Tuesday, September 16, 2008

My First Reactions to Kenya

I started writing this when I had only been here for 24 hours, and even by then I’d already had so many thoughts about being here.  It is so different, its impossible to even describe.  This is definitely the craziest thing I have ever done, by far.  Going to Wheaton was nothing compared to this.  Going to Japan was nothing compared to this.  In a lot of ways it seems just like I expected a 3rd world county to be, dirty and dusty and somewhat scary.  The airport was really interesting, the first impression I got was it was more like a community neighborhood airport than an actual legitimate airport.  It was quite a strong contrast with Amsterdam, which was a really nice airport, one of the most modern airports I’ve ever been in.  Once I got to Amsterdam that was when my trip started to look a lot more diverse and foreign.  Flying KLM was so much nicer than Northwest, foreign airlines are just in an entirely different league than American airlines.  They served good food, I didn’t like all of it but it was actual real food served well, even with warm hand cloths and the whole works.  The entertainment system was ridiculous, it even put Asian airlines to shame based on my few experiences with them.  They had movies, like a lot of movies, TV shows, music, news, sports, games, email as well as the cool flight tracking.  It actually made things a lot more difficult to choose; usually I pick out like one of the four movies available and watch it, but I spent about half an hour just looking through all the options. 

When I first arrived in the airport, I went into the bathroom and it looked more like a basic restroom at a gas station than what you generally find at an airport.  As I went through the airport, I noticed a large number of people, mostly families with little kids, sitting down in big groups all over.  I think they were waiting for visas to go through or something?  This was not by the gates but in the areas leading up to the exit and immigration.  I got in the line to purchase a visa, which was not a line at all but a huge disorderly mass of people, and there were a lot of people, and no one was moving.  It looked like it would take a while, but then this airport guy walked by and was like, there’s another counter over here to get it, and directed us down the hallway.  I went down and was among the first of the group to get there, and it was completely empty, no one in line.  About two minutes after I got there, there were at least 60-70 people behind me, maybe more.  So that sped thing up a lot.  Once I got to the front, I handed the girl the paperwork I had filled out in the plane, folded, and she took it without even looking at it and put it back in this big pile spilling all over the desk.  There were a few things I had questions about on the forms, and I asked her if she could look at it and make sure it was done correctly, and she responded, “No one will ever read it.”  I was like, ok.  I guess if that works for you all I’m fine with it.  She had on a nametag that also had Kenya written on it, and the motto underneath was “Say No to Corruption.”  I found that to be a deeply inspiring sentiment to form the vision of a country.  After I went through that section, there was a huge poster proclaiming “Smile You’re in Kenya,” and that was somewhat more cheering.  Then I collected my bags and went through immigration, and the officer looked at my passport and asked what I was doing there.  I said I was a student studying theology, and he was like, “Theology is good.  You are a good man.”  And he waved me through without asking any other questions.  I then found myself in the section where there are at least 100 people all lined up behind these ropes to meet people holding up their little signs.  I felt very much like a celebrity walking up and down the red carpet, scanning the crowd for anything that said David Bawks or NEGST or something like that.  Unfortunately, none of those signs materialized and I ended up setting my luggage down in these area by all the taxi people, who of course swarmed all over me and I received about 4 offers of a taxi within the next two minutes.  I said there was someone meeting me, but they all seemed rather doubtful about the chances of that and advised if no one showed up in the next five minutes I should really take their taxi instead.  I managed to hold them off, but after a few minutes I began to wonder what I should do.  They were asking me if I had a number, and I found a number for the school but when one of the guys called it no one answered, and I didn’t have a number or even a name of the driver picking me up.  All I was told is that there would be a banner with my name.  After only about 5-10 more minutes, though, this girl and a guy walked up to me and I saw a little sign indicating David Bawks that they were holding, so I met my first friends at NEGST.  We went over to a little restaurant to get a snack and tea, and talked for a while and I explained how I ended up coming to Nairobi.  We were waiting for someone else to come in, Philip from The Gambia, and eventually he made it through the airport and then we headed out.  I thought it was kind of funny that when he said where he was from, the girl who picked us up, Njeri, was like, um, I’m demonstrating my ignorance, but where is that?  So not even Africans know all the countries here.  Apparently there has never been a student from The Gambia who has come to NEGST, at least not that anyone can remember.  We gave him a standing ovation later during orientation.

So then we starting driving to NEGST from the airport, and that was quite an experience.  In a lot of ways I feel like coming to Kenya is like going back in time.  Most of the cars here are from the 80s, there are no washing machines, everything is washed by hands, you hire servants to do pretty much all the household work, the key for my room looks like its from the Middle Ages, and the building where I’m living looks a lot like a medieval keep, or military barracks or something like that.  The vehicle we took from the airport was this old truck, and it was quite a ride back.  The speed limit was posted as 50 (kph), but we definitely hit 120 and a lot of the time cruised at 100, which still isn’t that fast but seemed really fast.  Apparently speeding isn’t their top concern here.  They drive on the left side of the road here, which I didn’t realize, I thought that was only in Britain and Japan.  The roads were really bad, very bumpy, and a lot of the time we were in the middle or on the right because it was smoother and then we would swerve back when we saw other cars coming towards us.  As we were on our way back all of a sudden they said, oh yeah, we have random police checkpoints, and we slowed down and there was this mess of cars going every which way, and I saw these two inch metal spikes down on the road.  There weren’t even any police, just the spikes, staggered across both lanes.  At another checkpoint later, there was a police officer with an assault rifle slung across his shoulder (it looked like an AK-47 but I wasn’t completely sure), but he just stood there on the side of the road and didn’t do anything.  We stopped at a restaurant, and they said they were considering going to another place but that to go any further down this road was too dangerous.  That hasn’t been a general criteria for me in selecting a place to go is considering the relative danger, but I’m been a lot more cautious here than I usually am, and I’m always thinking about people robbing or pick-pocketing me.

Finally we got to NEGST, and I felt like I was entering a military compound because there was a wall with a gate we went through, the guard let us in, and there was wire all along the top of the wall.  Just about all the windows here are barred.  There are cows on campus, so right now through the student association I am the part owner of six cows.  There are clothes hanging up everywhere, little kids playing all over the place, and even gardens planted all around our housing buildings, so it looks a lot like the pictures you see of Africa.  Going into my room was a shock at first, but now that I’ve gotten used to it, I feel kind of bad because its one of the nicest rooms I’ve seen, and I have more furniture than any other room I’ve been in.  My room has a bare cement floor and walls, and the ceiling is rather dirty and stained wood.  The light bulb was blue tinted and about the brightness of a night light, so you could hardly see, and there was no mattress, blankets, or anything.  There was a little wooden frame for a bed, an industrial looking desk, a rather large book case, and a wardrobe unit thing.  There are all made of wood.  Every room I’ve been in has been a different shape and had different furniture, which seems odd since I think they all cost the same.  Perhaps they don’t, but one room I went in had a bed, desk, bookcase, and that was it, and there was a large hole in the roof which leaked and brought in bugs.  That was Philip’s rooms, and he didn’t have a blanket either the first night so he had a much rougher time of it than I did.  Someone gave me a mattress and blanket to use for the first night and so I was all set, but I once I was alone in my room it really struck me how far I had gone and how different this place is.


Rachel Dawn Kornfield said...


I really enjoyed reading this entry. I laughed a lot when I read about the security officer who looked at your passport deciding you must be a good person because you were there to study theology... there's a new perspective on national security! ;)

It sounds like the furniture in the rooms may have been pieced together from all over the place ... I can see them getting a lot of donations of things like that, v. going out and buying it. Might explain why it's all so different from each other :). Sounds like a tough place to live for 3 years, a little bit. Though worth it, I'm sure.

May the Lord continue to bless you as you adjust. Did you manage to get a good light for your room, so you can study without harming your eyes?



R said...


It's very interesting about my Kenya as seen through your eyes. I start, I startle, I skid, but all the while i recognise you processing a kenya which for you, until recently, was an unknown.

I look forward to coming back and reading more about your experiences. All the best as you adjust, and find your place.