Thursday August 9, 2007
One of the more uncomfortable “adventures” I had while in the Marine Corps was the prisoner of war (POW) training we had to go through at Force Recon. The Navy has this diabolical little school called SERE to accomplish this training. There, you learn (among other things) how to survive and resist in a prisoner of war camp once captured behind enemy lines. They do this by actually putting you into this situation – during part of the course, you find yourself in a very realistic capture/ POW camp scenario somewhere in the mountain wilderness in northern California – complete with interrogations and not-so-pleasant techniques to get information from you. During one of these little “sessions,” I found myself in a tiny black box for several, long hours. This box isn’t exactly designed for the comfort of 6’3” fat kids like myself. The box is so small that I had to ball up like a fetus and put my head between my knees while they closed and locked the box lid on top of my head. The only hole in the box was a quarter-sized hole located approximately across from my mouth. They then set the box in the hot sun for a little while – not exactly a comfortable experience. Anyways, the point of this seemingly ridiculous tangential story is that I found myself having a very similar experience this weekend. The Kenyans have a torture device as much (or more) effective than my friend, the little black box – it’s called the matatu – their main source of public transportation.

The matatu transportation system is nothing short of hilarious…I say hilarious because it’s so frustrating, that unless you just laugh, you will develop an ulcer after less than two weeks here. There are no schedules, no regulated fees, no tickets, and no rules really. Sadly, the matatu is also the only real option for transport between towns and major cities along Kenya’s carpet-bombed road network. No one has cars here – well, almost no one. Government officials and wealthy business owners own vehicles, but the roads here are primarily populated by the beloved matatu or it’s little cousin, the pujo (7 passenger). Matatus are 14 passenger Nissan vans that I’m sure are real gems when first purchased.

The way the system works is as follows. I’ll just run you through a typical scenario. Let’s say you want to travel from Kakamega to Bungoma (a distance of around 35 miles) to go to work. No big deal right? Here’s how it works. You first go to the matatu stage. You get there usually by paying some kid to give you a ride on the back of their bicycle (called a boda boda) the ten minutes to the stage. The matatu stage actually serves as a “bus station” of sorts – but is run more like a carnival. As soon as the kid drops you off, you are instantly swarmed by these idler dudes – I’ll explain their role in this complex system in a second. There are usually around twenty to thirty matatus at each stage. Each matatu has a driver and a “conductor” (read shrewd business man/ con-man). The driver sits in the driver seat revving the engine and sounding his horn/siren/whistles/foghorn – or whatever other attention gathering device he may have to “attract” potential passengers. The conductor partners with several of these “idlers” to fight for potential passengers as they come up to the stage. You see, most of them are going to the same place and they want to go and come back quickly so they can maximize profits…these fellows go long lengths to maximize profits. When I say “fight,” sometimes (but not often) it actually comes to that. As you dismount your boda boda, here come the idlers.

A quick note on idlers…these are some of the laziest guys I’ve ever seen. They don’t want to work, so they hang out at the matatu stage, get drunk, harass passengers into going into the matatu they have “partnered with,” and then force the conductor to pay them a fee for their exceptional, absolutely necessary service – that of taking a person (who was already going to go to that matatu) up to the matatu.

So, the idlers come up and begin pushing one another and shouting – trying to get you to go with their matatu. The conductor is usually there as well to shout out some price (which he will greatly inflate once you actually get in). Once you “choose” your matatu, you climb in and, if you’re new to matatu travel, you’re told to go to the most comfortable seat on the vehicle – the far back corner directly over the heater with no head room. Then, you wait… Remember I said that there are no schedules and no real fixed prices. Hopefully, you have negotiated a somewhat reasonable price for the trip – which you can only really do after you have traveled that route a few times and realize what the locals are paying. So, you sit in the back corner eating your knees in the blistering heat as the conductor waits for the matatu to “fill.” “How long till we take off?” I asked the first time I had this joyous experience. “Short time mazungu,” he said, “ten…maybe fifteen minutes.” As you sit there and wait, you are constantly harassed as about 15,000 vendors come up to your window (mazungu = money = sucker) trying to sell you everything from the newspaper to flashlights to shoes. An hour later we finally pull out of the stage with – not 14 – but 24 passengers crammed into that thing.

The trip is even more fun than the actual wait to leave. First, there’s the road conditions (I believe that I have already alluded to the bombing run-type pothole surface that passes as a tarmac road here). The roads combined with the already brutalized suspension of the matatu – make for a smooth, pleasant, Cadillac-like driving experience. The matatu stops approximately every 50 meters along the way (slight exaggeration…but close) to try and jam more people in who are trying to get to said destination in order to maximize their profits.

All this to say that I took a 6 hour journey in one of these babies this week and it made me reminisce “fondly” of my prior POW training…Manhattan cabbies have nothing on these guys.

Sunday August 12, 2007
This entire summer has proven to be one incredible experience to be sure, but I think this weekend was the capstone of my journey here in Kenya over the last few months. This weekend, I visited the Kuria District…the site that I was hoping would potentially become the first pilot project in September 2008 for this little venture that John and I are calling Nuru International. I had pretty much been waiting all summer to take this trip. It was a pretty incredible experience – seeing all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place, and I was filled with a sense of excitement, hope, and firm resolve as I left the area today to come back to Kakamega…finally knowing that yes, this project is going to be a reality, and yes, Kuria will be the first of perhaps many communities we will partner with.

When I arrived in Kuria on Friday, I was greeted by my good friend, Sangai Mohochi – professor of Kiswahili at Stanford (and my reason for going to Kuria in the first place). Sangai had invited me to his home for the weekend. He wanted me to see – firsthand – the poverty in Kuria. Sangai had gone home to visit his family for a couple months this summer, and he had arranged for me to stay with him on his family’s farm. I was humbled by his family’s incredible hospitality and found myself a bit embarrassed (as I have so many times this summer) by the wealthy lifestyle I live every day back home. Over the years, Sangai and his family have experienced many of the problems that we hope to help solve through Nuru. Sangai lost two siblings growing up – one to Malaria and one to HIV/AIDS. The family’s daily struggle to survive, and Sangai’s father’s unwavering dedication to ensuring that the children received an education were nothing less than courageous. The insight that he and his family (particularly his older brother, Phillip) have provided will be invaluable to me in looking forward.

My friend considers himself to be very blessed in his life, and he constantly speaks of how thankful he is to God for giving him so many opportunities. He is one of only seven people in the history of the Kuria District (population 230,000) to get a PhD. On top of that, he was able to secure a lecturing position at Stanford University. He is an extraordinarily hard worker, and he is well respected by his superiors, peers, and students alike. One of the things I admire most in Sangai, though, is his humility and his desire to return to his roots and help the poor in his homeland. His story is truly inspiring. He has come full circle now back to his home where he grew up as a child in abject poverty. It is his humility that first pointed me to Kenya…and eventually resulted in my journey to Kuria.

Originally, my plans for the weekend had been vague at best. My goal was to do a basic needs analysis to determine if Kuria was a feasible project for Nuru to launch with. I wanted to determine what the level of need was in the community and whether there would be enough of a support structure (infrastructure and government support) to make an infant Nuru pilot project even feasible. To be honest, I really had no idea what I was doing or what to expect, so I just prayed a lot about it and went.

I had asked Sangai and his brother Phillip to arrange a meeting with some of the leadership in the community so that we could begin to lay the groundwork for what a project might look like and to establish what the true needs of the community really are. I also asked that they keep expectations among the people very low because I was unsure going in whether we would actually be able to return and initiate a project there.

We arrived a bit late because it took about an hour to walk to the meeting. When we finally arrived, I was a bit overwhelmed. Representatives from at least thirty groups in the community were present – along with the local government officials – all waiting patiently to hear what I had to say. Someone opened in prayer and then they all sat down watching me expectantly…for one of the few moments in my life (as many of you can verify), I found myself temporarily speechless. These were real people – real farmers – like Sangai and his family struggling daily to survive – all with hopes and dreams for a better future. Some of them had walked several hours to come and hear what this Mazungu had to say. I said a silent prayer myself, and then began. I’m afraid what I said wasn’t elegant or refined. In fact, I’m quite sure that if any one of you had been there, you would have wondered at my lack of ability to deliver any semblance of an inspiring speech. I’m not sure how it happened, but the meeting progressed – and it became very productive. I explained what Nuru was all about. My goal was to hear from the people an unbiased list of needs and explanation of their current living conditions. They took over the meeting, and I got a ton of information. They weren’t complaining – they were just stating facts about their lives. Facts like the following:

– When a family member becomes extraordinarily ill, they are either carried on someone’s back or moved in a wheelbarrow for up to thirty kilometers to the nearest health center…some die along the way.
– Women walk for up to five hours for a roundtrip to go get safe drinking water for their families. When they get to the water point, they often wait in line for one hour to get water.
– Almost all families suffer from a hunger season.
– There are two doctors for the entire population of 230,000 people.
– Young girls are forced to quit school and are given away in marriage at the age of 12. The bridal price is used to help feed the family for the rest of the year.

The list goes on. I sat there in wonder…writing furiously everything that they said. Yes, there is a need here in Kuria…and that need is great. Every area that Nuru hopes to engage in the fight against poverty exists in this community. As they continued to pour out their hearts, I received a quiet confirmation in my heart. “This is the place to start,” I thought. “This is the beginning…”

I had been so entrenched in the work with One Acre Fund in Kakamega that any work that I had been doing on Nuru had consisted of late-night musings while trying to stay awake over several cups of coffee. Up until this weekend, Nuru has been a “nice idea” or a dream that was always out there for me that I might one day try to solidify. Yesterday, this dream became a reality. Nuru has officially begun. Yesterday I looked into the faces of those who, with God’s help, we will be able to bring lasting hope to and successfully lift out of extreme poverty…permanently. I no longer felt like the intern trying to do what I could to “help the cause.” A strong, ominous sense of responsibility quietly fell on me as I looked out into that crowd. I said a silent prayer, “God, I have no idea what I’m doing. Please give us the strength and the wisdom to deliver on the hope that I have given these people today…”