Thursday, May 22, 2008

A touch of malaria

Jaimie might not have malaria. In fact a blood test today said she doesn’t. But the doctor here still thought she might—she has the requisite fever, aches, fatigue and stomach pain—so he gave her four sleeves of pills to combat the deadly parasite possibly spreading though her blood.

When you travel through Africa you’re constantly bumping into the woman whose husband is back at the hotel sick with malaria, or the aid worker who has survived three bouts, or the traveler who stopped taking his preventative pills after leaving the continent only to come down with it when he landed far from the offending mosquito.

Last week in Uganda we went rafting with a group of 14 young Brits working for three months in Malawi and all taking anti-malarial medication. Seven had contracted malaria.

Jaimie and I took a nap yesterday around 6pm and didn’t get out of bed until 7am this morning. I blamed my hibernation on too little sleep and too much Tusker beer. But even after the slumber Jaimie was achy and tired. By the afternoon we were freely quoting the Lonely Planet medical section, which lists many of her symptoms and notes that within 24 hours malaria can cause “jaundice, then reduced consciousness and coma (known as cerebral malaria) followed by death.”

A popular punch line this day was simply to tack on “followed by death” to the end of any sentence.

In the waiting room of the tiny clinic here in little Lamu, Kenya they’ve posted last year’s mortality statistics on a bulletin board, identifying the top five causes of local outpatient deaths. Nearly 3000 children die of malaria in Africa every day so its no surprise that on the chart of children under five malaria tops the list (“#1 malaria, 112 deaths,” “#5 accidents, 12 deaths”). But I was surprised that even among those older than five there were more deaths by malaria than the other four killers combined.

Malaria in Africa is a bit like heart disease in America: the causes and preventions are well-known but few think it will happen to them and many live lifestyles that invite trouble.

But unlike BigMac munching Yanks, many poor Africans can be somewhat excused for neglecting their ounce of prevention. Mosquito nets cost money, though not much.

In recent years aid organizations have handed out nets to some of the hundreds of millions of people who could be saved by them, including a Dutch effort to distribute nets in Lamu. Nets cost just a couple dollars each but they tear awfully easily. Hopefully there’s a better long-term plan for the nets than many of the roads here, which someone paved but no one maintained.

One learns without looking too hard here that band-aids aren’t forever and often the various forms of aid look like different kinds of band-aids. But Jaimie is lying in bed now, in pain and with hope, very happy that the clinic was here to hand out something to stop the bleeding.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Safari photobook

Jill, Jaimie and I spun through Masai Mara and Lake Nukuru earlier this month and I will now subject you to some of our holiday photos...

These lions were just hanging out in the tall grass when we rolled by. There was a giraffe mom and child near by keeping a close watch but the lions weren't interested.

This rhino was happy to pose in front of Lake Nukuru.

Lunchtime for a full grown male

Jill and I at Nukuru, one of the few places we could get out of the safari van

Jaimie and I safely standing in the pop-top

Masai tribes people jump to impress potential mates or, in this case, tourists.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Bad memories in Kenya

When Titus was a boy in western Kenya he grew to love Bruce Lee. To emulate his hero he took classes in tae kwon do and even now as a father wakes two hours before dawn to jog along the dark, uneven road near his house, pausing to kick the air or reel off push-ups as a few pre-dawn vehicles pass.

And then last December eleven masked men came to his house outside Kisumu and cleared out his living room. He was lying on the couch, half expecting them and pretending to sleep. One man carried two guns, another a bow and arrow, and another a machete. They were there because the owner of the compound Titus lives in is Kisii and they thought the rival tribe had helped steal the presidential election from their Luo leader.

Titus thought one man carrying two guns seemed odd and decided they weren’t real guns. So he waited for them to leave, crept behind the last of them and hit him over the head.

His possessions weren’t as important as his life but they were part of his life, part of what he had worked to earn, and letting someone take them would be like letting them take part of himself.

He managed to stop two bandits as the others ran; he recovered his TV but not his DVD player. He “beat the men thoroughly” until the cops came and brought the robbers to the hospital, where Titus believes at least one died.

“After what I’ve seen, it doesn’t bother me to kill,” Titus said.

What happened during the “post election violence” is still fresh in his mind more than four months after the city stopped burning. He remembers the old woman he saw robbed by a young gang. He recounts the story of the man who sat with his children for eight hours as his wife was repeatedly raped. In his presence.

“In his presence,” Titus repeats.

Titus is a quiet, trustworthy man who runs a rental car agency owned by a Dutch man. During the post election violence some of Titus’ friends said he should sell the rental fleet and take the money; the owner was in Holland and wouldn’t know the difference anyway.

But instead Titus made sure the agency’s fifteen employees were safe and fed. And he rescued two vans from the basement of the shop when word went around that the whole complex would be burnt to the ground because it was owned by a Kukuyo, the tribe of the president.

He drove one of the vans through a rowdy mob, bribing them with cases of booze he had found in his ruined shop. His computer and bankcards were gone from his looted office. His wallet was stolen by the mob as he pleaded with them to let him pass.

Titus calmly and eloquently says things like “the human animal is the most dangerous animal there is, you can never trust a human animal,” or “most people are not good,” or “there is a 50% chance this will happen again and if it does it will be much worse.”

A generation of people is growing up in Kenya now that has witnessed things no one should witness, Titus thinks.

“The children in the camps who have lost their parents… You can feed them, you can teach them, you can give them a place to stay, but you can’t change what is in their hearts. If you saw your father killed and your sister raped, what would you do?”

“They can smile and laugh with you and eat but they are not normal people now. There is something different inside them and some day it will explode.”

It sounds like you are a different person now too, I said to Titus.

“I think you are right.”

Monday, May 12, 2008

Lessons of an idle bus

Visitors aren’t good for travel blogs but they can be good for travelers and recent arrivals have been as good for me as they’ve been bad for this blog.

Jill landed in Nairobi a couple weeks ago and we flew for Zanzibar, the beach island with a catchy name off the Tanzanian coast. It was raining when we landed but we walked out of the airport anyway threatening to catch a bus to town instead of a taxi. This was enough to lower the price of the taxi.

The maximum ATM withdrawal was $65 and was dispensed in bills worth less than $2 and Jill joked that we should shower ourselves with the bulging wads of bills we needed for our four days there and take a picture.

We spent a couple of the bills on a ride to Page in the back of a pickup truck with 16 others on the rain soaked roads heading to the east coast of the island.

Page was empty and most of the hotels closed for the rainy season so after a couple nights we headed up to Nungwi where it was sunnier and more populated.

We flew back to Nairobi, met Jaimie and went on a safari, which is probably the most expensive and worthwhile thing I’ve done on this trip.

It is amazing how habituated the animals are to people and vehicles; only the zebras ran when we approached. On three occasions we rolled up within 20 feet of lounging lions and clicked at them for fifteen or twenty minutes without them paying much notice.

I tried—but probably failed—to avoid telling Jill and Jaimie how hard West Africa was compared to East Africa. It was exotic and intense and hard enough as it was. And then it got much harder.

We were back in Nairobi, heading west to Uganda and it was very early on a Wednesday morning. Jill and Jaimie were battling food poisoning, apparently from some scrumptious chicken stew the previous day and the bus ride was scheduled for 12 hours.

Our seats were in the back row of the bus and lacked the legroom needed to sit in a traditional seated position. I tried not to say it was just like the bus from Niger to Benin.

Jill later described the day of food poisoning in the back row of the bus as the worst of her life and it would be unkind to convey any more on her behalf except to report her admirable pluck in overcoming the ordeal.

We finally reached Jinja, Uganda where the Nile gets its start and some of the world’s best white water rafting is done. The next day Jill’s stomach was settled so we went rafting and before not long she had lost a tooth to the rapids. Whether it was claimed by her stomach or the Nile was not certain or important. But it was enough for Jill and Jaimie to curse rafts, rivers, and river rafting for a good chunk of the day. We made it 30 kilometers towards Egypt, then got off the water and into a van to Kampala.

The next morning around 8am we boarded our bus from Kampala to Lake Bunyoni after an hour wait in the “Passenger’s Shade Area.” The bus sat there in the parking lot for another three hours and Jill observed that traveling in Africa really tests your patience.

The only good part of sitting on the idling bus for three hours was we had seats in the front row and plenty of room. The ticket seller had promised the bus would leave hours before and when I complained he asked me to sponsor him to visit the U.S. I asked him why the bus had been running for three hours while it sat still in the parking lot waiting for passengers.

“In Africa if the bus isn’t on people won’t believe it works.”

Just before noon it finally pulled away, circled the parking lot and stopped. Everyone got off.

“We’re going on another bus,” someone said.

We took much worse seats on the new bus and finally pulled away. We reached our guesthouse on beautiful Lake Bunyoni about 14 hours after we left our place in Kampala. The bus ride was supposed to take five.

“It isn’t quite what you expect,” Jaimie said about traveling Africa yesterday. We were on a bus coming back from Bunyoni. The headlights didn’t work and we were parked on the side of the road for an hour waiting for some fuses to be replaced.

We were headed back to Kampala because somehow Jill’s two weeks in Africa were over and she had to fly home.

“I’m just getting good at this again,” Jill said.

She didn’t envy me the numbness of brushing off bus misery or ignoring what should be noticed and remembered. But she envied my chance to stay here and take another bus tomorrow.