Monday, March 9, 2009

Out of Africa: My Final Post

These words have been 8 months in the making. How can I sum up the past 8 months of my life into a small space like this? The truth is I can’t. 8 months ago I set out on what I called my Journey to the Cradle of Humanity not really knowing what I was getting into and here I sit in the final few days before I return home. It’s a surreal feeling and I can’t really explain it. I have been switching between 2 conflicting mindsets, sadness at the thought that this journey is coming to an end and I will soon leave, but also pure euphoria and excitement at the thought of being home. Back in August, a friend of mine who did the IDM fellowship a few years ago said that this experience would be just as much (if not more) about personal development than professional development. Not that I doubted him, but 8 months later he’s absolutely correct. I know its clichĂ© to say it, but I swear it feels like I just left. I can still remember July 14th to the exact detail. But its not July 2008, its March 2009.


There are so many good memories here I don’t know where to begin. The fact that I can now tell stories that begin with “when I lived in Africa..” (but I promise I won’t do that a lot). Ok seriously, I think the obvious start is the people. My colleagues, and friends. The ones who really made this what it was. My colleagues at work created an environment for me where I felt like family and regardless of what I was actually doing at work, I always looked forward to going even if it was just to see them. Its now a global network.

Then of course there’s the sights – the ocean, my favourite sight of the moon shining on the Indian Ocean, I will never forget that. My oceanfront patio where I spent almost every evening between 5 and 6:30 just enjoying a cool breeze and the sunset in balmy weather. The smell of grilled meat, cold beer on the beach, partying till sunrise, and never having to wait in line or pay cover at the bar.

Next, how can I not mention the learning. The opportunity to be a part of and learn about healthcare in a totally different world was priceless. When I first got here all I could think about was how archaic the system was. The chance to go around this province into the most rural villages and just experience life in a totally different way is something I’ll never forget. I can only hope I’ve contributed to something bigger that will eventually result in something better.

The travel. What can I say, I love to travel! My first safari in the world’s most stunning landscape the Maasai Mara, and my subsequent safari in the 8th wonder of the world the Ngorongoro Crater. To see majestic animals in their natural environment in the wild was amazing. Spending Diwali in India was more special than I can say as well as the chance to finally visit one of the greatest cities in the world - Mumbai. Ringing in the new year in perhaps the most scenic place on earth - Zanzibar! Snorkeling in Malindi and Shimoni, a trip to Uganda - the Pearl of Africa and numerous getaways to my favourite city in Kenya – Nairobi! I am so grateful at the chance to travel throughout East Africa and see so much. Like I said, as much as this was about professional development, it was also personal.


Why focus on the bad? Well, because its about learning. The best way to turn a bad experience into something good is to learn from it. I can’t say I learned from all my bad experiences, but I think its important to be aware of them. There were low days. Days when this place seemed unbearable, when all I wanted was to go home and yet home seemed so far away. To the point that I now have a better understanding of what it means to be a prisoner of your mind. When your mind takes complete control of you and slip into a downward spiral and you feel as if you’re going to suffocate. I felt that. More than once. I didn’t like it. There are other bad memories such as being arrested by corrupt policemen (it only happened once). It caught me completely off-guard and was the first time I actually feared for my safety here. Some of the sights I saw were just heartbreaking - poverty, corruption, inequity, abuse, despair. These were things I saw everyday and its emotionally draining. But, this is why I’m here. The world is not perfect. I’ve always strived to be a global citizen and live beyond my borders to get a better understanding of our world for all its glory and grime. As Canadians, we are blessed with where we live and what we have, but we also have a responsibility to others who are not as fortunate. I’m not saying I’ve fulfilled my responsibility, far from it, but it’s a start.

At this point, I have to say that I did not do this alone and I can’t forget the love, support and encouragement I got from everyone. First and foremost from my family, specifically my parents, my brother and my sister-in-law. All who probably spent a small fortune in weekly phone calls, but were my lifeline. They have been behind me every step of the way and I can’t thank them enough. Right now, there’s no one I want to see more than my family. To everyone who sent me emails, msgs, commented on my blog, or just dropped a line. You may think it was small peanuts to just say ‘hi how are you’, but somedays, those messages would be my greatest salvation. Believe me when I say I read them all, sometimes more than once (on those bad days) I can’t wait to see you all. To my roomates, who’s energy and enthusiasm lifted me when I was down and lent me their ears when I needed, we beat the odds and redefined what it means to be an ‘odd bunch’. To my fellow IDM’ers around the world, you’re all an inspiration and I know you will all go on to do great things.

I am excited to come home and I think in a sense it has provided me with some validation about what I have made of my life. I am surrounded by the greatest people in the world. My dad has always said that he doesn’t measure his riches by his bank account but instead by the people that surround him. When I think about the people around me, I feel like a millionaire.

So that’s it. Y’know I was constantly asked – how is it? C’mon..thats a loaded question and I beg people to not ask me that from here on! But the simplest answer I can give is that this was the most challenging, but also the most rewarding experience I’ve ever had. But now, on Wednesday, my journey home begins and so too does a new chapter in my life. I look forward to what comes next with hope and excitement. I hope I will remember what I have learned here, and I hope ‘here’ will remember me. I can’t tell you how much I have enjoyed having this blog. It’s the first time I’ve ever done this, and whether or not it made sense, who knows, but I know that this is something I will keep with me for the rest of my life. In the meantime, I’m tired as hell and I’m coming home. But I am coming home feeling fulfilled as if I have accomplished something and with no regrets.

In closing I want to leave with 3 phrases that have been my motto throughout my journey, that I have said to myself over and over again, and what I would say to anyone who wants to do something like this, or just to anyone who needs a lift:

Be Strong
Be Safe
Be the Change you Wish to see in the World

My Journey has ended, much love


Monday, February 23, 2009

An Open Letter

Dear Mombasa,

You’re hot. No I don’t mean that in a you’re attractive and good looking kinda way, I mean it in a temperature, its always 35 degrees, what the hell is with that? kinda way? I’ve been with you for almost 8 months now that’s a pretty long time. And after that much time you learn a few things about each other no? well, I don’t know if you’ve learned much about me, but I have definitely learned a thing or 2 about you.

First off, you suffer from some of the worst planning I’ve ever seen. Too much power is in the hands of too few people. This includes your archaic public transportation system which is in the hands of matatus that recklessly clog up your streets. Speaking of streets, Ok, and you’re island, I get it, but that’s not an excuse for everything. How is it, that in your entire “city boundary” you only have 4 stoplights, of which only 2 work, and none are actually adhered to. You only have 5 dual lane streets which means you have ridiculous traffic jams that shouldn’t happen in a city of around 1 million people. You’re not the only island city in the world.

Now before this turns into one long rant, because I’ve been prone to do that about you, let me just say –I like you. I think you can be great. But for the love of god, you’ve got work to do. Look at it this way, you can either complain that you’re not as attractive to the tourists as a place like Zanzibar, or as modern/developed as a place like your Nairobi, or you can use the fact that you’re halfway between both to your advantage. Your biggest asset is that big body of water called the Indian Ocean and the miles of sandy beach that make your border. Nairobi doesn’t have that. But you’re also a fairly big city in the middle, Zanzibar doesn’t have that. With a little work, you can be the best of both worlds. But its gonna take some work. You recently decided that you didn’t want street hawkers crowding the streets. Yet, you decided to forcibly remove which resulted in rioting on more than one occasion. Fine, they clog the sidewalks (or the dirt on the side of the road you call a sidewalk), but they have to make a living. Are you giving them any other option? No. you’re just telling them to pack up and leave (or be beaten by the inept and corrupt police that plague this place) and to hell with the fact that they have no other way to make a living.

Now, the problems you have are obviously not only yours. Some of them are obviously just a part of being in Kenya (see Kenya police). And they’re large problems. But there are little steps you can take along the way. For example, Nairobi seems to have a plethora of wastebins everywhere..why don’t you? Instead you see the odd wastebin here n there, none of which have a bottom so even if someone puts trash in there it ends up on the ground anyways! And remember that big body of water I mentioned, ya…that thing, make it more accessible and clean up the sand a bit. Look to Zanzibar for help on making the beach accessible. Spread the crowd that jams the few public beaches you have up and down the coast and who knows, you might have something. You might even go as far as to offer the beach on the island instead of forcing us to go off the island everytime, maybe some of the financial benefits of your tourism industry might rub off to the city instead of just staying on the north and south coasts.

Look these are just a few ideas, they’re not perfect, they’re not easy. But you gotta start somewhere. In the meantime, I’m leaving. I swear I gave it my best and hear me when I say I came to you with an open mind and the possibility that if it turned out well I might even stay here, but no not right now. At this point in my life, you’re not the right fit and I’m probably not the best one to help you. 17 days and I’m out! Toronto is calling and I can’t wait to answer. But I’ll say this, you’ve got potential, you don’t have to look far for help, and I think you can get it together. If you do, who knows…maybe I’ll come back some day.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Pearl of Africa

A few months ago I saw the movie The Last King of Scotland. After watching it, I thought – ‘I gotta see this place!’ Ok that’s not true. But I did just see that movie and it was amazing and I did just spend the weekend in Uganda. I just attended the AKDN workshop on non-communicable disease which was being hosted in Entebbe which is just outside the capital city of Kampala. While my main reason was to attend this workshop, the idea of being in Uganda was pretty appealing as well!

So Saturday morning off I went and my first impression from the sky was red. The land looks so red. The soil is red, the roads are ‘redder’. Sir Winston Churchill referred to Uganda as “The Pearl of Africa”. Now, I should stop there and confess something. I didn’t really see Uganda, or even Kampala, or even Entebbe for that matter. Unfortunately the conference schedule was so tightly packed that I barely got off the hotel grounds. But from what I did see and the few people I did meet, it is definitely a great place with friendly people and a laid back mentality. Our hotel was right on the shores of lake Victoria (Africa’s largest freshwater lake and the 2nd largest in the world – any guesses where the largest is?...that’s right). Anyways, a combination of bilharzias and a very weird odor kept me from actually swimming in the lake, but I did just dip my feet a bit. A group of us did finally venture out into Entebbe a bit one night and ended up at some sketchy bar (that’s happened quite a bit here…go fig). We didn't last there long. If anyone recommends going out in Entebbe, i would say pass! (but i hear Kampala is legendary!)

The conference itself was really cool, a great opportunity to network and learn about NCD’s in a completely different context. Probably one of the greatest highlights was the opportunity to meet and have dinner with Princess Zahra who is the Aga Khan's daughter. Whether or not you're ismaili, it was a great honour! More and more I’m learning that although ideas/concepts may be the same worldwide, it is so crucial to understand the context/environment in which they operate. We were treated to a sweet cultural show on Sunday night showcasing just how vibrant Ugandan music, fashion and dance is. A funny story by our host, kinda summed up a bit of Ugandan mentality, not sure if its true, but whatever:

The president of the World Bank came to Uganda in the mid 1990’s to evaluate whether financial assistance was required. He came to Lake Victoria and came upon a fisherman who was relaxing and lying under a shady tree on the shore. He asked the fisherman: what are you doing?
Fisherman: lying under a tree
President: why aren’t you fishing?
Fisherman: because I caught three fish yesterday. I had one yesterday, I’ll have one today, and I’ll have one tomorrow. After that I’ll fish again.
President: but why don’t you fish more than just 3? You could sell the extra and make money!
Fisherman: and then?
President: you’d become rich and wealthy and you could open your own business!
Fisherman: and then?
President: you could hire a whole bunch of people and a fleet of boats
Fisherman: and then?
President: you could eventually begin exporting the fish to other countries!
Fisherman: and then?
President: you’d become even richer, eventually you wouldn’t have to work!
Fisherman: and then?
President: you could just relax!
Fisherman: look at me…I already am!

The Pearl of Africa, maybe Churchill was right.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Food for Thought

Lately, it seems as if 2 main topics are consuming the daily headlines in Kenya and its hard to ignore them. One of them, no surprise is Obama. With his inaugration last week its safe to say that on January 20th, there was only topic being talked about anywhere and everywhere. It seems as if people here in Kenya have higher hopes that Obama will do more for them than their own government/president – the unfortunate reality is that maybe that’s true. I know, Obama is an American president and his first and foremost responsibility is to Americans. But when you see to what extent the government here has let its people down, it seems worth the risk to have that beacon of hope that maybe January 21st was the dawn of a new era not only for the US, but Kenya as well.

Just how much has the government let its people down? Well, that brings me to the other topic that seems to dominate Kenyan headlines – food. Or I should say, the lack of it. I remember hearing about the global food crisis when I was still in Canada back in June, July. To be honest, its quite hard to relate to this food crisis when you live in a country like Canada and you enjoy relative plenty. Coming to Kenya I have seen, or at least heard about the food shortage loud and clear. Maize (a.k.a. corn) – one of kenya’s staples, or the staple of the Kenyan diet you might say, is worth more than diamonds right now. Maize is ground down into flour and maize flour is something that you will find in almost every Kenyan home. From maize you make ugali, something that I just can’t seem to have an appetite for (despite my love for food). Its basically maize flour that has been cooked into a thick porridge like texture and served. It kinda looks like a mound of mashed potatoes except much harder, thicker and starchy. Make sense? Anyways, Kenyans eat it all the time. Its cheap and its filling. Nutritious? Somewhat, but definitely not on its own, but when money is hard to come by, a full stomach comes first.
Anyways, there was great outrage recently here when the price of maize flour started to increase. There was anger all around and plenty of fingers being pointed. Recent droughts had decreased stocks, the national cereals board (who’s in charge of distribution of maize) was incompetent and numerous allegations of hoarding and corruption. The government did act to start providing subsidized maize flour, but somehow that whole system has been riddled with corruption and cases of missing maize flour. There were also reports that some of the maize flour produced was actually toxic but still made its way onto the market. So whats the average Kenyan family to do? Just today there was a special in the newspaper about the food crisis and numerous stories of children going hungry, parents unable to provide for their children, and families having to sell the meager assets to buy food.

Times like this I am very grateful for the fact that I don’t have to worry about where my next meal is coming from or fear going hungry. I think what makes me really upset about the whole thing is that while this is happening, government MP’s continue to lead cushy lives in chauffeured limousines and recently voted down the idea that they should pay tax for their monthly salary which is more than some Kenyans may see in their lifetime.

But what good is it to just be angry. It seemed that the common theme in the articles was that “this is Kenya”. Maybe it is, but that just seems hopeless, and if I have learned one thing over and over, its that when you lose hope, you lose all. So like I said earlier, maybe in this case its worth the risk to put your faith in a mortal being, the son of Kenya, who is thousands of km. away that somehow his influence will reach across the world to Nairobi and get this government off its chair into action. Its worth it, to hope.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Greatest Compliment

With the start of the new year, I would be lying if I said that home didn’t seem a little closer. While that does excite me, it is also sad to think that my journey is soon coming to an end and it makes me somewhat anxious about the kind of emotional roller-coaster I will endure in early march when I finally do make the trek home. When I returned to Mombasa after the holiday, I actually felt a sense of relief. My holiday was fantastic and the chance to see good friends and spectacular sights in Tanzania is something I wouldn’t have traded for the world. But right from when I arrived at the airport to be greeted at the gate with a smile and a warm pat on the back by our taxi guy Frank (who we have gotten to know fairly well in the past 4-5 months) I couldn’t help but feel a sense of familiarity and comfort. I know I haven’t given Mombasa exactly sparkling reviews, but I surprised myself this past weekend, when we welcomed some new expats into the Mombasa scene and I began speaking fondly about the quirks of this scorched earth city. On Sunday as we sat in the shade on a patio of one of Mombasa’s busier streets eating soft gelato with a cool summer breeze I couldn’t help but smirk at the thought of being in the frozen tundra that is probably Toronto right now and in that moment it was true that there was nowhere else I’d rather be.

Probably one of the greatest surprises was when I returned to work after the holiday season. As I went around greeting everyone and wishing them all happy new year, I felt a sense of belonging and I started to think about the things I would miss when I leave; the abundance of fresh juice, the smell of grilled meat, the Indian ocean. As I sat and talked with my co-workers about their holidays and what they did, I let it slip that in fact my time was coming to an end in just 7 short weeks. The sadness on their faces was something I’ll never forget and it warmed my heart to no end. I was so humbled by the comments of ‘we want you to stay’ or ‘I’m going to ask the director to extend your contract’ (even though he already did and I turned it down). But perhaps one comment I will never forget from a co-worker was just a side remark that ‘this guy, we’ll miss’.

Its always nice to be appreciated for your work and to know that in fact you have contributed something to a larger cause and in the end, maybe even made things better. Its hard for me to comment on the scale of contribution I’ve made, at times I felt like I’m doing nothing at all, while at other times I felt the opposite, I guess that’s for others to decide, not me. But to have people to say that they want you to stay, that they enjoy your company as colleagues and as friends, and to just appreciate who you are, through your good moments and your bad, for better or for worse, that really is the greatest compliment.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Zanzibar: Ringing in the New Year in the Land of the Setting Sun

If the island of Japan is referred to as the land of the rising sun then the island of Zanzibar off the coast of Tanzania can definitely take the title of land of the setting sun. The “spice islands” as it is referred to is predominantly muslim (conservative) and has so much charm, so much character that it is literally bursting from every nook and cranny of every alley.

Touring the labyrinth of alleyways that make up the maze that is Stonetown, the main of attraction of Zanzibar town, you couldn’t help but become engrossed. Its as if you’ve been transported thousands of miles back into some ancient Persian city. The streets are so narrow that cars can barely pass and most of the traffic is on scooters. Every building is so tightly packed and is so alluring that they each seem to have their own story. It brings a different meaning to the phrase ‘if buildings could talk’. Children run through the streets everywhere, all with smiles on their faces, and each storefront seems to have old men or women sitting in front looking as if they could tell you a thousand stories.

Walking through the alleyways it was easy to see how someone could get lost for days in there without knowing their way around. But sometimes its fun to just get lost and see where the road leads you to. The first evening in zbar we hitup a popular expat bar that sits high up on the Indian ocean to see the sunset (I think it was actually called sunset bar). A great atmosphere (with somewhat pricey drinks!) but we’re all there for the main attraction. Don’t ask me how, but when the sun finally did set, the crowded bar broke out in applause as if we had all just seen a once in a lifetime show rather than something that has happened everyday since the dawn of time. Zbar is a unique place, there are sandbanks of white sand in the middle of the ocean which you can reach by hiring a boat which takes you 20 minutes out into the ocean to what is basically your own private beach surrounded by blue/turquoise ocean. The only catch is that you have to vacate before the high tide engulfs the beach!

We took a day trip up north to Kendwa for more sun and sand, and then returned to Stonetown to ring in the new year on at a beachfront bar. It was one countdown I will never forget! The best things about Zanzibar are the simple ones. Wandering the streets, or just sitting and watching. A couple mornings I ventured out to a nearby cafĂ© while everyone else slept and sat on the patio to see what went by. Vendors, tourists, sellers, buyers, everyone living their life. Evening street food markets entice you to sample a wide range of sea food, breads, Zanzibar-style pizza, and dessert pizza (an amazing dessert made of banana and chocolate). Zanzibar is full of legends, be it the spirits that supposedly walk the streets and overtake the human body, or evil beings that invade the island during times of stress. Its quirky in its own special way, you’ll shake your head, or even laugh at the stories that come out of this island, but the irony is that you can’t help wanting more.

The 8th Natural Wonder of the World

First off, Happy New Year to you all, and wish everyone the best for 2009!

Back in September I fulfilled one of my ultimate goals of going on a natural wonder - a real live African safari in the Masai Mara. My time in the mara made me realize that one safari was not enough! Over the holiday period, i was lucky enough to go on another safari in what is described as the 8th Natural Wonder of the World – the Ngorongoro Crater in Northern Tanzania. Now, I’m not going to try and compare the 2 safari’s or attempt to decide which one was better. They were both incredible experiences, each providing its own unique sights and beauty. One stark difference though relates to the laws that govern safari’s in Kenya and Tanzania. In Kenya, safari vehicles are allowed to veer off the roads and follow animals wherever they go. While this makes for much closer enounters and interactions, it does so to the detriment of the ecosystem, whereas in Tanzania safari vehicles are required by law to stay on the gravel roads which is so much better for the environment and the animals.

Anyways, we arrived in Arusha after a long 9 hour bus ride from Mombasa where we were picked up by our hotel for the 3 hour drive up to the crater. The crater itself is an 80 sq km. piece of land that used to be a volcano and is now its own self-supporting ecosystem. The animals that live inside the crater are basically on their own, the walls of the crater are incredibly steep and therefore no animals can really enter/exit the crater. Which makes you wonder how some of the larger animals (i.e. hippos, elephants) got there in the first place? Just another one of nature’s miracles. We finally arrived at the Serena lodge on the rim of the crater weary, dusty, dirty, and sweaty – to find that the president of Tanzania was on his way here as well. As we were the only ones in the lobby at the time, we were instructed to sit and wait while he passed with his entourage and to “sit still and not make any sudden moves” (suffice to say that his entourage was probably all armed and ready to shoot first and ask questions later). The president arrived an walked by us and offered a friendly ‘hello how are you?’ to which I think we all responded with some sort of ‘good thanks, you?’ The irony is that I have been living in Kenya for 6 months now and have yet to even be in the same city as the President of Kenya, I was in Tanzania for about 4 hours before I met the President there. Ah well, now I can add him to the list of game animals that I saw.

As our lodge was located on the rim of the crater we were treated with 2 incredible sunrises (which required early wakeups but totally worth it) as the sun slowly came up over the rim. It was one of the more incredible sights I’ve seen. Our day long game drive provided us with great sights and lots of game, also I finally saw the only animal I did not get to see in Masai Mara – a cheetah! As I mentioned back in September, being on safari allowed me to see the Africa of my dreams. This time, it was a more surreal experience as I sat and watched all these incredible sights, the magestic animals in their natural habitat, the natural colours of the crater, and the painting that was their habitat, a strange feeling came over me as I thought about the spectrum of sights I have seen in my time here. From the saddest sights of poverty and despair, to the gem that was the sun rising over the rim of the crater as it greeted the earth for another day of life. But that’s the magic of Africa, it may sometimes bring you to a low, or make you question a lot of things but it will always bring you up again.