Reunion in Ratta

2 Dec

Why hello there, blogosphere.

The day after my last post, I embarked on a weekend trip to Ratta, a tiny village in Western Kenya near Lake Victoria. It felt great to leave the hustle-&-bustle of Nairobi and embrace the beauty and peacefulness of rural Kenya.

My childhood friend, Amy, and her husband, David, are teaching English at a secondary school in this village.  They are both part of the Young Adult Volunteer program. Check out their blog here.

Two friends and I decided to pay them a visit! Here’s the whole crowd – from left to right, Tricia, Amy, Jamie, Me, & David.

We were pleasantly surprised to travel in a very comfortable bus. Easy Coach is also known for driving carefully on the roads, and it was a slow, safe ride.

We passed the port city Kisumu, the 3rd largest in Kenya, and the bus made its terminal stop at Maseno. From there, we took piki pikis (motorcycles, aka boda bodas) 20 minutes down this road to get to Ratta. The driver told me the road is impossible to use when it rains.

What you’re about to look at is “Downtown” Ratta. This is the center square of the village. Those wood structures are used in the morning and evening, when this area transforms into a populated market selling fruits, vegetables, and other food.

An anecdote from this area – one night for dinner, we walked into town to buy some chapatis (unleavened flat bread) and chips (fries). We found chapatis for 10 cents a piece. Things are so much cheaper in rural villages than Nairobi. When we found some chips, we asked how much they cost – the cook told us 1 cent each. And these were no small chips, they were more like scalloped potatoes. We did the most American thing you could do – asked her “How much for ALL THE CHIPS YOU HAVE?” $2 later, we had a full course of starch. As we helped the woman scoop chips into a bag, everyone in the market was staring at us, seemingly with no blinking.

Speaking of staring, I thought it was bad in Nairobi, but in the village you are the center of attention wherever you go. You can’t blame them, as many of the villagers have never seen a white person before. One of the techniques I’ve employed to deal with the staring is engaging in an unexpected staring contest. In Nairobi, I win these 100% of the time, but in Ratta, my record wasn’t as good. I reverted to the usual approach of asking “Habari?” or “How are you?”

I went on a run one morning. A favorite thing to do wherever I am is going on an unscripted run. I ran on dirt roads which got narrower with each turn. Eventually, a pathway I was following became a steep downhill. Soon after, trees cleared to reveal a beautiful view of a body of water – Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest lake. I took the group on a hike that afternoon to show them the view. Here’s Amy and I with the lake in the background.

When we took our hike, the sky was grumbling. Thankfully, we didn’t get rained on, but I did snap this pic of the storm approaching from the west.

One night, we played a card game called Dominion. I had never heard of it, but I recommend it! We also watched Home Alone to get in a holiday mood. Look what ya did, you little jerk!

David and Amy came back to Nairobi with us, as the school is on Christmas break until January. Just north of Maseno lies the equator. One foot in each hemisphere!

Our driver didn’t get the marker in the picture, so here’s one to prove I wasn’t standing on any old bit of dirt.

The trip was so relaxing. David & Amy were so happy to have us, as life without much human contact besides their students can get boring. It felt good for life to slow down a bit. Ratta has been added to my list of possible places for retirement. Even with the cold showers and frequent power outages.

I enjoyed two Thanksgivings! First, a couple of my co-workers cooked me a Kenyan-style meal. It included (clockwise, from upper left) – mashed potatoes with creamed spinach, brown rice with beets, curried turkey, peas & carrots, bread rolls, fruit salad, and carrots.

I’m surprised my belt buckle and shirt buttons didn’t pop off. The meal was so good, and it was very nice of my co-workers to celebrate the day with me! And I’m not talking about the murder and displacement of Native Americans part, just the be-thankful-for-your-blessings part.

That night, I purchased a turkey from an Mzungu butchery (Kenyans don’t eat turkey, it’s rare and too expensive). It was frozen and I put the purchase off till 5pm that night, so I thawed it in water overnight and cooked it on Black Friday with my host family.

Inspired by Aeschbury traditions, my sisters and I played around with the turkey a little before cooking it.

Now, let me be clear. I’m an awful cook. I’m great if you give me a microwave and something that’s microwaveable. No one in the fam knew how to cook a turkey, and when I didn’t know what “basting” meant, I consulted a professional cook – my Grandma! I called her 3 times during the day and her foil tent technique produced this tender, surprisingly moist turkey!

Every family member loved it. In addition to the turkey, our house help, Vio, made mashed potatoes and other fixin’s. Couldn’t find any gravy-like substance at the grocery store, so we used barbeque sauce. Not bad, actually!

I also bought some pumpkin pie at a restaurant a friend referred me to. It was $8.50 a slice – but given that this is probably the only pumpkin pie in Kenya, I’ll take it. It tasted better than the usual pumpkin pie, having more of a pumpkin spiciness to it.

What am I thankful for? The opportunity to live a year in Kenya and my friends & family, who supported my choice to come here and are always there for me.

But there’s something I’m even more thankful for. A month ago when I traveled to Rwanda to renew my visa, I returned to Kenya via an entry stamp which the border people said gave me another 3 months to stay. However, I showed the stamp to some friends and they advised me to consult the immigration offices – the stamp did not indicate I had 3 more months.

On Thanksgiving Day, I went to Immigration with my host mom, Daisy. Long story short, it turns out I had been living illegally in Kenya for 22 days! The entry stamp I received was a free stamp given for travel within the East African Community. Since I entered Kenya before my visa expired, I was not issued a new one. In any event, connections are so important in this country. Daisy happened to know a member of the management in the Immigration Office and he pushed me through with no problem. Had I gone there on my own accord, I would’ve paid a bribe or spent a night in jail. I didn’t, so now I’m legal and lovin’ it.

I recommend you all see Moneyball (and more importantly read the book!). It hit theaters here last week and I went to see it. On my walk there, someone tried to sell me some pirated DVDs – and one of them was Moneyball. Only in Kenya! By the way, before every movie in the theater, a Kenyan flag is shown on the screen while the national anthem is played, and most stand up and sing along!

Some things in Nairobi are shockingly hard to do, like finding pumpkin pie. But some things are much easier than life back home. I’ve had a lingering pain in my finger for a couple of weeks, so I went to the Doc and got an antibiotic prescribed. I went out one night and forgot to take my medication with me. So what did I do? Found a pharmacy nearby and bought one pill. Yes, just one pill, for 40 cents! And they gave me a glass of water to take it right there on the spot. No verification of my prescription or anything. Looks like Nairobi could be a pill popper’s Amsterdam.

AMPK (The Association of Microfinance Professionals of Kenya), an organization I am currently doing some consulting for, launched their think tank this week. The “Microfinance Leaders Forum” will strive to influence the development of the microfinance industry in Kenya. I did the report writing for the event and met some cool people. I need business cards! Here is David Kitusa, the Executive Director, giving the conference introduction.

It’s been awhile since I’ve given you a work update. What’s taking up most of my time currently is carrying out Scott’s research for his Master’s Degree. I’ve sent out e-mails to over 100 MFIs (microfinance institutions) in Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Zambia, and am in the challenging, sometimes tiresome phase of calling all of them to set up appointments to come and administer surveys. I have a 3-4 day trip to Uganda set up for the week after next.

I couldn’t leave the following picture out of this post. I attended my sister Kabura’s Christmas Concert for her school. During the performance, my 2-year-old bro Kiama went missing. No one knew where he had sneaked off to, and then we saw him on center stage! That’s him in the red hoodie, stealing the limelight!

One other tidbit to mention – I found out that Kazuri, a Kenyan company employing women to produce fair trade jewelry, has their one-and-only factory two miles from where I live. Global Village Collection, the fair trade retail store I worked at for two years, carries their products. Retail price of a Kazuri necklace in Delaware, Ohio? $68. The same necklace’s price in Nairobi, Kenya? $12. Does my Economics degree help me to see an opportunity to make big money? Yes.

Kwaheri for now.

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10 Responses to “Reunion in Ratta”

  1. macmcnair December 2, 2011 at 1:40 am #

    Ben, you do such a wonderful job of drawing us into your experiences there. I hope you are journaling your experiences. I suppose this blog is a great start to your journal. Please greet all of the wonderful Maono folks for us. Please especially greet Daisy for us. I pray often for you and for the work Maono is doing. Trust that the microfinance ministry is going well. Lord’s richest blessings Brother! Mac

    • Ben December 6, 2011 at 6:01 pm #

      Hey Mac,

      Thanks for following my blog so faithfully. I’ve got to admit – I don’t journal as much as I should. I think it’s time for a New Year’s resolution to change that!

      I’ve sent your greetings to Daisy, Tracey, Betty, Philemon, and Simon. They are thankful for the prayers and were happy to hear from you.

      Cheers,
      Ben

  2. grrreera December 2, 2011 at 4:03 am #

    you should not just be taking antibiotics willy nilly.

    • Ben December 6, 2011 at 5:58 pm #

      Oh G, wealth of wisdom, guess what? I’m done taking the antibiotics and my finger hurts just as much as it did before! Amputation, here we come.

  3. William Ruzek December 6, 2011 at 8:22 pm #

    Sounds like quite the adventure, and better than boring old Grad school, I am quite jealous of you and if I ever find a stack of money I will visit.

    Though in the meantime I will go to the Packers/Bears game on Christmas, and get going on my non-profit (www.expeditiongaia.org)

    Miss ya man, keep up the adventures

    • Ben December 7, 2011 at 10:09 am #

      I wouldn’t go to that game, we both know da Bears will make the Pack 14-1 on Christmas Day. Checked out the website – lookin’ good. I especially like T-Laws’ staff picture! Site looks professional and I hope the corporate sponsorships start rolling in soon. I hope someday we’ll reunite to go on an adventure.

  4. Justine February 7, 2012 at 8:21 am #

    This quite good. I’m an old Student of Ratta, 2000-2003 and the pictures (School gate, the market) have really rekindle the old memories.

    I hope you did enjoy the life in Ratta.

    • Ben February 9, 2012 at 1:04 pm #

      Justine,

      Happy that you enjoyed looking through my pictures and reminiscing.

      I did enjoy the Ratta life – slow-paced and relaxing. Nairobi is so hustle-bustle in comparison!

      Cheers,
      Ben

  5. Meri June 12, 2012 at 3:12 pm #

    Are you still working at the Ratta Secondary School?

    • Ben June 12, 2012 at 5:56 pm #

      Meri,

      I never worked at Ratta Secondary School. Two friends of mine taught there and just finished last week.

      Cheers,
      Ben

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