Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Nairobi in Pictures, Part 1: Health Clinics, Hospitals, Hotels, and Others

To be honest, I struggled a little with how to write about my time in Kenya. I did not feel happy with the pictures I took, and I had a hard time taking pictures (this is a big conflict for me in general). As much as I want to share what Nairobi was like, I also feel wary about presenting photos out of context of a city that I experienced for five days. I don't know a lot about Kenya. And I do not want to falsely present what it is or to exploit the people that live there.

But here are my brief impressions, all the same. Nairobi is a place of great contrasts--not unlike Cape Town or many other places in which I have lived. It's a busy, bustling chaos with some of the worst traffic I've ever experienced (Freetown tops it but not by much). For every shiny new building, there's a tin shack in a slum, which appears to be the accepted term for informal settlements and disadvantaged communities in Nairobi. Although it does not surpass South Africa (and I'd venture Brazil) for wealth disparity, it's certainly in the upper end of the list. Nairobi is home to malls that are nicer and more upscale than the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town and living areas that have some of the worst pollution on the planet. Nairobi gets a pretty bad rap--the Lagos of East Africa, Nairobbery, Kidnap Capital--but I did not experience any of this. In fact, I felt pretty safe, apart from the insane traffic.

There was something special about Nairobi for me. I don't know how to put my finger on it or explain more than that, but I want to return to Nairobi and other areas in Kenya and explore further. For the three full days I was there (two were allocated to traveling), I spent much of my time in meetings and at the m2m office learning about how it all works in Kenya. We spent one day in the field at various m2m sites in slum areas. I avoided taking pictures of people as much as possible and will not share photos of our Mentor Mothers and Site Coordinators, who did not give me permission to post their photos in a public venue. As you can imagine, there are complexities around patient confidentiality and disclosure (since all of our MMs and SCs are living with HIV) that can cause nightmare situations when we invite the media around. I am going to entirely avoid that quagmire--you can see photos of m2m staff and clients on the website.

I've decided to split my experiences into two posts--this one will cover all the photos I took while I was standing on my own two feet, and the second post will include all the photos I took while leaning out a car window.

The view from my hotel room: jacarandas, office buildings, and lumber. Nairobi was beautiful in many ways--the light at dawn and dusk was especially incredible, and there were tons of amazing birds. I realize that not everyone gets excited about birds, but I like them.

View #2 from my hotel (unfortunately, not my room), which was situated next to the Israeli embassy. And I thought the Americans were serious about security. When we went to an Ethiopian restaurant for dinner, guards searched the undercarriage of the car for bombs, which hadn't happened to me since I visited the UN Special Court in Freetown. There's obviously a lot of tension in Nairobi due to the US embassy bombings in 1998, the bombings in Uganda last July, the recent US travel warning for Europe, and Ethiopia's intervention in Somalia (among a host of Horn of Africa/East Africa/global issues and conflicts).

Our offices in Westlands. Note the ubiquitous Land Cruiser/large SUV situation. They're everywhere because in Nairobi traffic, you always come first.

The view looking out from a health clinic in Riruta, a disadvantaged neighborhood on the outskirts of Nairobi.

A general store in Riruta. This reminded me of Dakar and Sierra Leone--these little kiosks or spaza shops are everywhere. All you need is a generator, and you can run a business out of anything.

One of many multi-story cinder block apartment complexes in urban slums and disadvantaged communities in Nairobi. It was explained to me that these are often built by the Chinese (who are very busy in Kenya and across the African continent building all sorts of infrastructure). This one was in Dandora. It was built with some financing from the World Bank to offer better housing. It's now home to Nairobi's garbage dump.

The back end of a health clinic in Dandora (you can see the building pictured above in the background).

A UN-donated Ambulance for a clinic in Mathare (please note that I do not know enough about the Kenyan sociopolitical context to know if the violence characterized in the link was as "tribal" as depicted--I tend to feel extremely wary about simplifying issues to that level). For site visits, we spent most of our time on the outskirts of slums and not deep in the shanytowns (which you can see in the Wikipedia entry linked above). What I found the most strange about the slums that I did see was how permanent they were--people were not expecting to get better housing anytime soon, as I feel South Africans living in informal settlements and township areas often are (even if that hope is a bit too optimistic given there's a housing shortage of 20 million homes in South Africa).

Another apartment building. This one is is in Mathare, which was characterized by locals as so dangerous that we (wazungu/toubabs//pumoi/foreigners/etc) were not allowed to go around the corner from the hospital to buy a Coke.

The labor ward in a clinic in Mathare. There hadn't been water at the hospital for two months due to the Chinese-led construction on Nairobi's roads, which meant that this hospital could not admit maternity patients. The hospital serves three surrounding slum areas, of which Mathare is only one. The hospital has a catchment area of 750,000.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Re-Imag(in)ing Informal Settlements

I saw today that J R (no, not me), the French "photograffeur" (he does not like the term "street artist") was awarded the 2011 TED Prize, a $100,000 award for a "wish" of the winner's choice. Past recipients include Bono, Jamie Oliver, and Bill Clinton.

J R pastes huge photographs of local people on buildings, houses, and other surfaces in slums, informal settlements, poor neighborhoods, and other locations, such as on the Palestinian side of an Israeli security fence. In some ways, his work parallels that of Banksy's, another "street artist" (I doubt he would like a label either) who brings humor and attempts to transform (mostly) urban settings with his artwork. Bansky also did an art project on an Israeli security fence and most recently, created his own version of the opener for "The Simpsons." Sometimes I really can't figure out the Fox Network...

Anyway, there is a marked difference between J R and Banksy--while both are anti-commercial and anti-authority/government/establishment/whatever in their own ways, Banksy can be a bit over the top in his commentary ("The Simpsons" opener comes to mind, as hilarious as it was) and seems to support a very specific set of political, social, and cultural views, while I find J R's work open to interpretation. It's simply blown up photographs of local people, often pulling funny faces. It has a more universal, less alienating goal of bringing a sense of lightness and of community: local people are involved, are consulted, are photographed (with consent!), and are the consumers of art outside of a museum, a space that is inaccessible for most of the people with whom J R works.

I first became aware of J R when I read about him in, you guessed it, The New York Times, which did an article on some of his work in Liberia and Sierra Leone, including in Bo, where I volunteered over a year ago. Of course, now I can't find the original article. You can see some of his work in this slideshow, however, and read a bit more about him in this more recent NYT article.

I've never been comfortable with the idea of taking photographs of extremely poor neighborhoods, which I've seen from Mississippi to West Africa to Cape Town to Nairobi. It's similar to the way I feel about township and slum tours--although I do not feel I could access many of these neighborhoods on my own (I'm not comfortable enough with the nuances of South African culture to drive my car into Khayelitsha for a visit on my own, for example), I'm not sure that tours are the way to go, and if I had the chance to take a commercial tour through Soweto or Kibera, I'm not sure whether I'd say yes or no. Although I think it's very important to witness and understand the poverty that exists in our various societies, sticking a camera out the car window isn't always the best way to do it (I've done this and decided not to do it many times and feel very conflicted about it). Showing your friends, family, and others the reality of life for many, many people is important. But anonymous pictures take can take on an aspect of voyeurism, of turning those living in informal settlements and other places into zoo animals. It's a tough issue for me.

What J R does is different. It's interactive and collaborative with local people and communities. It brings awareness and allows anyone to ask questions. It re-imagines and re-images communities. I'm not saying it's the end-all be-all solution for informal settlements and slums, of course. I simply appreciate how J R's work makes me think and how my thoughts of and questions about his work could be entirely different from anyone else who stumbles across it.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Are you kidding me?


In completely unrelated news, I'll try to get some pictures and a post up soon on my time in Nairobi this week. It was an incredible (if too short) experience.

Friday, October 1, 2010

What I've Been Up To: A Photo Essay

Apart from a picture-less shark cage diving adventure, work, and lots of other stuff, I climbed Lion's Head a couple more times (this is an earlier picture from August, though).

I went to a rugby game at the historic Newlands Stadium (go see Invictus). It was a learning experience about South Africa.

We took lots of pictures at Hermanus,

where there were actual WHALES (!!!),

and enjoyed the glorious Spring weather.

I went to a Beer Festival (not pictured). The beer was not very good, however.

We went to Groot Constantia (for those of you in the know, no one was locked in the bathroom this time)

and saw the new green growth in the vineyards

and on the oak trees

and, of course, continued to enjoy the glorious Spring weather.

A lot.

I learned how to cook steaks and fish

and tried out other new recipes, like white bean dip. I also ate a lot of cheese.

I had a dinner party with delicious food (not pictured) and did a lot of clean-up (pictured).

And I decided to stay in my current apartment for the next seven months.

Hope you all are well.