A Nigerian-American journalist in Kenya

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K24 Day 2: When the stats don’t matter July 10, 2010

Filed under: K24 — Admin @ 11:38 am
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I had no idea I would be going to Kibera.

Tuesday morning, after the news meeting, I opted to join a fellow reporter named Caleb on his story. I liked his story idea. Kenya’s parliamentarians are asking for a pay raise of nearly 18%, this would make them among the highest paid lawmakers and politicians in the world. The news has been in the headlines over a week. Caleb, being the creative journalist that he is, wanted to ask ordinary Kenyans how they felt about it and compare how much they make to the salary that the parliamentarians are requesting. I decided to follow.

But I didn’t know I would be going to Kibera.

I sat in the backseat with a friendly cameraman, one of the interns at K24. Caleb in the front with the driver.

“Are you ready for Kibera?” Caleb asked.

“Kibera? Kibera!” was my response.

After a wave of chuckles, I heard the cameraman say I have nothing to worry about.

“I have my bag and everything! Why didn’t you guys tell me we’re going to Kibera?” I asked.

Excitement overwhelmed me as I thought, “I’m going to the “largest ‘slum’ in Africa.” Ironically, just that morning I had told someone that I wanted to go to Kibera. The guy had laughed and said, “you are not yet ready to go to such a place.

Such a place?

Such a place, yes! I’d seen it on TV, acres and acres of shacks and tin roofs and mud houses. Street children In tattered clothing. Hawkers. Prostitutes. Drugs. Open sewage. Poverty-stricken families huddled in 12ft x 12ft boxes. Missionaries and pastors go there. Government officials avoid Kibera. Foreign aid workers go there. I was going there.

On the way, along Jamhuri Road, we saw a students on one side of the street. A huge blue van, called a matatu, had crashed right into a small shop.

“There’s a story,” Caleb said.

We got out and started reporting. Witnesses said they saw the matatu rolling down the street and heard the shouts of students inside. There was no driver and the matatu veered off the road, slamming into a tiny row of stores. I stood close, listening to the Swahili words, trying to learn as Caleb translated for me. Someone tapped my shoulder.

“Will you talk to the students?”

“Yes,” I responded. “We will talk to them.”

It was quite a scene. About 100 bystanders. Confusion was everywhere, but authorities were out of sight. And they never came. I walked over to the students wearing burgundy uniforms. The cameraman was behind me. Caleb put the mike in my hand and told me to go for it. I felt the curious glare of about 40 pairs of eyes.

“Can someone explain what happened?”

Nearly 30 students encircled me and the cameraman. They all began speaking at once. Then one boy came forward and spoke into the mike. He said, he was sleeping and awoke to hear his classmates screaming. He tried to run to the driver’s seat, but was blocked by a large piece of metal. Another student said he knew they were dead.

“How did you all feel?”

“Scared!” One girl said.

“I thought we were gone.”

“What came to your mind?”

“Accident. Accident. That’s the first thing I thought.”

“Did anyone get hurt?”

“No, we’re okay.”

“We know God is with us.”

“Can I speak with a teacher?”

A man emerged forward- the music instructor at the school. He blamed the driver. Apparently, the driver had stopped the matatu, for reasons unknown, and said he would return briefly. The brake must not have been working properly. A woman wearing red came forward to get our attention. Caleb said her store had been the one destroyed.

We followed the petite woman. Caleb asked her questions. After explaining that she had heard a strange sound and something told her to get out of the store, she began to cry. She said her husband had died not too long ago and now, her store is ruined.

After that, we went into Kibera, where the surroundings immediately changed. The driver rolled up the windows. I heard the clicks of all four of the door locks. And if I really wanted to be dramatic, I’d say, the sun disappeared.

With his arms outstretched, Caleb spoke. “Welcome to Kibera! A popular tourist attraction!”

The problems in Kibera are no secret. Prostitution. Girls sell their bodies for less than Ksh30 (US $0.30). Rape and petty crimes are on the rise. More than 1 million residents are jammed into 200 settlements in Kibera, making it the largest makeshift ghetto on the African continent. Unclean water and open sewage means typhoid and cholera. One latrine per 50 people. Alcoholism is still one of the most pervasive problems. The homemade brews are high in methanol.  Hundreds of kids hawk goods on the street to fund their glue sniffing addiction. Most of the community is without electricity. More than 50% are unemployed. HIV/AIDS rate estimates range from 35-50%.

But sometimes, the statistics don’t matter when you’re in the land of your people. They don’t matter when you’re so close to the people, “the victims,” who are the subject of those studies. And when you’re surrounded by kids in tattered clothing, you’d be silly to think about those numbers. When a woman comes to you and says, “I am your grandmother,” it becomes almost inhumane to look at her bare surroundings and not at her heart.

I saw Kibera’s children. Big- eyed. Yellow-eyed. Long-eye lashed children. God. The children. Gods knows I love children. They walked in packs, in twos, in solo, marching through a maze in which piles of rubbish reached for the sky. If I tried, and when I die, I will never forget the girl wearing a striped shirt. Corn-rowed hair in a handful of braids, she was adorable. She was serious–I only saw her smile once. She was shy—it took her a while before she could look into my eyes. But when she did, she showed me the face of a wise woman. How can a girl of 3 look so strong? I saw strength in Kibera. And hospitality.

I received the warmest hospitality from people in Kibera. I saw it when I walked out the car with Caleb and the cameraman. There it was, personified in the two guys who approached us. A tall, lean dark one with slim eyes and buttery skin.  Quiet. A brown, medium height one in a cargo jacket and blue jeans. Friendly. They led us into Kibera and without them, I would not have had access. Lawrence and Wyclef.

“Wyclef? As in Wyclef Jean?” I asked him.

“Wyclef as in Wyclef Mbuyo!” he said and we laughed.

“I’m Chika. From Nigeria. “

“It’s cool. You’re cool.”

Statistics don’t matter when you connect with a statistic.


Recommended do’s and don’ts July 7, 2010

Filed under: Safety — Admin @ 7:48 pm
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They told me not to roll down my windows while in a car.                                                                                                                                                          

“They will ask for all your money and if you don’t give it to them, they’ll throw poop at you.”

“Human feces or like dog poop?” I asked Archana Dodhia, the Kenyan I had met at the Dubai airport.


Don’t use a cell phone in public.

“At all?” I asked a former Medill graduate who had reported in Kenya at the same station for which I’m currently placed.

“They’ll steal it right out your hand. It’s just like Southside Chicago,” she said.

“Don’t drink the water.”

Sorry mom, I’ve been drinking the tap water, but I make sure to boil it for 3 minutes. Hasn’t given me any problems.

I asked Pastor Frida if she is a Luo. She said she is. I asked if it’s ok to ask Kenyans about their ethnic background. She said it’s a sensitive issue. This surprised me, sort of. In Nigeria, people aren’t sensitive about what ethnic group they belong to. An Igbo will proudly tell you that he/she is Igbo. Yorubas are proud to be Yorubas. They same goes for the Efiks, Esans, Hausas, Kanuris, Fulanis, Ibibios, Ijaws, Urobos, etc. Perhaps that is way Nigeria is not yet a unified nation, but is more of a conglomeration of hundreds of ethnic groups. But that’s another story, rather another blog. 

 Kenya seems to be much more unified. I admire Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. The Mau Mau were mostly Kikuyu, but they fought for others. Yes, ethnic rivalries break out, but I sense some sort of unity among the people and I’ve only been here for a few days. On the television, I don’t see too many references to a particular group. I see references to the people of Kenya.

“Don’t drive in a car without wearing a seat belt. Kenyans drive crazy,” someone told me with an unblinking gaze.

Today, I was in a car driving with a Kenyan colleague. He was driving 150mph. My seat belt remained fastened. Even after we had parked.


Home for the next 3 months

Filed under: Uncategorized — Admin @ 7:11 pm
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It’s nice. And I’m enjoying the simple life. Handwashing my clothes, boiling the tap water, bathing with a bucket, that sort of thing. The one-bedroom self-contained apartment is Ksh. 60,000 or about $760 a month. I’m right in town. I see the beautiful Uhuru Park, I hear the boisterous sounds of urban traffic, the 5star luxury Serena Hotel is closeby and I get great views from the windows and balcony.

Pastor Frida is the only person I knew lived in Kenya prior to my arrival. We had attended the same church back in the States. She’s back in her home country. It’s wonderful having someone you know close by, when you’re in a completely foreign land.


Cultural observations: hospitality July 3, 2010

Filed under: cultural observations — Admin @ 6:54 pm
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Kenyans are famous for their hospitality. It seems Africans are generally considered to be hospitable, but some Africans go above and beyond to smile at strangers and offer assistance when they can.

The Kenya Airways flight attendants were welcoming and one man in particular caught my eye. His head was small and slender. His arms, also slender. His skin shined a bronze hue.  A legion of small red bumps lined his forehead. His movements were delicate. His fingers moved in small, deliberate flutters. When he talked, his lips curved out. Like butterfly wings.

Bright-eyed and soft-spoken, he approached me. “Excuse me, I am serving breakfast now. Would you like fried chicken or eggs?” I chose the eggs, but then changed my mind-hey, “pescatarianism” should be observed in moderation.  “What type of juice would you like? Pineapple? Apple? Fruit juice?” Mmmmmm…..there’s nothing like real fruit juice, from real fruits! No high fructose corn syrups. No artificial sweeteners with names akin to plant parts. No added sugars. No dyes like red 5 and blue 9. “I’ll take pineapple.”

He grinned. “Enjoy.”

I went to a grocery store today. Nakumatt lifestyle.

It’s like Wal-mart, minus the yellow happy face and spy cameras in the store. There I picked up some essentials: antibacterial cleaning spray, paper towels, salt, nuts, juice, water, buckets, dish soap, pasta. Now, I didn’t experience much of this “Kenyan friendliness” while at the store. Here’s my theory: It seems many Africans reserve their cheery charisma to visitors and strangers. Towards their own, they are much more sedated, maybe even rude, and sometimes, suspicious. Well, I can speak for many Nigerians and other west Africans who would agree whole-heartedly.

When I prepared to go to the store, I made sure to dress to blend in. None of my gold-colored (yes, gold-colored), dangling, bejeweled earrings. I covered my locks in a yellow wrap, tied tall, the way I see Jamaican women tie theirs. I covered my hair because locks attracts attention for Africans. Sometimes it’s a curious attention,  and other times it’s disgust and suspicion. Locks are associated with uncleanness, Rastas and spirituality. Many African peoples share tales of evil children or lucky children who were born with locks. Traditions dictate that shrine priests and cultists must lock their hair. So, yeah, I made sure to cover my  interwoven tresses!


Basically, I tried to look African, or at least, not so American. My long paisley-print dress hardly got a glance. In the store, people spoke Swahili to me and when I said I don’t speak Swahili as sweetly as I could, they would look confused and shuffle past me. Several times, I asked for help. Where is the sea salt? Do you have almond milk? Is it only whole milk you have? What about soy?  Where can I buy a land phone? Do you really not have shower caps? Upon hearing my accent, the store associates would strain to listen to me. But what I remember most was the perplexed expression on their faces. It was like: why is this African-looking woman pretending to have a Western accent?

I saw several white Americans ask for help and associates would dash here and there to serve them. At the cashier, a white woman asked if I spoke English. She asked me about a sign near the cashier. We chatted. She’s from Florida and is also a journalist. A freelancer. She said she has loved her Kenya trip and doesn’t even want to go back home, but she has kids. Her 10 day trip was with a church group. She said the best thing was experiencing the “friendliness of the Kenyan people.”

It was nice to meet an American. But, hey, what she said is nothing new. It seems many people, especially Africans, dear God, especially Africans, enjoy meeting white people.  I will never forget how I was bribed at the Nigerian airport. The same airport security person who had relentlessly bribed me, my mom and my sister, had nearly bowed to the white man behind me. “Hello, sah! Welcome sah!” I see this all the time. Is the same happening in Kenya? I can’t answer that just yet.

Because the answer is not a simple yes or no.  I found a taxi driver to take me back to my apartment at the YWCA. Actually, I didn’t find the driver, but Pastor Frida did. She was able to take me to the store, but wasn’t able to stay.  I was so glad when she got out the car to help me find a taxi. I told her I prefer older drivers. I’m being judgmental, but they seem less harmless. I know I’m silly to think this way. But I do. So Pastor Frida looked for an older driver for me. Yes, Godfrey should be in his late 50’s or early 60’s. Frida did the introductions in Kiswahili. He agreed to take me. His was the broadest, most genuine smile I’d seen so far in Kenya. 300 shillings.  I asked if he spoke English. (Most Kenyans speak English, but sometimes older Africans don’t. I thought it may be the same with him.)

“Yes, very well.” And he did speak it well. He waited while I shopped. We chatted along the ride. I gave him 400 shillings and asked if I can give him a call when I need a ride. He was so pleased. Next time I’ll take his picture.


A journey of 8 thousand miles July 2, 2010

Filed under: the journey — Admin @ 10:04 pm
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I left Atlanta June 28. My youngest sister, Amanda and I, had fun at the airport.


I had a 6 hour layover at the Dubai airport. But, those 6 hours grew to more than 9 hours as I waited for someone to tell me when my flight would arrive. Nonetheless, the Dubai airport was really interesting. It was easy to pick out those going to Kenya. Gate 101, please open up!


At the airport, I met Archana Dodhia, a Kenyan student at Auburn University in Alabama. Go figure-not to far from Atlanta. Archana lives in the suburbs around Nairobi.