I spent the last week and change in a new part of Africa. I was so excited to see something new, and Kenya and Tanzania have not disappointed. I was based in Migori, Kenya first, and then in Tarime, Tanzania. All of this was to do some basic fact finding for a future project in collaboration with a few friends. Reliable information is hard to find from afar on these types of places, and I knew from my experience in Malawi that any information you can find is often shockingly wrong.
So, through some contacts and some cold-emailing, I was able to arrange a guide in each of the towns. They couldn’t have been more different. In Migori, I was guided by a young guy named Jeff, who had worked on a friend’s research project this past summer. He is full of attitude and ambition – he is starting flight school in January, and spent 3 years working at a Kenyan bank in South Sudan. Thus, he was by and large helping me out for the money, and nothing more (which I can respect – it’s the American ay) He is originally from Migori, and was extremely good at getting me the information I needed. His young, entitled attitude often irked me, but it was mostly just a veneer. Beneath it, he proved himself to be incredibly intelligent and funny.
In Tarime, I was connected to a Mennonite pastor through the only scholar that had worked in the area AND replied to my email, who is herself a professor at a Mennonite college in the US. Eluid was in his late fifties (I’m guessing) deeply religious and conservative. He was most definitely not in it for the money. He was much more of a typical African host, where it was very important to invite me to his home and share the food from his land with me. He prayed over everything. He made me a more than a bit uncomfortabel on many occasions, but by the end I realized that while we come from totally different worlds, he was a kind and wise old soul that sincerely wanted to get to know me and help me in whatever way he could.
Kenya and Tanzania were also pretty different. We chose this site specifically because it has two ethnic groups that cross the border. So, the same people are living on both sides. But the Kenyan side of the border is much more developed than the Tanzanian side, and the language situation is incredibly different. In Kenya, most people speak pretty good English, while in Tanzania, for historical reasons, kiSwahili is much more widely spoken than English. I maybe met 5 people that spoke English, and all signs, newspapers, television, etc. are in kiSwahili. Also, perhaps due its socialist past, Tanzania felt much less welcoming. The officials and regular people we spoke to were suspicious at best, hostile at worst. I’m a bit nervous about working there, but given my academic interests (in nationalism), I think it is a wise investment.
Despite these differences, the food was quite similar (and quite good) on both sides of the border. If you are reading this, you know I love anything fried, especially if it’s made from dough. So, I love the local and abundant chapatis – like a flour tortilla. For transport, we took matatus and doladolas, which are the common form of public transport, essentially minibuses from Japan. As a quick aside, both names come from the cost of the transport when first introduced – matatu means three in kiSwahili, since the buses cost 3 Kenyan shillings in the beginning. Doladola refers to the US dollar, since early on a local ride costs the equivalent of $1. Of so I’m told. I largely avoided this experience this trip in Malawi, thanks to the Rav, but I made up for it here. The record that I experience was 22 people in a 10-11 seater.
All in all, the trip was a success. Lots of new things to think about, and excitement to be starting something new, somewhere new.
A few parting memories:
Remember the random Spanish mzungu I mentioned running into? He lives in Tarime now, and we ended up having dinner one night, which was really nice. Oh, and one of the officials we met with in Tarime had 6 fingers on each hand – the sixth one was tiny, and came out a few inches below the pinky – fascinating.