Friday, May 17, 2019

Doing KonMari Step 2: Books on Easy Mode

You may have seen my previous post about my efforts to apply the "KonMari Method" to my life before we make our upcoming overseas move after seeing "Tidying Up with Marie Kondo" on Netflix. The first category I had to organize was clothes, and the second was books.

I'm just going to admit, this one was super easy. M and I got rid of almost all of our books before we moved to Kenya, so we simply didn't have that many. The first picture of this post - one shelf on a not-so-large bookshelf - was actually all we had to go through when I started tidying books. The majority of the books are either gifts from loved ones or written in languages that Kindle (or any e-reader I've found) doesn't support very well. Ultimately, I decided to part with some of them, including a stack of science fiction books with origins I couldn't recall and some church materials I'll donate to my friends here.

Going through these books did bring back a lot of happy memories, though. Seeing Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome reminded me of reading that book and discussing it extensively with my wonderful sister, debating morality and reliving my philosophy major days. I also rediscovered my signed copy of Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn, courtesy of my dear friend S (the one who visited in February). Then, uncovering my old Arabic notebook allowed me to share a good laugh with M over the absurdity of Arabic numbers, with their seemingly-arbitrary switch-offs when it comes to singular v. plural, masculine v. feminine, and which vocalizations (i.e., word endings) to use. I've been studying Arabic for years, and the numbers still blow my mind.

This was that same bookshelf when I was done tidying our books! It felt good to go through them and keep only the ones that continued to spark joy. I will add that M and I are both avid readers who are always reading at least one book at a time together, so this is totally possible even for bookworms! We've made it work by relying on our e-readers - in my case, Kindle, and in his case, his smartphone. As you can see below, I have almost 100 books on my Kindle and the list keeps growing. I've been reading almost exclusively on a screen for years now, and I enjoy not only the feel of it but also the features such as searching for key words, instantly looking things up in the dictionary, digitally highlighting my favorite quotes, and seeing what sentences have been commonly highlighted by other readers. If you haven't tried it, I highly recommend it! (It just might help with tidying up, too.)

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Before and After I Tried KonMari Step 1: Clothes

There's no better time to tidy up than when you're preparing for a major international move! I was feeling especially inspired after binge-watching "Tidying Up with Marie Kondo" on Netflix and learning all about the "KonMari Method" of cleaning and organizing. For those who haven't seen the show or read the book, KonMari emphasizes tidying by category instead of location. The first category, per this post's title, is clothes.

To organize clothes, Marie Kondo suggests taking all of your clothes no matter where they are in your house and putting them in one big pile so you can get a sense of how much you truly own. So I dutifully emptied my closet and drawers and wound up with the full pile pictured above. I didn't feel like I had a ton of stuff, but I did feel like I had more than I need.

Per the KonMari Method, I went through each item one by one and kept only the ones that still spark joy for me. The others I set aside to be let go, even if they had served me well in the past. The picture above is most of what was left over - this is the inside of my only clothing closet. I felt like I did a pretty good job!

In addition to the closet, I have three drawers of clothing items organized by function. Another one of Marie Kondo's suggestions I appreciated was to put things away so that you could easily see everything whenever possible. She has some very unique folding methods to achieve this effect with clothes. I can't really say I mastered the folding, but I tried my best and did succeed in making everything in all three of my drawers immediately visible when you open them! There are no hidden rows behind these clothes or layers underneath I have to dig through to find a specific item. I think I'm sold on this technique.

I do think the KonMari Method and the idea of only keeping things that continue to spark joy can be a healthy way to operate in an increasingly materialistic world where we're constantly encouraged to accumulate more and more. The shoes pictured above (which I will be giving away) are the perfect example, especially the beautiful silver pumps that I actually wore on my wedding day! They have sparked a lot of joy for me, but they were always a little too big and it's time for them (and for me) to move on to the next chapter. I can release them happily knowing that they'll go on to spark joy for someone else. Next step for next time - books!

Sunday, May 5, 2019

7 Tips for Your First Media Relations Job

Working in media relations or press affairs or whatever your industry calls it is very different from working in the media directly. There are a number of things I've learned over my first tour in Public Affairs (where I've spent over a month as U.S. Embassy Nairobi's acting Press Attaché - also known as Information Officer in the Foreign Service) that I thought I'd share. In no particular order, here are my top seven tips for your first media relations job:

  1. Nothing is more important than relationships. Relationships can make or break your success working with the press. Good relationships might mean a journalist contact WhatsApps you a photo of breaking news before it's been reported elsewhere or gives you a heads-up that they're working on a story that is very critical of you but they want to make sure they present your side of the issue, too. Bad relationships can lead to reporters avoiding your events or running with a story on your organization without even contacting you for comment.
  2. Tailor to the audience. Our audience is usually Kenyan, so you'd better bet we put distances in kilometers and amounts of money in Kenyan shillings. We want to make it as easy as possible to share our information and our talking points. We also work with our technical subject matter experts to condense things in a way that a layperson can understand.
  3. Visuals are king. Photos and videos are way better than press releases. I think I've seen more newspaper articles in Kenya written about our Tweets than our press releases.
  4. Keep things short. Really short. We keep our briefing handouts to one page, our press releases to a few paragraphs, and our videos to less than a minute whenever possible. Others can always reach out to you for more details.
  5. Not all members of the press play by the rules. Some individuals and media outlets have more professionalism and integrity than others. While you might be comfortable including some in off-the-record briefings, others may not be trustworthy enough. It's also easier to complain about a rogue reporter when they're part of an established media organization that wants to preserve the relationship with you - then you can contact the editor. With freelancers or bloggers, you might not have any recourse.
  6. You have something to offer, too. You can provide journalists with access to information, exclusive interviews, invitations to cover events, and a host of other things that their teams should value. You can pay for advertising, but you shouldn't have to pay for regular news coverage.
  7. Especially if you work for a large organization, it's worth the extra effort it takes to speak with one voice. We spend a lot of time jumping through bureaucratic hoops making sure we're using the same statistics and terminology, but it's absolutely worth it. Mixed messages from the same organization are confusing for everyone and can make you look incompetent.
  8. Most journalists are awesome. Like public servants, the vast majority of journalists I've met are motivated by a desire to give back to the people and by a belief in the importance of democratic institutions - where the Fourth Estate clearly plays a vital role. In a world of overloaded information, fake news, and other challenges, they're trying their best to make sense of issues of importance and interest so others can be informed. Although this might sometimes put our employers or industries in the ever-critical public eye, it's part of a larger, crucial mission any of us should find worth celebrating.

I hope this post was helpful for any new Public Diplomacy Officers out there or anyone else interested in media relations work. I've learned so much over my first tour, and I have to say working with the press is one of the most fun and exciting parts of my job!

Saturday, April 27, 2019

My Top 5 Favorite Nairobi Restaurants

With fewer than 100 days left in Kenya, our departure is feeling more and more real. Before we left, I wanted to pass on a handful of recommendations for some of my favorite things that have made our two years in Nairobi special. For a food lover like me, clearly restaurants deserved their own post. (For foodies actually living in Nairobi, there's even a Facebook group for you with grocery and dining tips!)

So without further ado, here are my top five favorite Nairobi restaurants, in no particular order:

  1. Mercado: The Mexican food scene in Nairobi is thriving so much that it recently got a shout-out from none other than the New York Times! Although some prefer Fonda NBO, I've always favored Mercado. They have a classy vibe, a great selection of drinks (and mocktails), and the churros are always excellent.
  2. The Lord Erroll: This is our favorite pick for a fancy dinner out for a special occasion, and we've enjoyed it more than other well-known spots like 45 Degrees Kitchen and About Thyme. The service has generally been top-notch, with only one notable exception. The food is delicious and the portions are large, so I recommend going with an appetite.
  3. Boho Eatery: This is the perfect place to grab a bite if you're already by Jomo Kenyatta International Airport or perhaps if you spent the morning on a game drive in Nairobi National Park. They have a lot of healthy, vegetarian, and vegan options, portions are generous, and everything is tasty.
  4. The View: The 360-degree rotating restaurant experience from the top of the Mövenpick Hotel is an unforgettable one (you can reserve a window-side table in advance and watch the sunset as you eat). It helps that the food at The View is scrumptious - I recommend everything except the meat fondue and the chocolate fondue. We've heard great things about the cheese fondue and everything else we've tried there has been delectable.
  5. Dae Jang Geum: Dae Jang Geum may not have the extensive menu I'm accustomed to in Northern Virginia Korean barbecue joints, but the food is authentic, banchan are included, and it's more conveniently located than alternatives like Ain Guest House.

I have a few honorable mentions, too, I had to throw in here with just a few words:

  • Taco: Really great tacos and, most importantly, corn tortillas
  • Urban Burger OR Rocomama's: My favorite burgers in Nairobi
  • Planet Yogurt: Perfectly classic, pay-by-the-weight froyo (located at Sarit Centre)
  • Mugg & Bean: Special treat for those not familiar with this South African chain boasting a massive menu
  • Domino's AND Cold Stone Creamery: Deliciously American
  • Mediterraneo: Good Italian food
  • Fogo Gaucho: All-you-can-eat Brazilian steakhouse with mediocre salads but delicious meat and grilled pineapple with cinnamon
  • Artcaffe: The most epic eggs benedict I've ever had
  • Tiramisu: Best cupcakes in Kenya

So that's the top list (with a few extras), and I hope it's enough to get any foodie started in Nairobi. In two years here, there are still so many restaurants we haven't tried. Although we'll try and venture out to a few more places before we leave, we know we can't cover quite everything. At least that gives us a number of restaurants to save for the next time we're in Kenya!

Friday, April 19, 2019

My Biggest Kenya-Specific Pet Peeve

As long-time blog readers will note, I've been very vocal about my biggest general pet peeve: mixing up "lectern" and "podium" (which I still experience at least once a week, in case anyone was wondering). After two years in Kenya, though, I can say that I have developed a certain, Kenya-specific pet peeve. I've tried ignoring it time and time again, but it still grates on me.

Moreover, to my knowledge I am the only person I know with this particular pet peeve. (If any others are out there, please back me up in the comments!) I've heard many complaints from American friends about matatus' reckless driving, the lack of orderly queues at customer service desks, and the wildly different approach to punctuality here. Although I've experienced all of those things, I do feel I've culturally adapted more and more to them over time. My pet peeve on the other hand, never seems to get less annoying - it may even be more irritating as the days go by, for reasons I can't explain.

So what is this thing that's driving me nuts? To explain what it is, we'll have to embark on a mini-Swahili language journey. It starts with the word "mzungu", the most common way I've been addressed throughout my two years in Kenya. People I'm meeting with will describe me as "mzungu", street kids will yell out "mzungu" when I walk by, people will cry "mzungu" at our car windows while begging for money, and so on. Most polite Kenyans will say "mzungu" means foreigner or expat. In usage, though, it pretty much means "white person" - most of the African Americans and dark-skinned foreigners I've met in Kenya are never called mzungu, and especially not by strangers.

I'll be honest - it's not enjoyable heading somewhere, simply minding my own business, as people yell out "mzungu". I stand out enough already without a bunch of strangers highlighting how out of place I look despite my best efforts to avoid drawing attention to myself by dressing modestly, not pulling out my phone, or wearing flashy accessories. The exclamations of "mzungu" are also often accompanied by requests for money, which I'm usually not comfortable giving as a result of previous bad experiences.

So imagine how I feel when someone is urging someone else to speak to me in "Kizungu", where "Ki-" is the prefix in Kiswahili that means "language of" a certain people. "Kiswahili" is the language of the Swahili people, "Kiarabu" is Arabic, and "Kizungu" is... the language of mzungus, or as I understand it, white people language. I don't think this is necessarily an ignorance thing. (I have met some Kenyans in mostly rural areas who really did think all white people spoke English as a native language, but there are probably similar proportions of Americans who think all Africans speak the same language.)

Where I have been surprised is among members of the educated and well-traveled (most of whom I've met through work) also only referring to English as "Kizungu". There's a proper word in Kiswahili I find immensely preferable for "English": "Kingereza", the language of "Uingereza", or England. For some reason, however, nobody seems interested in using "Kingereza" over "Kizungu". This is true even though everyone agrees "Kiafrika" or "Ki-" + any other race or geographic region that is not linguistically united would be silly.

Thankfully for me, "Kizungu" can remain a minor annoyance. For those labelled "mzungus" who don't actually speak English, I could see it being a major barrier to getting around. It also reinforces stereotypes that all light-skinned people are native English speakers. Even Latinx folks, some mixed race groups, some Asian-Americans, and light-skinned African-Americans who would not clearly be labelled as "white" in the United States (people like me and Meghan Markle included) are usually considered "mzungu" in Kenya by virtue of their skin color and facial features alone. I've reached the point where sometimes I'll say something and sometimes I won't when I hear "Kizungu", yet I'm fully aware that my reaction is a minor drop in the cultural bucket of mutual understanding. At the very least, I hope this blog post was at least a little thought-provoking for someone! Let me know whether you can relate or even whether you completely disagree.

(On a lighter note, while writing this blog post I stumbled across this very catchy and upbeat song, "Kizunguzungu" by SaRaha! I learned "Kizunguzungu" means dizziness, which makes sense since "mzungu" was originally derived from a Bantu term for "wanderer" referring to European settlers generally. You can read more about this etymology here.)

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Makeup in the Foreign Service

Makeup and fashion are real elements of workplace culture. I remember having friends and roommates working in certain parts of Congress on Capitol Hill where most of the women had medium- to heavy-makeup every day, styled hair, and glamorous outfits. This is not a frivolous matter: there is a slew of scientific studies showing that makeup and appearance can affect how others perceive you professionally and therefore your career. Some researchers have found that a made-up face can even make you more likely to get hired than a bare one. (You can read a summary of just one of the many studies' findings here.) Even those who say they prefer a "natural" look at the office often subconsciously don't really want purely natural - dark circles, blemishes, and all. (This hilarious Amy Schumer One Direction-style parody video describes the phenomenon perfectly.)

So how's the makeup culture of the Foreign Service? To be honest, I would actually say the makeup expectations are less than average for what I've seen elsewhere in the government world. There are many offices in think tanks or other kinds of public service where seeing a women without makeup would be perceived as unprofessional or at least very rare. In the Foreign Service, a number of diplomat women at all levels don't spend too much time on their hair, makeup, wardrobe, and jewelry on a daily basis.

Among those who do wear makeup, the basics are common at work - maybe even as little as a touch of mascara. That being said, there are exceptions for formal events like balls and special receptions. For those types of working events, both men and women do typically put in some extra effort. Manicures and pedicures, hair styling, makeup, gowns, and high heels are commonplace at those sorts of galas. (For those like me who go bare-faced most days, it can be a fun change from the daily look, too.)

So what kind of makeup should you wear once you're in the Foreign Service? As long as you're not sporting a YouTube makeup artist-level dramatic look to the point it's distracting, you should be able to wear whatever makes you feel happy and confident. If you're still trying to establish a professional makeup look for yourself, I can highly recommend Sephora as a place to start (and no, I'm not getting paid to say that)! If you walk into a Sephora store in person, their amazing staff can help you find what you need and recommend things they think will look great on you. If you use the Sephora app on your smartphone, you can even use your phone's camera to see an approximation of what specific products will look like on your face.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

The Importance of a Portable Hobby

I'm convinced that one of the keys to Foreign Service happiness is a portable hobby. When you move countries every few years, it can be exhausting to start from scratch with a new pastime every time, especially knowing there's no guarantee you'll ever be able to do it again. Many of the happiest folks we've seen with this lifestyle have a hobby they can take with them (at least almost) anywhere.

For us, having these hobbies no matter where we go helps wherever we are feel like home a little sooner. We have a few fitness-related ones: M plays soccer, the most popular sport in the world, and I can always fall back on Blogilates YouTube videos, which I can do from the comfort of our home even if I don't have access to a gym or any equipment. I've learned the hard way from previous experiences living abroad that fitness is not a universal recreational activity, especially for women. I've lived in places where it was impossible to go running because of weather or crime or cultural sensitivity, or where the gyms were almost completely reserved for men. It can be that much more difficult to adjust to a "normal" life somewhere where you can't find a way to break a sweat.

On top of those, we can count on certain categories of entertainment made possible with modern technology like Netflix, video games, and e-books. (After all, in a lot of countries, just finding recently released print books can be a challenge.) As I type this, I'm watching M work his way through the Kingdom Hearts series on PlayStation (one of my childhood favorites I'm so grateful we can enjoy in Kenya).

In a mobile lifestyle like ours, these hobbies can be the difference between unbearable homesickness and relative comfort. Although it's fun to try new and exotic things, I'm a firm believer in finding the balance between adventure and stability - where we've found that commitment to knitting or board games or photography or whatever it is can really come in handy.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Happy Belated Birthday, Relief Society!

Happy belated 177th birthday to the Relief Society, one of the oldest and largest women's organizations in the world, of which I'm delighted to be a member and a local leader! All adult women in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints are members of the Relief Society. Our motto is "Charity never faileth", taken from 1 Corinthians 13:8 in the New Testament of the Holy Bible.

In the spirit of celebrating sisterhood, Relief Society members across Nairobi came together to commemorate the birthday and have a friendly competition. We made tons of food and let the young women between 12 and 18 judge our creations on taste, presentation, and more. (There were so many categories, I'm pretty sure everyone won something.) Our ward (i.e., congregation, pictured below) went all out with a mix of homemade desserts that vanished in the blink of an eye. There was a diverse selection at the event. I personally felt drawn to the samosa table pictured above... That ward had made what seemed like hundreds and hundreds of delicious beef samosas to share! They were a great complement to our sweets.

We wrapped up the activity with a cake cutting. Our Stake Relief Society President (i.e., regional leader) did an amazing job organizing the party and procuring such a beautiful cake. I don't even want to think about saying goodbye to these amazing ladies - Kenyan and American - who have been such steadfast and loving friends during my time in Kenya, which is going by way too fast. I love them and the Relief Society that has so warmly welcomed me everywhere around the world I've traveled where it exists!

Friday, March 15, 2019

Unconscious Bias at Work

Most of us suffer from some unconscious bias, also known as implicit bias or learned stereotypes that affect our thoughts and actions beneath the level of conscious thought. It's human nature. (You can learn a little about your own implicit biases and help researchers by taking Harvard's online tests for free here.)

I was recently reminded by a recent experience that this unconscious bias has real effects on people's lives and careers. There is a certain prestigious university in Nairobi that I visit frequently for work - there is a grant that I'm in charge of monitoring there, so I stop by for site visits and meetings. I've been going there for over a year, and every time I get to the main gate there is some type of security issue. Even though my contact at the university calls ahead to alert the guards of my arrival, they always ask me to get out of the car and walk to the pedestrian entrance. Sometimes, I have to walk through a metal detector. Other times, my bag is checked. Every time, they check my ID and fill out a visitor form for me.

Because I have always gone on my own with an Embassy motor pool driver (i.e., an official driver for the Embassy), I assumed this was fairly standard. Last time, I learned from my driver that he has been driving plenty of U.S. diplomats to this university for many years - and he told me not once has he ever seen one receive the treatment I did. None of them have ever had to get out of the car or negotiate with security or call one of the higher-ups at the university to be allowed onto the campus, especially when they arrived (as I always do) in an U.S. Embassy car with diplomatic license plates.

That day, I had this realization as a guard asked me why I was there and was confused by my answer of, "I'm a diplomat from the U.S. Embassy, and I have a meeting with one of your professors." He had to call another guy over who said, "So, you're a student." All of my issues gaining access to the compound over the past year suddenly made sense, assuming security was treating me like a student without an ID card rather than a diplomat with a scheduled meeting.

Was it my gender? Was it my age? Was it my ethnically ambiguous face? Most likely, it was a combination of all of those factors that made some people doubt my occupation, single me out, and treat me differently. Certainly, I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and say this was unconscious bias. They didn't intend to make me feel uncomfortable or irritated, but they responded in line with what their brains and instincts told them: I just didn't look like a diplomat.

Now, just because it's subconscious doesn't mean it's okay. I was so frustrated to learn I've been treated differently on the basis of my appearance this whole time that I raised it with my partners at the university to address with their security team. After all diplomats - and especially the U.S. Foreign Service - are more diverse than ever. (The first photo of this post is a perfect example of this that I distinctly remembered from my childhood and scoured the Internet for just for this post. It's an episode from the Kim Possible TV series [Season 2, Episode 8] featuring a diplomat at a career fair... Could they have gotten any more stereotypical?)

One of my biggest hopes is that by representing my country in the Foreign Service, I'm having an impact on how people see the diversity of the United States and its diplomatic corps - a bunch of mini-PD victories! As frustrating as it can be encountering skepticism on the basis of my appearance alone, leveraging that opportunity to transform someone's perception helps make it all worth it. For now, changing one heart and mind at a time is good enough for me.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Watamu Ni Tamu!

The title of this post means "Watamu is sweet" in Kiswahili, and very sweet it was (even if I took my sweet time to blog about it)! Watamu is a city on the Kenyan coast, and S and I traveled there for a few days for a girls' trip before she left. We stayed in a gorgeous, elevated, open-air room with beautiful views like the sunset photo above.

We had an amazing time enjoying the sun, sand, and water. We didn't stay right on the beach, but the ocean was only a few minutes' walk away from our room through this lovely path. Once we got there, we were amazed at how empty the beach was (a rare treat in Kenya) and how clear the water was (yes, those are our feet in the ocean)!

It was a coincidence that our trip was timed with the full moon, so we enjoyed some special activities like drinking smoothies on the beach and watching the sun set and the moon rise at the same time. Our first night even happened to be a supermoon! (Can you believe the photo below is of the moon, not the sun?) We also enjoyed a special nighttime float through a mangrove forest thanks to the powerful pull of the full moon - one of the most amazing travel experiences I've ever had. We were very lucky.

Although Watamu was the perfect getaway for us, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that there is a security alert for U.S. citizens in place right now reminding Americans in Kenya to exercise heightened caution, particularly in Nairobi, Naivasha, Nanyuki, and the coast. It's important for every individual and family to inform and prepare themselves as much as possible, but then to make decisions weighing the risks and benefits. This time, we prepared, considered it carefully, and ultimately were so glad we went.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Let's Try This Again: Where We're Going Next!

Sometimes, you make all the plans in the world and they fall apart for reasons outside of your control. This seems to happen with even greater frequency in the Foreign Service, probably because there are more than the average number of opportunities to make plans when your country of residence and job change every few years. We were no strangers to the sometimes fickle treatment of the Department of State, given how my initial job offer was frozen and then unfrozen before I even started and in my first tour I found myself furloughed during the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.

Despite these experiences, M and I were still shocked to receive a call from Washington, DC informing us that our positions in our onward assignment, Baghdad, were being cancelled. In other words, jobs that we had accepted in March 2018 were now no longer options. We had made financial and life plans believing that we would be earning substantially more in Iraq. I've been studying Arabic for more than a year in preparation. M was happy to be getting a security clearance that could help him in future job applications. Both of us had been looking forward to serving in our roles in Baghdad.

The regular bid cycle where we would have normally looked for assignments was long past, so my Career Development Officer (CDO) had to whip up a "special bid list" just for me and my weird situation. People love to complain about CDOs, and there are some true horror stories out there, but mine is consistently amazing. She pulled together an excellent bid list in two days flat full of posts I would have been delighted to call home for my second tour.

Of course, at the end of the day, only one post could be our next destination. We just learned that post is... Seoul, South Korea! It feels surreal to discover a place we were trying to link to from Baghdad will now be our next tour anyway. I'll still be doing my Consular tour, so I'm looking forward to interviewing a lot of people for visas... in Korean! Yep, I even get a year of Korean language training to go with the assignment.

Of course, we were disappointed to lose our assignment in Iraq and our well-crafted plan. Yet, given what happened, we are so happy and grateful for this outcome. We're looking forward to spending some time at home getting to see our families and friends during training and ultimately moving to South Korea!

Friday, February 22, 2019

To (Burundi)ch Their Own

This pun elicited a significantly higher groan-to-chuckle ratio than my Rwanda one did. We went so off the beaten path this time I can honestly say I don't know anyone who's been to this country by choice (or maybe even at all).* Burundi doesn't have much of a reputation as a tourist destination, and to be honest I would not recommend it for the faint of heart - experienced and intrepid travelers only!

It was a tough trip even before it started, as it took us three separate appointments at the Burundian Embassy in Nairobi to get our visas. The process included many long, inexplicable, and confusing waits as well as bureaucratic hurdles like requiring payment in cash, but only in U.S. dollars... at the Burundian Embassy... in Kenya. (Needless to say, that had M sprinting down the street to an ATM and then another street for a foreign currency exchange bureau. Also, to be fair, my friend S seemed to have a much more straightforward time with the Burundian Embassy in Washington, DC, so your mileage may vary.)

Once we actually arrived in country, though, I was glad we'd gone. Burundi is unlike anywhere any of us had ever traveled (and we travel a lot). Its tourism sector was fairly nascent, which was readily apparent throughout our trip. As just one example, we were the only visitors we saw in the entire country, including at every single stop on our day tour with Augustine Tours (the only major tour company we could confirm online). English was extremely limited, so I dug up my high school French skills for an intensive 12-hour immersion and constant conversation with locals and interpretation for M and S. By the end of the day, my brain was fried!

We visited some very cool sites, such as the reputed source of the Nile (which we've noticed several East African countries claim). Regardless, we learned about the interesting history of European explorers searching for the source of the Nile and the journey of the German who discovered the site we visited in Burundi. He even had a pyramid erected there to pay tribute to Egypt! I definitely wasn't expecting to see a tiny stone pyramid on a mountain in Burundi.

Then we took a quick hike to go enjoy the stunning Karera waterfalls surrounded by a lush tropical jungle. We didn't have time to hike to all five of the falls, but I wish we'd been able to do it! Our final stop was the Gishora drum sanctuary. Drums played an important role in the historical monarchy in Burundi, and we learned a lot about royal life (like the king's hut pictured below), Burundian drum culture, and conflict during the colonial era.

So in our short time in Burundi, we got to experience a taste of its rich culture, history, and nature. We appreciated the uniqueness of this particular visit, something that is so difficult to achieve in an increasingly globalized, commercialized, and homogenized world. At the same time, we also learned not to take the comforts (e.g., English speakers, online visa applications, hotels without cockroaches, etc.) of our more common tourist experiences in Kenya and elsewhere for granted. Especially after a trip like this, there's nothing quite like coming home and using your own shower and sleeping in your own bed!

*CORRECTION: I definitely underestimated my intrepid and adventurous friend circle, because after publishing this post I learned I knew at least two people who have traveled to Burundi! What a small world.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Not All Those Who Rwanda Are Lost

Did you enjoy my pun in this post's title, a riff on a famous line by J.R.R. Tolkien in The Lord of The Rings? I'm fairly proud of it. We just wrapped up a fun weekend in Rwanda and Burundi with S, one of my best friends from back home who's visiting us in Kenya. This post is dedicated to our time in Kigali, Rwanda - I'll do a separate post for Burundi.

We covered a lot in our few days in Kigali. The clear first stop for history nerds like me (and to an even greater extent S) was the Kigali Genocide Memorial, which serves as a public museum as well as a burial site for about 250,000 of the more than one million victims of the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

The museum wasn't huge, but it was very well curated, organized, and maintained. The exhibits and stories shared within its walls were very powerful; I couldn't help but feel the waves of emotion I felt years ago visiting Buchenwald Memorial, a former Nazi concentration camp in Germany. The patterns repeated in history were chilling. Above, for example, is a photo of some of the propaganda used to prepare the population to commit and accept genocide. The museum also had an exhibit with overviews of other genocides committed around the world, drawing parallels and helping visitors understand how these atrocities were committed (and hopefully, in the long-term, how they can be stopped).

As impactful and painful and recent as the genocide was, it doesn't define the country or its people. It's one of many, many things that are important for understanding Rwanda today. In recognition of that, we went to check out a small slice of Kigali's bustling art scene at Inema Arts Center. Many of the pieces were breathtaking, and we could easily see how the center was able to support not only classes for children but 14 artists-in-residence! Nevertheless, after a quick perusal of the prices, we quickly learned that none of us would be able to afford any of the art in the gallery.

We also enjoyed some of Rwanda's rich food culture, from traditional Rwandan food sharing many of Kenya's staples like matoke and cassava (the starchy root vegetable that looks like chalk pictured above) to high-end fusion like chapati tilapia tacos with guacamole. M was even pleasantly surprised to enjoy a deliciously tender medium rare steak (pictured below). Interestingly, I also learned ugali (the maize flour cake staple of Kenyan cuisine) is commonly made in Rwanda with cassava flour instead.

On our last day in Kigali, we did a walking tour with the Nyamirambo Women's Center, which I can't recommend highly enough. They have a cooking class, basket-making class, and a few other options, but we chose the basic neighborhood walking tour. We started in the women's center itself, which had a beautiful array of handmade products created by local women whose skills have empowered them to become self-reliant (and the center to become self-sustaining). It's an extraordinary accomplishment considering how many similar organizations try and fail to equip beneficiaries with livelihood skills to the extent that external donations are no longer needed to keep everything running. All the women sew one of these fabric hearts somewhere on each product as a symbol of their success as a cooperative and as a sort of signature trademark.

The Nyamirambo neighborhood was a very interesting place with a large Muslim community composed of those who were brought from Tanzania by German colonialists as translators. After the 1994 genocide, many more Rwandans converted to Islam because of the unique role Muslims played hiding many Tutsis and saving countless lives. One distinct feature of this conservative Muslim area was the lack of any alcohol in sight and the unique institution that arose to meet the demand for a venue for libations, conversation, and friendship: the milk bar. It's exactly what it sounds like: a bar where milk is served instead of alcohol, made even more popular by the fact that drinking milk is a big part of Rwandan (like Kenyan) culture. Sounds like a great time to me!

So although Rwanda is known for its gorilla treks (which proved too time-intensive and costly for us this time), our trip shows there are plenty of other things to experience in even just the capital of Kigali. If we're lucky, we'll be back someday to do it all!

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Natural Nairobi

One of the best parts about living in Nairobi if you love the great outdoors is having so many options for quick nature escapes. This weekend, we decided to make a day trip to Karen, a well-to-do Nairobi suburb named for Karen Blixen.

We tried the much-touted Tin Roof Cafe, which lived up to its hipster and socially conscious reputation. We ordered main courses for lunch and served ourselves from a selection of salad side dishes. The food was both filling and light in the way that healthy fare always seems to be. My quiche and M's burger were both delicious.

Then, we explored Oloolua Nature Trail a few minutes away. It contains about 5km of hiking trails, but as we quickly learned much of those are quite poorly marked compared to Karura Forest or other trails we've visited in Kenya. As a result, we spent a lot of time "adventuring" - i.e., wandering around looking for the trail and hoping not to come across any deadly snakes. (We even found a trail map online but none of the paths or landmarks seemed to match it. Thankfully, we had budgeted a few hours!)

The forest is also home to the Institute of Primate Research, and we could see why. There were quite a few monkeys around even in the heat of the middle of the afternoon.

Oloolua was supposedly established to help people who wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle of Nairobi. The vibe we quickly picked up on was that it had become a Kenyan romantic destination of sorts: everyone we encountered seemed to be a couple, and we might have been the only foreigners. We enjoyed the view of the waterfall near the entrance, which was significantly cleaner than Karura Forest's falls but also featured an unsightly set of old pipes spewing water sporadically out their joints! After much deliberation, we couldn't figure out their purpose.

We also came across a cave that's supposedly 33m deep, but we weren't willing to wade through the guano and risk disturbing the bats to find out how accurate that claim is. Legend has it that Mau Mau fighters (i.e., those who fought for Kenyan independence) once stayed there.

Like our beautiful home state of Virginia in the United States, there's so much to do in Kenya and so many ways to enjoy nature in particular. Although we know we won't have time to discover every hidden gem in the months we have remaining, we're so grateful to be surrounded by such awesome and accessible natural beauty all within such a short drive.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Enjoying Scenic Upcountry with Friends

We took a long drive from Nairobi this weekend to visit my friend J's homestead in Eldama Ravine. (M was such a champ for driving seven hours in one day!) Eldama Ravine is famous for its beautiful rose exports and served as provincial headquarters during the British colonial period of Kenya's history. The drive was one of the most scenic we've taken in Kenya. We passed through the more well-known Naivasha and Nakuru areas on the way to Eldama Ravine, and we caught some amazing views of sights like Mt. Longonot and the Rift Valley.

We even stopped for a quick bite of breakfast at a local lodge in Eldama Ravine - M and I both ate for the equivalent of 60 cents! Once we got to my friend's house, she took us to the dam she, her family, and her neighbors rely on for fresh water. She says they would devote an entire day to walking there, collecting water, and walking back. The water was so clean and clear, and the air from the surrounding forests was so fresh.

The occasion for our trip was a lovely party hosted by J's family. We met her extended family, neighbors, and friends. I had the opportunity to share a little bit about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, too, since that's where J and I attend church (and it's how we know each other). M and I also learned a little more about Kenyan (and Kalenjin) culture.

We're honored that J and her family hosted us so graciously - a shining example of famous Kenyan warmth and hospitality! One of the best parts about living in Kenya is having the opportunity to make real, lasting friendships with people we might never otherwise have been lucky enough to meet. It's fun to explore Kenya's less touristy regions and interact with so many who might have never met an American before. (Building people-to-people ties just makes my Public Diplomacy Officer heart soar!) Tutaonana tena; see you again, friends!

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Ubiquity of Evil

For those blog readers who may have wondered: yes, M and I are safe in Nairobi. For those who have not heard by now, there was just a terror attack here. You can read all about the latest breaking news on BBC, CNN, AP, and many other outlets. The image above is a screencap from Citizen TV, the biggest TV station in Kenya.

The attack took place at 14 Riverside Drive, in the compound of the DusitD2 hotel, in the high-end neighborhood of Westlands, Nairobi. It is about 20 minutes away from our house, and we drove past it twice on the day of the attack, mere hours beforehand. (I was and am still furloughed and therefore not working.)

I won't pretend I have any idea what it was like to be trapped in the building for hours not knowing whether I'd make it, to be praying for my family member who works in the area, or to be on the ground during the attack. If I know anything about the intrepid reporters who call Nairobi home, those accounts will come soon enough. I only had a few thoughts I wanted to share with whomever happens to read this.

First, nothing sparks fake news quite like a crisis. From the moment the attack began, rumors began flying around on social media. I saw everything from false contact information for emergency services to rampant speculation about the terrorists' target to conflicting descriptions of the details of the attack (including something as basic as the number of attackers). The takeaway: very few sources can be trusted in a developing crisis. It's worth taking everything you hear with a grain of salt and to verify information with official sources - in this case, those would be the Government of Kenya security services (and, if you're a U.S. citizen, the U.S. Embassy).

That being said, if you're an American and you want information from the U.S. Embassy in a crisis, please register for STEP. This is the only way we know to email you when something like this happens. We do our best to disseminate information as widely as possible, including on our website and social media, but if you're not in the STEP system for that country you just might miss crucial information at a crucial time.

Aside from the practical things, I hope you'll indulge me to share a few reflections on evil. Hannah Arendt argues in her famous book Eichmann in Jerusalem that Eichmann, a man billed as an architect of the Holocaust, is more clown than monster and more average Joe than fanatic anti-Semite. In this book, she coins the now-famous expression "the banality of evil", concluding that the actors behind the Holocaust and their motivations are unexceptional even if their actions and the outcomes were extraordinarily horrific and cruel.

Well, if evil is banal I'd also say that it's ubiquitous. There are many people back home who might be worried for our safety, but the reality is we live in a fallen world with many broken institutions and people. In Kenya, there's the ever-lingering threat of Al Shabaab, the Somalia-based terror group that has claimed responsibility for the most recent Nairobi attack. Yet when I interned in Paris, France, the Charlie Hebdo shooting happened. Even in our beautiful home country, the United States, schoolchildren and parents prepare themselves for the next mass shooting. The perpetrator may be an incel or an ISIS-inspired recruit or just someone who didn't get the help he needed in time. In places like Kabul, Afghanistan, terrorism strikes with even more alarming frequency.

There's nothing separating you or me from the innocent victims of these unimaginable acts of violence except sheer, dumb luck. "There but for the grace of God, go I." So may our hearts and thoughts and prayers be with the victims, but let's do more. Let's donate our time and blood and resources to those who are most afflicted. Let's help bear one another's burdens, mourn with those who mourn, and comfort those who stand in need of comfort. Let's stand in solidarity together, strengthen partnerships between nations, build up each other's communities, expand access to education and opportunities, and pursue policies that will help us root out evil wherever it festers and mitigate its damage when it strikes...

For if there's one thing tragedy has taught me over and over again it's that, though evil may be ubiquitous, goodness is even more so. And with that goodness comes hope, love, charity, and - with time - healing. No terrorist or mass murderer or evil actor of any kind can change that, and at the end of the day that's why they'll never win. In the meantime, the rest of us have work to do.