Two years. That’s how long it has been almost to the day since I got on a plane, closed a a chapter in my life and left Africa after living there for two years. Going back was a whole big mix of emotions. Especially since it was Kenya that I traveled to. Sure, there have been changes since I was last in the country. The Tusker bottle isn’t its short and fat self anymore. Zain (formerly celtel) is now Airtel. And I wasn’t completely accosted with cries of “Taxi madam?” at the airport. I kept half expecting to see some member of my ex-boyfriends’s family pop up somewhere. But that was completely silly since they are in Nairobi and Mombassa and I was on the other side of the country, Kisumu to be exact. The land of the Luo, the land of the Lake, the land of the most delicious fish I have ever eaten in my life.
Kisumu is situated in the West of Kenya on the shores of Lake Victoria. One of the former Presidents (there was no consensus over whether it was Moi or Kenyatta) once said in a speech that he was “going to turn this village into a city,” so now residents refer to it as Kisumu City. I would not necessarily call it that, but that’s not the point. This area is the most populated area of the country, also with the highest poverty rate and the highest HIV rate. Mostly a dusty town, choked with boda bodas and tuk tuks, much like the rest of East Africa. Except for the tarmac road out to the research station which has been investing in the region for 20 years. A few years ago there was a survey to assess the center’s impact on neighboring communities and the main response was that people benefited because “now we can see at night” due to the streetlights that were put in. Never mind the decrease in infant and maternal mortality rates, decrease in malaria, etc. People care about things that help their day to day lives rather than “government” targets.
The Rift Valley and Western Kenya in general was the most affected by the election violence back in January 2008. Apparently what they don’t tell you about the violence in Kisumu is that the majority of deaths were at the hands of the police. The first hundred or so were regular people killing each other but then the next 500 were when the police finally got there and started indiscriminately shooting people, often for no reason at all. There is still tension here, people telling stories about what happened to people they know, etc. No one thought that sort of thing would happen in Kenya, but it did. One of my colleagues is from a country in West Africa and he was talking about how what happened brought back a lot of bad memories for him about the war in his home country, a place he came to Kenya to escape. I thought it was quite timely being there at the same time that the first part of the first ICC trial got underway attempting to bring to justice some of the perpetrators who orchestrated the violence.
In any case, I was recently in Kisumu for 11 days for work and had an absolutely fantastic time. Get ready for a few posts on the topic!