Wednesday, April 15, 2009

On being very white

So I’m white. Or at least really pale-skinned. Which tends to almost look a little iridescent in the equatorial sun. And fortunately, due to SPF 30 sunblock and hats, I haven’t turned pink. But I do stand out in a crowd of Kenyans…

In fact there’s a word in Swahili for Caucasians: “Mzungu”. I think its pretty similar to “Gringo” en espanol, but with a little less overtone of slang and insult. According to our Lonely Planet travel guide, 0.1% of Kenya’s population is “European”, which I take as Caucasian. Which surprised me as this country was a British colony up until 1963, but I sure haven’t seen too many white folks that aren’t associated with the IU-Kenya/AMPATH programs.

We hear the word mzungu fairly often when walking around, whether its people talking about us, or trying to get our attention. Like “mzungu… taxi!”. And while we certainly have drawn a lot of attention for simply having a lighter skin tone, it has nearly always been good natured.

Little kids, especially in rural areas, are pretty fascinated by us. Allison and I have often repeated the phrase “Howareyou Howareyou Howareyou” that we heard from a group of kids a few weeks ago when we were slowly driving through a small town.

And even in Eldoret this past weekend, a friendly gentleman on a crowded downtown street corner singled me out and shook my hand for probably 15-20 seconds as I was walking, greeting me in English and trying to convince me that to be strong, I needed to eat snakes. I’m guessing he doesn’t pass on that kind of advice to any old Kenyan on the street. And no, I haven’t eaten any snakes here. At least that I’m aware of…

But as a caucasian protestant heterosexual male in the United States, I don’t often find myself in situations where I’m representing a minority group as far as your check the box diversity categories go. And for whatever reason, I’ve been more aware of the fact that “I ain’t from around here” more here in Kenya than I have when previously traveling abroad.

So its been an interesting 6 weeks being mzungu.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Lake Baringo

Sorry for the lack of posts recently—I think we’re at the natural “we’ve been here for several weeks, not much new to report on”. We are spending the Easter weekend in Eldoret so it should be pretty low key. Last weekend we did travel to Lake Baringo, one of the Rift Valley fresh water lakes. It is most notable for the variety of birds that can be found there. We had a good time, saw tons of birds as well as a few hippos and crocs. No sign of the elusive hiphopopotamus though. It was pretty hot there and we were glad there was a pool to relax in. We now *really* appreciate the weather in Eldoret.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

IU House

We had a low key weekend staying in Eldoret which was highlighted by exploring town and doing a bit of shopping and a hiking adventure to Umbrella Falls which was about 30 minutes outside of town.
So here’s the long overdue blog entry about where we’re staying. The IU house is actually a small compound of 8 two story buildings. It is about a 15 minute walk from the hospital. There are common areas on lower floors and 4 apartments each of the upper floors. It is gated and guarded, and the neighborhood is also gated and guarded. This does tend to insulate us from Kenyan culture, but not worrying about security seems to be a justified priority for the medical exchange program. There are also 4 ‘guard dogs’ who actually mostly lay around.
Our room is the Blue Swallow room in building 1, which also houses a library and 1 of the two washing machines on the compound. Our room is like a good sized college dorm room – it’s best feature is the windows that allow breezes to blow through. Our bathroom is outside our room, but we haven’t had to share it with anyone. The bathroom is luxurious by Kenyan standards with toilet paper, toilet seat, toilet that flushes, and hot water for the shower (it has a sink too). We’ve been doing a couple of loads of laundry per week and it gets dried on a clothesline in the hot Kenya sun. Other staff are around for housekeeping, administrative, and other maintance type duties.
Meals are provided Sunday dinner through Friday lunch and the kitchen/pantry are available during the rest of the time. There are full-time cooks who also live in the compound. A typical meal is white rice, baked chicken, curried mung beans and fruit salad. There are other vegetables sometimes, and there is also cake sometimes (delicious), but rice is a constant. The food is good, though after a month, somewhat monotonous. However, our western-geared meals have more variety than the local fare. The Kenyan culinary tradition is based on ugali (cornmeal dish), sukuma wiki (stewed kale), and some type of meat. Chipati is also commonly found – it is like a wheat tortilla. We miss Dr. Pepper, ice cubes, and cold milk but it will be an adjustment to have to cook for ourselves again when we go home.
The IU house functions as a hotel of sorts, not just IU associated people are housed here. If you’re a westerner who is associated with health care in the Eldoret area, there is a good chance you’ll spend time at the IU House. There has been somewhat of a revolving door of other guests. Some people are staying here for months longer than us, while others stay days to weeks. Other medical schools, most notably Brown, also have a partnership with Moi University in a similar type of exchange as IU. Purdue sends pharmacy students here regularly too. It seems that any western person who has heard of AMPATH, is associated with MTRH, or is just involved in healthcare seems to be able to arrange for housing at the IU house. Meal time has allowed us to meet new faces and find out their roles.

Friday, March 27, 2009


Last night I woke up at 2am to watch the Purdue-UConn mens basketball NCAA Tourney game. I was joined by the two Purdue PharmD students here who are big PU athletics fans (one ran cross country and track at Purdue and the other played in the Boiler Brass pep band). We quietly watched our overmatched Boilers keep it respectable for much of the game. And at 4:30am local time we trudged back to bed after a loss, serenaded by the early rooster crows…

But they were in the Sweet Sixteen and won the Big Ten Tournament, and next year promises to be a strong season as they don’t graduate much production (which assumes no other key players with eligibility leave the program).

There’s always next year…

I sure sound like a Purdue fan, eh?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


This past weekend we went on our first real safari, to Lake Nakuru National Park. It’s a soda lake in the central Rift Valley that attracts flamingos, pelicans, and storks. It also had a variety of landscapes, with rocky cliffs, yellow acacia forests, and open savannah plains. And a huge variety of wildlife living in it! Without listing every animal we saw, the highlights were rhinos, giraffes, water buffalos, zebras, impalas, gazelles, baboons, and warthogs… no really, this wasn’t the entire list! The only animals in the park that we didn’t see were lions and leopards. Hopefully we’ll see the cats sometime later…

We went on game drives Saturday evening, Sunday early morning, and Sunday late morning. Seeing the animals starting their day just before the sunrise was absolutely beautiful. And there were SO many animals in the park--every now and then I had to remind myself that this was real life (within the confines of a national park). Its just so different seeing these animals in their actual setting instead of in a zoo exhibit.

We took hundreds of pictures. Yikes! We promise not to make anybody look at all of them—we’ll just show off some of the favorites!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Match/March Madness

Last Thursday was a fun day here in Eldoret. For the 11 fourth-year medical students, it was their Match Day, which is the day they find out which residency program they will start at this summer. It’s a big deal for the students, and at least the IU Med School turns it into a big celebration. But the med students here weren’t home for the big shindig… So Allison, Bethany, and another resident here from Ohio State put together a party to announce the matches. The three residents went online to find the residency matches, and then the IU House crew gathered together for the matches to be announced and to celebrate. They had an amazing chocolate cake baked for the event, which we’re still savoring… It was fun to see the students so excited about the next step in their training. And I’ll admit, it was also awfully nice to reflect on Allison’s residency almost being over!

And of course, Thursday is when March Madness began back in the States. After not having much internet access last week, we furiously made our bracket picks on Thursday before the games started... And Sonak, the Purdue pharmacy professor here, has a satellite dish, so several of us went to his place after our Match Day Party and watched some of the opening round broadcast. Which had portions of the Purdue-Northen Iowa game CBS feed, including the start and finish of Purdue’s victory. Boiler Up!

Friday, March 20, 2009


Since we have internet access in our room this morning, I’m going a little crazy with uploading photos… gotta get them posted while I can! Allison painted fingernails/toenails at the hospital earlier this week which was very popular. She took pictures of several of the kids, printed them on a color printer back here at the IU house, and gave copies to the kids/families the next day. It was a huge hit, and she’ll do it again as new patients rotate through.

The picture of Allison holding the baby is of Sheba, one of the abandoned kids. Rumor has it she’ll be adopted out shortly--Yay! Though we’ll all miss her--she’s an adorable kid. And the picture of the little girl in the pink dress is a particularly good one of one the patients in the ward who got painted nails. Click on the pictures to view the full size images: