Christmas in Kericho

I couldn’t make it home to my family for Christmas, so instead I spent it with my flatmate’s family. Barbara has spent most of her life in Iowa but was born here and has family living in western Kenya. A day after I got home from Ethiopia, I hopped on a bus to Kericho, a town about one hour’s drive east of Kisumu.

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Kericho is where Kenya’s finest tea plantations are located. Barbara’s family grows tea in addition to various other crops like sukuma wiki (kale) and a maize. Kericho is where some of Kenya’s Kalenjin ethnic group live. There are a few different languages in the Kalenjin community. Barbara’s family speaks Kipsigis in addition to English and Kiswahili. The kids in Kericho don’t start learning English or Kiswahili until they start school. Instead, their mother tongue is their first language, so I couldn’t communicate with the young kids except for body language and funny faces.

Some kids hanging out at a local outdoor church

Some kids hanging out at a local outdoor church

Christmas week in Kericho was quite relaxing for me. We spent some time walking around the farm and visiting all the houses, each belonging to one of the aunts and uncles.  Around tea time, we made a rotation to maximize our tea drinking opportunities at each house.

Freshly chopped sugar cane

Freshly chopped sugar cane from one of our house visits

Midway through the trip we drove to Kisumu to visit a friend. It’s too bad we only had one day there because it seems like a fun city. We had lunch on the shore of Lake Victoria and had some delicious tilapia with chips.

On Christmas Eve, the cousins organized a special gathering where no adults were allowed. Snack packs were put together, sodas were purchased, games were planned, and a playlist was created for dancing. I had an absolute blast. Near the end of the party, a meeting was called to discuss a plan for buying a special gift for their grandmother next Christmas – each of the cousins would set aside a certain amount each month to be collected at the end of the year.

On Christmas day, everyone got involved with preparing a big meal. There was something being made at each of the houses – vegetable stew at one, chapatti at another, and so on. We spent most of the morning at the house in charge of the mbuzi (goat). A fine looking goat was chosen and I stayed to watch the entire process of its slaughtering. I also was handed a knife to help with skinning the carcass.

Me holding two goat feet

Me holding two goat feet

skinning

Every part of the animal was used somehow. The best meat was put aside for our Christmas stew, and the blood was saved for pudding. One of the house helps wrapped up the male genitals in a leaf and a plastic bag and put it in his pocket. We inquired about this and learned that only circumcised men are allowed to eat this part of the male. We also asked if women get to eat the equivalent of the female; this was taken as a ridiculous proposition as the answer was no, of course not.

I ate Christmas lunch with all the men while the women ate in a separate room. We were served first, but I got the insider’s scoop from Barbara and apparently the women set aside the best bits of meat for themselves. They did all of the cooking, after all. Regardless, it was delicious.

Christmas lunch

Christmas lunch

After lunch everyone got into their Sunday best for a family photo. We then got into a circle and I was presented with a gift, a beautiful calabash decorated by one of the aunts. I was so honoured and thankful not only for the special gift, but to be welcomed so openly by this family. It was tough being away from home for the holiday, but at least I was made to feel belonging somewhere.

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It was then time to go visit a different grandmother living a few kilometers away. The 25 or so cousins (I never did get an accurate count) and I hopped into the back of a lorry for what would be, for me, the ride of a lifetime. The cousins quickly climbed up to the overhanging metal bars on the top of the truck to get the best views. I decided to lay low and just peak over the side. The views of the tea plantations on the way were absolutely beautiful. The driver was a bit of daredevil as we went up and down the hilly, unpaved roads, but we all made it there and back just fine. Definitely not a Christmas I’ll ever forget!

Lorry ride

Lorry ride

The view from grandmother's house

The view from grandmother’s house

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Ethiopia Trip pt. 2

After arriving in the scenic Bahir Dar, I sat by the shore of Lake Tana at a café and had some coffee to warm me up while waiting for my tour to start. In addition to its gorgeous scenery, Lake Tana has several island monasteries from the 15th and 16th centuries.  The monks that live there today share oral histories of the islands and safeguard beautiful artefacts such as manuscripts and silver crosses.

laketana1monastery3monastery4I hopped on a boat with a group of Ethiopians for the tour. I was the only farenji (foreigner) on board but I was made to feel welcome. An inquisitive older man, an engineer, asked me where I was from and we got to talking. It turns out he lived in Nairobi for several years, so we compared our thoughts of the city as we enjoyed views of the lake.

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At the first monastery, Entoto Iyasu, a monk told us that the original inhabitants of the island worshipped snakes before Orthodox Christianity arrived. We were then shown an old and enormous snake skin hanging on the wall. It turns out that a few hundred years ago, there was a big snake that kept eating the monk’s chickens so they added it to the wall decoration. It was then that I confirmed that there would be no messing around with any monks during my stay in Ethiopia. In the island’s church, we saw colourful paintings of various bible scenes dating back to the 15th century.

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I was struck by the dedication of the monks to their faith, many of whom were seated quietly praying for extended periods of time, and with the gentle care with which the artefacts were protected. The following two monasteries, St. Gabriel and Debre Maryam, had similar paintings, as well as other interesting artefacts pictured below. In between, our boat driver took us out to the part of Lake Tana that meets the Blue Nile.

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monastery2

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Where Lake Tana meets the Blue Nile

After lunch, I hired a tuk tuk driver to take me up to Haile Selassie’s Palace, at the top of a small mountain.  Knowing I wouldn’t be able to go inside, I had some afternoon time to kill and wanted to get a nice view of Bahir Dar. Up top, I was able to see over the city and the lake. The palace itself wasn’t extraordinary.

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As sunset approached, I walked by the lakeshore and had a beer outside at a place that I think was called Mango House. Dozens of Bahir Dar residents were seated facing the water as the sun went down. There was a charming carnival with a ferris wheel nearby that caught my attention too.

carnival

The next morning I took a minibus to Gonder, about 3 hours drive away. The vehicle was jam packed with people but the ticket was cheap and I still was able to joy the hilly scenery. After arriving at my hotel, the L-Shape, I found a guide, Yigza, to take me around the town (or rather, he found me). We travelled throughout the city by Tuk Tuk and I had a good time hearing about the town from someone who called Gonder his home.

My ride for the day

My ride for the day

Our first stop was Debre Berhan Selassie (“Mountain of Light”) a pretty 17th century church with impressive paintings. It was quiet when we arrived mid-morning, and Yigza had to ask a priest to open the doors for us as nobody was around. I was a bit mesmerized by the painting of angels covering the ceiling.

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We then drove to Felasha Village, which is just outside Gonder. It used to be inhabited by hundreds of Ethiopian Jews. Some of their descendants still live there, and the community is well-known for their handicrafts. We visited the community’s small synagogue, and then explored some of the handicraft shops, some of which were run by a women’s cooperative. We admired the clay pots and carvings, fabrics, and jewelry, before heading back to town.

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A synagogue in Felasha village

A synagogue in Felasha village

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The highlight of the day came after lunch – a walk through Gonder’s 17th century royal enclosure, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As we expored the ruins, my guide gave an entertaining account of the antics of various Ethiopian kings in Gonder’s history, including Emperor Fasilidas, the city’s founder. Visitors can see the remaining structures of a concert hall, banquet hall, and lion cages.

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A visit to the castles was followed by a short drive to Fasilidas’ Bath. The Bath hosts a special ceremony at Gonder’s annual Timket (Epiphany) celebration in early January. Although it was empty when I visited in

December, the pool is filled with water during Timket. After the water prayed over, dozens of young men jump into the pool to benefit from its blessing and commemorate the baptism of Jesus. Sounds like quite the pool party!

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And so went my perfect day in Gonder! Now just one more stop before returning to Addis…

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Ethiopia Trip pt. 1

The week before Christmas, I briefly escaped from Kenya to visit Ethiopia. It was an exciting journey of history, religion, nature, and cuisine. I’ll spread the stories from my trip over a few posts because there’s so much I want to highlight about this incredible country.

I flew to Addis Ababa and arrived early afternoon on a Friday. The capital reminded me of Nairobi in some ways: its busy and bustling atmosphere, countless construction projects, and a diversity in the socioeconomic realities lived by its inhabitants.

In Addis, I stayed at Mr Martin’s Cozy Place, a guesthouse with an atmosphere as friendly as its name suggests. I never figured out why the place is called Mr Martin’s. The owner’s name is Davit. Anyway, it was a simple but comfortable option in a safe location with helpful staff. The main house is also occupied by a family, which might not appeal to all travelers, but I really enjoyed that there were pets and goofy kids running around.

My first activity in Addis was a walking food tour with Addis Eats. The co-founders, Eliza and Xavier, are American researchers with an impressive range of knowledge on all things food and all things Ethiopia. Not only did this tour equip me with some useful info and tips for food choices throughout my trip, but it also acted as an introduction to the geography of Addis and the history and culture of Ethiopia. The tour started with a small family-run joint where we had refreshing mango-avocado blends. Then we went to a small, sort of hidden restaurant frequented by locals, where we had two different types of wat (stew) over injera. We weren’t there at the right time to see injera being made, but Xavier told us how this spongy sourdough pancake is made out of a very fine grain called teff. It was here we had shiro wat, my favourite type of wat, because it’s packed with berbere, a special spice blend I really like.  After that, we went to a mid-range restaurant to have whole fried tilapia with some spicy sauces. Ethiopian cuisine includes some great fish selections, it being the source of the Blue Nile. Next, we went to a little café for a traditional coffee ceremony, complete with frankincense and a popcorn snack. I never really liked coffee, but my visit to Ethiopia taught me to appreciate it much more, and I asked for a coffee ceremony at several restaurants during my trip. Ethiopia is a special place for coffee because it is coffee’s indigenous home, where you can find the widest genetic diversity of the plant. Our tour concluded with a few more dishes at a high end restaurant, but by then I was really stuffed. The tour altogether cost $50US, a pretty good deal considering how much food there was, the quality of information shared with us, and the personal nature of the tour.

An assorted spread including different types of wat, collard greens,, and other veggies on injera

An assorted spread including different types of wat, collard greens,, and other veggies on injera

Fried tilapia

Fried tilapia

A traditional coffee ceremony

A traditional coffee ceremony

The next day I spent out on the town. First I went to the Red Terror Martyr’s Memorial Museum. This relatively new museum provides a haunting account of the Soviet-sponsored communist rule in Ethiopia and Eritrea that killed at least 30,000 people (though it is estimated that the number is more likely in the hundreds of thousands) in the 1970s, following the military takeover of Emperor Mengistu Haile Mariam. The museum’s guides are survivors of the violence who protested against the regime. In addition to their own experiences, they share stories of other dissenters who were not so lucky, as you pass by their photographs, clothing, and bones.

Photographs of some of the Derg's victims

Photographs of some of the Derg’s victims

Next I went to the Addis Ababa Museum, which was pretty unremarkable so I’ll stop there.

Then I had lunch at an Italian restaurant called Juventus, mainly because I knew my Dad would get a kick out of it but also because I heard the Italian food in Addis was amazing.  I had pizza and it was pretty good but nothing special. However, I did have an incredible pesto pasta dish later in the week at a restaurant called Grani di Pepe. Anyway, Juventus is right behind Meskel Square, an important landmark in Addis Ababa for a few reasons. First of all, it’s a central location for the city’s minibuses, some of which almost ran me over when walking through the square. (I used the minibuses several times in Addis, and was surprised that they were generally cleaner and in better condition than what I’m used to here in Nairobi). Second, the public square is the location of the annual Meskel Festival. Meskel in Amharic means cross, and this festival commemorates when the crucifix was revealed to Emperor Constantine’s mother, an important event in the Orthodox faith. Finally, Meskel Square was renamed Revolution Square in 1974 when the monarchy fell and Emperor Mengistu rose to power. He erected enormous portraits of Marx, Engels, and Lenen in the square during this time (which I imagine looked kind of creepy).

Meskel Square

Meskel Square

On my second day in Addis, I also visited the Holy Trinity Cathedral (Kidist Selassie). It was built in commemoration of Ethiopia’s freedom from Italian occupation. On the ceiling of the front section of the church is a beautiful painting of the Ascension of Jesus Christ and some other New Testament stories. Framing this are two other important paintings: one of the Battle of Adwa, when Ethiopia defeated the Italians in 1896, and another of Haile Selassie speaking to the League of Nations. At the front of the church, there is also a section with the tombs of Emperor Haile Selassie and Empress Menen. Not only is this church a significant place of worship, but it also demonstrates the tight links between church and state in Ethiopia.

Holy Trinity Cathedral

Holy Trinity Cathedral

The inside of Holy Trinity

The inside of Holy Trinity

A painting of Haile Selassie speaking to the League of Nations

A painting of Haile Selassie speaking to the League of Nations

From Holy Trinity I went to St George’s Cathedral. St. George’s is where Haile Selassie was crowned, so it’s considered a site of pilgrimage for rastafarians. I didn’t get there in enough time to go inside but sat outside for a while and listened to some of the worship music playing.

St. George's Cathedral

St. George’s Cathedral

While I sat and listened, a guide hanging around tried to convince me to go on some other tours. Instead, I convinced him to take me to a tej house, a type of bar I wanted to visit but wasn’t sure I could on my own. Tej is a type of mead or honey wine produced in Ethiopia and Eritrea. It is flavoured with the leaves of buckthorn, a plant I know nothing else about except it’s used to make tej.  Tej is a sweet yellow drink served in a vase-like glass pictured below. It came out of a big green barrel and was very tasty.

Tej

Tej

After returning to Mr Martin’s in the late afternoon, I walked down the street to Bait al Mandi, a Yemeni restaurant. It was my first time having Yemeni food, and won’t be my last. I had lamb mandi with pita and rice. Mandi is meat that is cooked on charcoal in a tandoor, a type of oven traditionally dug into the ground and sealed so that smoke does not escape. I don’t think it was cooked in the ground at the restaurant, but the meat was smoky and delicious. The servings were generous and so of course I fell in love with the place.  With a full belly I returned to get enough sleep before an early flight to Bahir Dar the next morning.

Lamb mandi

Lamb mandi

Nairobi National Museum

Last weekend I went to the Nairobi National Museum and had a fantastic time. A big highlight for me was their Human Origins section, which includes a fascinating Hominid Skull Room. Several major discoveries regarding the origins of humanity have been made in the Turkana region of Kenya over the past 40 years. Several skulls belonging to the world’s first discoveries of homo erectus, paranthropus, homo rudolfensis, and other prehistoric species are here in Nairobi. I was most excited about Nariokotome (Turkana) Boy, a 1.6 million year old specimen, and the most complete skeleton of an early hominid (homo erectus, though some consider it a separate species, homo ergaster). I asked a few passers-by to snap a few photos of me with him. I received a few confused reactions and below is the awkward result:

An excited anthropology student with Turkana Boy

An excited anthropology student with Turkana Boy

There was also an interesting exhibit on the History of Kenya, and another called “Cycles of Life” which described several of Kenya’s many ethnic groups through different cultural activities related to birth, childhood, becoming an adult, spirituality, social life, marriage, and so on. I was interested in the various tools and outfits intended for girls’ initiation, particularly surrounding circumcision. Often labelled incorrectly as FGM (female genital mutilation) female circumcision is a very diverse range of practices that differ physically and symbolically across different ethnic groups. While Western human rights and feminist discourses (as well as some Kenyan groups) misrepresent FC as a singular, destructive practice, the museum provided some insight into the significance of the practice to some girls’ initiation as a young woman. This isn’t to say that the practice is not forced oppressively in some situations, which it certainly is. There’s just a lot more to it than some people say.

Initiate decorations (Nandi, Samburu, Endo - mid-20th century)

Initiate decorations
(Nandi, Samburu, Endo – mid-20th century)

The museum also has large taxidermy exhibits. There are over 1300 bird species in East Africa and the region’s mammals are incredible. However, I think I would have been more fascinated if these animals weren’t dead.

Hall of Mammals

Hall of Mammals

Speaking of death, I continued my visit at the museum’s Snake Park, where the residents were very much alive. The facility includes an open pit about 6 meters long and wide and 2 meters deep, surrounded by a waist-level wall with a few trees and dozens of snakes and turtles. This included an enthusiastic black mamba that for a few minutes was standing up (in the snake way) eagerly trying to reach the outside of the enclosure (but thankfully not coming very close). The more dangerous cobras, vipers, and so on were in sealed tanks encircling the facility. There was also an American Alligator (not sure why) and a Nile Crocodile with whom I took a selfie for my co-op class’ animal selfie competition.

Black mamba

Black mamba

Croc selfie

Croc selfie

I concluded with a visit to the museum’s botanical gardens, which profiles several indigenous species capable of healing various illnesses. “Traditional” plant medicines (and their unfortunate commodification by development projects and big pharma) are a common topic in my cultural anthropology classes, and so naturally I was excited to check out what varieties exist in Kenya. The paths along the gardens were all covered in beautiful mosaic designs.

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Botanical gardens