Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Ms. G – The theory of Shit

As warned before, I will continue my, for most people boring, dive through the muddy sewage of theory even here. Sorry for that, here’s something more fun and representative of my own state of mind in doing this.


How does a society actually come to choose a certain way of getting rid of garbage and human waste? By the workings of research by smarter people, we've been presented with a conceptual model, a theory. Here, the ‘way of getting rid of garbage and human waste’ is called a ‘societal sanitation approach’, which is constructed (=created) in different ways in different cultures. At the level of the single household, the task of sanitation and waste management is to ensure a healthy living environment by handling human and household wastes in the safest possible way with regard to both humans and the natural environment. What that way actually is depends on the culture as well as the environment. In this model, the societal sanitation approach is divided into five stages of the individual sanitation experience (the most euphemistic way of saying ‘Taking a dump’ I've found so far) that are further divided into components that decide the actions an individual takes to attend to the urge.

1.       The Urge. The natural urge to relieve one is the primary driver behind the need for sanitation systems. The two components of this first stage are whether one feels a need to urinate or defecate, which plays a role in the decision-making of the individual (where to go and how to ‘just do it’). Nothing needs explanation there, I bet. How the urge is experienced and reacted upon is to some extent dependent on gender and age, as the requirements felt can differ between men, women and children.

2.       Place – the favorite word of geographersThe second priority in the sanitation approach is the need to find privacy and enough safety for answering to the primal urge. This brings into consideration the question of place, meaning where to actually make your mark. This is decided by “the contexts of the physical living environment as well as the specific situation”, meaning where you are and why. The behaviour of an individual feeling the same urge can and does often vary, for instance between home and public places (such as school or the workplace), between rural and urban settings and between activities taking place, e.g. attending a meeting or a party. Anyone can confirm this from personal experience.

3.       Process. The third step is the actual use of the toilet. This includes the posture taken by the individual (whether you prefer sitting or standing – not always a straightforward decision, you know) and the convenience required (and sometimes even met). All this depends on the particular culture, habits and gender of the individual.

4.       Hygiene. The fourth stage involves attending the hygienic needs, in particular cleaning yourself and the immediate making of enough distance between you and your waste by for instance flushing. These needs are taken care of in different ways depending on e.g. the availability of water, the particular technical solution being used and cultural aspects. For example some like to wipe themselves while others prefer washing with water.

5.       Waste disposal. The last stage of the societal sanitation approach is that of final waste disposal, which also decides what effect you have on the natural environment. This obviously depends on the technology available. It should be pointed out that this disposal of waste might be seen as final only from the perspective of the users of a sanitation system (meaning that flushing is not final disposal, really).

Of course, the attitude of a culture towards the primal urge, human excreta and the handling of it is only a part of the explanation of the sanitation solutions a population ends up using. Therefore, we need a more comprehensive and detailed (in short, a better) conceptual model of the system that strives to explain and understand a societal sanitation approach more comprehensively. So we need another model to understand the first one? I see the beginning of a vicious circle here... This concept involves four main factors that play varying roles in shaping the sanitation approach: The human settlement, the natural environment, the culture and the society.

“The human settlement is in the framework seen as the built environment that facilitates the preferred lifestyle of a community or society, also with regard to sanitation.” It explains where we live and how, and I’m sorry to confess that the quote came from my pen... The characteristics of the human settlement that most clearly affect the sanitation approach are the density and the natural setting of the community. In more densely populated areas, such as towns, toilets are more often preferred to be inside the house to avoid moving out of the home for excreting as we all understand. Meanwhile in rural areas, at least in developing countries toilets are more often built outside to prevent odors in the actual home (That one is not unheard of in rural Finland either), and even open defecation (doing it in the bush) is more often practiced in sparsely populated areas where privacy is easier to ensure. Sharing toilets with other households is also generally more easily accepted in urban areas due to lack of space, while in rural areas the privacy and exclusiveness for the household of the toilet is emphasized. On the communal level densely built areas tend to create and neglect more extensive infrastructure, such as a sewage system, serving or supposed to be serving a larger amount of households, while waste disposal is in rural areas seen more as the responsibility of each household. 

The surrounding natural environment decides to a large extent the characteristics of the human settlement and therefore also its waste management. The most important features of the natural environment are in this case water accessibility (is flushing even possible?), vegetation type, climate (dry climates make handling a lot easier) and terrain (Do you have to worry about your garbage flowing to the neighbour’s next time it rains? Or someone else’s running to your backyard?). For example, in densely populated and humid areas where water access is reliable throughout the year, different forms of flush toilets have been in use for the longest time. In dry areas waste is more often buried or left in the open as the dry environment is in itself an effective tool of treating waste. Most importantly the natural environment plays an important role in deciding whether a community is faecophilicor faecophobic.

As with all other aspects of human life and behavior, culture, to a varying degree formed by religion, controls the sanitation approach of a society. Islam considers human waste to be in general dangerous and bad and relies on different concepts of ‘unclean’ in restricting the handling and even discussion of human excreta. As for the bible, it makes next to no mention on either excreta disposal or its reuse. Buddhism even clearly promotes the reuse of all waste, a stance that is connected to the general notion of reincarnation. Some cultures consider excreta to be always filthy regardless of religion and stress the need to avoid contact with it. It is normal in such cultures that sanitation facilities are placed outside the home. It is reported that even witchcraft and other superstitious beliefs comes into it in some societies especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, possibly stemming from traditional religions that dominated in pre-colonial times. This is when maybe the strongest of cultural values, fear, is connected to human waste. Even here in the Taita Hills, outsiders handling someone’s poo can be seen as suspect to say the least. The governor himself lately had to address this, advising people to “to stop prioritizing witchcraftand find ways of enhancing development in the region”! 

Cultures also vary in exactly how offensive excreta are considered. When it comes to cultural meanings attached to human excreta, it is also important to note that a distinction is usually made between pee and poo and that the same values might not apply to both. These cultural values can have implication for e.g. how people working with handling human waste are treated and whether or not it is considered as suitable to only certain social segments. Who would like to be seen as a witch only for working in waste management, hey?

Messy, isn’t it?

I apologize to anyone who read the whole post, got a bit carried away there...

Monday, 2 December 2013


Kenyans seem to be very fond of big time events and ceremonies. Lately, I’ve witnessed two.

Despite of its remarkable natural beauty, the Taita Hills are not that well known to the outside world. Given the state of the roads here, I’d put that down to a question of accessibility, but the local decision makers are not giving up that easily. It’s a question of fame, they say! So what you do is you organize a big thing, in lack of a better word to describe it with. You contract some local pop starlets to perform, and most importantly you pay to have the top three football teams in the country play games on the central stadium (a description that is more than slightly exaggerated from the European point of view), the fourth team attending being a collection of local heroes called Taita Combined (Note: They did not call it Taita United).

And so the whole community gathers on this patch of grass with a goal in both ends. As is the custom here, no numbers are given or estimated, but I would say the attendance easily reaches five digit numbers. And of course there’s no chance of a cloudy day, not to mention a shady spot to sit down on. In the first game Taita Combined meets the reigning Kenyan champions, Gor Mahia. It’s a slaughter, but what I remember from the game is the celebration that ensued as Taita managed to score that one precious goal, despite already being 0-4 down. On a stadium where the line between the field and ‘the stands’ is very fluid and with one policeman around keeping order, it was no surprise that the field was in a blink of an eye flooded with cheering Taitas, hugging everything in red, singing songs, blowing vuvuzelas and dancing. After quite some time, when I was about to make the decision to leave, the game continued and Goliath scored a few more goals. No one cared. In the following game, the big national favorites, the Leopards, took a beating that was on par with that seen in the first match.

What I found a bit worrying was that some of the spectators had clearly carried from home rocks instead of snacks. I’ve heard of throwing items on the pitch in fanatic football cultures, but this seemed a bit too much… In the end, they were not used on the players but on fellow supporters! I was apparently in a section exclusively for sitting down. Get up, get hit! Some did, with painful consequences.

Big Man comes
But that wasn’t all. On half-time of the second match, the unmistakable sound of helicopter wings could be heard. A big boss had decided to make an appearance, and landed flat in the middle of the football field, sending players, officials and fans scattering to all directions. Speeches were held in Swahili, there were standing ovations, but still to this day I don’t know who the big boss was. Some say it was the local governor (in Kiswahili called, imaginatively, gavana), some say it was the deputy president William Ruto himself, supposed to be in The Hague for all I know…

Anyway, after hours in the sun, we all staggered home roasted and exhausted. I pity those who live out of walking distance: there was enough public transport for about one percent of the people. There was something about the rawness and stripped down execution of the event that made the experience so much more intense than something similar back home. No order, no services, only the core of the happening itself. (The same, by the way, goes for the East Africa Safari Classic, which surprisingly returned to Taita seven days after leaving town.)


The chaotic view left by such an event on a communal gathering place with little waste management is beyond description. This is where the second event comes in. After a week of beholding the field of polythene bags, beer cans and other trash that once was the football stadium, a pride of the community, someone decided to do something. An NGO called the Taita Environment Initiative (TEI) took the initiative to pick up the trash, if only slightly late, mobilizing other community based groups and ending up with about one hundred people (farmers, students, scouts…) cleaning up the mess.

During an interview with the fine people at TEI, I was naturally invited with one day’s notice. Me being a mzungu running around town asking questions on, among other things, waste management and the collection system, I shouldn’t have been that surprised. So I went there, sat on stage for the opening ceremonies (as what some have in other contexts called the ‘token white man’) and gathered garbage for an hour. For some minutes during that morning, I felt like a celebrity:  Nothing tells more about the sick twists of history and global relations than noticing that a few Kenyans are filming a white man picking up trash in a public space. Anyway, good deed of the year done!

I don’t want to take anything away from an awareness-raising event such as this. Of course, it is a good step towards making a community cleaner, but what is easily forgotten is that it is just plain wrong that waste collection is allowed to become a special event in the communal routine, instead of the continuous activity it should be. If someone (What about the organizers of the first event?) would take their responsibility, such ‘cleaning days’ would not and should not be needed. And still, the centering of trash to piles only goes so far if no containers are provided. Piles can of course be collected by truck, but it’s hardly a sustainable solution, given everything from rain and wind to animals in spreading that garbage again. And of course, this cleaning day only concentrated on collecting the waste and transporting it to big dumpsites, but there were not many mentions on the final disposal of the waste. I assume it is still burned. Wouldn’t this have been a wonderful opportunity to talk also about recycling?

Thursday, 28 November 2013

The Company

Mwatate town lives its life in the shadow of two dominant features, one natural and one less natural. To the northwest, north of the road leading to Tanzania, there’s Bura Bluff, a high and vertical cliff towering above the plain. To the southeast, south of the road leading to Voi, there’s a vast, synthetic looking green mat pierced by a small hill: The Teita Sisal Estate.

I wouldn’t call it just a commercial plantation, already in itself a term with a very dark ring to it in an African context. It seems to be the prototype of a malicious commercial plantation, the ultimate 'rip-off industry'.
The Teita Sisal Estate (the misspelling in is apparently a conscious one) is said to be the largest of its kind in the world. Basically it’s a world of its own. Its huge area (More than 30 000 acres, still grabbing) contains its own homes, schools, shops, health facilities etc. It’s like an independent city in the middle of the dry countryside. Rumors state that there are people who have not left the compounds of the estate once in their lifetime. Everything is closed to outsiders, naturally.

And everything is of course owned by foreigners from the more developed world, in this case two Greek brothers named Kostas and Philip Kyriazi. Does it sound familiar? Entering through the gates is like driving a century back in time. It is all in all such a delightful relic of colonial times that it would be funny, were it not actually a very serious part of so many peoples’ lives.

By chance I happened to do an interview for Ms. G with a man in Mwatate who had just retired from the estate, so the discussion quite naturally took that road. It seems to me like it not only sounds colonial but actually is. I cannot comment on the level of income of the workers, but ignoring that, people have forever been contracted and let off with little regulation or logic or contracted as occasional labor so as to minimize costs related to fixed employment. The water and waste management has drawn some not very positive attention to it with relation to the fragile environment. The Sisal is planted, harvested and to some extent processed by the plantation within the plantation with minimal connection to the surrounding community. As the staff of the estate do not even shop in Mwatate, it is easy for people outside the plantation to claim that it brings no benefits whatsoever to the town, contrary to what I’m sure the company would give as a motivation for their existence.

Yes, they probably on paper pay proper taxes, property rights, community support etc. to the central government, but then it is not for nothing the Kiswahili word for government, sirikali, also translates to 'a big secret'.

Mwatate and the Teita Sisal Estate
So people do what they always do because there are few options. The other day, an unusually large group of workers were let off. Riots ensued. Some tractors were burned, lots of walkie-talkies and other equipment destroyed along with stretches of road (some not belonging to the estate) until the authorities reacted and a compromise was found. I don’t know what the compromise is, but does it really matter?

This is what is meant by the term ‘extractive industry’, right?

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Ms. G – Philia vs. Phobia

While bearing the risk of at the least repeating myself and at the worst of clinging onto a disturbing subject and coming out as a disturbed guy, I want to discuss the concepts of faecophilic and faecophobic cultures in some more detail, if only to have it in writing for myself. So in short, this post is more about me myself trying to clarify and get my head around some concepts more than telling about my stay here, but bear with me! Or actually, don’t if you don’t want to and go enjoy the weather! Writing things down sometimes does help. One more thing: no promises, but there might be more of this stuff…

Why publish it then? At least because at one point I will have to present it all in a format that not only can be published but might with some fantasy pass for academic writing, and it is good exercise to write under the threat that someone might read this. And then there’s the best argument of all: Why not?


So, a general division of the world’s cultures into two groups with regard to their attitude towards human excreta can be proposed. In this very simplifying but as a concept or a tool for thinking useful continuum two opposite groups are introduced: the faecophilics and the faecophobics.

On the one hand, faecophilic cultures are presented as ones that do not have any serious cultural obstacles (such as values and norms) on handling human waste. These are common namely in the densely populated agricultural areas of East and Southeast Asia, for instance in China and Vietnam. Where productive agricultural land has for a long time been a relatively scarce resource because of the dense population, people have not been able to move between farming areas and have through generations been forced to stay in contact with their own waste and create systems of managing human waste along with all other garbage right there, on site. With time, the function of human excreta as a nutritious fertilizer has been recognized and it has become to be seen as a resource instead of something that should be gotten rid of. Faecophilics believe in simply burying their excreta and in the soil as a tool in treating the waste. They also consider reuse of excreta to be a part of the natural cycle of nutrients.

On the other hand, faecophobic cultures are ones in which the only thing seen as appropriate in these issues is to avoid all contact with human waste. Such attitudes have often been developed in areas where competition for land has not been as intensive and shifting your farm from one place to another or semi-nomadic lifestyles have been possible or even the best option. The mobile lifestyle has facilitated a system of waste disposal where human excreta and other waste is simply left behind as human activity moves to another location. The traditional lifestyle meant that there was no pressing need to recycle wastes and nature carried the responsibility of waste treatment. Faecophobic cultures have been found to be dominant in Sub-Saharan Africa, among some other regions, which can set some obstacles on the introduction of ecological sanitation systems. Faecophobics react more to the idea of contamination (that’s disgust) than the actual risk of contamination, which has been argued to be only partly rational. They also react mostly to the appearance of excreta, as studies show that treated excreta does not create the same reactions.

Of course, as with everything in culture, religion plays a role in both cases. Whereas I've understood that there is next to no mention of excreta or the reuse of it in the bible, it is in Hinduism and Islam seen as simply dirty stuff, no exceptions allowed. In the opposite corner we find the Buddhists, whose general belief in reincarnation directly promotes the reuse of everything.

Of course, as can be stated for most theoretical choices between ‘this or that’, most people and cultures of the world take a position somewhere along the phobic-philic-continuum, not at either of the extremes. Moreover, that stance is not necessarily fixed and can probably be altered. For instance, it can be said the western faecophobic cultures (that’s us), have developed their overtly negative attitude towards poo and pee only as technological development has facilitated our flush-and-forget or toilets (Out of sight, out of mind...) and created a certain alienation from nature. As excreta have been moved away from our everyday lives by new, convenient and efficient technology, it has become seen as something hidden, disgusting and dangerous. Technology has altered people’s attitudes instead of the other way around.

Can I conclude from this that communities with basically faecophobic approaches to sanitation can, through education, awareness-raising and provision of the right technology, be encouraged to take a more faecophilic attitude, thereby facilitating the introduction of more ecological and more sustainable sanitation solutions? I believe I can.

And of course the obvious big question goes: Which ones are the sick ones? The poll is still there on the right side, answer if you dare!

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Wheels of History

Every healthy nation should have a sport that has the power to stop everything else going on. Ice hockey,
football, rugby, whatever… Something that generates interest in nearly everyone, if maybe only occasionally, and still isn't all that serious, not really a question of life and death.

A big boss joined us for a day on the course I happened to be sort of an instructor on. One day around lunchtime, he got up and announced in the deep voice of authority that it’s time for a brake and directed us all out. We all took position along the road outside the station, in an atmosphere of eager anticipation. Lots of other people had made the same move. It was rally time!

Motorsports probably isn't the first thing that comes to most people’s mind when talking of Kenyan sports. On international arenas, it sometimes seems that Kenyans do one and only one sport: running. Of course, Finns would know that there’s a tradition of rally in Kenya, if only in organizing the legendary Safari Rally (a part of the World Rally Championship from 1973 until 2002. Few notice that the Safari Rally is still alive and well, both as a part of the African Rally Championship and, while a bit stuck in history, as the East Africa Safari Classic, where only cars of built before 1979 (K-35, that is) can participate. I happened to be witnessing the latter case.
First impression

And now the show was here! After a time spent standing in the roasting sun in anticipation and ignorance an unmistakable sound emerged from uphill. Soon you could hear the crowd in the bend just above us cheering right before a yellow Porsche 911 appeared in a cloud of dust and zoomed past us. Rocks went flying, no-one was standing at a safe distance and everyone was more or less hit, but most significantly no-one cared. Blinded and deafened, we went back to waiting for the next mean machine to pass. Then we repeated that pattern about 60 times. No one was going to return from this lunch-brake.

Wake-up, sunshine
The following morning I woke up around dawn to the sweet sound of an untamed racing engine in my room, or so it appeared. After rushing out not knowing whether to be panicked or excited, I quickly deduced that the rally was back, this time starting for a stage basically off the yard of the research station. More surprising than the early hour was that the whole town was already out, ladies, babies and gentlemen alike. The experience was made all the more surreal by the fact that there were basically no security measures taken. Anyone could, and did, walk up to the starting line for some close-up photography, some tire-kicking and hand-shaking with the heroes themselves. It was as if the whole thing was some informal and ex-tempore street race. Still everything went along in perfect order with no incidents of any kind, each car roaring off into the dark-green, misty forest of the morning hours in its turn and on time while no-one made at all uncomfortable by the large, interested crowd.

I wouldn't like to be the killjoy that finds something negative even with this great, universally entertaining event, but it was impossible not to notice how all participants as well as organizers, whatever nationality they were representing, were of a very pale color. It is not the cheapest of hobbies, and so, sadly, it seems even in to be Kenya very much a white man’s sport when it comes participating as anything else than a bystander…

Anyway, there was no question of the greatest local legend. Ian Duncan, winner of the Safari rally in 1994 when it was part of the WRC, is still competing at the age of 52. Also I was proud to notice that other names I could pick up from discussions in the audience included Vatanen, Kankkunen, Mäkinen and Grönholm in addition to Burns and the rest! No Finnish participants this time around though.

Friday, 22 November 2013


Sometimes life swiftly pushes you on to new challenges while you’you've only beginning to get bored with whatever routine you’re in.

The change might be a welcomed and long-awaited one, like a Master’s student of the University of Nairobi getting a scholarship to immediately go and finish his studies in Europe. Or it might be more of a surprise task you’re able and available but not prepared to do.

Now, this is a research station of the University of Helsinki in Kenya. The foreign ministry of Finland is naturally interested in using that station as a tool also for development cooperation in addition to research, Kenya being one of the long-term partnering countries of Finnish development cooperation. The Kenyan government has for many reasons great interest in the management of forest resources and Finns, if anyone, have expertise in this with the Uni. of Helsinki in particular having expertise in using GPS-receivers, satellite images, computer software and what not (all in all called Geographical Information Systems or GIS) within the management of forests.

So let the GIS people of the University of Helsinki do some training of the forest people of the Kenyan government! The former one takes the form of a PhD student from Helsinki and the latter one the form of a group of personnel from the Kenya Forest Service (KFS). A course is organized, with the practical fieldwork taking place where else but in the Taita Hills and based in the research station.

Only that the guy from Uni. of Nairobi, a Master’s Student, who was supposed to be an instructor on the course, has received a scholarship and skittered off the Europe to finish his degree. But hey, there’s this guy hanging around Taita Hills who has done some GIS during his studies, he will have to do! Now these poor participants will have to do with me as a struggling assisting instructor; a teacher of some kind. It’s not like I could have refusez after having had so much support for being here in the first place. And yes, there are other benefits in it for me.

The fieldwork
And so I find myself leading (That’s really not the right word… Herding? Following? Participating?) a group of six ‘students’ and a taxonomist (A guy I otherwise call a friend and research assistant) on fieldwork in someone’s maize field, looking for and identifying different tree species indigenous to the Taita Hills. Someone might be able to picture me there and especially my overflowing confidence in doing this.

The work
After hiking to, finding, identifying and marking down coordinates of indigenous trees around, we’re in for three long and intense days staring at the screen. They ask: What can we actually do with what we know and what we’ve gathered on the field, and how? And so we enter the dark world of computer software.

Even with ten participants and two instructors, it’s proper job helping out people who are not very familiar with the software, using programs that don’t always work as they should (my subjective view), given a certain degree of a language barrier.

Still, after this week these guys and gals should be able to do their work in protecting Kenya’s forests more effectively by using an extra eye up in the sky (satellite images), their own  eyes and knowledge with appropriate (Free for downloading!) software. Are they? At least I am now: If you need to learn how to really use a program, try teaching it to someone else!

The class
It’s been great not only to actually see how a western research station in practice tries to have an impact on lives in its developing country setting but also to be a part of it, if only a small one. If any research needs to put an overemphasis on its positive results for communities, it’s that done by ‘good’ western research institutions in the ‘third world’.

Thursday, 14 November 2013


I've said already it gets dry here. Roads crack, fields turn brown and even baboons start appearing on ever higher ground each day, escaping the even more severe drought down in the lowlands.

The other day I Mwakitau, a good way on the lowlands towards to border of Tanzania, we stopped for a soda when on our way to the market in Taveta for shopping (you can guess if that was my idea or not: it’s more than a three-hour drive there). An old lady sat down next to me in the shade and started conversing in a low voice and in a language I only understand a few words of. But I think I asked her about the weather and whether or not there had been any rain around. It goes without saying that I didn't understand the answer, but the length and tone of it said more than a thousand understood words.

The cliche of water being the very essence of life and death takes a whole new weight for a guy from a place like where I am from in a place like this. Drought, flooding and all other problems related with H₂O are for a University student in Helsinki little more than theoretical issues and headlines in the pages on foreign news in the newspaper, however concerned each and every one might be on a personal level.

Even at the station, which is way better equipped in these matters than most buildings in Wundanyi, we ran out of water just at the end of October. For me, that only added to the exotics of being away (bottled drinking water can always be bought, although at a high price for local standards, from the market) and gave an excuse to not bother taking showers every day, but it tells volumes of how badly off many other households around here are. No rain means no water means not only lack of hygiene and drink but also future lack of food. It was put with shocking calm to me: ‘One year from now, you can expect famines around here’.

It wasn't always this bad. There used to be big dams both in Wundanyi and Mwatate, courtesy of the colonial government, providing water for many purposes throughout the year. Then something happened. Independence came, and people understandably wanted to get rid of features representing or reminding of the colonial times, however useful they were. Children drowned in the dams. So they were emptied and converted to farmland and very productive farmland indeed. Only that now, once things get dry, the dams are not there to provided water anymore. No more buffer for hard times. Rational behavior at first glance? Yes. Understandable feelings and solutions based on them? Yes. Long-term planning?

There it comes
And then the rains came properly one Wednesday, when I was again left “alone” as the only guest on the station. Now they come not with occasional sound of thunder, but with a constant rumbling for tens of minutes. They come with plenty of warning (the sound, the sudden darkness, the hot wind, the smell) just minutes ahead of the first drops, and they come hard.

Brown turns to green, dust turns to mud. Roads get slippery, shoes and socks get ruined and off this author goes, skipping through higher terrain to find cheap boots at the market. One shower surprised on me on a run, and I’m not exaggerating too much when I say I really had to work hard to climb up the slopes from a valley in which I didn't want to be at the moment.

In addition, they come with blackouts to add some effect to the feeling, which is annoying since I do have some office-work to do and no, I don’t have one of those fancy laptops that work even when not plugged in.
What I don’t get, is that the next morning everything is as if there had been no rain. You still hear people complaining about the lack of rain. The puddles of mud don’t stick around for days, as they would back home. The clouds, the moisture and all other signs of rain disappear just as quickly as they appeared, and dust is back. Thirsty land?

Not thirsty enough, it appears, since ironically the rains are, when they come, even too hard. Instead of irrigation for shambas, you get floods, erosion and further impoverished soils. Nature has a really cruel and twisted sense of humor around here!

Sunday, 10 November 2013


I’m on the countryside here, which I’m not used to being in for longer periods. Time get’s a bit slow at points.

Today is Sunday, and religion is a big thing here, even though it’s not as blatantly expressed as for instance in West Africa. I don’t see posters advertising for foreign celebrity preachers visiting here (maybe because I'm on the countryside?) and I’m not asked for my home church or to go to church every week, but still: you can hear it, see it and feel it.

The town is empty and quiet, everything is closed. The usually crowded and, considering the size of the town, remarkably noisy Matatu station is now almost like in a ghost town, there’s just a few of us wondering what all the few others are even doing there. On top if it all it’s as hot and pressing as it can get here during the sunny days in the rainy season, which is hot. So I keep expecting young Clint Eastwood to appear from around the corner with something between his teeth. One more experience for me...

The Wild West illusion lasts as long as you manage to keep your ears shut. Sunday is the day of church, but that also means that it is the day of music. It’s not all good gospels, as one might think or hope, but it is music in all its forms, loud and clear, coming for at least two different, more or less hidden sources in each concentration of dwellings. Taking a long walk along empty roads through empty villages but still hearing music all the time has to be one kind of a simulation of the more disturbed form of hearing noises.

I haven’t visited any of the churches here, because I don’t think they are considered to be as much tourist attractions here as in Europe, and I’m afraid I would feel a lot out of place. Maybe one of these lonely Sundays… There’s a limit as to how much I can walk around, run around, cycle around, or drive around. Or read, write or watch movies and series.

Did I mention already that it’s really hot?

But now I’m of course exaggerating. In the afternoons, bars will open and it seems that the limited population of Wundanyi moves from the surprisingly many religious establishments to the surprisingly many places showing the English Premier League. That’s where you get to be bored without having to complain about it. No thinking about what to do, just watching! That's my kind of Sunday activity, so I join them.

During the weekdays, the human world of sounds is, surprisingly and against all odds, dominated by Islam. That’s what you hear when you wake up and when you go to bed: the muezzin. There’s a mosque, apparently with Metallica-class loudspeakers, on a nearby hill, and they're building a new one next to the prison, whatever the symbology of that is supposed to be. New, well built mosques and the right to daily (many times a day, actually) call to prayers that is forbidden in most of Europe, only for a handful of people in a very Christian community, in a country where religious tensions have been in the minds of everybody maybe more than anywhere else in the world (Think Westgate, to begin with). Why? The explanation I've got, being probably a parted one, is that the Muslim community here is really good at playing the general concern of repression for their benefit. All claims for more mosques to be built or any other rights are backed by claims of repression based on religion, and that is actually taken seriously here. This might of course be a consequence of a near history and a perceived threat of outright religious violence in the country. Or it might be the workings of foreign funders, wanting to spreads Islam. One friend calls them crusaders... Or could this just be a form of surprising tolerance?

Just to point out, the Muslims I have actually met have not been different from their neighbors in any way, their faith has only been found out by asking.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Ms. G – Talkin’ to People

October turned to November and I’ve probably given out the impression that I haven’t been doing a lot of useful stuff here. Well, actually I have.


Target a household/business premise, invite yourself in, ask for permission to interview, ask for permission to record, ask your questions, note down coordinates (where you really are), maybe have a short chat, present your gratefulness, leave, target another household/business premise. Repeat 3-7 times. That’s how my usual day has looked like so far. It’s been fun.

There’s been lots of giggling because of silly questions, lots of awkward silence because of weird question, plenty of misunderstandings. But zero hostility, even though I was expecting some, asking questions under a pretty sensitive theme.

The easiest interviews are with the ones who speak either good English or no English. In the former case it feels like a normal discussion, in the latter one I get to off easy by just presenting the original questions as they appear on paper and let my friend do the explaining. Most problems are encountered when people bravely try to make it through with less than perfect English skills, forcing me to ask each question differently many times. I’m sure this is what I’ve been asking for by not preparing my questions well enough (Can it ever be done well enough?), and it’s good training also for me, but still… You might be tired, it’s really hot… You get the picture.

I think I’ve done quite enough of interviews because not many new answers come up anymore, so here’s a short, gut-feeling, mini-analysis of the answers:
  • Everyone interviewed actually has a toilet, something that is not self-evident in the region. Some people do claim however that not everyone in the community have toilets.
  • Almost all toilets are pit latrines, which is a ‘dump, cover and forget’- solution. You dig a pit and when it’s full you cover it and gig another one. It serves well for keeping the surrounding clean and preventing the spread of diseases, which is why it is being advocated by for instance the health authorities, Plan International and World Vision. But it also leaves all the nutrients unused and unavailable as well as makes possible the contamination of ground water. And at one point people just have to run out of land to dig pits in, right?
  • Farming as the only occupation in a household is very common. Nearly everyone farms something, although it is an unpredictable practice due to weather patterns, in order to not be dependent on a single income and being vulnerable to changes in life.
  • No-one around uses human waste to improve the soil conditions on farms, although organic wastes and animal manure are widely used. Using industrial fertilizers is not very widespread because it is too expensive.
  • The waste that is not used as manure is burned since a collection system does not exist except for some scrap buyers around the towns.
  • Not many people oppose the idea as such of using human excreta to improve soil conditions. It is not used, according to the interviews, simply because of a lack of skills and technology to do so.

The last one is crucial significant, as sub-Saharan Africans are in literature generally considered to be against all contact with human excreta (the term is faecophobic) as opposed to for instance to Asians (who would then be faecophilics, which sounds a lot more perverse than it really is). What needs to considered here is of course that answering ‘yes, I could consider that’ is easy whereas it doesn’t really tell you that people would actually be using piss and poo on their farms. Would people eat/buy the products? Would restaurants serve them?

And here are some of my favourite answers, freely (!?) translated:

‘Yeah, I don’t think my family sh*its enough for it to be of any use to us...’

‘Well, I have to be happy with my toilet because I built it and I clean it!’

‘I want a flush toilet. Flush! FLUSH!’ [yelling at the recorder] Later Mwadime confirmed my suspicion that this man had had some happy-liquid.

‘We have no sources of income’, when the smell in the house and the respondents condition made clear that he was actually running a not very small factory of that happy-liquid.

And the one I’ve been expecting to come along way more often: “You can have people do whatever you want with their sh*t, as long as you stay away from my shamba (garden/farm) with it!”

Next, I’m going to be moving on to the maybe harder and more interesting part of the field work: Finding out, getting a grip of and talking to people that might be thought to know something about these things in the bigger picture. Expert interviews I will call them. I’ll start easy and consider anyone working in government, waste management, agriculture, forestry or NGOs an expert.

And just because I found a fun new tool: There’s a poll to the right: Do you consider yourself faecophobic or faecophilic? Please think about it, answer and even motivate or comment if you like. I’m yet to answer it myself.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Ms. G – Why Talk to People

October turned to November and I've probably given out the impression that I haven’t been doing a lot of useful stuff here. Well, actually I have.


How you get information about stuff is a big number in higher education. That’s what methodology courses are all about. The most complicated and detailed methods might serve their purpose in many empirical, “The Big Bang Theory”-science, but as for the rest of us, to most questions we have someone somewhere already has the answer to.

At least that’s the thought I’ve been following with Ms. G.

Development geography and development studies in general always (should) strive to solving problems, either by simply identifying and explaining them or coming up with solutions. As was maybe to some extent explained earlier, I’m working under the second heading. Now, I believe (on the basis of a not insignificant amount of hours of reading) with most other people that emphasis in coming up with these solutions should be put on the views, experiences and preferences of the final users of the solutions.
It often surprises me, and maybe many others, how many times past development aid has failed or even done some more damage only because the right people apparently were not asked the right questions or were not listened to carefully enough. A classic example (that first came to my notice through Dambisa Moyo) is when bed nets (protecting from mosquitoes and therefore malaria) were imported from the west to a tropical country without realizing that there is an enterprise already working on this at the location. Yes, protection from malaria was probably improved and less people fell sick in the short run. But lots of people were put out of work in the bed net business, pushing them into poverty. A would-be industry was destroyed by taking away its markets. And people were made more dependent on aid instead of local production. Plenty of money is lost in the ‘business’ of aid on completely wrong ways of doing things, leading to huge inefficiency and corruption (that last one just some guesswork of mine). These things could be avoided by, yet again, asking [the right people what they think] before doing.

My thing here is no exception. If anything, the toilet business is a field where the preferences of users is most important in making sure that someone is actually going to use any solutions you come up with! Just consider yourself (at least those back in the north) being introduced to a very new way of handling your products, for instance changing from sitting to squatting and from flushing to shoveling.

This is why I start by simply ask people, however differently I might formulate it in the final thesis.

But of course it’s not that simple. A frustrating amount of time goes to deciding what questions to ask, how to formulate them and in which order to ask them so that you won’t be leading the guy/gal to answer the questions he/she might think you want to hear. Or so that the interviewee won’t get the impression that you are ready to offer those solutions or any other tangible benefits here and now, which is a problem especially when talking about human development within a generally poor population. Everyone needs or wants something (a tree seedling, cash to pay for school fees, or your camera), and however well you try to appear informal (dressing very casually, using simple terms for things, which is especially fun under my theme), you are seen, in my case somewhat incorrectly, as a powerful man with connections and as a potential resource for the people.

Being the lazy b*astard I am, I didn't learn any Swahili before coming here (not that even all locals speak it very well…), so my lack of skills forces me to use an interpreter/assistant/friend in my work. This comes with many issues to consider, which anyone can imagine or look up themselves, but in short: Who is really conducting the interview when (this is a real, if single, example) you’re question is a short sentence, the translation of the question is short, the original answer takes a couple of minutes and the translated answer is a simple, pithy: ‘No.’? This is usually signed for, most of the time probably correctly, with the fact that people sometimes just like to ramble along more than a bit outside the theme.

This also comes along with ethical issues that I don’t have the energy to consider in this text, maybe later… Another story for another day is also the questions they come up with.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The City of No One

Nairobi skyline

No city can probably match the possibilities provided to private security companies offered by Nairobi. It’s crowded, chaotic and very informal in all possible senses.

Although the city is often mentioned as a symbol of colonial city planning, it feels as if Nairobi wasn't basically designed at all. No settlement worth mentioning existed at the site until 1898, when a British engineer building the railway line from Mombasa towards the great lakes decided to camp in the middle of nowhere, in what happened to be the last flat spot, to take time to plan the way ahead down to the Rift Valley.  So the city can’t be accused of being all that ‘African’ and therefore less than perfect. It was designed and built from scratch by Europeans. And it was never planned to become the metropolis it did. It was meant to be a small, possibly temporary base for railway building across the wilderness. Still, in little more than a century, it has grown to a stereotypical Third World City with all the accompanying problems and three million inhabitants.

The fact that Nairobi has grown way too big compared to how it is designed (as have so many other cities around the world) means that there’s simply too much people around with no housing or a formal, regular income. This, as was known as early as by the ancient Romans (really love to say that!), causes problems, especially when we’re talking about a young population. They get along best as they see. At best, this means an oversupply of all possible services, legal and illegal, formal and informal, needed and not needed. You wont find yourself desperately looking for a taxi, you will be ripped to pieces (a friend calls them Vultures) by the ones keeping watch on the street once you step out from your hotel. Almost the same applies to anything you might ever want to buy. Where is the Maasai Market? No worries, you’re already dragged in that direction.

At worst, this means lots of crime. You cannot avoid being constantly reminded to mind yourself. There are guards and metal detectors at the entrance of every mall and hotel in the favor of tourists, and I've understood this was the case even before the events of last month. Personally, I've had zero experience of crime during two brief stays in the city, so common sense should get one through, but the atmosphere speaks for itself.

The sense of trouble and a quick pulse is boosted by the architecture that is a disconnected blend of western skyscrapers and concrete giants that look like they've been both drawn and built in great hurry to serve the growing city. Everything is so dense that you can’t really get a good look at the city from within or describe it in any useful way.

Guesthouse in Posh Nairobi

The threat of crime is not very surprising since one could say that there’s a demand for it. The main entrance roads outside the city, far away from the noise and dirt of the CBD, are lined with posh, high-end residential areas, classical gated communities where outsiders have no business to enter for. The newer ones look like the setting of the TV series Weeds and in the older ones, built during colonial times, you will not know if you’re in Kenya or Kent. This highlights the fact that Nairobi, while located in a very poor country, has a very high density of very rich people. And everyone understands what such contrasts among a dense population bring about.
Kibera, viewed cowardly from the outside

Then there are places like Kibera. Many foreigners (or other residents of Nairobi, for that matter), me included, seldom consider going there. It has a reputation on par with the favelas of Rio de Janeiro when it comes to violence, criminality and misery. What makes Kibera worth mentioning is not its bad conditions as such, but that it is said to embody the great underlying problem of Nairobi. Since it was bred by Europeans, it is not seen as the home of any single one of Kenya’s many ethnic groups. Blend in also considerable groups of European and Indian ethnicity. All are immigrants and no single group has deep roots in the city or the surrounding area. If Kumasi is the city of the Ashanti, and posh Cape Town a city of the white, Nairobi is the city of no one. Given a history, both distant and recent, of conflicts between these groups, this means that social cohesion, networks and capital, on which many African communities strongly rely on, are extremely weak. So even forms of informal social security are very hard to find.

Still, Nairobi is definitely worth a visit but maybe not a longer stay.

PS. Apparently the government is doing something in Kibera: There is a housing project in Kibera, building proper housing in large concrete buildings for the residents of shacks to move into. The new problem is apparently that once residents of the area are awarded (don’t ask how they’re chosen…) one of these ‘better homes’, they sometimes don’t move in themselves but instead rent the flat out for great revenue. Informally, of course. Again, scramble for scarce resources.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Conflicts and conservation

’Norsu!’, Mwadime suddenly exclaimed, pointing his finger at the middle of the burning hot road between Mwatate and Voi, where there were definitely no elephants. Actually, he was pointing at the brown pile of waste on the middle of the road, which testified that ‘norsu’ (or ndovu in Swahili) had been there that night, where it definitely should not have been.

In the Taita Hills, wildlife is close by. The drier, lowland part of Taita Hills around the town of Mwatate is surrounded by wildlife parks. This is where the elephants should be spending their time, tranquilly chewing away at trees and bushes. But drought affects everyone’s and everything’s lives. When the parks are dry, the elephants are driven by instinct out of them in order to survive. This is when they clash with humans. Lots of people have lost whole harvests of maize and papaya because of the famous beasts. In a situation where people are pushed to the edge of their livelihood, it is quite normal that efforts by wildlife associations to protect the culprits are not always well understood or appreciated. In these circumstances, the rare act of actually taking an elephant life has much more to it than being greedy poaching, as it is often portrayed. Everyone understands the natural and even economical value of having spectacular wildlife around, but this will not replace any harvests.

But even the fact that the animals leave the parks cannot be attributed only to natural factors. The first problem, I've understood, is bad surveillance. The local wildlife service has proper funds and high quality equipment, but one local noted that they still seem to be more interested in one daytime drink after another, instead of actually steering animal movements. Whether this is a slight exaggeration or not, they’re clearly generally not doing a good job.

Meanwhile, a bit to the north, both even worse drought and a raging human conflict are driving people, namely Somalis, south. Now, they’re here. All of these are not the Somalis we tend to think of in Europe, poor and disadvantaged in many ways. Some of the ones that have wandered south bring along great herds of livestock with them and should therefore be considered notably wealthy. The institutions managing the parks being what they are, that wealth means access to best grazing lands, even within the national parks. These newcomers cause insecurity and anxiousness among the elephants, adding to the pressure on them to leave the park.

So: human conflict far away causes pressures on human populations, leading to migration into new areas. Weak institutions and corruption in these areas allow the new populations to disturb the balance between human settlements and the surrounding nature. This causes a new conflict, this time between man and nature, generation pressure on and migration of animals, leading to one more human-nature conflict between animals and the original population. In short, both people and nature ‘suffer through the inevitable conflicts that occur when people scramble for scarce resources’, whether livestock or arable land. (LINK to Wangari Maathai: The Challenge for Africa)

It’s a great example of how many factors, both human and natural, mingle to form one big problem, which no-one really knows how to solve. That’s a lot of components of geography at work for you!

And of course, there are people around that act as if having all the answers and too often are listened to. Then there are people around that clearly have good answers but are seldom asked for them. These are big contemporary issues especially in lowland Mwatate, so I've come to talk about them with more than just a few people. What many people note, is that the only ones to get along with wildlife, living in balance with it and conserving it, are the ones that have been doing so for no one knows how long: the Maasai, who apparently have always been stubborn enough not to be influenced by anyone, keeping to their own, good ways. The nomadic lifestyle probably isn't something for the most of us, but still, might there be any lessons to learn there?

Saturday, 19 October 2013


Some geography, just because it seems appropriate to describe the surroundings...

The Taita Hills are a collection of mountains (I really don’t know whether to call them small or big. The Highest peak, Vuria, rises to 2200 meters, but then again the surrounding plain lies at about 700 meters) located approximately at 3°25’S, 38°20’E. The hills are part covered in fields and part in cloud- and rain forests. It’s said to be one of the important biodiversity hotspots in Africa.

The area around the hills is good old Lion King Land: a dry savannah where you should be able to find all those iconic animals. I bet one of the cliffs down there is where Simba was first presented to his future subjects (much like what has happened lately in Britain and Sweden...) Great Safari-country that is!

So there’s a general and not surprising tension between the (relatively) green, fertile, humid, prosperous and developed hills on the one hand and the red-and-brown, dry and barren plains, where people are said to be relying on food aid, on the other. The hills with their forests have been described (somewhere here) as natural ‘water towers’, serving as the source of local rivers. Now, due to climate change, God or anything else people like to attribute large-scale changes to, those rivers are carrying less water each year, and it seems rational that the lowlanders blame the hill-dwellers for this. General disappearance of forests of course accounts for some of this.

It’s a pity that the blame misses its target. As I’ve understood it, the rivers from Wundanyi don’t run south to Mwatate but west to somewhere else. But these things usually don’t stop people from collectively blaming something or someone outside ‘us’ (vs. ‘them’) for trouble, once they've decided so.

They get two rainy seasons here every year: one from March to July and one from October and December (now). The collective memory and experience points out that the rains have grown more irregular lately . When the rains seldom show themselves down on the plains (I’m again forced to refer to Toto’s Africa), they come as heavy downpours that cause floods instead of fertility. In between are long, dry stretches that cause suffering, tensions and conflicts over resources. Added to this is a sturdy population growth, which really doesn't help.

I've divided the study area where I will be doing interviews into three parts. It consists of two river catchments: Wundanyi (up in the hills, where the research station is located) and Mwatate (down on the plain), originally both mapped and named (for the biggest towns located in them) by people smarter than me. In addition I've divided the Mwatate catchment into two parts, since it’s a lot bigger and can be divided according to physical features (a bit hilly vs. flat, not so dry vs. very dry etc.) and because I was advised to do so by a trustworthy source. So I have three areas, differing in topography, soil, vegetation and climate.


And there it was, one day... We we’re on a schoolyard in Mwanda, where Mwadime was checking some sensors or other scientific gadgets and I was shooting the nice view towards the west and the savanna. Mwadime mumbled something, which I didn't react to. Soon he repeated: “Oh, you’re shooting the Kilimanjaro”... Of course, I had no idea. I hadn't even noticed the vague, blue shadow so much above everything else, including some small clouds, that it didn't attract my attention simply because I couldn't conceive it as anything else than the sky. I didn't cross my mind that I was watching one of the world’s great mountains for the first time in my life.

It’s weird how seeing something far away, that’s always been there, and doesn't affect your well-being in any way can make you happy for the rest of the day, whatever may come.
You can see it too...

PS. Lion King is, and will always be the best Disney Classic ever. I still felt a tug of sick pleasure stemming deep down from childhood memories when we saw a hyena that had been transformed into roadkill on our way from Nairobi...