I found this millipede crawling around outside my room last night – thankfully it was too big to fit under my door (it tried).
Daaang. Let me tell you, I had extra well-tucked mosquito net.
As some of you may already know, I’ll be coming home for a few weeks in April to do some talks raising money for and awareness about Nyumbani Village. In getting ready for that I’ve been working on some presentations about what the Village is, its history, and why I think its such a worthwhile project. Continuing in the spirit of actually writing something about what I do here, the next several posts will be a draft of one of these presentations. If anybody notices factual errors, things they’d like elaborated, etc. please let me know.
This is the story of Nyumbani Village; what it is, how it came into being, and how a 22-year old kid from Buffalo wound up building rainwater tanks there.
Nyumbani Village is located in Kenya, about three hours east of Nairobi, but the story really starts some 1500 miles away in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In 2001, just when I was starting eighth grade, seventeen street children were shot dead by police as they were scavenging for food. As AIDS decimated the adult population of sub-Saharan Africa, the number of orphans in countries like the DRC skyrocketed. There were no government or private organizations in place to help these children, nobody to feed them or care for them. And so they died just trying to stay alive. These children weren’t necessarily HIV+ themselves, but they were killed by the virus as surely as if they had been.
In Nairobi, this article caught the eye of a Jesuit priest, Father D’Agostino. In 1992, Fr. Dag, as he was known, started the Nyumbani Children’s Home in Nairobi, which today houses 106 HIV+ children ranging in age from just a few weeks to university students. In 1998, he started Lea Toto, which is an outreach program that currently cares for over 3000 HIV+ children and their families living in Nairobi’s vast slums.
Fr. Dag realized, as he read the article, that something more would have to be done if Kenya was going to avoid similar tragedies erupting on the streets of Nairobi. HIV affects far more than just those individuals who are infected with the virus. And so the idea that became Nyumbani Village was born.
The Village was created to house all those left destitute by the AIDS epidemic; not only HIV+ children but those un-infected children who had lost parents to HIV as well as some grandparents left destitute by the deaths of their children. Currently, it houses 736 children and 72 grandparents.
For a child to live at the Village, they must be a double orphan (both parents are dead), destitute, and with no extended family support available. For the grandparents its the same, destitute and with nobody who’s able to support them.
Instead of placing these children in an institutional setting, Nyumbani Village tries to recreate, as much as possible, a traditional family life for these children. To that end, each grandparent lives in their own house with 10 children, of both genders and of varying ages. In the homes, the children and grandparents prepare their own meals, do their own chores, grow some of their own food – as most any other family in the area would. They attend primary and secondary school in the Village, or train in a practical skill at the polytechnic. There is a clinic for when they’re ill, playing fields, a small shop, large farms. It truly is a village.
[For more pictures from around the Village, see here]
There is another important side to Nyumbani Village as well, one focused on tackling an issue that permeates almost all foreign aid to places like Africa. To illustrate this problem, I’m going to tell a short story about a well.
In 2002, the year after the incident in Kinshasa, the civil war that had ravaged since 1991 Sierra Leone ended. A war noted for its exceptional brutality, it left over 50,000 dead, thousands more crippled with the loss of their hands and other limbs, and millions forced from their homes. Infrastructure in the country, power and running water especially, was completely wiped out. Even today the capital, Freetown, is powered mostly by private diesel generators.
The international aid community flocked to Sierra Leone as soon as the war ended. Hundreds of organizations worked to bring food, medical attention, and other forms of relief to the stricken population. One of these organizations (UNICEF, I think) had a project building hundreds of wells in the Kono region, which is on the country’s eastern border with Guinea.
I first saw the well in question, in 2009, several years after it had been built. I was on an Engineers Without Borders trip working with a nearby clinic in Koidu. The well was not far from the clinic, in a small community who’s name I don’t remember which was mostly inhabited by those who’d had their hands amputated by the RUF during the war. There was nothing special about the well – concrete-lined and capped with an India Mk. II hand pump to extract the water. Which, some months back, had broken.
Being a group of engineers-in-training we figured that we would take a stab at fixing it. After all, that Princeton education had to be good for something.
As it turns out, that something is not pump repair. We determined that the sealing ring on the inlet valve had worn out and needed to be replaced. But we didn’t have one, and the community didn’t know where to get one, and so for want of a $1 part there’s a good chance that pump is still, to this day, broken.
That’s the story of the well – it was built, people used it, and now its broken. I tell that story because to me it underlies one of the big problems in international development, and illuminates one of the reasons I find Nyumbani Village to be such a compelling project.
The problem, The Broken Well Problem, to coin a phrase, is, as you’ve probably guessed by now, this: Lets say UNICEF builds a well. (Not to pick on UNICEF; they’re a fantastic organization and this could apply to any NGO). They even spends a few days in each community training a few people on how to maintain and fix wells, so they can throw the word “sustainable” into the title of the project proposal. But they’re a big international organization, with finite resources. When the next crisis emerges, they devote less resources to keeping up the wells or maybe they have to leave the area altogether. And then, as all mechanical systems eventually do, these wells start to break. Even if that guy with three days of well maintenance training correctly diagnoses the problem, chances are there is no supply line to bring in new parts, and little or no money to buy them if there was. I visited the office nearby where they kept a careful record of all the broken wells in the area, but there was nothing they could do about them – they had no way to get spare parts.
To put it simply, the problem is that all aid eventually comes to an end. And when it does, the community is generally stuck with the same problems they started with. Maybe even worse ones.
Solving this problem is the other half of Nyumbani Village’s mission. They’re dedicated to creating a self-sustainable, locally run community that will endure even after the foreign aid stops coming (which they expect to be 7 or 8 years from now).
Sustainable is probably competing for the most over-used adjective in the English language these days – everything, especially when it comes to development projects, is “sustainable”. Its gotten to the point where that word has lost most of its meaning, and I’m loath to use it here except that I can’t find another suitable modifier. I’d say Nyumbani is an “eco-village” except that the crunchy-granola stereotypes associated with that term seem inappropriate applied to place where nobody’s ever heard of granola. I’d say its “organic” if that term hadn’t been overused even more than “sustainable”. I’d say “permaculture” if anybody knew what the hell that meant. But since I’m stuck with “sustainable”, let me emphasize that I mean sustainable in every sense of the word – environmentally, financially, and organizationally. Not in the sense that training those three guys to fix wells in Sierra Leone made that project “sustainable”.
To be continued. . .
Without further ado – on to Nairobi. Cordelia and I arrived Friday afternoon at the Wildebeest Camp, which markets itself as the only tented camp in Nairobi. I was excited for this, as I think tented camps are pretty much the best type of accommodation on the planet. Unfortunately, we didn’t stay in a tent as such on this trip, instead renting out the dorm room, but it was still a pretty fantastic place, one I’d recommend.
Shortly after Cordelia and I arrived Theresa came from Nanyuki, and the two of us headed out to get lunch. On this trip, two interesting things happened.
1-We discovered FunBalls! A FunBall is a ball that is filled with ice cream. The idea is that you can eat the ice cream, and then have the ball to play with afterwards. In theory, its a brilliant concept. In practice, it falls short in two areas. A) The ball doesn’t bounce, and B) if you try to bounce the ball the top always flies off. So to the engineers working at FunBall Inc – You’re onto a good thing here and you’ve almost got it, but don’t call it a day quite yet. Still, one has to applaud any innovation in the field of ice cream delivery.
2-We saw President Kibaki! Or, more correctly, we saw lots of cars with tinted windows driving very fast through town, one of which most likely contained President Kibaki. Theresa was the first to notice that the street, oddly enough, had no cars on it. Unheard of in Nairobi, especially on a Friday afternoon. I should have realized something was up after I chased my FunBall into the street and lived, but I was too absorbed with trying to get that damn top to stay on to take any notice of my surroundings.
Shortly thereafter, a police car came flying down the street followed by the entire presidential motorcade – LandRovers with armed guards, Mercedes with tinted windows and signs on the bumper saying “President’s Escort”, the works. In the center was a cluster of black Mercedes, driving very fast and all bunched together, one of which probably contained Kibaki. Unless that’s what they wanted me to think, and he was really in one of the cars in front or behind. And that’s probably as close to the President of Kenya as I’m even going to get.
When we returned to the hostel Tony had arrived, followed shortly thereafter by Helina, Allie, and Victoria. We went out for Mexican food that night (which was awesome), and generally got mentally prepared for our adventures the next day.
On Saturday morning we went to the David Sheldrick elephant orphanage, which raises orphaned elephants until they can be released back into the wild. Elephant babies apparently need round-the-clock attention or they won’t survive, so the staff of the orphanage actually lives with the elephants, taking on the role of their now-deceased mothers. Its really something – I don’t know that I could sleep in the same room as an elephant, no matter how cute. And they were pretty cute. How cute, you might be asking? Well, let’s examine that scientifically. (You can also examine the pictures following the next paragraph).
As I’m wont to do, especially now that I’m camera-less, I stole pictures from Cordelia, Theresa, Allie, and Helina at the end of the weekend. As a result, I’m now the proud owner of 408 pictures of baby elephants. That’s an average of 102 pictures/person. We were only allowed to see the elephants for an hour, so that works out to 1.7 pictures/minute. And Cordelia only took 19 pictures, so as an outlier she really should be ignored in this analysis (I think – I didn’t really like stats), which brings the average up to 2.16 pictures/person/minute. Numbers like that don’t lie – these animals were, statistically speaking, “adorable”.
After a nice lunch, we went to the giraffe center, which houses eight giraffes that are an endangered type and victims of loss of habitat. As some may suspect, I really enjoyed the giraffe center.
I’d make a joke about that being the second-sloppiest kiss I’ve ever received but for goodness sakes my mom reads this blog.
You might be interested to know that, based on my new picture collection, giraffes are only 1/3 as cute as elephants – 137 pictures. Interestingly enough, I also have six pictures of condoms, which makes them 50% cuter than the rhino at the elephant orphanage. Or which makes this analysis ridiculous. Or both.
Saturday night we went back to my favorite restaurant, Carnivore. I’ve written enough about that in the past, so here’s some pictures.
This was my 4th trip to this restaurant – it gets better every time.
Sunday we went the Masai Market, and then to the water park! Despite the drought in the country, the water park is going full steam ahead. When I first heard that there was a water park I really wanted to go, but then when we arrived I had some second thoughts because it was filled entirely with small children. Entirely. And then we went into the water park and it was awesome, as waterparks generally are. My only complaint was with the lazy river which was neither lazy nor built to accommodate someone of my height. I got stuck and one of the park workers yelled at me. Otherwise, I’d totally recommend it.
All in all, a great weekend in Nairobi. Thanks very much to Helina, Allie, Theresa, and Cordelia for the pictures. And Cordelia generously lent me her camera so in the near future I may actually take some of my own!
The Wednesday after my mother and Evan left (March 2, for those of you keeping track) Cordelia, who’s the head of PiAF came for a visit. We spend most of Wednesday in Nairobi, Thursday and Friday morning at the Village, and then the weekend in Nairobi for a PiAF retreat with Theresa and Victoria (from Mpala, near Nanyuki, and IRC in Nairobi, respectively), Allie (WFP in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia), Tony (Lutheran World Federation in Bujumbura, Burundi), and Helina (Generation Rwanda in Kigali, Rwanda).
Cordelia took lots of pictures while she was here, so in deference to the mantra all of my high school English classes I’ll let them speak for themselves.
Friday morning, Cordelia gave her camera to some of the kids who were waiting around with us. The next several photos are all taken by them.
As I uploaded these pictures I realized that not much of what I’ve written on this blog has given a good description of what Nyumbani Village is like. Being here day in and day out I can sometimes lose sight of what this project is about and how special it is. Its good for me to see it, and be able to share it with you, through someone else’s camera lens So I’ll save the story of Nairobi for the next post, and leave you with a picture of Monica (a different Monica than above). Monica’s house in cluster 18 was where I built the first one of the rainwater harvesting tanks, so I’ve spent more time with her than any other susu in the Village. All our conversations go something like this:
Me (in Kikamba): How are you, Monica?
Monica (in Kikamba): Fine
Monica : ?????(Lots and lots of stuff I don’t understand)
Me : Good?
Monica : ?????(Lots more I don’t understand)
Me: Ok, good, [laughs], ok.
Me: [Waves and walks away]
Monica is one of my favorite grandmothers, and I think its safe to say I’m her favorite muzungu over 6’5.
After the climb up Kilimanjaro, Mom and Evan came up to visit Nyumbani for a few (too few) days. It was a lot of fun to have them around, and to show them the project that’s become my life for the past several months.
We spent a quiet but great couple of days before they had to head back to the US, and so I’ll write this post mostly about the last day or two of traveling home.
For my mom this was straightforward (leave Kitui, go to Nairobi, get on plane), but Evan got treated to a delightful combination of Airline and African efficiency, which combined can be quite potent.
He’d originally booked his ticket from Moshi to Nairboi to home, but when we came to Kitui it made more sense for him just to get on the plane in Nairobi, and so began his epic and ultimately futile struggle to change his ticket. He wasn’t asking for a refund, just trying to get on the plane in Nairobi instead of Moshi, so you’d think this would be something KLM and Kenya Airways would be willing to accommodate. Since Evan wouldn’t actually be present on the plane it would be marginally cheaper for them to fly from Moshi to Nairobi, and then Evan would get on the plane there and everything would then proceed as scheduled. Logically, there was no reason why this plan should have any problems.
But logic and airlines have never been friends at the best of times, and I think in Africa the two have broken off talks altogether. So in order for Evan to make it to his flight on Nairobi Friday evening, here’s what he had to do.
-Leave Kitui on Thursday afternoon on a solo matatu trip back to Nairobi (which meant he got to have an adventure in African public transportation, which everyone who comes to Africa should have at one point or another).
-Stay Thursday night in Nairobi (after getting very lost on the way to the hotel).
-Fly Friday morning fro Nairobi to Moshi (on a flight that conveniently left unannounced 1 hr. ahead of time. He made it, but really? Thats the one time something happens early? Really?)
-Wait in Moshi Airport until 3 pm
-Fly back to Nairbi
-Enjoy 6 hour layover
-Leave for home.
While Evan was jetsetting all over East Africa in a frantic quest to get back to where he’d started, Mom and I had a fun day in Nairobi. We went to the Masai Market, where we had a good time bargaining for some souvenirs. The Masai Market is a big craft’s market in Nairobi with hundreds of stalls of cloth, baskets, jewelry, carvings, you name it. Its very touristy and expensive (for Africa) and the people can be fairly aggressive about getting you to buy stuff, but all in all its a lot of fun.
After a day of shopping we met Evan at Carnivore for dinner (he’d managed to make it back to Nairobi and was scheduled to leave around the same time as my mom, 11:00 pm) which continues to hold up as possibly my favorite restaurant ever. I’ve talked about Carnivore before, so I won’t dwell on it again here but if you’re ever in the neighborhood you have to stop by.
And so that was the end of a wonderful adventure, and for me it was back to Nyumbani for exactly 3 days before Cordelia (the head of PiAF) arrived to check up on the project, followed shortly by the PiAF fellows retreat in Nairobi. Stay tuned next time for the details of a weekend that included but was not limited to, a high-speed sighting of the President of Kenya, ice cream in a ball, baby elephants, and another trip to Carnivore.
As you may or may not know, WordPress in its infinite wisdom keeps track of all the search terms that lead to hits for one’s blog. In my case, most of the search terms are fairly benign “chris courtin”, “chris courtin blog”, that sort of thing. Some, however, were decidedly stranger and I thought I’d share some of the best with you.
-unbelieveably tall giraffe
-dad cleaning gutters
-can i marry a maasai man
-a woman that eat giraffe
-life size moving statue of giraffe
-how to keep a witch away your home
-how to put a spell on lover kenya
-facts on people sleeping with corpse
-niagara falls orgy
And my personal favorite:
-”prostitute friendly” nairobi hotels
In fact, if you search ‘”prostitute friendly” nariobi hotels’ (do so at your own risk!) my blog is the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd link that comes up! I have achieved internet nirvana.
On Tuesday, Feb 15th, we commenced our attempt on the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa, the tallest free-standing mountain in the world, and is featured prominently in both local beer names and Toto songs. The perfect place to continue our adventure.
Our group had grown on Monday from three to ten people. Our intrepid climbers were:
Jarlath, a friend from Princeton currently working in Zimbabwe
Kim, Jarlath’s dad
Mary Reid, another friend from Princeton and a PiAF Fellow working in Zambia
Margaret, her sister
Evan, a friend from Princeton
Eric, another friend from Princeton
Natessa, a friend and fellow volunteer from Nyumbani
Aliza, a friend and fellow volunteer from Nyumbani
Princeton ’10 was well represented on this trip (50%).
Kilimanjaro isn’t a mountain where you can just show up with your gear and start climbing. I mean, you could if the government of Tanzania let you. But they don’t. You have to hire a guide, and some porters. And by some, I mean 35. Excessive? Yes. Awesome? Also yes.
Before we get into the climb, let me right now make my habitual excuses for not having lots of pictures. My mom brought her camera so we’ve got some but the battery didn’t quite make it the whole trip. When Jarlath and Eric (our co-team photographers) post their photos I’ll repost a few on here.
So on Tuesday morning the 45 of us (10 climbers, 35 guides/cooks/porters) set off for the summit where we would arrive, if all went well, very early Sunday morning. We climbed by the Machame route, which meant five days to get up and two days coming down.
The first day was spent climbing through a beautiful rainforest to the first camp, Machame Hut, at around 3000m altitude. It was surprisingly cold there, and there was some precipitation that could almost be described by the term “wintry mix”.
The second day the terrain changed to a scrub forest/moorland on our way to the second camp, Shira Cave. We never hiked an especially long time on any given day except the last one – 4 or 5 hours was pretty standard, and everything is “polepole” (slowly in Swahili). If you’re looking for one word to sum up a climb on Kili, “polepole” springs to mind. Most of the time its a pleasant pace, especially on the last day, but at other times it can drive you up a wall. Especially when a porter cruises past you carrying a pack and balancing a cooking stove and folding table on his head.
As you can see from those photos, the trail was always crowded. Our group alone was 45 people and there were at least ten other groups climbing at the same rate as us. We always were part of a large train of people, which wasn’t really unpleasant. It gives the hike an expedition-y feeling and there’s good camaraderie with the other groups.
Bacari and Tido were our guides on this trip, and they were great. In the later stages of the climb, Tido liked to write little motivational messages for us in the snow using the tip of his umbrella. For example:
“Solid man never dies.
If he dies, never decomposes.
If he decomposes, never smells.”
This is our camp on the second day at Shira Cave, and its pretty representative of the rest of our camps (which is fortunate because its the only one I have pictures of). Ours are the cluster of green tents on the far left side of the campsite.
The third day, hiking from Shira Cave to Baranco Camp, was my favorite day of the climb until we got to the summit. The terrain started out that morning rocky with some small plants, but by lunchtime had given way to snow and ice.
It was at this meal that the porters really came through in a big way. The menu? Mango juice, sandwiches, hot soup, and fried chicken. Outside. In the snow. At 4500m altitude. I’ll take it.
We hiked up to the Lava Tower (4600m), and then down again to Baranco (~3900m). I thought the part from Lava Tower to Baranco was the prettiest part of the whole trip – there were some very cool palm-like plants that I can’t show you because I didn’t take a picture along with some gorgeous streams and waterfalls. I also really enjoyed seeing palm-ish trees covered in snow. It was at this point that the camera was shut off to save the batteries for the top, so I’ll have to wait for Jarlath to show you pictures of the next two days.
From Baranco Camp we hiked over the Baranco Wall (really fun) to Karanga camp, where we arrived on the 4th. Karanga was at the same altitude more or less as Baranco, so that day was just for acclimatization. People occasionally got headaches and some nausea in our group because of the altitude, but fortunately never anything severe enough that we had to turn back.
Day 5 saw us climb 700m up from Karanga to Barafu Camp. “Barafu” is Swahili for “ice”, and the name fit well. At 4600m this camp was rocky and very cold, and the air was noticeably thin. Even walking the short distance up the hill to the outhouse left you out of breath, especially at first. Barafu was the camp from which we’d make our push for the summit, and we were scheduled to leave that night after midnight. After a quick dinner we all got a few hours of sleep, and woke up around 11:30 pm to get ready for the big day.
The climb to the top of Kilimanjaro was amazing – there’s no other word for it. We left at 12:40am, and slowly made our way up the frozen volcanic scree towards to rim of the crater. There was a full moon that night, which gave plenty of visibility, although we all had headlamps. We moved, as we had all trip, quite slowly. The wind howling across the barren rocks was freezing cold, and most of the group’s water froze in its bottles before too long. The whole landscape was spartan – snow glowing faintly in the moonlight and utterly black rocks. It was beautiful.
Around 6:00 we reached Stella point, which is the rim of the crater on top of Kilimanjaro. From there it was less than an hour to the summit, Uhuru Peak. As we started our hike to the summit, the sun started to come up behind Mwenzi, a lower peak of Kilimanjaro.*
The top of Kili was the most astonishingly beautiful place I’ve ever been, especially at sunrise. If you look closely at the above picture, you can see the glaciers that surround the summit. The temperature there was at least -20 C and there was a howling wind but I’ve never enjoyed 45 minutes of hiking as much as I enjoyed that final climb. The spectacular views, the exhilaration, the beautiful and hostile environment. I don’t think I can really describe it, certainly not well enough to do it justice, so instead here’s the picture from the top!
The next on the sign behind us:
You are now at Uhuru Peak, Tanzania, 5895M AMSL
Africa’s Highest Point
World’s Highest Free-standing Mountain”
As amazing as the top was, it wasn’t really a place you linger. We took some (lots) of photos in front of the sign and then headed back down to camp. A few hours and we were down, in time for a few hours of sleep before lunch and then another couple hours of hiking to our last camp. By lunchtime the next day we were out of the park and headed for a well-earned meal and a beer (courtesy of Eric who, being the first one to get altitude sickness, had to buy).
A note on the name Kilimanjaro. No one is sure exactly where the name Kilimanjaro came from. Wikipedia has several theories, the guides have others, so I’m just going to pick my favorite (and to me, the most plausible). Kilimanjaro is the conjunction of two Swahili words – “Mlima”, meaning “Mountain”, and “Njaro”, which can be translated as “Ice Devil” (according to my guidebook). The “Ki-” prefix in Swahili is a diminuative or term of affection, so “Kilimanjaro” translates roughly into English as “Little Mountain of the Ice Devils”, making it the best named mountain of all time.
All in all, an amazing trip. If you’re ever looking to spend a week in Northern Tanzania, there’s no better way.
*Kilimanjaro actually has 3 peaks. The highest, Kibo, is a volcanic crater. Uhuru Peak is the highest point on Kibo, and of the mountain. Mwenzi is the next highest peak, and is a technical climb, although nobody is allowed to climb it anymore due to deteriorating ice conditons. The last peak is Shira, which was the first part of the mountain to erupt but is now mostly gone.