Wednesday, 6 February 2008

African UU Leadership Conference, Day 1

The Rev. Brian Kiely, president of the ICUU, is reporting from Nairobi, Kenya:

Kenya Day one
The Kenyan Airway (Pride of Africa) 777 flew down the Rift Valley as night began to fade. A small crescent moon hung over the spot where the sun would rise. Gradually a friendly redness warmed the eastern night sky, and then muted red of the sun itself slowly illuminating the dry earth below. To the east was Mt. Kenya arising from the shadows and morning mist. By the time we landed at 7 a.m. it was full daylight. Cars could be seen on the four lane Mombassa Road leading into the city – a good sign that things were peaceful.
For most of my travels, I had been relaxed. The decision had been made to come to Kenya , the preparations were done, the Sunday service completed well and I had made it to the airport on time. But now, with Kenya appearing below me, I felt a thrill of anxiety again. Would our students be safe? The media and our Kenyan contacts offered some conflicting reports, and there certainly were violence and strife in the western Rift Valley region. Nairobi had seen its share of death and displacement, although that had been mostly confined to the Kibera slum well away from where we would be. Deciding, with Jill McAllister, to go ahead with the conference had been the hardest decision I had ever made. We were helped by the non-Kenyan Africans. They had expressed concern, but all had said to go ahead. Now we would see.
I had learned from Charlie Clements’ UUSC blog that two weeks before the planes had been barely half full. Things must be getting a little better because this one seemed closer to 70 per cent. Still, I had a row to myself and was able to stretch out during the 7.5 hour overnight flight from Amsterdam .
We descended over the enormous wildlife reserve south of the city. There were acres and acres of empty space. I could see first, near a winding river, an elegant resort standing all alone with yellow compound walls and red tile roofs. Then tere was a line of fence, a roadway and shanty villages side by side with steel and cement plants. We landed easily, the graceful acacia trees silently witnessing from a distance. A UN jet and four engine prop plane stood waiting on the apron. I would learn inside that they were waiting to emplane a troop of Kenyan peacekeepers heading off for a mission in another land. It seemed oddly reassuring given the state of unrest in Kenya . Those might haven foreign troops coming in to keep peace.
Jomo Kenyatta airport is alive with color and activity. It is cramped with 12 foot hallways but runs efficiently. By 7 a.m. the stores with food and liquor, Kenyan art products and other items were open and starting to get busy. A remarkably diverse crowd of people from white backpackers to elegantly dressed women in tribal finery pushed down the halls. There were no signs of tension. In fact, it was one of the most relaxed airports I had ever been in.
I cleared immigration quickly. I joined one long line, but an official came over to me. He kindly asked if my visa was in order. When I said, “Yes”, he directed me to the empty air crew desk where I was quickly processed by an agent more interested in a conversation with his friend. Our driver David would later tell me that immigration was usually pretty relaxed here.
I waited quite some time for the bags studying the crowds. As with many warm country airports there wasn’t much separation from the baggage handling area. I could see and smell the diesel luggage tractor and I would soon learn that this ‘perfume’ is a frequent part of Kenyan life. Curiously, there were few smokers anywhere. Perhaps it is too costly.
At Customs, the agent looked at my two large bags and asked if I was on vacation. I decided to be open and honest, and explained that I had a bag full of children’s clothes for an orphanage with which our church is associated. He asked my profession and I said ‘minister’. It may be that this was the first time that admission ever greased the wheels for me, or maybe he just had a kindly heart. He explained that he was supposed to charge me a 50 % duty on the used clothes (new clothes are only 25 %) Apparently used clothes sales are a thriving industry. He passed me through.
Outside I am met by David Usher, Josphat and Nancy from the Kenyan UU Church in Nairobi , our host team. We quickly loaded the car and I was ushered to the front seat where I met David, our driver, a man about my age. We all piled in to a small but serviceable old Toyota with some bags on laps and off we went.
It was already 20 degrees (warm for a Canadian in winter) and climbing as we headed west on Mombassa Road passing those same factories I had seen from the air. Hundreds of people lined both sides of the road, walking on paths and on the red dust of the shoulder. Most were on their way to work. For those going farther there were flocks of white and often uniquely decorated mini busses. They more or less follow a route, stop anywhere, pack people in as best they can and charge flexible fares. They are the cheapest form of transportation. This day they also seemed to be the most omnipresent. My favourite was the one with a large NBA silhouette decal on the back window showing a stunt basketball shot. Bolted to the roof was an old basketball net and ball swaying in the breeze.
The most obvious aspect of life in Nairobi are the people. Aside from the numbers streaming along the roadside, there are the street vendors dodging traffic and selling everything from newspapers to fruit to toys to car accessories. There are also a goodly number of bicycles, mostly of Chinese manufacture. Within 15 minutes we are stuck in a nasty traffic jam and move slowly through it. Traffic cops are few and far between, stop lights almost non-existent and vehicles move in an ever changing pattern of four or five imaginary lanes (some on dirt shoulders) with a mixture of courtesy and courage. The streets are filled with workers, most nicely dressed. The Kenyans are a handsome people. Closer to the city center there are fruit stands and other mini-market shanties lining sections of the roadways. We pass a golf course, where no one was playing, and the football stadium. Life seems normal. All kinds of architecture are evident, some old, some new, shanties here and there. It’s all jumbled together, but it doesn’t seem messy to me. It’s more a reflection of a people who are used to either going ahead on their own or just figuring out how to get by as best they can.
I am getting to know David, since I am in the front seat, although Josphat joins the conversation now and then. David patiently answers my questions, and asks many in return about global politics, Canadian immigration patterns and a host of other topics. It’s a pleasant and relaxed conversation, although everyone in the car has a lot to say about the upcoming American elections. It is the dawn of Super Tuesday in the US primaries and we’re all wondering how Obama will do. Obama has a Kenyan father, so they are pulling for him. He also seems to be the most promising candidate to them.
As we talk of Kenya , we don’t get into the specifics of who supports which side in the dispute, but David says quietly, “It will be okay. We are a people used to many divisions. We talk about them. We know how to disagree and how to agree to disagree and still be friends. It will take time, but we will be okay.” I certainly feel no anxiety from the welcoming team, beyond that of their concerns for organizing an event of this magnitude.
After a good hour and a half of driving and chatting, we finally arrive at the Methodist Guest House on top of a hill. It has a gated and guarded entrance, and several friendly guards patrolling inside. Theft seems to be a significant problem. On most cars, for example, everything that can be stripped by street boys has the car’s licence number etched on it... the mirrors, tail lights, windows etc. David explains that it is a security measure.
We meet up with faculty members Jill McAllister , Rosemary Bray-McNatt and Vincent Desroches and check in. The staff is friendly, welcoming and well-uniformed. David and I get settled in our nicely appointed European style room and head down for tea on the inner courtyard verandah. It’s a covered yet open area with couches and a few tables and a polished stone floor. Tea is served here twice a day and after supper. There is a small green area with a couple of blooming bushes and a small tree or two. I think it will become my favourite place as it’s shaded and seems to draw a constant breeze.
For lunch we went up the road a few hundred metres. Again we passed a number of the road side stalls. Some seem more permanent, others nothing more than a scrap of canvass on poles. One is devoted to bicycle repairs with a variety of well used parts. A couple of food stands have braziers going for roasting corn. This isn’t tourist stuff, but a way for poorly paid workers to get a bite when they can.
The wee mall has an open courtyard. There is a grocer, a fruit market and a butcher. There is a stationary store with not much in it, a tailor shop with about a dozen men making dresses. There are two cell phone stores. Cell phones are an industry here. Most of the advertising posters are devoted to this business. It’s the primary form of communication. After a browse at the restaurants ( Alabama with fried chicken, a Thai place and a local eatery), we finally settle on a delightful bakery with open air seating. Lunch is an assortment of foods running from roast chicken dinner to chapattis and samosas, small quiches. I have a tiger sandwich, a sub with a breaded meat kebab...and a chocolate donut.
The afternoon is given to naps. Jet lag caught up and I fell into a deep dreamless sleep for three hours. Dinner is at the guest house buffet and very well done. Chicken soup, buns, steamed arrowroot, green beans, sauted cabbage, fries, chicken balls, breaded pork cutlets and beef stew are the mains. We all avoid the salads because of water concerns, but have watermelon and mango for dessert (Fruit with peels are safe). After tea on the verandah we spend an hour assembling packets and then to our mosquito netted beds.

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