(To read Part 1, click here)
I guess Joe wanted to ease us in to Kenyan food and culture, because he arranged for our first culinary experience of the trip to be a rather American-style breakfast at Java House in Nairobi. It was a chilly rainy day and the seating was outdoors, so I was kinda cold without my jacket. I’d remembered Kenya as being extremely hot, but that was in Kisumu, which has a lower elevation.
Since Kenya was a British colony until 1962, they are a tea culture rather than a coffee culture, even though both are grown in the country. So Java House is one of the few places to actually drink good Kenyan coffee. But this was of little interest to me as I, of course, ordered tea and sipped it reverently.
Then we piled back in the van and drove off to Nakuru.
Driving through the Kenyan countryside is wonderful. We made one stop to use the bathroom, get some shillings, and buy some mangos to munch on the journey, but mostly we just booked it for three and a half hours. I thought everything we saw along the way was fascinating, and I tried to figure out how to take pictures without them all turning out blurry.
Gloria sat next to me. We’d claimed the front bench seat because we both suffer from car sickness, and she helped me out with my camera settings. Yes, I’m one of those people who has a fancier camera than they know how to use properly. I really bought it to make YouTube videos, but after my experiences on this trip I really want to learn more photography skills. So if you know of any good photography resources let me know!
Anyway, as I was grabbing photos out the right-hand window, she was directing her husband on what to photograph out the left-hand window. Her husband Jason and my dad are the PR people for Open Hands, and already Gloria and I were inadvertently starting a media team.
We arrived in Nakuru that afternoon.
There are several Mennonite missions in Nakuru, and I guess they help each other out when an influx of visitors arrive. Luke and Jamila Kurtz work with CAM, but they have a guest house that they put us up in. Only I guess the guest house wasn’t quite big enough, because I ended up staying just up the street at Luke and Jamila’s house, in their guest room.
I spent the remainder of that afternoon resting. I drifted in and out of sleep and somehow missed the most dramatic event of the day: one of the guard dogs bit Joe. It was pretty nasty actually…the dog sank his teeth into Joe’s arm, and then Joe jerked his arm away instinctively which made it worse. But by the time I woke up, Gloria had bandaged him up.
In the evening we met the local Open Hands team: Bruce Wagler, who with lives in Kenya with his wife Shelia and adorable sons and is the reginal director, and Ken Goli, the local field coordinator. Bruce and Shelia had us over for a meal. They live in a house that Joe built and designed back when he lived in Kenya, so Joe spent some time explaining to us how sturdy the gates were compared to other gates and such.
It was at this point that I learned that I was supposed to leave the house at 8:00 am the next morning. To be honest I had only a faint idea of what my role here was. All I knew was that Dad wanted photos and videos for his PR presentations, and I was supposed to take them. I was rather nervous since I’m by no means a professional, but I mean, it wasn’t like Dad could take his own pictures.
So I went to bed, woke up at 4 am like you always do when you’re jet lagging, went back to sleep, woke up at 7 am, got ready, and walked over to the guest house.
It was the beginning of the Most Epic Day.
First, all the men (and me) piled into the van and drove to a nearby place called “Cool Rivers Hotel.” Apparently they rent out office space, because the local Open Hands office was located in a room on the second floor. Not a hotel room, just a room room. Only the sign above the door said “Propel Training,” which confused me until I learned that in East Africa, Open Hands is registered under the name “Propel Training.” Apparently the name “Open Hands” gave the wrong idea, as it seemed to imply that the organization was handing out free stuff. “Propel Training” more accurately described their work of training and empowering local people to pool their resources and help each other out of poverty.
Bruce and Ken were already at the office when we arrived. I learned that the plan for the day was for Ken to take me, Dad, and Jason to some local businesses and savings groups so that they would have a better idea of how the Open Hands system worked when they gave their PR presentations. I was supposed to take pictures and videos. The other men were staying behind, I guess to have meetings all day? Not sure, I wasn’t there.
So we set off, and I was feeling a bit apprehensive and unsure of what I was doing.
The first place we stopped was Jomba Autospares.
Right next door was a little snack shop, and as it turns out, you cannot do an interview without having your tea first. So we all crowded into the tiny room and drank tea.
I desperately wanted some tea, but was not about to drink that much dairy. So I said that the milk hurts my stomach, and asked if I could have some tea without milk. So Ken told the snack shop ladies to get me some “black tea.” After that, in every chai-serving situation, I would just ask for “black tea” and get a wonderful steaming cup of bliss.
Oh–another thing I should explain about Kenya. Since Kenya was a British colony, English is one of the official languages. The other official language is Swahili, and most people also speak a tribal language or two. The Jomba Autospares guy spoke English well, but some of the shop owners were much more comfortable in Swahili, in which case Ken would just translate. Still, as far as foreign countries go, it was easier-than-average to communicate.
After we’d finished our tea, the shop owner took us over to his shop and started explaining to us how the savings group had helped him. He talked about taking out loans to buy stock for his shop or to expand if need be. He also talked about the business skills he’d learned. For instance, he said that he’d learned to sell things for just slightly lower of a price than the other people who sold the same thing, and then people would come buy from him, knowing that he had the lowest prices.
I mean, this is just basic supply and demand, right? I didn’t think much of it until later, when I discovered something fascinating about Kenyan economics.
When I came to Kenya in 2003, I’d go to the souvenir shops and haggle prices. As embarrassing as it is to admit, I thought this was great fun, and I loved getting a “good deal.” I thought this was just how it is in foreign places like Kenya. After all, everywhere you went there were tiny shops selling things, and they never had prices listed. So surely the Kenyans just haggled everything.
Well…no. Turns out, Kenyans don’t haggle prices with each other. They haggle prices with tourists at the souvenir shops, but this seems to be a combination of knowing that tourists are willing to spend more, and the tourists themselves being convinced that haggling prices is just “what you do” in other countries.
In reality, Kenyans don’t need price tags because everything pretty much costs the same no matter what shop you go to. If you walk down the street and ask every shop how much they’d charge for a clump of four bananas, they’d all give you the same price. At least, that’s what I was told. I only experienced it with transportation. The motorcycle taxis charged 50 shillings anywhere in town you wanted to go. The little 3-wheeled cars charged 200 shillings. The taxi rides in Nairobi and Mombasa were both about an hour long, and they both charged 2,500 shillings. (A shilling is worth about as much as a penny.)
So with all that, the idea of charging a lower price than your competition was a new thing. But to be honest, as happy as I am for him that he’s doing better in business, I kinda would hate to see the Kenyan system go away. Because it’s so handy to feel like you can just grab the most convenient thing and know for sure you’re getting the best price.
For the rest of the morning and into the afternoon we drove around on the dirt roads surrounding Nakuru, visiting tiny businesses whose owners were helped by the savings groups. Many of them were widows. One woman told us that her savings group was entirely made up of widows, and they had formed the group specifically to help each other out.
I got better and better at the interview process. When we drank tea with the first business owner, and I’d explained my role here, he’d jokingly called me “CNN”. But then, when I was filming him later, he said, “no questions from CNN?”
“I guess not,” I said, because truthfully I wasn’t sure what to ask. It was fine, though–Dad and Jason just asked the questions. But by the time we were off to the next business, I had a better idea of what to ask, and I was fully conducting the interviews by the end.
At the Faith, Miracle, and Glory shop, Ken told Jason to buy some bananas. Then, back in the car, Ken said, “we can eat them as we drive.” Dad and Ken started happily munching, but Jason and I just looked at each other and smirked, because neither of us like bananas.
However, it then occurred to me that I had no idea if and when I’d be eating lunch. And due to some foods I’m trying to avoid, who knows if an offered lunch would be something I could eat? I might as well eat what was set before me with a thankful heart. So I choked down a banana, which was not as terrible as American bananas I must say. Jason, however, did not.
We went to six businesses in total, and when we arrived at the Kibe W. Blessing Shop, Ken said, “it’s about lunch time, why don’t you buy us a snack and some soda?” Well, I wasn’t sure what he meant by a “snack,” but apparently the woman inside did. She brought out a bag of these slightly sweet rolls, and we sat around for a while, relaxing, eating our rolls, and sipping our soda.
This was the end of the “business-visiting” part of the day. Now it was time for the “savings-group-visiting” part of the day.
We got in the van again, and as we drove, Ken periodically stopped to pick up women who were walking along the road. He recognized them as members of the savings group we were going to visit, and was giving them a lift. At one point they asked him to stop, and they ran inside some little shop and bought some basic food supplies in a big box.
We drove and drove and drove, way back into the bush. Then finally we arrived at a little house, and after we’d crowded inside, a woman in a green coat had some sort of devotional in Swahili.
A woman named Ruth had joined us in visiting the last few businesses and it turned out that she was the facilitator of this particular savings groups. Facilitators are local people employed by Open Hands to give training and guidance to the savings groups. After devotions, Ruth taught a lesson from the Bible-based savings curriculum that Open Hands uses, and then everyone brought out their money.
There are several systems of savings groups. In this one, everyone brings the same amount of money each time they meet, and one person gets all the money. Then they draw names to see who will get the money next time. In this particular group they have a system where if your name is drawn, that also means you will host the next meeting.
This group also has a system which, as far as I could tell, is called “food stuffs.” I never heard of any of the other groups doing this, so maybe it’s just something this particular group invented. Whoever was hosting the group and receiving the money that week would prepare a meal for everyone, and everyone else would pitch in to buy her some food. That’s why they stopped on the way to pick up that big box of food supplies.
The meal was this really delicious mixture of vegetables, beans, and lentils, eaten with chapatis. I was still somewhat full from our snack and couldn’t eat a whole lot, but when the host asked if I wanted to take a chapati with me, of course I said yes. I love chapatis. She then gave me three, wrapped in newspaper and then placed in a bag–not a plastic bag, as those are banned in Kenya, but these biodegradable alternatives they now have that are sort-of like a thin cross between paper and plastic cloth.
I put it in my backpack, and we went on to the next savings group of the day.
We were so far back in the bush by this point that it took nearly an hour to get to the next savings group. There, the rest of the Open Hands group joined us. Ken was the facilitator of this group. His lesson was on Nehemiah, and how just like the people all joined together to build the wall, Kenyans can join together to lift themselves out of poverty.
This group operated a bit differently than the first group. Instead of giving one person a payout each week, they operated like a miniature credit union, saving together and then giving each other loans from the savings pool.
Ken then told me that the women in the center, Martha, had a shop close by that I should come see. By this time I had no room left on my memory card, but Gloria said I could take a video on her phone, which was much better quality than my phone.
First Martha showed us her rabbits. She’d taken out a loan to buy one rabbit, and then she’d built up her herd by breeding them. She built her own rabbit hutches out of random pieces of wood and tin.
Then, with her rabbit earnings and another loan, Martha built a snack shop. “Here, you have to try these peanuts,” said Ken. I forget who he asked to buy this time. Maybe Jason again.
So we all just sat around munching peanuts and chatting. Another woman joined the group. I forget her name, I just remember that she said, “any for me?” And we laughed and bought her a little pack of peanuts too. I thought it was really interesting how people just straight-up asked for what they wanted, as long as it was something small and cheap. This system suited me a lot better than hinting. I’m terrible at picking up on hints.
After this we finally went home. We were going to eat supper at the guest house, but when we got back I started hearing rumors that the cook had run off to Saudi Arabia and there was no food. What the bunnyslipper! Literally it was the strangest thing, and I was so exhausted I felt like I wasn’t even living real life, like this was a book or a weird dream.
Well, the cook had run off to Saudi Arabia. But thankfully Jamila and her daughters and maybe someone else’s maid too had come together and made food without her help. So we had a delicious meal, and then all these strangers started walking in the door singing “Happy Birthday,” because I guess it was Joe Kuepfer’s birthday and now we were going to have a party.
If this sounds like I’m describing a bad dream, I’m sorry. That’s how it felt as I was living it. I’d just had an epic day, and there wasn’t a single inch of me left over for parties. I had to get out of here. Now.
Jamila took me back to her house and I went to bed. Well, first I ate some of the chapatis that the women at the first saving’s group had given me. Then I went to sleep, only to wake up at 5 am with…digestive issues. I think the chapatis, bouncing around in my backpack in that paper/cloth-like bag, must have collected some unfamiliar bacteria.
Maybe this whole trip was a terrible idea, I thought.
I was exhausted beyond measure, and I knew that I was supposed to spend the next day doing the same things I’d done this day. I’d had the most epic time, interviewing the most interesting people and getting a good taste of Kenyan culture both literally and figuratively. But there was no way I could do it another day. My health was slipping.
I decided to go over to the guest house at 7 am. We were supposed to leave at 8, so that would give me an hour to talk to Dad, Joe, whoever I needed to talk to, and see if there was another way. Because I couldn’t, I just couldn’t do it.
So I dressed, packed my backpack, and went to the door. The house was silent. The door was bolted, and locked with a giant padlock.
I was locked inside the house and I didn’t know how to get out.
To find out what happened next, well, you’ll just have to come back for part 3 I guess! Hopefully I’ll get that written in the next few days.
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Interesting that the savings group works so well. Interestingly enough, a lot of African tribes and traditional culture have had this kind of set-up. The legends give evidence to it. I’m only guessing western influences have eroded the traditional values and fed into people’s greed creating poverty for some. Rightly, the old concepts are being reintroduced and valued.
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