Arrival in Nairobi
From my middle-row aisle seat of the Kenya Airways flight I barely caught glimpses of Mt. Kenya silhouetted against the glowing eastern horizon as we began our descent into Nairobi. The eight-hour overnight flight from Amsterdam's Schipol to Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta International was uneventful. I barely slept perhaps because of pre-placement jitters. We landed a few minutes past 6:00 a.m. As we were taxiing towards the terminal, the sun peeked over the horizon.
After passing uneventfully through Immigration I proceeded downstairs to baggage claim. Except for a bit of dust and dirt, the airport was excellent. Walking thorough the "nothing to declare" section of customs I was halted by a man in uniform who asked me what I had in my small suitcase. In my surprise at the question I forgot what was inside the suitcase (my Canon Rebel and over 40 rolls of Fuji and Kodak slide film). I mumbled something about books and clothes and this seemed to satisfy the gentleman. I was waved through. It was only later while unpacking that I noticed the small 'x' marked with chalk on the suitcase. Apparently the bags are scanned and suspicious ones marked before being thrown on the conveyer belt. I hope yet another x-ray scan has not clouded my film.
The VSO Program Officer met me. We chatted hesitantly as he drove the VSO-logoed Toyota pickup truck along Uhuru Highway into the city. I was curious to know why there were only two volunteers arriving in Kenya in September. I learnt that worldwide VSO was re-evaluating itself and the effectiveness of its programs. VSO Kenya apparently came very close to the chopping block but managed to survive. This close call has made VSO-K cautious when it comes to placements. I was dropped off at the Methodist GuestHouse to sleep off my jet lag for the rest of the day.
The next morning I was taken to VSO's office in Kenya and introduced to all the staff. Intensive briefing and reams of paperwork followed this. I met my employer shortly after lunch. The first thing she wanted to know was how to pronounce my name. Sister Pauline, the principal of the college where I'm placed is a cheerful Nigerian nun who has been in Kenya for just under two years. The principal, the VSO Program Officer and I went over a lengthy document titled 'Three Way Partnership Agreement' and signed it. Only later in the day after I was dropped off back at the guesthouse did I remember that it was my thirty-first birthday.
Arrival in Tala
I was picked up promptly by the principal the next morning. As we drove east in her dinky little white Peugeot hatchback we descended from Nairobi's elevation. The scenery gradually changed from Nairobi's greenery to he semi-arid region's parched yellow. At some places one could see black charred areas where the local residents had cleared land using the oldest method of doing so. The tarmac-ed road was pretty good except for two short stretches. Navigating the kilometer of potholes around the Kariobhangi slums and the industrial estate took as much time as the rest of 60-km journey. We passed little towns with gaily painted dukas (general stores). A kilometer ahead of Tala town center we swung off onto a mud road. A well-painted sign pointed to the college 300 meters down.
I dropped my backpack and suitcase in what is to be my home for the next 9 months - the College GuestHouse. James, one of my colleagues met me and took me around the college introducing me to all the other staff. It was hot and I was dazed from the jet lag and rapid changes over the last 4 days - San Francisco - Amsterdam - Nairobi and now Tala. The changes in timezones were accompanied by progressively increasing culture shocks.
It was a few days before I knew all the other staff by name. The staff in the college include the principal, an administrator, 4 teachers (2 men and 2 women) for secretarial students and 5 teachers for IT students (2 women and 3 men) excluding me. There are also a secretary, a cook and an askari (watchman/guard).
I beat a hasty retreat from the heat and awkward social situations to my house and began unpacking. I noticed a sweet little welcome card from the staff and students of the college on the table next to the bed. There was also a note from the other VSO volunteer who lives in Tala welcoming me.
When the sun had moved substantially to the west, the principal took me into town. We parked the car near the bus stand and I was introduced to all the big shots of the town - the City Council Chief, the treasurer and prominent citizens. It was touching in a way. To my intense embarrassment, I was taken to the two stores in Tala that were owned by Indians. I was later told this was to make me feel at home. The principal and City Council people felt it important that I meet "people of my own kind".
After a couple of days of getting used to the system I slowly began to fit into the work. I teach Web Design and E-Commerce to final-year IT Diploma students. The class is small - only 6 students. I have also started training the other teachers on weekends. I'm starting with Linux and system and network administration.
School starts at 8:00 a.m. On Mondays and Fridays there is a school-wide assembly where the Kenyan flag is raised and the National Anthem ("I pledge allegiance to the President and Nation of Kenya" was one of the lines I've managed to decipher) sung in English. There is a half-hour tea break at 10:00 a.m. followed by another two hours of classes. Lunch break is from 12:30 - 2:00 p.m. After 2 more hours of classes, school ends at 4:00 p.m. On Mondays and Wednesdays the students play sports (NetBall, Volleyball, rope skipping and table tennis) till 5:30 p.m.
The most difficult aspect of teaching so far has been getting the students to participate in activity oriented learning. It is only now - after a month of teaching - that the students have gathered enough courage to even ask questions when they don't understand something. I've surreptitiously caught some of the other teachers in their act of teaching. The technique seems to be for the teacher to drone facts in a threatening voice and for the students to write down everything obediently. I do not blame the teachers. This method of lecturing seems to be an integral part of the Kenyan educational system. I hope to ask other volunteers how they coped with this. Maybe I can subtly introduce some new styles of teaching interactively when I train the teachers.
Settling into a routine has been a bit difficult. Till last week I felt no real sense of being settled. I made two trips to Nairobi (an hour away) and have managed to equip myself decently with VSO's 10,000 Kenyan Shilling soft furnishings grant. I bought almost all the spices that I consider essential to cook. I also bought a boombox to listen to the BBC World Service that is on FM.
Before I bought the boombox I'd come home from work, make dinner (pasta or curry or toast or some such), write a letter and become immensely bored. Sun sets at 6:30 p.m. year-round. And my mobility is limited after sunset because of safety concerns and lack of streetlights in Tala. This lack of streetlights is not as bad as it sounds. The night sky is fabulous to glance at. The lack of artificial light makes it possible to see a lot more starts.
A New Constitution for Kenya?
In-between classes I usually spend time in the cramped staff room engaged in lively banter or charged discussions about political news in the media. Every one of the teachers reads the Daily Nation to varying degrees of depth. Chatting with the other teachers I've managed to feel the political pulse of many Kenyans today.
Perhaps the biggest controversy today is the fight over a new constitution of Kenya. Bowing to domestic and international pressure and street protests and demonstrations demanding changes, the government agreed to set up a commission to review the constitution in 1997. The Consitution of Kenya Review Commission (CKRC) headed by Professor Yash Pal Ghai conducted public debates and solicited input from ordinary Kenyans on what they wanted in their constitution. After a lengthy process the commission did what few commissions in Kenya have done - they published their findings. Dark hints about how the draft constitution being written by the CKRC was "foreign" to Kenyans and innuendo that "foreigners" (a jab at Ghai's Asian Indian roots) being consulted started appearing from the cronies of the well entrenched. CKRC cast the die by releasing the draft constitution for publication and even took he unprecedented step of publishing the draft constitution of Kenya on its website.
The draft calls for some dramatic reorganization of the country. Significant changes proposed include dramatic reduction in the powers of the President, the new post of Prime Minister to head the executive made up of non-elected ministers, a bicarmal system of parliament. The first salvo against the proposed constitution comes from the judiciary. The draft proposed the lowering of retirement age of judges from 74 to 65 and investigation of judges with charges of corruption against them by an independent body. A few of the judges, with nudging from the powers that be it is alleged, have decided that the CKRC does not have the authority to judge the judiciary and propose changes. Two lawyers filed a case against Ghai and the CKRC alleging that the CKRC was in contempt of court by casting aspersions on and suggesting dramatic changes to the judiciary. The Law Society of Kenya made up of lawyers seem to be firmly behind the CKRC. The lawyers of the nation went on a strike on Oct 9 - the day on which the contempt case against CKRC came for hearing. Judging from press reports and letters to the editor in newspapers, most Kenyans seem to think that the new constitution is a good thing. Almost all my fellow teachers agree with the proposed new constitution. The few that disagree still want the draft to be discussed and adopted with amendments.
Admist all this wrangling hands a big question mark over the new constitution. Some want elections to be held under a new constitution. Some, including President Moi, want it to be held under the old constitution. In a move to sabotage the new constitution review process Moi is rumored to be planning to dissolve parliament in the next few days. If this happens, thee would be no sitting MPs to debate the draft and adopt it with or without amendments. When elections are held in December, the future of the new constitution is uncertain, as the new legislature will not convene before the mandate granted to the CKRC ends in early Jan.
Somewhere Over the Rainbow
The ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU) is splitting almost right along the middle. On the one side is the faction backing President Moi (who cannot contest for another term)'s chosen successor Uhuru Kenyatta as KANU's presidential candidate. This side has been dubbed 'Project Uhuru'. And on the other side is the hodgepodge of old party stalwarts who feel betrayed by not being in the succession line. This faction calls itself the 'Rainbow Alliance' and is headed by Energy minister Raila Odinga (whose own political party merged with KANU as recently as March) and sacked Vice President George Saitoti.
As I write this, the Rainbow Alliance has announced that it will boycott the KANU delegates convention on Oct 14 and will soon announce whether they will start a new political party or join the opposition.
The brightest hope of the opposition to unseat the tottering KANU seems to be the National Alliance (Party) of Kenya - a patchwork of a coalition of several parties brought together by the smell of wounded KANU. The NAK has announced that Mwai Kibaki - a long time member of the opposition who left KANU in '92 when the first multi-party elections were announced - as their presidential candidate. Also notable in NAK's lineup is Charity Ngilu as the candidate for the post of "Prime Minister in waiting". The NAK seems to have arms wide open to embrace the Rainbow Alliance if they were to leave KANU. How the candidature of NAK will change if this happens is uncertain at this point.
Coming Up Next
Over the coming weeks the political scene is going to undergo numerous changes. In my next article I'll write more about my college, the students and the game of politics in Kenya.