Sunday, April 27, 2014

Getting back from Mozambique

I’ve been back in Nairobi for a few days now, staying in the very nice neighbourhood of Lavington, and catching up on emails with coffee in Java House. It feels worlds apart from what I saw in Mozambique and its hard to remember you’re in Africa when you see people buying hand exfoliating crème in the mall or driving flash cars into multi-storey car parks. Mozambique on the other hand was “Africa” in the extreme.
Its funny to say this considering I spent most of the time on an ultra-exclusive private island where guests pay $1000 a night for the ultimate beach and tropical paradise experience. Vamizi was just that. An unbelievably beautiful white beach sloped into perfect turquoise waters, at all states of tides and time of day. The island is mostly uninhabited and covered in jungle and surrounded by some of the best coral reefs I have ever seen. However, this is not the true Mozambique, which is much uglier and more worrying, but rarely encountered on the island.
The poverty in the areas on the mainland I saw was more extreme than most parts of Kenya. When our bus pulled into towns en route (oh yes I took the bus again), people would run and jostle to get there first. Small children would fight to hold up a handful of mangy green tomatoes or plastic bags at the window, while the women would argue as they tried to make sales. I saw more than one person slump in complete despair when the bus revved to move off and they hadn’t made a sale.
In Pemba, the town where I stayed for 2 days to get a flight back to Nairobi, women scrapped mosquito nets in the shallow water to catch unappetising little shrimps and sprat, while children hacked at rocky outcrops with spoons and butter knives to get any crabs, snails or small bivalves they could. The town centre there hung a lull of inertia that poverty creates, when one has nothing to do, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with.
Now consider that this is in a country, which has recently been discovered to be sitting on potentially one of the largest untapped oil reserves in the world. Exploration is happening in a massive way, and tons of investment, construction and foreigners are flooding into this area, where only 5 years ago there was no electricity or mobile phone signal.
Official propaganda, if of course, that this is a great thing, and Anadarko is making a good show of how good this all is for Mozambique. Before I lambast the oil company too much, I would like to add that they are doing some good projects and I even met a couple of people working for them involved in trying to make their operations more locally appropriate and inclusive. However, I simply fail to see how a population with the level of poverty that I saw and all the ills that go with it, poor health, nutrition and education, can possibly ride this tidal wave of change and come out better in the end.
In Kenya the poorest, remain poor and the all benefits and wealth are snapped up by the few and the foreign. Incomers from other areas and other countries create tensions as precious jobs, land and resources are ‘stolen’, wealth disparity leads to crime and a deep crippling sense of despair; all of which I could see among some of the people in this area already. I am very doubtful that the government is any more responsible or less greedy than other countries and the higher levels of poverty and lack of education probably makes it easier for them to be unjust.
Maybe I’m too cynical by what I have seen in other places, but everywhere I looked I was struck by the extremes and worried for the future of the place. Even being on the island I didn’t feel particularly at ease, knowing that the place is the creation of vanishingly few rich and powerful, that can absolve themselves from the reality on the mainland.
What little I saw of the country was stunningly beautiful. Untouched coastline, forested mountains, picturesque thatched villages with lush vegetable gardens, all poised on the edge of the worst ravages 21st century capitalism has to offer. I would really love to go back and take more time to drive around this area, take in the sights, and understand more about places such as this and what their ultimate fate will be. For the moment, there are some rocky years ahead.
I am poignantly aware this might actually be now the last post on this blog. In many ways Mozambique was an extreme microcosm of my whole experience in Kenya. Amazed by the beauty, shocked by the extremes, and more than once frustrated and insanity of it all. I think the main thing I have learnt over the past few years is that it is a big bad world out there, where you really can’t take anything for granted. Enjoy where you are in the moment, value the things that matter to you, and try not to give up hope of a better tomorrow. Africans do this better than any other people. Despite the frustration I saw in the people of Mozambique, I also saw the unchanging African optimism and warmth. As I drove to the airport in Pemba someone had written on a shop, “Onde ha vida, ha esperanca”- ‘Where there is life, there is hope’. Nothing could better encapsulate the African outlook. Let’s hope its true.

p.s. here's a few photos from Vamizi and also check out the reef on youtube with the video I made. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Getting to Mozambique

Ok this East African adventure is not over yet folks. I have more stories.
Getting to Vamizi Island, Northern Mozmabique was the most topsy turvy journey ever. There is no photo evidence (bloody GoPro ran out of battery), so you must believe my words, although myself I'm not sure I believe it.
Getting to Nairobi everything was fine, finally escaped the unrelenting heat of March on the coast. Get to the airport on Sunday after staying one night with friends, get a the usual funny look at my passport with back to back tourist visas for the past 3 years (still no research visa from immigration), and go through to the departure lounge. The screen is still predicting our 3:45 departure to Pemba and Nampula, everything looks great. At around 3:15 all of us in the waiting lounge are told to go back out and wait for further instructions. The plane never left Maputo. No explanation why, just no plane. No plane until Tuesday in fact. Ok so a hotel, and planning what on earth I'm going to do in the mean time and also because of careful timing with a boat from the mainland to Vamizi Island, how am I going to make the onward journey. Luckily I meet another guy called Herb, also trying to get to Vamizi because he works at the dive centre there (what are the chances), who is actually from Watamu (no way!). Great, I can figure this one out and I don't need to do it alone.
The hotel we are taken to is the Nairobi Safari Club, in the centre of Nairobi. 5* luxury for two nights at the expense of the airline. I crashed onto my super-king sized bed and thought about how jammy life is sometimes, and decided to call Isobel, the partner in Mozambique to explain I would be a couple of days late. News from Mozambique was that a cyclone or something had flooded massive areas on the route from Pemba, the airport town, to Mocimboa, the harbour town where I was supposed to get the boat. The water had receded somewhat, but a bridge on the route had been taken out! Not only would that make the journey difficult, but the island was now struggling to get petrol and the conservation team were on the bottom of the waiting list for it after the lodge and its expensive paying guests. Even if I could manage to get there I would have no petrol to do any fieldwork.
OK. Two more days left on my transit visa I had been issued because of the cancelled flight. Either take a futile flight to Mozambique or have to rearrange everything and come back to the UK early. Obviously come home, but when I started called Kenya Airways and planning with Mum and Dad about getting my room ready and stuff, I couldn't bear the thought of coming back to England so soon. I had mentally prepared for in a month's time. Its too early! Also I had been trying to get to Vamizi for over a year, I had to see the place. 
I spoke to Rob the South African lodge manager on the island, who said in a classic African manner, "look man, just get here and we'll make a plan". "Making a plan" a great African euphemism for whinging it, has honestly worked for me so far in life, why should now be any different. I can get there, there's always a way, so off to Mozambique again.
Arriving in Pemba I was surprised how nice it all looked. The town was clean and not terribly ugly or impoverished. The people were super friendly and didn't make a big deal about me being a whitey, like I've experienced everywhere in Kenya. In many ways it was a cross between Brazil and Kenya. A latin Africa or and African latino place. I was enjoying myself and glad about the decision to go for it.
In the morning I was to get a bus at 5am, which would get me to Mocimboa by 1pm, with a river crossing at the broken bridge, but it was all organised and I would be able to travel with one ticket. What an awesome country! The bus filled pretty quickly as well, which is always a relief, because in Africa a bus never leaves until every seat is filled. However we were still driving in circles around town, and more people getting on, and then the conductor starts climbing over the chairs and pushing people to the back, so that more people can get on. Eventually at 7am when the bus is packed like a sardines can we leave. The amount of people and luggage on that bus gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "Gari imejah!" (Swahili: the car is full). Thank goodness I got a seat.
As we drove north I tried to get a feel for this nation. We passed small villages of mud walls and thatch roofs, just like in Kenya, women pounding maize in the morning, kids going to school etc. However it was really noticeable the lack of any other kinds of buildings in the villages, or even the fact that almost every house was the same size and arranged in neat rows. A legacy of Mozambique's communist past I suppose or maybe just the fact that there is not as much inequality here as in Kenya. Everyone lives somehow the same. Interesting as well was the amount of uninhabited space. We would drive for long distances and see only bush. It is quite wet and lush as well, so not uninhabitable land, it just appears there are not enough people to fill the space. I began wondering what had happened here during the civil war, when this area was hit the worst in the whole country. 
Finally at 11am we reached the fabled river. We had passed through a large stretch of lowland which was very boggy, but the river itself was quite a narrow one, like many which we had passed. That particular bridge had just been unlucky it seemed. Having a seat near the back of the bus I was one of the last to get off. When I got down, complete pandaemonium ensued. Instantly 50 or so guys from the bush surrounded me demanding to carry my bag. I was trying to be cool and hold off until Herb managed to get his stuff off the bus and we could make a plan of action. He had this ridiculously huge box of PADI course books all nicely wrapped and bound for the clients on the island, which definitely needed carrying, but how to now negotiate who would carry the bags without causing a riot. To carry the stuff ourselves would have brought fury at our selfishness, especially as I was the only Mzungu on the bus. However, deciding who would win our business would also be tricky. I tried to whisper to an old man nearest to me who had approached me early on, and silence ensued throughout my crowd and seemed to pull even more people in. Somehow we escaped this insane situation with my little old man helping me and another guy helping Herb, for the pre-arranged price of around £1 each. Turns out the water was low enough that we actually were supposed to walk across the river. I rolled up my trousers and put my best foot forward into the black mud trying not to think about bilharzia in the water or the fact that my laptop with my PhD thesis on it, my passport and all my money, were perched on this little old man's head. Instead I looked at the dramatic beauty of this lowland area, punctuated by symmetrical oasis palms. It was actually quite a high moment, and I felt quite empowered by the crazy life I lead. 
By this point, because taking forever to extract ourselves from the first bus, we definitely did not get a seat on the second bus. In fact we were perched on the stairs near the door. However, at least we won't have to wait forever for them to sort everyone out right? Wrong. For some inexplicable reason we sat there in our sardine bus in the baking midday heat for nearly an hour. The driver was no where to be seen. Because of the heat and stress a woman on the bus started to have an epileptic fit. Herb and I, with our rescue diver, emergency first response training (oh yeah PADI), tried to do what we could, which was very little other than get her off the bus and hold her in the recovery position until the fitting stopped. It was a helpless situation, in the middle of flooded valley in one of the poorest countries on earth. No one else on the bus seemed to even notice. During this time the driver arrived and once the woman was stable, we tried to get back on the bus, but had to argue with the driver for 15 minutes, because "Gari imejah" he said. Ok not enjoying this anymore.
2 hours later (with a police stop who searched several passengers on board trying to extort bribes and checking my passport and travel documents with fine tooth comb for the same reason) we arrive in Mocimboa. There is a friendly local guy Herb knows who will help us organise a dhow to get to the island. I just crashed out on the sofa on his porch. 
I was half carried to the beach where the traditional East African sail boat is waiting to take us to the island. "Just two hours, you'll be there by dinner", I'm told. We get on the boat at 7pm, and then sit and sit, until after an hour I ask one of the guys what's the hold-up. Captain's not here. Where is he? At home. Why is he at home? He's at home until he's ready to go. Ayayayiiiiiii. Time in Mozambique is more non-existent than Kenya. In the end I just crashed asleep on the floor of the boat on the hard concrete blocks they were using for ballast. 
I came around some time later to the sound of one guy singing a haunting local folk tune. I opened my eyes to see the sail in full billow in the moonlight and the dramatic southern stars. As I propped myself up land was far in the distance and phosphorescence streaming in the wake of the boat. It was a quintessential moment that cannot be conveyed, only experienced, and one which I hope will stay with me for the rest of my life. Here I was in the middle of Indian Ocean in a traditional sailing boat, which has ferried people up and down this coast like this for hundreds of years. Absolutely magical. I went back to sleep dreaming of the nice dinner and bed awaiting for me. 
What must have been some hours later I woke up to find the moon had set and the boat was in darkness. Herb had been sleeping next to me but now wasn't there. I stumbled to the back of the boat to see what was going on. One guy shouted sharply, "Where are you going!? Lie down! We're working back here." Indeed they were tacking and changing the sail required some moving about, but why was he so rude and where was Herb. Were these guys just going to take me to a desert island somewhere and rob me? Oh man, why didn't I just go home!?
Turns out Herb was throwing up over the back of the boat and in reality the journey was going to take all night, which everyone except us had known all along. Just as the first glimmer of dawn appeared, the shape of the island came into focus. The captain pointed and smiled. We rounded the corner of the island heading along the northern coastline to get to the lodge. And then we stopped. Sail was furled, anchor dropped. Guys lay down on the decks. When I asked what was happening, the irritated captain explained in his most condescending tone, "This channel is shallow and there might be biiiiig rocks, that we don't want to hit and right now we can't seem them, so we have to wait until sunrise (stupid Mzungu)" One last sleep on the cement for me then. 
We arrived at about 7am in the morning, after however long travelling that had been. Since stepping foot onto the pristine white sands of this beach, I have been enjoying this lost paradise immensely, which made all the journey worth it.  I don't know if this is the same for other people, but a significant portion of travelling in my life seems to go like this. Immense good luck and terrible luck intertwined and balancing each other out, however in the end I always seem to land on my feet. I swear it is of none of my own doing, nor planning or anything else. I always end up with some crazy story and yet again there is a happy ending. But that's for another story.
Speak soon!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Leaving Kenya

This is (probably) going to be the last blog I write from Kenya. I had planned on leaving at this time for a few months now. My fieldwork is complete, I am half way through the PhD and it is time to sit down and write out all that I have studied; or at least as much as I can! 
I have learnt so so much over the past 3 years. Kenya has shaped me for life and given me the first and possibly second rung on my career ladder. Looking ahead I also think it is impossible that I won't visit or even possibly live here again, but this chapter, working with A Rocha down in Watamu, is at an end. 
I hope that I am more patient. I know I am more rounded when it comes to understanding the human condition. I am also leaving knowing much much more about myself, although I tend to believe this happens to people in their early 20s no matter what they are doing. 
As I was waiting at the bus stop in Gede yesterday with a few friends who were sending me on my way, we were discussing friends, work, the news etc. like I had always lived in that place. In the end the place had really become like home. You know where everything is, you know the people to get you what you need, and if I ever went away I was glad to get back to my little house in Down Valley. However I am not sad to be leaving, I had some amazing amazing times and am leaving with no regrets. 
I am really interested to see how it will be living in the UK now. Although I've visited for small periods of time I haven't lived there properly and haven't seen an entire winter in a long time! Will I slip back into my old lifestyle? Will I find a new niche, as the person I am now? Will I enjoy it or will it always be missing something that Kenya brought into my life? I don't need to find out immediately however. First I am headed to Mozambique for a research trip and my first time to another African country (I never left Kenya in all this time!). I think that place will provide a really interesting comparison to here as well, although I am nervous about being a foreigner again, with not very much language. 
I think whatever happens next I am glad that it has never been boring and I have always been learning and moving forward. The tough times nearly broke me, and the good times have given me more amazing experiences than some people get in a life time. As I move ahead I am excited for the new possibilities and new places I will see. I think I will always be aware of Kenya and what is going on here. Najivunia kuwa mkenya