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...

Monday, 14 October 2013

Ms. G.

I think it’s safe to say that anyone who has ever read or heard anything about international development differences, poverty or general misery around the world or in any specific place, will have noticed that sanitation problems (also known as bad toilets) are some of the biggest ones.

Travelling for instance from Finland, it is not even necessary to go outside of Europe to feel that the toilets in hotels, restaurant, homes etc. aren’t always the standard we’re used to. Those who have travelled to more far-away places often have gruelling horror stories of the sanitation services they have stood up with.

Bad that’s generally just a question of comfort, the ability to withstand bad smells or short-term, if of course unpleasant and time-wasting, sickness. What is more important is that a really big portion of the planet’s human dwellers live their day-to-day lives in that reality. No one will ever know exact numbers, but estimates usually but that population at about 2 billion people. In short, lots of people die and suffer, everyone loses money and the world is far from a perfect place because of, among other things, this.

The stuff we, as animals and part of various ecosystems, produce and wish to never see again, as we all know, is dangerous or at the very least disgusting. This is why we get rid of it. The thing is that it’s dangerous for or environment as well. Whatever poisons or germs are in that stuff (can we now just start calling it poo?) won’t disappear by flushing it away. So it would be good to either render it safe before dumping it in nature or not dump it at all. This is not done well enough almost anywhere in the world. Many will beg to differ, but human waste seems to be polluting places all around the world.

Easy right? Do what we do! Spend lots of money (They call it investment), build pipes and treatment plants, educate and hire people (That’s called labour, later also human capital) and get things in order. Maybe so, maybe no.

As years have passed, one global phenomenon has been making itself known on the background of everything else. We’re running out of water. At least the fresh, usable kind. Some call it the new oil, referring more to the violent and big conflicts over it than to the huge amounts of money that can be made on it (even though the last one is also, unquestionably and sadly, true). Why would we use that water to get rid of poo? Actually, why do we use it for that.

It’s probably enough to state that the flush toilets we are used to in the global north (called in scientific talks ‘Western conventional sanitation solutions’ and more critically ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ -systems) are not sustainable, least of all on the global scale. We would most probably quickly use up most good water, in the process polluting the environment with pathogens and all the industrial stuff we eat, thereby making lives even harder. The other alternative is to use waste handling systems that are way too expensive to be rolled out everywhere in the world. That’s too bad because they’re very nice and easy, aren’t they?

Still, poo and piss have value. Introducing ecological sanitation (Disclaimer: this is no new idea, and I’m not presenting it as some revolutionary magic bullet). Consider the cycle of nutrients, the stuff we run on. They’re in the soil. They move to plants as these are planted and grow. We, or the animals we later eat, eat the plants and the nutrients enter us. Some stay in our body, but some escape (because we're a surprisingly inefficient design) as, you guessed it, poo and pee. We flush that away, or in the less developed world most often hide it, and lose the nutrients. That cycle can be closed. Very simply explained: store poo and pee (the nutrients), handle it properly and use it as a fertilizer (put the nutrients back) we’re you grow the food. This has been a customary practice in many places in Asia for millennia, but has elsewhere been treated as new idea:  take nutrients up, put nutrients back.

An added aspect is that farmers use a lot of money on industrial fertilizers to improve yields while draining the soil of nutrients. This is classical example of short term gains gotten at the cost of serious long-term problems: solutions made by poor people because of necessity, not lack of understanding. In poor countries, such as here, the sums spent on fertilizers can constitute very substantial parts of farmers’ incomes. As Sarah Jewitt put it in her article, Poo gurus? Researching the threats and opportunities presented by human waste, in many contexts shit could be equal to money. Non-farmers can of course always sell what they’ve “produced”.

What Me and Ms. G are trying to find out, in general, is whether there’s any potential to introducing ecological sanitation (eco-san) as a wider practice in the Taita Hills and what kinds of solutions would be preferred (there are lots of examples, anyone can do their own research). The focus is on what the local inhabitants as the potential end users of eco-san think about all this. It’ll be fun to see how people react to discussing pee and poo with a complete stranger... More will follow!

PS. By the way, thinking about the conflicts that have plagued many oil-rich countries and why this has happened... Where does that leave water-rich countries such as Finland in the future?

Thursday, 10 October 2013

The Rain and the Restlessness

It’s quiet.
The station

It’s raining.

It’s off to a slow start here. Taita Hills is such a contrast to evening-time Nairobi, my first touch in Kenya this time, that it almost hurts. After the pulse of a summer of stressing over Ms. G, a couple of weeks of very confused field work preparation, and the constant overdrive of the 38 hour trip here, I just can’t seem to wind down. It’s the weekend when I was never going to get anything substantial done. Arriving on Thursday evening, Friday went for orientation and resting, Saturday for planning, and on Sunday I’m a good Christian and am doing almost nothing (Because no-one else is). Of course I’ve spent any leisure time for being a good student and reading something useful (for those of you it might concern…). The couple of Finnish girls doing their own field work here left for a long weekend in Mombasa practically half an hour after I got here. So it’s pretty much been just hanging around over the weekend, which for some reason wasn’t what I expected.

That’s if it wasn’t for the driver and his friends, the mechanics, who have spent the last couple of days under the station’s four-by-four fixing the clutch. Luckily enough, they succeeded, which meant that there was a need for a test drive, which meant that I got an excuse (“While we’re at it…”) to test drive the station’s motorbike. Great fun! It’s a two-stroke 175cc Yamaha, it can go anywhere, it consumes next to no gasoline, and I believe we will have a bit of a love affair during my stay here. It’s also, given a tolerable weather, by far the best tool for getting around, since (I remind you) it’s very hilly, the roads are in standard rural African condition, and the rains aren’t making them better.

Wundanyi Central
Because of my suspiciously small workload, I’ve had time to get to know the town, called Wundanyi. It’s not my first time here, so even this wasn’t a very big number in my routine. I’d call it a pretty handy place, close by my residence, very densely built with all the most essential services a town needs: A few manageable restaurants (which, for reasons still unknown to me, are called hotels), a real hotel, an ATM, a few cybercaf├ęs, an indoor market, some small supermarkets, a gas station, a football pitch and a jail. To this I can add the existence of a handful of extremely shady-looking bars, which I haven’t ventured into yet. (No, I’m not scared… It’s just that I’ve done so little work I haven’t felt I deserve a cold one.) It beats me why none of them provide a possibility to have your drinks outside. I’ve seen the same in Muslim Morocco, but this was for instance not the case in Ghana, which is the closest to a similar culture I’ve experienced for longer periods. Does it all come down to shame? Does this also mean that I have to avoid enjoying a beer under “the public gaze”? I’ve better play it safe, when the time comes…
My office

Me being the only “customer” at the research station (maybe I should call myself a researcher, but I’m too shy) for a moment, means that I live in outrageously good facilities. The station is divided into two residential buildings, of which one is my kingdom. It includes a living room, a kitchen, two bathrooms (of which one is for my personal use) and three bedrooms. Of the latter ones I’ve only found use for one. This will of course all change as next week progresses. This also means, that there’s a chef, a handy man, a night watch and a research assistant basically at my personal service for this blink of an eye in my life-time. I know I’m expected to mention this, and I’m proud to claim it to be true: It doesn’t feel right. Am I well brought up or is it a natural thing to be feeling?

But it’s still quiet and raining. And the folks here laugh at me because I’m Finnish and supposed to be this big Viking guy who can really take cold, but I’ll admit: We’re on a high altitude, it’s the rainy season, and I’m really freezing at moments…

So in expectancy of more excitement…

Monday, 7 October 2013


When I left Finland for a longer period the last time, I was scared because I was going to a new country which I really didn’t know and had almost no clue what I was going to do there for three months.

This time it’s all different. I’m going to a country I have at least visited before, but what has me most terrified is that in some sense I know what I’m going there for. I’m supposed to know what I’m doing. Some people expect me to know what I’m doing, to take initiative, to lead my own life from the very beginning. (This was very much not the case the last time.) I’m afraid I don’t. And this time I don’t have company travelling with me in the same sense, sharing it all.

And so it’s off for another longer trip for me. Again, I suppose I will be needing and outlet for a lot of energy, thoughts and possible free time that I, as not the most vocal type, just can’t use to anything else than reading, writing or sports. I don’t know how much sports I’ll be doing and I know I’ll be forced to read a lot because of what I’m doing here, so here it goes. I present to you: another travel blog…

In short: I’m going to a place called the Taita Hills, a hilly (you bet) area near the border of Kenya and Tanzania, a bit closer to Mombasa than to Nairobi, that rises from the fabled Serengeti Plain (which also Toto sang about). What I’ll be there for is to do my field work for my Master’s Thesis (I’ll call her Ms. G from now on) in the form of a bunch of interviews. To do ethnographics or to generate data that is, whatever suits you best. Ms. G works on ecological sanitation (eco-san) and on people’s attitudes and customs regarding eco-san, waste management and, let’s say it, shit and piss. I’ll ramble more about it later on, because:
Too many people keep asking me for short, easy-to-grasp research questions. Heaven knows that I’ve needed one ever since this Ms. G (I have ex-G’s that I never went even remotely this far with) was just a twinkle in my eye. I’m having trouble explaining to people what I’m really doing and what I’m really after, and people seem to often, maybe not surprisingly, lose interest. But let’s still keep us all waiting on that on!

I’ll try to keep things here casual and to write about part of that small fraction of stuff in my head that can be formulated in a text format. There’s probably also going to be a whole lot of scientific stuff (as if…) and ideas about my work here, maybe most of all to formulate it all out for myself. Sorry, read if bored.
More on, well, about everything will probably follow as future posts. If anyone is especially interested in something you think I actually might have something to say about, please ask. If you really dislike something on this blog, please comment and argument in scientific fashion.