Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Let me begin with an apology for not having come back to this sooner. Something within this country seems to breed a profound laziness, so that when I find myself with an unoccupied hour or two, I tend to spend that time unoccupied for an hour or two. I’d read this before coming, that at first the Kenyan way of life seems quite slow. You begin impatiently, until eventually, unconsciously, you find yourself sitting perfectly content for hours at a time. Where back home I’d unquestionably grow restless - probably ending up on a walk, or at least reading a book, or most often the case, on a walk reading a book - here, I simply sit, think and look. In the past few days I’ve poured over every issue of The Economist back to last November. Content to ignore the States for the better part of my stay here, it seems my appetite for news, knowledge, anything non-Kenyan has suddenly come back with fervor. So now, with motivation finally coming, I suppose I should update you on my lives, which, updates being so few and far between since then, will probably read more as a summary than full description.

Following Tanzania, everyone on the program spent three weeks, either in pairs or alone, with an “urban family” in Nairobi. These were mostly upper class businessmen and women, with nice houses, electrified fences and a multitude of guard dogs. I hated nearly every second of it. I’ve never felt so uncomfortable in a house before, the type built in a rush, and in looking to adorn it with displays of wealth, ends up looking like a museum, a reserve of uncomfortable antique chairs gathering dust and china adoring the walls. Nothing to me has ever seemed so out of place – a living room with thousands of dollars worth of paintings, furniture and sculpture, tastelessly thrown together, standing right next to the TV room where we ate every single meal. I suppose the most accurate way I could describe the family is the African equivalent of the Beverly Hillbillies, where though educated to a degree, have instead embraced material wealth over intellectual property. They have absorbed the physical tenants of Western life – Mercedes, big screens, swimming pools – and completely discarded everything from their rural past. A McDonald’s of the elite content to zone out to American Idol each night rather than digest the realities of their own country, or to educate themselves further than necessary. Furthermore, I’ve never stayed with a family so unwelcoming – so much that my breakfasts were rationed and the only question they asked me was my name and what state I lived in. My family, I think, may have been more an outlier than the norm; at least I hope so from all I’ve heard. Suffice to say, I am glad to be gone.

The next ten days were spent enjoying the most touristy part of our trip. We traveled south to the Northern side of Kilimanjaro, staying in the Maasai Centre for Field Studies, going on game views in Amboseli National Park and staying with a Maasai family for two days. The National Park was unsurprisingly gorgeous. Zebra, Giraffe and Wildebeest exist there more plentifully than squirrels in a park. Animals gather around watering holes in the thousands. We spent the better part of three days hanging on the top of land rovers and driving for hours on end just looking. Lagging behind, my car was lucky enough to see a Cheetah in the first five minutes of a drive. Such excitement upon seeing the animal I idolized as a kid, particularly given that they are so rare to see. We also saw two lions, which were surprisingly unimpressive. The real winner goes to the giraffe, which even after seeing a hundred is still so magestically and illogically beautiful. A full day was even spent at a tourist lodge, complete with a swimming pool and a bar looking out to the snows of Kilimanjaro (and it did snow while we were there – imagine waking up, walking out of your tent, and adjusting your eyes to a glistening blanket on top of a behemoth of purple rock). The trip was educational too. Our main purpose was studying the local Maasai culture. To give a brief summary, these are the stereotypical warriors of Kenya idolized by British colonialists, subsisting mainly off of their cows milk and blood. To obtain a more informed summary, you can wikipedia it. Things have, of course changed within their culture. Once a staple, blood has been all but phased out, and maize and vegetables have entered into the diet to stand along side milk as their main source of nutrition. Even modernization has arrived, though in limited form, in the way of motorcycles and blue jeans. Most Maasai however still obtain their livelihood from cattle.

The home stay may one of the most fun parts of the trip so far – and I’ve done amazing things. Imagine walking over dusty hills, past zebra herds and acacia trees, with nothing but a stick in your hand and twenty cattle in front of you. The realities of the environment in the region (semi-arid rangeland) mean that many people walk tens of kilometers each day to feed and water their cows, often undertaking journeys of up to 100km over the course of several days in search of greenery. Something felt fully authentic about the experience (the Maasai Centre is entirely Maasai owned and operated, we were the only white people many in the local villages had seen, and as far as I know, this is the only place that offers a home stay with Maasai families), which is perhaps when I enjoyed it so much. Which isn’t to say it’s a comfortable experience at all. Beds of sticks and cowhide, smoky rooms, and the stench of a farm is the reality, but it becomes them and I loved every bit of it, the bad and good.

On the second day, my guide and two of my friends climbed to the highest point in the area to look out on where we had walked. To our left stood the base of Kilimanjaro, as wide as a highway and taller than the clouds, to our right, the Chuylu hills, rising like a green spine in the middle of what is otherwise a desert, and below us, small bomas, even smaller patches of gardens irrigated by a stream, and plentiful goats and cows. I left feeling like I’d truly seen something off the beaten path.

Following that was our spring break, which I spent climbing Mt. Kenya (about 17,000ft) with several people from the group. Forest fires have been ravaging the mountain for several weeks, and I’d estimate that half of the scenery we saw was completely charred. At night you could see the fires raging in the distance, giving off an orange glow like a city over what otherwise would be completely black. I’ve never seen something so simultaneously beautiful and terrifying – a realistic fireworks display if I’ve ever seen one. Stopping on the second day in a valley we watched as the fire swept down the mountainside, engulfing everything in its path. Even from 400 yards away you could here trees popping and grass crackling.

We started our summit attempt at 3:00AM, and having made good time, had a full half hour at the top before sunrise. To see the sunrise from so high up is truly to have God’s view, as if you can see invisible hands actually hoisting the sun out of the ground. You are not looking up to it, but looking down, and to look down on the sun is to violate some law of nature, so that you eerily feel yourself in a place you are perhaps not supposed to be. The peak itself is as beautiful as a mountain I’ve ever seen. It looks down on so many sides into a multitude of valleys; some filled with grass, others with glaciers, and still others with lakes (which our guide told us, though I can’t see how, are abundantly filled with trout). Altitude sickness had gotten me the night before summiting, so lingering on the peak was neither in my best interest nor in my immediate list of desires, though I wish I could have spent a day just watching.

Since then, we’ve had our final two weeks of classes. I’ve grown weary of Nairobi, which is a city one cannot help but simultaneously love and hate, love more for the people and the culture, hate for its stench, its garbage, its ill conceived roads and horrible pollution. I’ve learned much here, but have lingered perhaps too long, and I am itchy to move again. I’ll be spending the last month of the program on the coast, in a small town called Watamu, working for a forest conservation group, The Friends of Arabuko-Sokoke Forest. You can google it. It’s the only home to a rare shrew, which is one of the closet living relatives to the elephant (of those larger beasts, there is a family of 40 living in the forest itself.) And if I may brag just a bit more, my accommodations are just 50 meters from the warm vivid blue water of the Indian Ocean.

Perhaps most interesting during this time has been finally watching Out of Africa. Seeing the movie after reading the book really emphasizes how much has changed since Karen Blixen’s time here. Vestiges of colonialism of course still exist, but that world, of dinner parties and black servants, the one idolized and imagined by so many tourists (as evidenced in the multitude of operators offering the “Out of Africa” experience) is all but gone, undeniably for the better. And though I never agreed with much of British policy here before independence, it does strike a chord – savage wilderness, elegant British homes, and the pioneering of a new frontier in the name of the Queen. Even stranger is to read the book before being here, but see the movie after living here, and to know that, as I watch Meryl Streep as Blixen turn to look over the trees to the Ngong Hills, I have but to do the same to see the very same thing.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009



Saturday, February 21, 2009


I’m trying hard to preserve any hints of cultural shock. Those are the instances that stick with you – feeling absolutely uncomfortable, misaligned with another way of living and left to question which way, if either, is right. After living with a hunter-gatherer tribe for a week, I’m fairly convinced their way is right. Which is a hard notion to advocate for, and something I’m sure not many people could understand. And this is why I’m looking to remember any cultural shock in order to better understand an outsider perspective of this lifestyle, because after so many anthropology classes, digging for roots and eating fruits all day seemed perfectly normal.

The tribe we stayed with are called the Hadzabe. They occupy the Yaeda Valley, an area cut out along the Great Rift Valley adjacent to the Serengeti. We visited with a Safari company called Dorobo, the Maasai word for people without cattle, the name they applied to hunter-gatherer tribes they first encountered when moving into Tanzania so many hundreds of years ago. I was initially and still am extremely skeptical of how authentic of an experience one can have with a hunter-gatherer tribe in a trip led by a safari outfitter. I have things to say in their defense and things I don’t think they can defend against. The company is led by a trio of brothers born in Tanzania to Lutheran missionary parents. They’ve lived most of their lives in Tanzania, speak fluent Swahili, and thus do at least have an emic understanding of their country. A large portion of the profits of guiding tours into Hadzabe land goes to the Hadzabe community, who can choose to use the money in whichever way they deem best for the tribe. Most goes to funds for securing the land, which in the past century has been depleted nearly 90%, either by encroaching pastoralist tribes or government acquisition.

In direct conversation with the Hadzabe, at least individual members of the tribe do not view this tourism as a bad thing. One man who I grew close with throughout the week emphasized that it doesn’t change the culture, and that it brings the necessary cash to the community to help preserve their way of life. The dilemma is this: the Hadzabe need money to secure their land, but the influx of this cash comes through a clash of cultures. To say that white tourism doesn’t change the community is completely false. The group is growing accustomed to driving in trucks and putting up tents. Even cultural diffusion is taking place, with a spokesman for the group specifically telling us that they’ve learned many things from us Wazungu, most notably that women and men can fulfill the same roles within the society.

I think Dorobo does have the Hadza’s best interests in mind. That being said, I think it’s difficult to say how sustainable a thing these trips are. Perhaps the hunter-gathering lifestyle really can’t exist at all in a modern agricultural world, and this tourism is doing its best to slow but not preserve such an old and tested way of life. It’s something that I’m still wrestling with in my head, and really don’t think I can come to a conclusion unless I learn much more about both the tribe and the company.

This overview is brief, and the issue is further complicated by the fact that other safari outfitters are bringing Wazungu into Hadza land and fully exploiting the tribe. Add on to this the fact that the government sees the group as backwards and an embarrassment to Tanzania as a whole, and the future for the Hadza looks bleak. To elaborate further on these issues would be to delve too far into an academic subject, and I don’t think it’s something that you or I are very interested in at the moment. I can at least describe the trip is greater detail.

The first day began with a grueling 7-hour bus ride from Nairobi to Arusha, Tanzania. There we ate lunch, met up with Dorobo, and moved all our gear to two German military trucks from WWII, which though not the fastest mode of transportation, do have the ability to carry several tons up insane rocky inclines. Plus, the backs of them are fully open and provide a far more entertaining mode of travel than a stuffy coach.

Our first campsite was at the base of an enormous waterfall right along the edge of the Rift Valley. Most of us spent several hours just climbing up and down the rocks, and I even managed to swim without (I think) getting any infections or parasites. Really though, it was one of the prettier campsites I’ve ever stayed at. The waterfall contained so many layers to it, and the base of it ran into an old flood plain so that water ran into beach ran into thick forest we put up our tents. I wish only that the Internet were better here so that I could post pictures.

The next day consisted of what will probably be the most memorable drive of my entire life. After a beautiful two-hour hike up the edge of the Rift Valley, we got back in the trucks and proceeded to cross the hills that divide the Yaeda valley from the rest of the world. Imagine sharp, grassy drop offs as far as the eye can see. The sun hits some parts and reflects off of others, so that the result is a meshing checkerboard both of illuminated landscape and farms of maize, beans, vegetables and bananas. Throughout the two hours we traveled adjacent to rural homes without electricity or running water, in a landscape that back home would attract the wealthiest of homebuyers. It’s the type of thing that’s hard to describe even with it so vividly engrained in your head – a landscape so beautiful that the only thing you can say to each other is “Oh my God” and continue to gaze in wonder. We lunched at a beautiful lake nestled at the foot of one of the taller hills. There were men fishing on it and I was able to buy an absurdly large catfish (five pounds, at least) for the equivalent of about $4. We continued on until finally reaching out campsite where we get our first glimpse of the Hadza.

Which really wasn’t all that shocking or monumental as you’d imagine. Really, it’s a group of men and women who happen to get food in a different way than you do. Culturally, of course, there are big differences. But no more than you’d find between America and Saudi Arabia or France and China. Granted, this is a lifestyle I’ve studied for three years now, but the more time I spend here the more I’m able to understand that people are people are people.

I spent the first night with a few friends learning how to play one of their instruments called the zezi, a bit like a two stringed violin made out of wood, gourds, and steel strings. Imagine a very folky fiddle that wouldn’t sound out of place in an obscure pop bluegrass indie band and you have it. Zakio, the resident musician, could even play Frere Jacques, which we learned in Swahili and taught him to sing in French and English.

The next day was meant to give us a glimpse of the foraging aspect of Hadza culture, typically the domain of the women. We split of into groups and spent about an hour digging for roots and tubers. These are one of their staple foods, and are able to found even in intense drought. Between the tubers and the fruit of the Baobab trees, the Hadza literally never go hungry. Raw, the roots taste a bit like bean sprouts. Cooked, the way they are normally consumed, they taste a bit like hot bean sprouts. We also were able to sample during this time honey from a nearby Baobab. The men called a bird called the honey guide, which typically resides near where honey is located in a tree. The men can pick out the hives even when buried deep inside the branches and cut out the combs with axes. It’s all eaten whole – honey, wax, and sometimes even the bees if they’re stingless (they are apparently over 60 types of bees in the area.) I kid you not it was the most delicious thing I’d ever tasted.

That afternoon was spent making arrows. The hadza use a specific tree from which they cut down branches, skin them, and then heat over a fire and bend to near perfect straightness with their teeth. Given a nail and a hammer they can beat out several different kinds of arrows suited for specific animals. The arrows meant for bigger game (giraffes, elephants, rhinos) are fitted with a poison made from a local tree.

For sunrise, several friends and I decided to climb a rocky hill near our camp. Reaching halfway up was a really incredible view. We talked about sleeping there for the night until we realized we could climb even higher. We stumbled upon to false summits until we finally were able to climb a tree to get to a huge rock perched directly on the summit. It was really amazingly fun, swinging from branch to branch until you finally get one foot upon the rock and have to use your body weight to swing forward so as not to crash down. Then you take several steps toward the top and turn around. And then you see just where you are.

Standing on top of that rock felt like being in a movie or a new world all together. Imagine Little Foot and friends when they find the valley at the end of Land Before Time after trudging through a desolate landscape for so long. I have climbed a fair amount of mountains in my time, and seen my fair share of fantastic views. This outweighed every single one. As far as the eye can see was green, the valley stretching out for miles forwards and backwards and the mountains rising up on the left and right like spines. Dense trees in front of us gave way to green open plains in the background, where sunshine like god’s fingers was shining down through deep purple clouds. It sounds almost like hyperbole to go on, but after several minutes on top a rainbow appeared in front of us out of nowhere. It hadn’t even rained. So there we sat on a rich red rock, rainbow in front, dramatic sunshine in back, mountains on the side, and all around us the home of a people practicing a dying way of life, a landscape that looked lush to our eye but showed the promise of abundant food to them, and nowhere in sight was there a building, or road, or any man-made structure visible to the eye. I doubt I am soon to find any place to rival such a sight.

The following day we spent hiking to the other side of the valley to our next camp, along the way learning about different plants and animal tracks. Baobab fruits litter the ground there, and you just have to jump on one of their hard shells to have nearly a full meal at your fingertips. There, in the middle of the bush, was probably the farthest I’d ever been from civilization in my life. The nearest town with a hospital was an 8 hour drive away, and just to reach to access roads that we came in on was a several hour walk. We climbed up to our next camp on the ridge around 3:00, where you could see a large lake to the West and the boundary of hills that divide the valley from the Serengeti behind it.

The following day was hunting day. We left in small groups early in the morning with a pair of Hadza hunters. I was lucky enough to be paired with Moshi, according to many, one of the most skilled hunters in the group, and undeniably by all, the biggest pothead I’ve ever met. I’ve neglected to mention that the Hadza have a substantial trading business with neighboring areas in which they collect honey in return for tobacco and marijuana. Moshi seemed to have picked up the habit even more than the rest of the group, and from daybreak to dusk, if he had it, he was smoking it. Needless to say, he was hilarious. I couldn’t believe how much we saw in so little time. A parade of baboons, gazelle like animals called dikdiks, impala, and a slew of catchable birds. Unfortunately we were separated from Moshi after he went off after a group of impala, and so returned to camp empty handed around lunchtime only to find he’d snared a dikdik on the way home.

Another group had encountered a black mamba. Only the most dangerous snake in the world, with the ability to raise 2/3 of its body off the ground. At 8 feet long, the thing can look you in the eye and then go straight for your jugular. The hadza killed it with an arrow, chopped off its head, and brought it back to camp. Another group bagged a bird called a golden crested franklin. And somehow, when we showed up back to camp, the cook had bought a goat from a local pastoralist wandering through the area.

I ate part of every single one of the above listed animals. We watched as the goat was killed and dissected for food. They offered up part of the kidneys raw from the animal. They really didn’t taste too bad. The hadza consider its coagulated blood (collected from its neck as its throat is slit) mixed with fat from the intestines a delicacy. I tried it, and to be honest, that really wasn’t that bad either. Thank you dad, for making me try all foods when I was little, though I’m not sure that the roasted coagulated blood and fat of a recently slaughtered goat would typically apply. The black mamba we ate with butter and garlic, and the dikdik had meat in between goat and beef.

So that was our classroom for a week – rocky ledges overlooking the sunset on the Yaeda valley and the sweet grassy shade of Baobab trees. There is much more to discuss, particularly for the anthropologically inclined, but for now I’ll leave it to the sappy interesting stuff.

The next three weeks the group will be staying with urban families throughout Nairobi. If possible, I can upload pictures from there. I’m not going to bother to proofread this, and so I apologize for grammatical errors.

If anything important happens in America, can you please update me? I honestly have no idea about anything occurring back home.

Thursday, February 12, 2009



Apologies to people who have e-mailed or contacted me in some other way without receiving a response. My Internet is sketchy and it's difficult to respond to everybody.

Also, I have a snail mail address, and getting letters is really cool.

Jacob Eaton
P.O. Box 1128
00502 Karen
Nairobi, Kenya

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

I have been neglecting my blog, and I wish now I hadn’t because I have so much to write about and probably not enough patience to do it any justice.

Kenya has so far blown my mind. Nearly every image that once existed in my head has been proved wrong. The group is staying on a compound in Karen, just outside of Nairobi. We have about five acres, including a house where the group lives, houses for the staff, a basketball court and a volleyball court. I spend most of my time sitting on the porch in an old chair swing talking, reading, or just looking out at every tree or bird or cloud.

Every morning begins with two hours of Kiswahili. We take classes at a language center based out of Karen, which deals typically with adults and not students. The use a ‘direct method’ approach, which essentially means they avoid English whenever possible and instead communicate through gestures and context. I know a lot of colleges say they use this approach, but it’s a bit different here. After nine classes I’ve learned past, present, future and imperfect tenses. My vocab is limited, but I can speak in whole paragraphs, and we’ve learned enough to even communicate in the market. Following that we take classes in Nairobi. Our professors are based out of the University, but for them I’m sure it’s just a sort of side stint for some spending money. They’re perfectly knowledgeable and engaging, but they also view class with in a far more lax manner. The result is that we don’t’ have a lot of reading or homework, and instead focus everything on discussion. Essentially, with our time divided between Nairobi and the center, we are living the dream in Kenya.

The streets provide more than ample eye candy. It amazes me how foreign they can seem, yet how quickly I can adjust for it. First, roads are about one half the width of the roads back home. This means that you often find people driving on the shoulder, making ridiculous passes, and in all driving in a manner that makes Massachusetts motorists look like the Amish in their buggies. Now add to this the fact that farmers and Maasai graze their cattle along the road. Right of way follows as such: Cattle, Cars, People. I was told this on the first day but never really believed it. Even if motorists have the right of way, they’d still slow down for people, I figured. You learn very quickly this is not true. Cars will slam on their horns if you’re in front of them, they’ll probably slam their hands on the sides of the cars or shake their hands in your face, but their feet will never once touch the brake. You move out of the way or you die. Kenyans also have this rather endearing trait of sleeping wherever the fuck they want. Meaning, drive along the side of the road, and people will just be chilling under trees everywhere. Or maybe in a car, or on a car, or on some rocks, or on a bench. Mostly under trees though. But I’ve never met any people who know how to chill as well as these guys.

Being a minority in Nairobi has so far been an easy transition. Outside of the city, however, is another story.

We recently returned from a week long home stay about five hours west of Nairobi with a tribe called the Kipsigis. The Kipsigis still practice subsistence agriculture, growing predominantly maize, tea, and pineapples. The tea they sell off to large companies like Unilever (the area is known as the White Highlands for the British colonists who originally marked it for growing tea) to make a small profit. Most families own multiple cows for milk. Otherwise, most of what they eat comes from their own gardens, with sorghum, millet, and vegetables filling out the rest of their diet.

I lived with a family of six, who also hired a herd boy for work on the farm and for milking the cows. They live in a stone house without electricity or running water. And they’re probably the most content and harmonious family I’ve ever met.

An experience like this is really something ineffable. As much as I could detail using an outhouse or sponge bathing or cooking everything over a fire, I can’t actually get to the heart of what it’s like to live out there. And really, those things can’t define their lives. I think in a Western mindset we look too much to what people don’t have, rather than what they do. I’ll try and begin to summarize the things I learned. My first time milking cows I think I drew maybe several ounces of milk. By the end of the week I was filling a bucket by myself. I fed napier grass through a hand cranked machine to cut for the cows. I watched as my host mother cooked epic meals over a simple wood fire. I drank fermented milk and ate ugali (which is essentially sorghum and maize flour mixed with water the consistency of play-dough used to scoop up vegetables and meat and really is one of the more delicious things in the world). The fermented milk, not so much. But they really like it.

The village being far away from Nairobi, they don’t get many white people. And when I say they don’t get many white people, I’m sure that some of the kids I met had never even seen a mzungu before. One of the more memorable experience was visiting the local school and having kids grab my hands just to hold them to their face as they turned over my arms to look at the on my forearm. The second I took a picture of any of them they would cheer. And I’ve never been so conspicuously gazed at in my entire laugh.

Church service was an entire thing altogether. I tried as much as possible to experience it without bringing in my own religious views, but their absolute devotion to God made that a bit difficult. The church plays such a huge role within the community that to go against it at all is to be a complete outside in your own village. I wish I could elaborate more on it, because I had fairly intense discussions with my home stay parents about it. Suffice it to say however that the service is an absolutely loud, raucous, song-filled devotional to a God brought to them by whites and since then never too much questioned.

I came away with many things, most of which I can’t explain because the come in the form of changes of outlook and person. I will say however that I never realized how incredible electricity is. Which isn’t to say that I missed living with it. Really, I absolutely loved being without it. The smell and glow of a kerosene lamp is really wonderful. What I mean to say is that it absolutely floors me that a little outlet provides enough to do the energy that in ten minutes can do what took me hours upon hours.

I really loved every second of it. And I’m really loving every second of being here. It’s difficult to say exactly how I’ve changed, only that I feel changed, and know I’m changing every second still.

This Saturday we leave for a week to stay in Tanzania with one of the last tribes in the world practicing a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. If possible I’ll update before then. I have a post on Kilimanjaro that I wrote after getting down, but I don’t know where it is. Expect more on that soon, and if possible in a few weeks I hope I can get up some pictures.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

I promise I'll update this in the next two days.


Kenya is illmatic. Elaboration to follow shortly.

Monday, January 19, 2009

I have lots of stuff to say it, but not really time.

So you can call me, and maybe I can tell you about it. It's free for me, not for you. So buy an international calling card, and I promise I'll tell you lovely stories.

011 254 726 831 080

Kenya is really sweet.