Homeless in Cape Town, part I

I was sitting at the V&A waterfront of Cape Town, one evening last week, enjoying Thai take-away while trying to stay warm against the growing winter cape wind. I had again forgotten my wind breaker as it was stowed in the easy-to-forget top pocket of my backpack. The fog rolled in, broken by the strong lamps of a Coast Guard bay patrol ship, red and blue to either side, white on a spindle for search and rescue.

I was just cleaning the last of the noodles from the inside of the waxed cardboard box with my split wood chopsticks when a young man, likely in his early twenties, walked up to the end of the bench adjacent to the one I occupied.

He spoke quietly, as though an apology were in order, hesitant with his words “Excuse me. Sir. Would you happen to have–”

While I could not hear the individual words against the blasts of wind, I knew the intent. He would be asking for money. I didn’t mind, as I wanted to hear his story, “I am sorry, but I can’t hear you.” I finished another bite of the last remnants of my food.

He started again, “Excuse me sir. I have a baby girl. She needs food. Could you spare some change for milk and cereal?”

There was something about him that felt quite genuine. He was well dressed for a homeless guy, relatively new shoes, each of which had laces. They were apparently the correct size too. Jeans with a belt, clean, and his inner shirt tucked in. He wore a baseball cap with the brim set high, his entire forehead visible from where I was sitting.

He was black African, speaking English with the subtle accent of Afrikaans, double beats given to otherwise forgotten vowels, melodic in their intonation.

I motioned for him to sit next to me, and asked if he wanted some food, “I will be pleased to buy food for you, if you are hungry.”

“Thank you sir. But it is my girl, she needs food, not me.” He remained standing, now by my side.

“Sit with me. It’s ok.” He looked quite uncomfortable at my request and declined. Not for disdain but for simple lack of having someone ask this of him. His body moved in the direction of sitting but his brain held him back, uncertain what would come next.

“Where do you live?”

“At the shelter,” he motioned behind me to what I assumed as beyond the water front shopping center, “we stay there.”

“Is it safe? For you and your girl?”

“Yes sir, it is safe.”

“Where is your daughter now?”

“She is there.”

“At the shelter? Alone? Who is caring for her?”

“At the shelter sir, she is there.”

“Yes, I understand. But who is watching her?”

“They are … the …” he struggled with the words and so I filled in a few for him, “Child care?”

“Yes. Child care. They take care of her while I am away.”

It seemed unlikely that a single man would be raising a young girl at a shelter or that a shelter would offer child care, but I do not know the South African system. I liked him. He was not too bold, in fact he was humble in his approach. Given my extensive interaction with the homeless population, he seemed authentic to me.

Inside, however, I found that familiar pressure against the inside of my ribcage, the one that says, “This guy is just taking me for a ride. He’s making a quick buck. I don’t need to support his bad habits. Why can’t he just get a job!?” It is natural for this to rise in us. We are open to a certain degree, yes, but also protective of our resources and ourselves. If experience has provided a correlation between one who asks for something of us only to find that the person asking was not authentic, it is a kind of stove-top burn not to be repeated.

What’s more, we can use a certain self-righteous mode of communication which appears to be supportive when in fact it is little more than a wall around ourselves, justification for why we could not provide what is requested by a total stranger. We keep ourselves safely hid from authentic engagement for a lifetime, believing we are not responsible in any way for their situation. These people, the ones at the bottom, should simply try harder.

“Where is there a grocery?” I asked.

“A what sir?”

“Sorry. A supermarket. Where is there a supermarket?”

He pointed over my shoulder to the Pick-n-Save I had not noticed, less than one hundred meters distance.

“Ok. Let’s go shopping and get what you need.”

“Oh!? Thank you sir. Thank you. Just milk and cereal is all.”

“What is your name?”

“William. My name is William.” Again, his Afrikaans foundation came through, the ‘w’ in William given a breathy ‘v’ and ‘h’ at the same time.

I extended my hand and shook his as I introduced myself, “I am Kai.”

“Where are you from?”

“From the United States. Colorado.”

“I hear it is beautiful there.”

“Indeed. It is. Stunning.”

We arrived to the front of the store. He hesitated as though he was to wait outside. I placed my hand on his shoulder as a subtle insistence that he continue inside with me. I got the impression he had not been in a supermarket often, or perhaps the last time he exited he had not paid for all that he carried. He was uncomfortable.

“Tell me again what you need?”

“Just milk and cereal, sir.”

My decision to spend this time with William was reinforced as he had ample opportunity to take advantage of my generosity but each time refused. If this was a scam, at any level, he was not much of a scam artist.

“You need food too. Bread? Cheese? Meat?”

“You don’t have to do that,” he responded.

“I don’t have to purchase milk and cereal for your daughter either, but I have already chosen to do this for you. So what will it be?”

As we walked through the store, grabbing various items which eventually, with some prodding, included fresh fruit and a bar of dark chocolate (which he had never enjoyed before), I made a point of making physical contact as often as possible, the way I would with an old friend or family member. I would hold the upper portion of his arm as we spoke or make certain that when we chose food I gave it to him to add to the basket in order that it was his act of shopping, not my own.

I wanted to know more about William, to receive his story.

“How many years of school did you attend?”

“I completed the sixth grade.”

“Ah. Good. What were your favorite subjects?”

“Mmmm, the one with numbers, what is it called?”


“Yes, mathematics.”

“Are you good with numbers?”

“Yes, I like numbers.”

We walked down a few more isles, eventually finding the original two items he had requested.

“Do you know how to write?”

“Yes. I can write.”

“Do you enjoy writing?”

“Yes, very much.” He lit up a bit, making eye contact with me again.

An idea jumped into my head in full form. I moved on it immediately.

“Do you write poems?”

“No, but I write songs.”


“Yes sir.”

“Are they original?”

“Yes, original songs.”

We had just walked past the office products isle. I stopped abruptly, grabbing William by the arm. “I have an idea. I am going to help you start a business.”

He was intrigued, but didn’t respond.

I grabbed two bound notebooks, the kind whose pages can be removed; two ball point pens (blue at William’s request) and two packs of twenty envelopes.

I handed the collection to William and then explained my concept. “When you approach someone asking for money, you are a beggar. No matter how well you dress, no matter how good you smell, even if your story is completely legitimate, you are still asking for something without giving anything in return. As you likely well know, this usually doesn’t go over so well.”

He agreed, knowing all too well the challenges of this affair, “Yes, that is right.”

I continued, “If you sell something, magazines or books or fruit, people assume you stole it.”

He nodded his head again. His eyes widened as he caught on.

“But if you can sell something that could not possibly be stolen, an authentic, originally part of you, well, then you are no longer begging. You are a proper business man.”

I waited. He looked at me, his hands, and back to me again, smiling. “You mean I sell songs?”

“Yes. Exactly.”

He appeared perplexed, “I never thought of that.”

“You said you like math, so let’s run the numbers, ok?”

We quickly added the total cost of the books, pens, and envelopes which offered more than enough pages for him to scribble, write draft songs, and practice his penmanship and signature. In summary I concluded, “You sell each song, handwritten, signed with a title and date, placed neatly inside an envelope. Don’t seal the envelope as your potential customers may desire to inspect the goods, or even pick their favorite song from your portfolio.”

He nodded, listening with intent.

“We have a total cost of forty rand for the whole package. If you sell each song for just ten rand, and there are forty envelopes, that is four hundred rand. Forty from four hundred leaves you with a profit of thee hundred and sixty.”

William looked at the goods in his hands again, and then back to me. These basic things were no longer just paper and pen, but a source of income for him. He had a huge smile on his face and that look of having discovered something totally new.

He shook his head and said, “I never thought of that. I just never thought about this before.”

“If you sell just one or two a day, at least it is some cash flow. As you get better at writing and presenting yourself, your sales will grow.”

We turned toward the cashier and he asked, “How did you think of this?”

“It’s what I do. I help people build their business.”

“Then I am so lucky to have met you.”

We added diapers to the shopping list, which was a bit of a chore as he did not know which size was the correct one for his daughter. Again, doubt returned to my mind as I wondered if he really did have a daughter back at the shelter. But if it was his goal to sell or trade the diapers, even some of the food, then at least he would be building upon his entrepreneurial experience and learning how to barter. I encouraged him to keep the receipt in case he had to return anything. Clearly, he was not aware of this process, and so I explained it to him.

We sat outside the supermarket for another ten minutes. On the inside cover of one of the two notebooks we built a simple amortization schedule to determine the real cost of each song sold. The profit per song was of course far better than my rough estimate which assumed the total volume of both notebooks and the ballpoint pens would be consumed with the sale of just forty songs. William’s math was rusty. I encouraged him to practice his basic tables using one of the notebooks in order that he could easily present change to his customers. He seemed eager to do this, soon.

We parted ways, shaking hands. He offered a Christian blessing and I reciprocated in good form, having learned that even if this is not something I usually do, it means a lot to those who offer.

I walked only a block from the water front when my emotions caught up with me, rising in my chest like expanding air. I sobbed.

Having been in this situation many times before, I knew what had happened. I had disabled that the part of me that would otherwise keep William on the outside, a safe box for me and another in which I define this homeless man. Instead, I chose to recognize him as an old friend with whom I was simply catching up, and in so doing, I automatically recognized how similar he is to me. All barriers were down. I saw him as a complete human being, no different than me or any other. His chemistry, his needs and desires identical to my own.

In that place, he could have easy been me and I could have been him.

Therein lies the true source of fear, the reason we choose to not engage. It is not because homeless people and beggars are poorly dressed or speak with a limited vocabulary. Outside of those who do present a danger, it is not truly for our own safety. No. We maintain our boundaries because to truly engage someone less fortunate than ourselves is to see ourselves in their place.

And that is something we are not readily willing to do.

By |2017-04-10T11:17:37-04:00June 4th, 2013|2013, Out of Africa|0 Comments

The Southern Sky

Kai Staats: Milky Way over Sutherland, SA

Kai Staats: Milky Way over Sutherland, SA Kai Staats: Milky Way over Sutherland, SA Kai Staats: Milky Way over Sutherland, SA Kai Staats: SALT, Sutherland, SA

Kai Staats: SALT, Sutherland, SA Kai Staats: 1.9m telescope, Sutherland, SA Kai Staats: Star Party at Sutherland, SA Kai Staats: sunset over Sutherland, SA

When we look to a rich, dark night sky we are moved to wonder. When we peer through the eyepiece of a telescope we are changed in some significant way. When we are granted answers to questions which the night sky raises, we realize how very small we truly are.

I believe the greatest challenge we do engage in our short time in this universe, both as individuals and as a species, is to recognize our humble place while at the same time our potential for great endeavors. Somewhere, between these two ends of the spectrum is the balance we seek.

By |2015-10-02T10:19:26-04:00May 16th, 2013|2013, Looking up!, Out of Africa|0 Comments

Where eBooks Fail

Mponda and I had a late night conversation about eBooks. He is in his late twenties and unusual for a Tanzanian. Having lived in Europe and traveled extensively, he returned to his country to help his people rise out of ignorance and poverty through education, one student at a time.

Before I even raised my concerns for electronic reading, he said clearly, “eBooks are not what Africa needs. It is just one more electronic device which needs charging, one more thing to break and be discarded. When a learner is given a book, he or she will disconnect from the world for a while and dive in. Kids need novels, not just text books. They need to be given joy in reading as well as reading for education if they are to keep reading for a lifetime.”

I added, “Paperbacks have volume, weight, and a sense of three dimensional accomplishment. A chapter read is a chapter closer to the conclusion with each page folded one-by-one.”

“Yes, exactly!” he confirmed. Bernard, my adopted son had inadvertently initiated this conversation when he discovered a massive, more than 5KG book called “The Medicine of Africa,” an alphabetical list of every known disease and ailment on the Continent. It was daunting, but Bernard’s eyes lit up when he realized how valuable this would be for his degree in Community Health. It was the size that struck him in a way an eBook never could. The kinesthetic reviewing of the index or random flipping of pages gave it a sense of depth and power which a single electronic page is missing and will never offer.

Dozens, hundreds, even ten thousand books in a single, hand-held device is not power of education, rather it is a total distraction just as email and Facebook has kept an entire generation of well intended employees from getting much of anything done. Electronic devices keep us engaged in myriad communications while a printed book in and of itself is an excuse, a means to turn off and just read.

By |2013-05-18T19:41:14-04:00May 5th, 2013|2013, Out of Africa|0 Comments

In the Void of Education – Part 2

This topic begins with Part 1.

I have spent ample time in Africa to understand the impact of poor education. It affects people in so many ways. Decisions which concern money, family, religion—even the ability to plan for something more than a few days ahead requires some degree of education. Without it, we are but responding to emotion, our logic limited as leverage for the given situation.

Prior to my interview with a student and teacher I believed an improvement in African education was about computers in the classroom and an Internet connection. Surely, these two combined would bridge the majority of the gaps.

Instead, through my own experience and subsequent conversations with Chuck and Mponda, I realized it is the total teaching system which is at the root of the issue for the teachers themselves are unwilling to teach beyond their own knowledge.

In the West we make the mistake of assuming that because access is granted to a resource, it will automatically be engaged, taken advantage of. My experience in Palestine last year was direct evidence for the contrary. Countless thousands of videos on YouTube and an equal number of publications about both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are immediately available, yet the vast majority of American’s remain ignorant due to the filtered media they choose to accept as fact.

African college students log on to Facebook each day, yet have never used Google nor heard of Wikipedia. Millions of pages of free information available at the touch of a finger tip, yet donated computers often end up locked away in a storeroom, only brought out into the class when the donor arrives for an annual visit, check in hand. The teacher’s lack of comfort with any given teaching technique and associated technology is the greatest barrier to education, everywhere.

When someone does not understand the very basics of applied science, whether it is biology, chemistry, geology or physics, how can this not affect the decisions he or she makes? How can government policies, both local and national, not be heavily influenced by the education of decision makers?

Last week a South African governor declared a 500,000 Rand fine for any witch caught flying across the border from Swaziland above 150 meters elevation. Is this any more ludicrous than an American congressman who is totally ignorant of the scientific method and associated data collection techniques declaring global warming a conspiracy of scientists the world-over, or demanding that the Christian creation story be taught along side evolution as the means by which life was given form on this planet?

The void of education is not only in Africa. It is everywhere, affecting all of us.

This topic is continued in Part 3.

In the Void of Education – Part 1

To Live on Planet Earth
This week I have been in Tanzania working on a documentary film about Astronomy as a motivator for finding passion in the sciences. I had the great fortune of meeting Chuck Ruehle, founder of Telescopes to Tanzania and member of Astronomers Without Borders, and Tanzanian educator Mponda Maloso who works through EU Universe Awareness.

Together, we ventured to a secondary school outside of Arusha, Tanzania and engaged Term-3 and -4 classes in the basics of using a telescope, the value of astronomy in education, and what kinds of jobs may be open to these students if they pursue the sciences.

Following an interview with a 13 year old girl who had this spring looked through a telescope for the first time in her life, she asked, “Sir. May I ask you a few questions?”

“Yes, of course,” I responded, seating myself in my chair beside the camera again. I settled in for the conversation while Mponda sat on the corner of the nearby desk.

As the only one of three students who chose to conduct her interview in English, she was courageous enough to also engage me in this Q&A session, which I fully appreciated.

She took a deep breath, looked at her feet and hands, and then back to me as she asked, “Is it true, … that we live outside the Earth and not in it?”

I smiled, thinking she meant in a cave or underground. I did not truly understand and looked to Mponda for clarification. He nodded back to the girl again who was quite serious.

“What do you mean? Do you mean underground?” I looked out the window to emphasize the sunlight behind the growing clouds.

She added, “No. Do we live inside the ball,” making the shape of a ball with her hands, “or outside the ball, on top?”

I paused for a moment, considering the time which had come and gone since the awareness of the basic arrangement of the solar system was re-established (the ancient Egyptians had it figured out as well, but that knowledge was lost to history).

I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry. She meant that the sky, the moon, the planets and the stars—that they traversed the inside of a ball in which we lived. This girl sends text messages on her cell phone and has likely used Facebook, but does not understand the very fundamentals of how the Earth exists within our solar system, something established hundreds of years ago (and thousands of years before that, once or twice).

I was dumbfounded. Mponda did not appear to be surprised for he sees this every day through his work in Tanzania. I confirmed that we do in fact live “on the ball” and that the Earth is in orbit around the sun, along with the other bodies in our Solar System. She went on to ask questions about weather prediction, which were well stated. I was impressed by how much she desire to learn.

The telescope had opened her mind, it got her thinking beyond the rote memorization and classroom chanting of facts and figures which is what most of sub-Saharan Africa calls education.

Mponda later confirmed the majority of the children here are not aware of the very basics, most of them believing we live inside a sphere and only having heard rumors we have walked on the Moon. The Space Shuttle, International Space Station, even the concept of a telescope completely devoid from their education.

These are not unintelligent children. Rather, they have very, very limited interface with the greater world. This is true for most of Africa, the legacy of the post WWI British school system which trained everyone to be clerks, very little more. The teaching style, even the curriculum has hardly changed.

I interviewed her teacher an hour later. Without my provocation he sated, “Because of Chuck and Mponda I learned that we live on the outside of the Earth, and that we move around the sun in our Solar System.”

He is twenty eight years of age and a license math and science teacher in the Tanzanian school system. I nodded, affirmed his recent, personal discovery, and asked how this affected him.

He pressed himself back into the chair, folded his arms across his chest, and then leaned forward again taking a deep breath, “You know? I … I see now that we are on the planet Earth which moves around the Sun. The other planets move around our Sun too.” He paused to make eye contact, as though he was seeking affirmation. I nodded, smiling.

“The stars in the sky, they are very, very far away, most of them far bigger than our own Sun. And the galaxies, well,” he laughed the laugh of one who is about to say something profound, “they have so many stars we can’t even count them all.”

I waited.

“It makes me realize how very small we are. We are just so small and the universe, it is so big and beautiful.”

Repeatedly, my interviews have brought the same words to my microphone and digital recorder, “I see now how small we truly are, and how everything is connected.”

Humility. Connection. Humble awareness of our place in the much larger universe. Connecting the dots. Truly thinking for the first time, not just repeating what the teacher shouts at the class. You don’t need a computer to do this. As Chuck makes clear in his classroom interventions—it is about getting out of the desk and learning with hands engaged. Building, Testing. Breaking. Rebuilding and testing again. It’s the scientific method that generates passion for real learning, the kind that keeps us learning for a lifetime.

This topic is continued in Part 2

A Hospital Run in Tanzania

Kai Staats: Cultural Heritage Center, Arusha, Tanzania Lindah, Bernard and I had just returned from the Cultural Heritage Center in Arusha. While both a gallery and exhibit hall, every piece for sale, it offers an incredibly rich collection of antique treasures, historical pieces, and modern painting, sculptures, and photographs from throughout Tanzania and neighboring lands.

Kai Staats: Cultural Heritage Center, Arusha, Tanzania

From the ELCA Guest House we walked over slippery, red mud roads lined with houses, shops, and dense green to a small shop along the main, paved road to purchase a container of yogurt. While waiting in line, we noted a number of people running to the scene of what we assumed to be a fight or an accident.

When the crowd did not disperse, we also walked this direction. A shuttle bus (matatu in Kenya, dala-dala in Tanzania) sat idle in the middle of the road, its windshield cracked and broken glass on the ground. I noted a single flip-flop on the pavement behind the bus.

Bernard and Lindah were soon at my side, the pressure of the growing crowd making it difficult to determine what happened. Someone said they thought a man riding a piki-piki (motorbike) had been hit, and so I turned to see if one was around, lying on the road.

In looking back I realized we had walked past a circle of tightly clustered people, all facing in. We pressed through the wall to find a man lying on the ground, his right temple and cheek covered in blood. Once inside the circle, I asked if anyone had called for a doctor. A man to my side said he did. Then I recalled that in our lodge was an American M.D. I told Bernard to run back to the Guest House and bring him immediately.

I yelled to the crowd to step back, motioning with my hands and body as best as I could. I turned to Lindah and asked her to translate to Kiswahili, loud and clear. By the man’s side, I could see he was unconscious but breathing. I asked if anyone would loan me their sweater. No one responded so I removed my shirt, rolled it, and placed it below the back of his head, careful not to move his head side to side nor lift too much.

Calling to the crowd again, I asked for pen and paper. Immediately, someone handed me a 4×5 card and pen. I pulled my cellphone from my pocket, launched the timer application, and asked Lindah to alert me when it reached 15 seconds. I took the man’s pulse at just 18 beats or 72 per minute. Steady. Strong.

The crowd pressed in. I asked them to step back again, this time in a stronger tone. The man who had called the hospital was now assisting me. He wanted to move the man but I insisted on checking him for additional bleeding, broken bones, or spinal injury.

The man was starting to come-round, his eyes fluttering. I carefully, slowly repositioned his body so that he was completely flat, rather than one leg on, one leg off the pavement. I positioned his legs in parallel, arms at his side.

We took his heart rate again. 20 beats per 15 seconds. He was waking up. Better to be climbing slowly than dropping or rising too quickly, which could point to internal bleeding. We learned his name is “William” before he passed-out again.

I gave Lindah some cash to purchase paper towels and a water bottle. When she returned we took another reading. 22 beats per 15 seconds, steady and strong. William was more alert now. I could smell alcohol on his breath. He tried to rise, but I asked him to remain lying on his back. Lindah and the volunteer assistance both translated. I gently pressed him back down.

Kneeling at his left side, I crossed his right leg over his left, tucked my arm under his arm and supported his head. My WFR training came back to me. Although I surely missed a few items or did them in the wrong order, I believe I was not making things worse.

He did not complain of any acute pain at any vertebrae, but said his left hip hurt a great deal. No blood, and from what I could see without removing his jeans, no abrasion. As the right side of his face was hit by the bus, it is likely he landed on his left hip.

The crowd has pressed in again to the point of near suffocation. I was yet without my shirt, the light rain cooling my back. I stood up and physically pushed a half dozen people away from the center.

Lindah later told me later that she heard people asking how I knew his back was not broken without an X-ray. She thought on her feet and responded, “He is a doctor. He just knows. Do what he says.” It worked, and people gave us more room for the few minutes we required.

Bernard had arrived to the Guest House and found Dr. Rob who in turn called Dr. Kawisi whom I had met a half hour earlier at the Guest House.

With William fully awake now, we sat him up, slowly, taking the weight of his upper body. He could not stand, due to the impact or alcohol or both, it didn’t matter. We carried him, one arm behind his back, the other beneath his leg, a comfortable, safe chair for the short transport.

In the back of the Toyota there was a flip-down bench which was too small, and so we placed him on the floor. But clearly, this was not an option for he could not extend his legs and as lying on a hard, metal surface, his neck now crooked against the back of the last row of seats. I was frustrated for things were happening so quickly, the truck already pulling away. The rough road forced William into tears, crying out and grabbing at my shoulder and neck trying to lift himself.

I asked for the truck to stop. It did not. I yelled instead, this time it did. I asked that the back seat be cleared of the boxes and William be moved there. We opened the back of the truck and with less elegance than our original transition, I literally carried him from back to front and onto the cushioned seat.

Lindah recorded his full name, telephone number, and continued to ask him basic questions to make certain he remained cognitive. The doctor, from the front passenger seat had also engaged him in a conversation. I poured water onto a stack of napkins and washed his forehead four times. He calmed down and seemed more relaxed, but tried to sit up repeatedly, always complaining of the pain in his left hip.

At the hospital the doctor and driver returned to the truck with a stretcher. We moved William in four successive, small efforts, grabbing folds of clothing then arms and finally supporting head to keep his back straight and stable, just in case.

Kai Staats: Tanzania Hospital, Kai

Once in the first room to the right of the entrance, the nurses arrived. They laughed, uncomfortably, when they entered the room. I handed one the note card with the heart beat data, his name and number.

She did not make eye contact with me or William, and asked, “What is the matter?”

I offered, “He was hit by a bus.”

“A what?” Still no eye contact was made, with anyone. This is a cultural difference, I know, but it remains difficult for me, especially at times when I want to know if someone is paying attention.

The nurse looked at William and then me, “He is drunk.” She frowned again.

Kai Staats: Tanzania Hospital, William

“It doesn’t matter. He needs his back checked. An X-ray.”

“I am sorry. But you see, the technician is gone home. We can’t do it now.”

“You have his number, right? Can you call him?”

She rolled her eyes and reached into her pocket for her phone. William was lifting and lowering his legs, trying again to sit up. I placed my hand on his head so he would lie still again. The lights wavered and the power went out. A few seconds later, it returned, but continued to fluctuate most of the night.

The doctor entered and asked the nurse to start an IV. He left the room to prep the X-ray machine. Clearly, they had the required staff. When he returned, he and the nurse conducted a more thorough examination while talking to me and Lindah.

Kai Staats: Tanzania Hospital, doctor, nurse

We waited for a half hour. I followed William on his stretcher into a recovery room and helped move him to a bed where they continued the IV. The X-rays showed no damage. The doctor called his driver and ten minutes later, Lindah and I were on our way back to the Guest House.

As I do not encounter this kind of direct life/death situation every day, I was reserved and reflective for the remainder of the evening. I reviewed my effort in the street, recalling additional facets of my Wilderness First Responder training. I also worked to not judge the nurse for her initial reaction for I know that in the U.S. too it is difficult to find compassion for someone who is drunk or high who hurts himself or someone else. Here, that challenge is compounded by the poverty and challenging conditions in which everyone lives and works.

I am thankful for my training, Lindah’s help, the proximity of the doctor and his good timing.

The next morning we were informed through Dr. Rob that William was released and is ok.

By |2017-04-10T11:17:37-04:00May 2nd, 2013|2013, Out of Africa|0 Comments

A Pistis Reunion

Kai Staats: Pistis Reunion, 2013

For a few days Lindah, Bernard, and I discussed how to bring a few of their classmates together, Timothy, Alex, and Wycliff, Amos, and John too, for a day of food and fun. Ibrahim was in Uganda with Cameron, and so I did not have chance to see him but for a brief hour my last night in Kenya.

I had wanted to host a “Mexican Burrito” meal complete with flour tortillas, beans, rice, and home made salsa. However, we were unable to locate tortillas in any form in the local markets. Given the limited time we had today, it was not realistic to prepare ample quantity of home rolled tortillas for fifteen people (including John’s wife, Lindah’s boyfriend, Bernard’s girlfriend, and a few others).

We instead purchased three kinds of beans: black, kidney, and one tan variety whose name I did not recognize. I provided John with a bottle of cinnamon which, as I learned from Ron Spomer, draws the sugar from the beans, and a generous amount of cayenne pepper. He volunteered to cook the beans and rice at his home, using an open wood fire.

I sat on the floor of Bernard’s apartment for forty five minutes, dicing tomatoes, slicing onions, shredding carrots, and adding two small, hot red peppers (in the family of habenero, I assume) as a cold, salsa topping.

Timothy, another student from Pistis I had never met, and a friend arrived. They were amused by the speed by which I managed the knife on the cutting board, another reminder of the limited skills which young men, in particular, are assumed to have in this society.

I grabbed my Canon camera and tripod. Just outside Bernard and Lindah’s apartment building, we climbed into a tuk-tuk and headed to the playing field. While a tuk-tuk is designed for the driver in front and two, maybe three in the passenger seat and space for luggage in the rear, we managed to cram seven people in this vehicle, Wycliff, the eighth, climbed in less than a kilometer before the park. I filmed the exodus as it was not unlike the circus act of the same nature, but costume-clad clowns instead of neatly dressed Kenyans and one mazungu.

The official football field was engrossed in a proper game with uniformed teams, referees, and goal post nets. To the side and up a bit we found ample room to play. With a new soccer ball and two badminton sets, there was something for everyone. We warmed-up in a circle, juggling with knees, heads, chests and feet. Two Sudanese guys joined us, both in their early to mid-twenties. The taller was just just under two meters and had a warm smile. The shorter (still tall than me) carried that tenuous sense of having seen far too many horrors in one lifetime, even in his early twenties, to be at ease for any length of time.

I was reminded how different it is to run long distance versus sprinting. In the first few minutes of the impromptu match, I felt light headed, my legs weak beneath me. As in those dreams where you cannot bring yourself to run, I struggled to get my body to do what I intended. But over the course of an hour, I recovered and found some rekindling of what it meant to play a good game.

Far too many times my team left me to defend the goal alone, one white guy who had not played for fifteen years against two Sudanese half my age. I learned quickly and blocked the final half dozen attempts. As the taller of the two would break free and attack, I yelled out, “You again!

[laughing] Why is it always you and me? And where is my team?!”

He grinned, enjoying the challenge as much psychological as physical, his tricks in movement threw my concentration. I had to remind myself to watch the ball instead of his feet.

The Sudanese said, “Your team is lazy. They’d rather talk on the phone than play,” and then he struck. I patted him on the back when he scored and he complimented me when I was successful in defense. There was an earned respect in both directions, even when we were beaten 10 to 4.

Looking Back
To spend time with just a handful of the graduates from Pistis was to be reminded of how each of us finds our way through the world, despite the challenges we face. Most of the Form 4 class with which Lindah and Bernard graduated, the only to have come from Pistis, have landed on their feet.

Some are sponsored by locals, some given opportunity to attend the university through foreign financial aid. Some are working part or full time jobs with the hope of attending school while others are taking night classes as their budget allows. A few are living in an “orphanage” for young adults, not yet able to get out on their own.

The Form 4 class was a collection of truly intelligent individuals who were granted opportunity to attend some of Kenya’s best high schools. However, without funding, they were denied. They arrived to Pistis, and under shared roofs, made the best of what they were given.

Looking Ahead
The rain came and went shortly following our arrival. Our clothing dried nearly as quickly as it became wet. When John and his wife arrived with the rice and beans the rain returned, but this time with African strength. We closed the game and bid farewell to the two players from South Sudan.

The shorter was proud to state, “We are from South Sudan.”

Bernard responded, “Welcome to Kenya! We are proud of what your people have done to make a new country.”

For the first time the face of this young man softened, “Thank you.”

Playing off of the tension I yet saw in his face I offered, “It will take time for the two sides to find stability. Maybe ten, fifteen years before the memories of the war are replaced with something more … peaceful. It is like this anywhere there has been a civil war.”

The taller nodded, smiling, “Yes, this it is true. It will take time.” He paused, then added, “We are here, every Saturday, playing. I don’t join a club,” he made the face of someone who avoids rules and regulations or any official organizations, “We just play.”

“You are good. I could learn a lot from you.”

The taller smiled, “Ok! We will teach you! You are welcome! Karibu sana!”

We shook hands again, Kenyan style, a normal hand clasp to thumb-wrap, as though one were to initiate an arm wrestling match, and back to hand clasp again three, four, or more times. It can go on for quite a while. Even the Kenyans laugh at the duration of their greetings and salutations.

Shelter from the Storm
The rain was coming down harder. We gathered our things and walked quickly from the field. Just across the street was a small market with ample roof to keep us dry, lined-up shoulder-to-shoulder, backs pressed against the wall.

I walked to the end of the market where a small thatched roof provided shelter over a stick frame stall. Two women and a man stood there, also avoiding the rainfall. After some conversation, they offered use their one-room home for our gathering, just behind where they sell coal. I ushered the group of ten into a room designed for three, maybe four and we found ample room on a wood frame couch, two chairs, and the floor.

The storm grew to tremendous strength, driving against the tin roof and small, single window pane. We were pleased to be indoors, even without light or electricity or ample places for all to sit.

The rice and beans and vegetables were more than enough to feed everyone. We served our host and her two children first, and then our crew. Lindah introduced us to her hosts as a reunion of orphans, a manager and a cook, and me, one who had come to serve at the orphanage a few times.

I felt uncomfortable, for while we were invited we had truly overrun her small home. Rice and beans were falling to the floor. When we were done eating the rice, sweat beans, and spicy vegetables, the mother of our host entered. She said something which sounded serious to me and I held my breath, fearing we had over run our welcome.

Lindah translated, “So, she is the mother of our host and grandmother of these two children. Today, she was to have received people from her church, but due to the rain they did not come. Instead, we arrived and filled her home with food and laughter. God sent us to her instead, she says. We are all welcome.”

We filled two aluminum pans, one with rice and the other with beans, enough for a few meals in the coming days, shook hands, thanked our host, and then walked back into the street which was now flowing with shallow red rivers of water and mud.

The slow Kenyan saunter granted me time to talk with each of my friends I had not seen for more than four years. The sun had long ago set, a light rain threatened to return, and over the course of a few busy intersections, our reunion was again returned to just me, Lindah, and Bernard.

We entered the apartment complex, dark and typically without any light at the entrance nor in the corridors. Bernard lit the way with the face of his cell phone and we found his apartment again on the third floor.

I shredded fresh ginger and boiled it with local, Kenyan honey to make a rich, potent tea. Bernard read the first few pages of his new book by Tom Clancy, the first novel he has ever had the pleasure of reading. Lindah and I worked on her computer, getting Thunderbird to coordinate with her Gmail account and Skype installed to the latest version of the Ubuntu operating system.

We have found incredible comfort in our shared days. I will miss our small, simple family of three. It has been a wonderful return for me, to Nakuru, Kenya.

By |2017-04-10T11:17:38-04:00April 27th, 2013|2013, Out of Africa|0 Comments

The Three Markets of Nakuru

Forty-five thousand dollar Toyota Land Cruisers park in front of a modern shopping mall whose interiors rival the variety and low- to mid-range product quality of Walmart in the U.S. or MediaMarkt in Europe. Globalization is tangible here in a way that is more subtle in Holland, Germany, Spain. The stark contrast between the new, well-lit Nakumat superstore and the traditional open markets brings familiarity to wazungu who make Kenya their home for any length of time. In the streets of Nakuru, I may see one foreigner each day, but in the Nakumat there are several with each visit.

It’s an easy thing to do, to default to the place where prices are presented on labels and product return is possible, even if challenging. There is an attraction to the familiar—the clean floors, brand name foods, pharmaceuticals, cameras and thirty-six inch LCD televisions. Skippy, Del Monte, Yoplait, Samsung, Sony, and Panasonic level the playing field in one respect, but create a greater chasm in the same stroke.

I calculated the number of jobs displaced by the new shopping mall as no less than 150. Bernard confirmed my observation with a story of local concern when Nairobi based Nakumat hired Nairobi managers and sales clerks instead of training locals. A stark contrast to the promise of jobs when they bid construction. Sounds terribly familiar to the multiple-decades onslaught of the same in the U.S.

Just around the corner women sell fresh produce purchased from the farmers, washed and stacked for the passers-by. Onions, potatoes, tomatoes, garlic, squash, carrots, eggs, corn, zucchini and some vegetables I do not recognize. None bright in color nor perfect in shape. All show the blemishes of food produced on a farm in which soil, rain, and human hands remain the primary motivators of planting, growth, harvesting, and delivery.

For the average tourist, their goods and wares are but an interesting display worthy of a photograph, smile, and attempted greeting in Kiswahili, “Jambo!” and “Asante!” But for the locals, this is where their food has been traded for centuries.

The farmer’s market is where those who labour in the fields traditionally came to sell their produce to other vendors, wholesale. In recent years, it has become a place for direct-to-consumer sales as well and is now terribly crowded. It is not as easily found nor is it a place for the faint of heart. Not like Barnes & Nobel with the launch of the last of the Harry Potter series, but suffocating, stifling, a Japanese subway car at rush hour packed beyond comfort at any level.

Shoulders, hips, thighs, breasts and backs pressed tightly as mud sucks at the bottom of shoes and bare feet, and vendors scold those who do not recognize when they have stepped on the corner of a vendors mat, an onion or bunch of cloves pressed into the mud.

At roughly eleven thirty, the gate closed for reasons no one was able to explain. Bernard and I were caught inside along with hundreds of others. We were told this happens every day, for a half hour, maybe more. The chain which held the two halves of the gate in union gave me further sense of feeling trapped. Bernard and I looked for another exit, but others who had also done the same said there was none.

Twenty minutes passed. The sun penetrated my hair and caused my scalp to itch in that tell-tail pre-burn state. A young man climbed to the top of the right gate, jumped over, and pressed the gate to open again in our direction. The full assembly of vendors and buyers who had aligned themselves for the gate to open the other direction, on both sides, were forced to move en mass against the growing pressure from behind.

I recognized the situation as somewhat dangerous and made certain I did not fall. Bernard and I waited for the pressure to subside, but we realized to remain where we stood was no longer an option. The only way out was to press ahead, to physically move ourselves at any expense toward the gate which was now just one meter open.

I caught the eyes and face of a teenage boy to my front and side. Clearly, this was a daily, almost enjoyable challenge for him despite the anxiety and frustration it caused everyone. He yelled, pushed, and squeezed past me in the opposite direction. I turned to Bernard who was as astounded as I despite his having lived here all twenty one years of his life.

We pressed hard, hands on the shoulders and back of those in front. Our legs shuffled in small strides, some to counter-balance, some to make progress. The mud threatened to cause us to loose footing. One … two … three meters passed the gate which was now at a forty five degree angle. The pressure was released and I laughed uncomfortably, looking back to Bernard who was shaking his head. We were free of the market and pleased again to be in the hustle of the Nakuru streets.

Bernard and I walked to the Top Market, in the center of town, one block off Kenyatta Avenue. This is the kind of place both locals and tourists enjoy for the environment is less chaotic, the pressure to buy reduced to a simple nod, wave, or greeting. The diversity of foods produced from both soil and tree is accented by mounds of fresh spices and herbs. The colours and aromas are astounding.

The desire to purchase a small bag of each without knowledge of its name or culinary function is overwhelming, a reminder of what it was like to be a child and believe in magical powders, crystals, and perfectly polished stones. Some seventeen years ago I purchased a massive amount of spices from the bizarre in Cairo, Egypt. The last of that cayenne pepper now sits in a glass jar on the back of a stove in a kitchen in Seattle, Washington.

The Relationship of Shopping
I have in the past nine months transitioned from East Jerusalem and the West Bank of Palestine where a relationship is quickly established with each and every vendor, to the comparative cold of Holland and Germany where a greater effort must be made to make connections. In Barcelona, Spain European shopping convenience is complimented by the slower Mediterranean culture. Here in Kenya the contrast between the two worlds is directly evident. Traditional open markets offer time to make eye contact and talk and shake hands in the never-ending Kenyan weaving of fingers, palms, and fist bumps.

I walk the narrow paths formed by women sitting on the ground, their produce displayed before them on open gunny sacks and each greets me. I stand in the grocery store for ten minutes, a clerk just a few meters away too busy with his or her cell phone to bother to ask if I needed any assistance. At the check-out counter the plastic bottles and shrink-wrapped packages slide past the bar code scanner, the speed of transaction is far more pressing than the interaction. Those in line behind me grow impatient if my card does not scan or I fumble with my wallet.

What’s more, I pay three to four times the cost for the same vegetables only one or two days earlier purchased from the farmers’ market in which Bernard and I ventured. The florescent lighting, clean floors, and clerks in matching blue uniforms give customers a sense of confidence and familiarity at the expense of the lost relationship.

By |2017-04-10T11:17:38-04:00April 26th, 2013|2013, Out of Africa|0 Comments

The Story of our Time

I am seated on a bed within a mosquito net tent, on the third level above a market street, at the edge of Nakuru, Kenya. The apartment is rented by Bernard Masai, my adopted son and cherished friend.

I have been here for just four days, arriving from Palestine via Tel Aviv last Thursday. In East Jerusalem and the West Bank I worked with my film partner Farid to conduct final interviews for our short, documentary film “I am Palestine“.

The contrast from the nude beaches of Spain to the warm, inviting West Bank of Palestine to the poverty of Kenya is overwhelming. What drives me to continue on my journey is learning to allow my days and weeks to unfold one at a time, moving in a general direction but all plans open to editing.

Access for All
We are without running water (no one recalls when last the building complex enjoyed this amenity) and are given a 50/50 chance of electricity for the full day. I reset my connection to the carrier twice today already, each time careful to place the phone on the window sill at the right time, hoping the initial handshaking protocol and bandwidth negotiation will result in something faster than last time. The “H” is eventually presented, even faster than 3G and I am pleased. But how long will it last? The struggle to obtain a quality cell phone and data connection is a constant reminder of the fragile nature of technology in this place.

Seventy five liters of water was this morning delivered by a young man who fills five twenty five liter jugs from a private tap, delivering them by bicycle. I commented he must be one of the strongest men in Nakuru, his legs for the effort in cycling and climbing stairs, his arms for the effort in handling and transport. He agreed with a proud smile. It is but 100 Kenyan Schilling for the total run, or $1.25 USD. Bernard explained the courier pays roughly half of this to fill the jugs, earning by my best guestimate $7.50 a day.

We are now listening to George’s Winston’s opening “Tamarack Pines” to the album “Forest”. The intentional misuse of the upper octave produces a dry rhythm adequate to drive the living to elevated levels of ecstasy or bring the dead back to life. For me, it is a combination of the extremes, and I am revitalized.

While I am one who picks an entire album to match or help generate a mood and listens from start to finish without rewind or pause, this morning I cannot help but shuffle from Vivaldi to Mannheim Steamrollers, from Enya to George Winston and then Vangelis. With six hundred and fifty albums loaded on my laptop, I want to share them all with Bernard whose experience of music has been limited to the call to worship the orphanage where he lived, public radio stations, and YouTube videos.

Classical greats, the Blues standards, American Jazz and rock ‘n roll are as readily available in this digital world as is a full education in nearly any subject for those with Internet access. Yet, they remain out of reach for lack of time, direction, or even the knowledge they exist and thereby the motivation to seek them. This is true not just here in Kenya, but all over the world.

The Story of Our Time
Since my first visit to Kenya in 2007, when I walked into the compound of the Pistis orphanage, I have struggled with an understanding for the tremendous gap between those who drive Toyota Land Cruisers and the children who hold glue bottles to their noses to stave the pain of hunger, despite the immediate juxtaposition of a few meters, or daily contact in the parking spots.

Last night Bernard, Lindah and I discussed the careful balance between storytelling and knowledge sharing as the key to human satisfaction. With stories alone, we lose touch with the sciences which grant us opportunity for an improved quality of life. Without sciences, we lose touch with that which makes us human–the need to feel something deeper than facts and figures. We need also the magic that is ever present just below the surface, the stuff which strives to satisfy our need for connection in a horribly disconnected world.

Not just in Kenya, but around the globe the gap between functional knowledge of how things work both in our technology devices and the greater universe in which we exist, is not, in my experience, closing. No, the gap is growing as the implementation of technology in consumer electronics becomes more readily available to all who can afford or are even compelled to embrace its services.

To uses a GPS for its location services is to call upon the fundamental function of Einstein’s theory of General Relativity, the fact that gravity affects the speed of the signal as it moves from satellite to my phone does in fact affect the apparent distance, triangulation, and my position. And yet, how many people who use a GPS have ever heard of Einstein or are aware that time itself is affected by gravity? Does it matter? Maybe no … or maybe yes.

For someone who believes I was afflicted with Malaria because I did not pray hard enough to Jesus, how do I explain the life cycle of the parasite, the symbiotic relationship with the mosquito, and the terminal effect on th host when she folds her arms across her chest, smiles, and says, “My brother, you need to believe. Jesus love you, but you have to believe. See me? I have not had Malaria return to my body since I believed. Jesus is protecting me. And Jesus is protecting my babies. They are healthy, because I believe. You! You must believe too. And you will not have this Malaria in your body.”

I could use a readily available microscope in one of the half dozen “labs” in the town center to show her the crescent of the broken cell affected by the parasite, but without a lifetime of education or repeated, demonstrable evidence, will she use a mosquito net at night? How many of her children will die before she finds that no amount of prayer will stop the infestation?

Either the uneducated believes the explanation much in the way he or she believes in the power of prayer or a massive gap in knowledge and education is brought to bear.

The more we specialize in order to deliver more complex products, the more the average person must simply trust that somehow it just works. No one has time nor do they necessarily care to understand. In Kenya this discussion is given form in an overwhelming, tangible manner. In “developed” countries the gap also widens between a working knowledge of how the world works and those that harbour an understanding.

While in Barcelona, Spain I finished a book titled “Mountains Beyond Mountains” about Dr. Paul Farmer, a Harvard graduate and practicing doctor who has dedicated his life to working with the impoverished to eradicate TB, AIDS, Malaria, and many other diseases which take the lives of those without means in a far greater percentage than those who have the resources to gain access to proper medical attention and health care.

In the three hours ride from Nairobi to Nakuru Friday night, the radio music program was interrupted by occasional news updates. One announced the Kenyan government’s plea with those afflicted by diabetes to continue to take their medication, to stay with the prescribed program or suffer the consequences.

As with all medical professionals, making certain a patient is diligent in taking their medication as prescribed is not only the means by which the cure might be realized, but also the difference between the control of a disease or the creation of a super-strain which grows resistant to every known antibiotic manufactured by all the pharmaceuticals combined.

As Farmer describes, it is not his job to teach the people of rural Haiti the life cycle of a parasite or means by which a virus uses human cells to reproduce. Rather, he needs only to gain their trust and belief which they would otherwise put into the power of superstition and prayer.

Farmer is willing—Farmer has no choice but to integrate the human propensity for storytelling into the modern world of knowledge if not to deliver a higher quality of education than to simply deliver the result of that education in the form of a vaccine or antibiotic treatment.

The means by which that treatment was developed, the full history of pharmaceuticals is lost to the belief in the power of that one small pill, ingested with the ease of a phone call on a hand-held device who inner functions most people will never understand, not do they care.

By |2017-04-10T11:17:38-04:00April 22nd, 2013|2013, Out of Africa|0 Comments

A return to Kenya

The smell of smoldering charcoal mixes with uninhibited exhaust from a two-stroke, three-wheeled tuk-tuk engines rev with the anticipation of passengers. Red rooftops protect the interior of wealthy homes whose compound walls differentiate the rich from the impoverished. Broken glass embedded in the final concrete course dares any to enter.

Deep, red earth mixes with muddy brown. Greens dark against a cloudless sky only to find bold African rain beating down a few hours later. Tall, thin Sudanese women walk in slow, flowing grace, their faces dark faces a full head above the others. Kenyan women balance sacks of produce on their head. Men transport their loads on shoulders and back.

Bicycles have been replaced, for the most part, with imported Chinese motorcycles since the last time I was here in 2008. The bota-bota displaced by the piki-piki, emitting more fumes and again increasing the danger to the driver and passenger. I miss the two seater bicycles with carefully adorned seats, battery powered lights and sound systems. There was a creativity in those taxis that is absent in the gasoline powered replacements. I refuse to ride on a motorcycle without a helmet and so Bernard and I walk several kilometers each day to conduct our errands.

Nothing truly functions here in Kenya, at least not as it was intended. At the same time, nothing is so fully broken so as to not function without creative application of a tool designed for another purpose. Electricity is not a right, nor even a privilege. Rather, the power to light a room with a single, bare bulb is a desired outcome as unpredictable as the rain in the Rift Valley, recently afflicted by global and local, micro-climate transformation.

Children whose feet are dry and cracked due to lack of protection or sanitation beg for food with one hand cupped beneath the other. The gang leaders stand watch in order that donations of money, clothing, or food are not immediately consumed or taken for personal gain.

The glue boys hold empty bottles to their noses to stave the hunger they have felt for years. Attempts at blocking the sale of toxic adhesives for purposes other than those intended has found little footing. Those who have fallen through the cracks are invisible to the eyes of the locals, children whose future can be described in just a few, bleak words. Empathy has an expiration date at which point the average human heart and mind no longer harbour capacity for more.

Perfectly composed women in high heels and tight jeans and flowing dresses walk elegantly, careful to avoid potholes and sidewalks which terminate abruptly. The contrast of styled hair and expensive wardrobe to the backdrop of the dusty streets whose traffic is more an example of chaos in particle flow than civil engineering. Their poise and look says, “I am better than this place. Just passing through.”

By |2017-04-10T11:17:38-04:00April 20th, 2013|2013, Out of Africa|0 Comments