peered at longingly. I slowed my pace peaking first through the gap in the gate and then through the hedge. There was a car or two in the drive. I realized that whine was diminishing.

Then I saw the toto sitting on the front step watching me pass through those same cracks in the fence and hedge. When I could see the whole of this baby, I stopped. I could see he was about 2 or so. I waved; the kind of wave you do for a baby here – flattened palm facing the toto and rocking my hand side to side.

When he could see me he stopped crying altogether. The tired little toto lifted his hand with his fingers spread apart and waved back at me in a slow deliberate motion. It was almost as if in wonder that the creature he was eyeing through the fence had also noticed him – even if his parents had not.

I wished afterward that I had tapped on the gate and introduced myself to the adults inside. I thought as I walked away, it would be a good time to meet these absentee occupants. And that toto might have had a bit more attention from a passing auntie.

Monday, March 1, 2010


I have a friend in Minneapolis that blogs about walking around our neighborhood there. I love reading it. Now I have started walking around my neighborhood here. I cannot go after dark for safety reasons. But in a way, I am glad that it’s light, there would be so much I miss if I couldn’t see it.

Today I walked to the nearest mall, the Yaya Center. All I needed were paper coffee filters for tomorrow morning’s coffee. I didn’t change clothes but left my office attire on adding only my running shoes. I thought about how odd I must look here in this culture where ladies seem to always be well dressed, sporting heels even on the foulest weather days. But as I walked I did notice that there were other ladies in suits wearing runners. Maybe I don’t look so odd.

I noticed too that even though it was ‘rush hour’ even for pedestrians, I had a hard time enjoying a ‘sea of faces’ always wanting to watch my step. It rained all night and half the day. It’s muddy everywhere. I kept wishing for my camera in hand. Because I agree with my friend in Minneapolis, everything is weird, nobody’s paying attention.