Friday, August 25, 2017

"Little Italy" and White Sand Beaches

We took our first trip to Kenya's famous coast, known for its white sand beaches and unique Swahili culture that mixes European, Arab, and African influences. I needed to take a work trip to Malindi ("Little Italy" of Kenya) and decided to make it a long weekend for the two of us.

Needless to say, it was lovely. We stayed in a beachfront resort, and all of the prices were so much lower than what we've gotten used to in the States or even Nairobi. We took a private boat (pictured above) for the two of us snorkeling for $50 (including transportation, equipment rental, and local guides)! It was such a deal. For almost the whole time we were there, we were the only ones in the water. The fish swam right up against us, which was weird but fun.

We did have a few challenges. M got stung by a jellyfish (but was thankfully all better soon after). We were also culturally unprepared for the different experience of staying in a hotel here. In the U.S., hotel staff give you tons of information about how everything in the hotel works, what costs money, etc. - whether you want that information or not. Here, although the staff were kind and attentive, they just left us to kind of figure things out ourselves. We became confused with everything from tea time to returning our beach towels to whether there was a bill to sign depending on where we ate.

In the end, we found the "Little Italy" nickname to be very apt in the tourist-centered areas. The baggage claim (pictured below) and menus (pictured above) are perfect examples of how everything in Malindi was smaller and cozier than Nairobi, in that small-town way. The hotels were Italian, the restaurants were Italian, the other tourists we overheard were all speaking Italian (with the exception of one German family), and gelato abounded. As a result, it seemed like a lot of locals here were more out of practice with English than those in Nairobi, which makes sense if most of their clientele prefers Italian. Thankfully, with plenty of laughter and pantomiming, we were able to communicate enough to survive every situation.

The work portion of our trip gave us more of a taste of "real" Malindi (as locals experience it). We were still totally spoiled by everyone we met (see freshly chopped coconuts below), but we also left the comforts of our resort life for just a few days. Examples include enjoying proper Swahili food (think rice pilau, tamarind juice, coconut potatoes, mutton stew, octopus, etc.) but having to use a hole in the ground as a toilet (it's been a while since I've done that). Even the business side of things was a cultural experience, as our meetings lasted hours and everything ran late and nobody was stressed or freaking out about it. It was amazing! I'm sure it won't be our last visit to the Kenyan coast.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

We Fostered Baby Elephants!

We "fostered" two baby elephants! No, unfortunately, they don't live with us... But we are paying to support "our" orphaned elephants.

Let's rewind a bit. In a previous blog post about visiting the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, I mentioned you can choose to foster a baby of your choice. I fell so in love with the orphans we met at the elephant sanctuary that I decided to foster one. Yet, after looking online, I realized that my heart was sold on not one but two of the babies and I convinced M to agree that we needed to become the proud foster parents of both of them!

It's time for the big reveal... Our babies are... Malkia and Luggard!

Malkia was found by her sick, dying mother. Her mom was a legend in Tsavo, their home region, esteemed as one of the oldest matriarchs with recognizably beautiful ivory. (She is the origin of the calf's given name "Malkia" - "queen" in Swahili.) Here's a taste of her personality (from the description on David Sheldrick's website): "Malkia has thrived in the Nursery, aided by her forceful nature. She is a very determined and mischievous little girl, whose presence here has certainly been felt. Despite being so young when rescued, and under such sad circumstances, she has settled fast; loving and affectionate to her Keepers from the outset."

Luggard suffered two leg injuries in his few first months of life, shot by humans and left broken, infected, and swollen. He was lagging behind his herd and in desperate need of intensive medical care. His herd would have been forced to leave him behind if he had remained with them. His caretakers named him "Luggard" after the area where he was found, and he slowly began to heal. Although his back leg will never return to normal, he insists on playing with the other elephants and brings an enthusiastic spirit to everything he does. His caretakers say: "all who met him marveled at his determination and feisty spirit, as despite his injury, his pain, and the incomprehensible reason one so young would be targeted this way, how in the face of such suffering, such loss, he remained so positive was inspiring."

Isn't it easy to see how impossible it was for me to pick one of these two? They're both perfect. You can foster your own elephant online for only $50 per year and help David Sheldrick's save babies like Malkia and Luggard. Pick an orphan here and learn more about the work David Sheldrick's does with these orphans here.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

On Freedom and Violence

The point of this blog is not political. I'm generally not interested in using this blog as a forum for debate, something I find often ill-suited to this format anyway. When I do choose to engage in political discussions online, I do so on Facebook, where I can be sure to engage with people I know in real life and tie their perspectives to their real, lived experiences.

I was going to post a happy-go-lucky post today, probably with some baby animal stories or quirks about our life in Nairobi. That somehow didn't feel appropriate this time. I don't have a particularly good comeback to the question, "Why now?" As someone who spends hours reading the news every day, it's impossible for me to pretend I'm unaware of at least some of the immense suffering of people globally. Critics would be right to note that I do not post a sympathetic or thoughtful message after literally every terror attack or humanitarian crisis or bigotry I hear about online. Honestly, though, I don't know anyone who does (or would be capable of doing so).

So instead, I include victims in my thoughts and prayers, donate a relatively small amount of time and money if I can, resolve to be better for humanity's sake, but otherwise go on with my life. I still laugh and smile and sing and generally enjoy my days and even forget about the troubles of the world. I realize that's my precious privilege.

This weekend, though, I can't shake the thoughts of what's happening in two very different places: Kenya, our current home, and Virginia, our permanent home. I'm not here to provide my hot takes on those current events, especially as both situations are developing and the airwaves seem saturated with commentary as is. I don't think I have anything that revolutionary to say that hasn't already been said.

And yet. I hope I can humbly add my voice to the chorus of people who are reaffirming the following truths, which I deeply believe:

  • There is no excuse for terror, or violence used as a political weapon.
  • A healthy government system operates under the rule of law, where strong institutions provide clearly understood and trusted mechanisms for engaged citizens to resolve disputes.
  • White supremacists, the alt-right, neo-Nazis, or whatever you want to call them have a right to free speech, even disgusting and offensive speech, where it does not incite violence or otherwise violate the law. Regardless, hateful speech should never be tolerated by a moral public. Hate should be publicly condemned by all and discriminated against by private citizens, companies, and organizations.
  • Any form of racism, including white supremacism and tribal violence, has no place in our society or the modern world.
  • Saying, "Group B is evil" is a pathetic (and fundamentally irrelevant) defense of Group A.
  • No people should have to live in fear for their safety because of who they are. Those who are lucky enough to live without that fear have an ethical responsibility to defend the most vulnerable.
  • In times of crisis, it's not helpful to put up unnecessary barriers and say, "Other Group That Is Trying to Offer Support is really just part of the problem" as a knee-jerk reaction. If you disagree with their views or believe they are contributing to the problem, you can participate in a respectful dialogue with them. I've had my own mind changed this way. The fact that they are offering their support is not only an olive branch, but an opportunity.

Today, I chose to share a few of my very simple thoughts. Next time, I will probably go back to posting pictures I took on my smartphone and stories about our adventures. That doesn't mean more pressing issues aren't on my mind or that I don't think about how I could be doing more. It means that I choose to focus on hope and goodness and life as usual, the last thing that perpetrators of violence want people to do.

Monday, August 7, 2017

19 Years Ago

"May the innocent victims of this tragic event rest in the knowledge that it has strengthened our resolve to work for a world in which man is able to live alongside his brother in peace." - Inscription, August 7th Memorial Park

This weekend, I joined a small group to lay wreaths at the August 7th Memorial Park. It was my first time visiting the site, which is where the U.S. Embassy in Kenya used to be.

For those who don't know or (like me) were too young to remember, the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi was bombed on August 7, 1998 by al Qaeda. Hundreds of innocent people died, including Americans, Kenyans, Embassy employees, and bystanders. You can read a declassified FBI summary of the Nairobi attack (and simultaneous attack in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania) here.

The Memorial Park was small but thoughtful. The grounds were lovely. I saw at least one sculpture made from debris from the actual bombing, and there was a memorial wall with the names of those who were killed. Another American who was there with me shared a few of the stories behind the names etched on the wall - for example, a father and his teenage son, who had only been at the Embassy working a temporary summer job.

There was also a small museum with just one exhibit hall. I learned more stories there, like one about a woman who was nearing the end of her pregnancy when she heard gunshots. When she went to the window to see what was happening, the detonation shattered the window and shot its shards into her head. She was rushed to emergency surgery, where local anesthetic was the only option to try and save her baby. The same day, she was saved and her healthy baby girl was miraculously born.

The most moving part of the experience was being joined by a few Kenyan local staff from the Embassy (pictured above with the Ambassador and his wife) who were there 19 years ago and survived. One shared with me that the explosion killed her husband, leaving her and their four-year-old son alone. I learned another was a guard who saved countless lives by pretending he didn't have the keys to the gate and making the truck carrying the bomb stop where it did.

I am honored to be a part of preserving the memory of not only the tremendous loss of all the bombing's victims but also the inspiring courage of heroes (like the guard), the light that shines in darkness (like the miraculous birth), and the hope that motivates human beings to go on in the face of incomprehensible devastation (like the widow). If anyone reading this has some time in Nairobi, visit the August 7th Memorial Park. It's worth it.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

I Love My Job: Our First Comic Con

This says it all:

Yes, that is Ambassador of the United States to Kenya Bob Godec, cosplaying as Obi-Wan Kenobi, battling Darth Vader. My career peaked too soon; it's only downhill from here.

Seriously, working Nairobi Comic Con (NAICCON) was an amazing experience. We'd never been to a comic con before, even in the States. (Also, I'm really proud of this photo station I had made for the event.)

So what is a comic con? A comic con, or comic convention, is a convention celebrating comics, movies, video games, TV shows, and other aspects of nerd/geek culture. It started in the U.S. but has now spread all over the world. It's an opportunity for communities of fans to gather and for content producers and businesses in relevant industries to reach key audiences. It's also really fun. You can read more about comic cons here.

Why was the U.S. Embassy at Nairobi Comic Con? Comic Con brings together bright youth, representatives from creative industries like animation and filmmaking, and future tech leaders. All of those are groups that we want to reach out to and build relationships with, and we share many interests. Plus, most attendees are already interested in the U.S. thanks to our cultural exports like superhero comics and Hollywood movies. NAICCON was a great opportunity to share information about Embassy programs, exchange contacts, and encourage Kenyans to consider studying in or visiting the U.S.

I was excited to see (and get pictures with) cosplayers like the No-Face (from Spirited Away) above and the Finn (from Adventure Time) below! Because this was only the fifth time Nairobi had had a Comic Con, cosplaying is still just beginning to catch on here. At the same time, those who did dress up generally went all out on their costumes. I wish I could've gotten pictures with all of them!

This was the first program that I came up with myself instead of being assigned, and I'm so grateful my team let me go through with it! We somehow pulled it all together in two short weeks, which I'm told is considered plenty of planning time here in Kenya. That being said, I hope we can continue to participate in future years and make our booth even better and more effective with longer-term planning. I'll be around at least the next few times, so I look forward to participating again (with a better costume than a Captain America t-shirt and flag leggings)!