The Next Shell of the Hermit Crab Couple, Goiter, the Persistence of Indentured Servitude & Inhumanity, and the Importance of Telling People's Stories

Today was the first real day in our new place, where we woke up and made coffee and are now ending the day with a bottle of wine. The last "Permanent Vacation" post ended with a hermit crab in a cowry shell. That's basically what Jessica and I are, though she likens us to a bear and a cub. Maybe we are two bears that roam cave to cave saying, "this porridge is too hot, this porridge is too cold." The sentiments herein were brewing before we went to Mombasa, but going there and coming back "home" to our now ex-place in Runda, we realized it was never going to be home. It was not a life we ever wanted to get used to or could picture ourselves in. Those that know us, know that Jess and I have a propensity for moving, for perpetually seeking greener pastures. In NYC, it was all the usual reasons—leaky roofs, lack of heat, asshole landlords, asshole neighbors, smokers below, nocturnal volleyball teams above, lack of space to even wipe your ass, or just growing plain tired of a neighborhood and living like rats. Our reasons here in Nairobi are quite different than that.

I kind of hinted at the dynamics of our first place in Runda in my first post from Nairobi. On the outside it was a nice place. I never really posted pictures of it, but Jess posted some here and here. I guess we were trying to be positive and open-minded and non-judgmental about it, being the new kids on the block and all. But going away and coming back made us realize the issues were all things that we should not get used to, or didn't want to get used to.

Mrs. F., the Maid with Goiter

Everyone told us that we'd have to get used to having a maid. Fine. I grew up in Mexico with a maid and understand the rationalizations, whether they be right or wrong. "You are providing them a job." "It gives them something to do." The maid we had in Mexico (that did gardening and our laundry and big picture stuff, but never really cleaned up directly after us) had six children that all went on to be successful doctors and lawyers and was one of the most well-to-do families in the town (Axixic).

We'd also been told about the huge disparities between rich and poor in Nairobi that fell mostly along racial lines. But these are all just words when you've never been to or lived in a place, until you've seen it and, more importantly, lived it for yourself. The scenario that has been playing through my head a lot in the past month living in Runda is the hostage situation in The Crying Game. Yes, maybe partly because we felt like hostages in our home, or maybe it's because they play cricket here and I keep picturing Forest Whitaker, in his colonial sweater, pitching a ball at me over and over. But mostly that scene makes you realize how the dynamics of a situation, of a plan, or of an institutionalized system of subversion, change when you get to know the individual people. Both the hostages and the hostage-takers become individual humans. Then things become far more complex and harder to swallow. Like frogs and scorpions. God, that's a great movie. I should put it in our queue to see again, if we only had Netflix here. Or a TV for that matter.

The first morning that we woke up in our place in Runda, our now ex landlord (herein referred to as Mr. BAS (for bad-ass Sikh), invited us for tea. That is when we first met Mrs. F, his maid. The most noticeable thing about Mrs. F. is that she has a huge lump on her neck. You can't miss it. I'm not a rocket scientist or doctor, but I've always thought goiter was a no-brainer, a thing of the past. Hello, got iodized salt? We asked Mr. BAS about it and he brushed it off, saying "we are taking care of it." So we gave him the benefit of the doubt, though we were kind of shocked at how advanced it was. It especially bothered Jess, being a nutritionist and all. I mean talking about living with it in your own background, she literally was living in our own backyard and cleaning up our messes to boot. I'll get back to Mrs. F.'s story.

Mr. R. and Mr. J., the Watchmen

The other two people employed by Mr. BAS were a daytime security guard/gardener/butler/all-purpose-handyman (also known in some circles as a slave) that I'll call Mr. R. and a night security guard I'll call Mr. J. (though Mr. BAS told us to just call him "soldier"). Mr. R. works 7 days a week from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Every time I would come and go, even if it was just to go for a run, Mr. R. would have to get the door for me. At other times you'd usually see him hunched over hacking at weeds with his machete or scooping up dogshit. He usually wore a "Californication" shirt and sometimes wore caps that made him look like Morgan Freeman in Driving Miss Daisy. I have pictures, but opted not to post them to protect the innocent or however that saying goes.

Mr. J., the night guard, was a younger kid that wore FUBU knock-offs (spelled "FURU") and always carried a big stick. He spoke the best English so most of what we learned was through him. Mr. J. makes 6000 shillings a month, or about $100 US dollars. He rents a shack in the nearby slum for 2000 shillings a month, which leaves $66 dollars a month to live off, which doesn't go far, being that Nairobi is about as expensive as the U.S. He works seven days a week, the nightshift from 6 PM to 6 AM. Never gets a vacation, there is no one to replace him should he happen to be sick or his mother should die. Mrs. F. and Mr. J. make 4000 shillings, or $66 dollars a month, working 7 days a week, 12 hours a day. That comes out to something like 18 cents an hour. They make less than Mr. J. because they live on the property in a shack in the backyard. Mrs. F and Mr. J are not a couple, they have families of their own that they obviously rarely see as they never have time to. They live behind this woodpile that inspired a drawing for the book I'm working on for Blake Butler. Their shack is hidden, the roof you see is another mansion beyond the electric fence that probably houses the same story.

woodpile Butler's Ever

That's about the extent of what that living situation inspired in me. There was the whole dog situation too, of which I sort of touched on this post. Some additional canine details we learned was that the big guard night dogs lived solely on ugali (corn mash). And the pathetic blind fluffy day dog ate nothing but white rice. Fluffy was locked up at night right outside our window and would bark and whine incessantly (which was strange considering he was deaf). It was quite an unnerving sound, hard to explain, kind of like a deaf person crying out in pain, relentlessly. The guard dogs would also howl and bark all night at every sound, and all the dogs in the neighborhood would feed off each other in a relentless troubled orgy of barking/howling. If we went out at night, we were immediately mobbed by the guard night dogs. If we went out during the day, Fluffy would hump all over our legs and drool like a dirty old man. All the dogs had really bad breath and rotting teeth. Fluffy had this festering scabby nose. None of their noses were moist as a dog's nose should be. They all stunk, and if you touched them you'd have to wash your hands. They peed all over our bikes and anything we left out on our porch. We had smelly dog fur all over our clothes just from walking from our place to the car (with tires puddled in pee). Much as we love dogs, and as fascinating as the pack dynamics were, they were just very unpleasant dogs to be around. Beasts. Here's a video of Fluffy trying to exert his dominance on one of the labs.

It's hard to explain, but despite the manicured gardens and candy-coated mansion, everything in this compound was riddled, possessed with an oppressive negative stench. This house was just one of many on an estate that Mr. BAS had purchased or inherited, and had subsequently sub-divided and sold off (likely at a huge profit). The final scene in Poltergeist comes to mind, as if the whole estate was built on a cemetery. But instead of corpses rising from the dead, there would be the nearby slum-dwellers wielding machetes demanding justice. This was nothing we wanted to be a part of. A lot of people from the slum would walk through Runda to get to Nairobi or elsewhere. Every morning and evening, there was an exodus of disgruntled people coming and going, many of them did not look happy having this reminder everyday of the gaping gap in wealth. Of the injustice and oppression. They'd walk along, spilling over into the narrow roads with big SUVs and Mercedes with NGO workers and Indians and rich black politicians speeding by, including us, admittedly with doors locked. Every time we would tell people we lived in Runda, they would grimace and say, "ewww." When we told the Kwani people, Binyavanga said, "I'm sorry." Evidently people were shot pulling up to their gates on a weekly basis in Runda. We heard the stories. Despite the ten foot walls ringed with electric fences, and security guards everywhere. Sometimes I'd hear a noise and look out our window and see security guards in swat gear hunting around in our neighbors yards. In the evening you'd see trucks with "guard dog" pens going to release the hounds for the night. Maybe it was not as bad as people made it out to be, but it just wasn't comfortable living like that, being that unsafe, and seeing such a discrepancy of rich and poor, especially along racial lines. We felt like we were imprisoned in our house. Ironic how that is.

Greener Pastures

All these factors made us start looking for another place. There weren't many options. We looked at a couple of places that were the same old story. The second we'd see unhappy servants ("included in the price") and the line of cages with barking dogs, we beelined back to our car. A lot of people live in convenient high-security apartments here, but coming from NYC, we just didn't want to live in an apartment. And houses were too expensive, especially considering you have to get your own security, etc. So really our only option was a guest house within someone else's compound. Finally we found a place with an American woman, a photographer from New York City, that was totally laid back and the place was infinitely better in all regards compared to our old situation in Runda. It's closer to work for Jess, we can bike or walk there now. And walk to the market, the gym, etc. Everything is just closer and more accessible. No electric fences and a yard that just kind of extends forever, one side doesn't even have a fence. No lock on the gate, you can let yourself in and out without having to bother a security guard. It's very open with huge trees looming overhead. As I'm writing this last sentence, Jess is pointing out a monkey climbing around in the trees overhead. Here's our place from the outside.

Rosslyn Close

Here's where I'm writing from...

where I'm writing from

It's a funky place, a bit ramshackle, all one big room with open rafters and lots of windows and bugs and geckos. The landlady is very accommodating, has a garage full of furniture and stuff that we can use to decorate the place as we see fit. We kind of went for the ethnic safari/hunting lodge motif.

main room

Moving in was a cinch. Way easier than moving in NYC. Took about an hour since we were going furnished to furnished, all in one load. We're like the Beverly Hillbillies.

The Goat Question

I haven't had time to ask the goat question. The yard seems suitable enough and there are far recesses that could be sectioned off to accommodate a goat. There's also a trampoline in the yard and we all know that goats love trampolines. The fear I have is that our landlady doesn't own the house, but pays rents to someone else, who might not be crazy about goats. So we'll get settled in first before we spring the goat question.

On the dog front, we also have two dogs here. One is 14 years old, and is a sort of loner, reminds me of Eyeore. The other is this shitzu mutt named poppy that is irresistible. They are the way dogs should be, healthy and happy.


Getting Rid of the Goiter

We felt incredibly relieved to be leaving our old situation behind, but at the same time we didn't want Mrs. F., Mr. R. and Mr. J. to feel like we were abandoning them. Another thing I should mention is that when we moved into our old place, Mr. BAS was there for maybe the first three days, and then he joined his wife for a vacation in Europe for a month (though he was purposely vague about when he would return), leaving us alone in the compound to look after the servants. He was supposed to pay his help on the first of every month, and the first had come and gone and he wasn't coming back til the 7th (we learned after giving our notice via SMS (of course he won't be seeing our deposit back)). Mr. J. had his rent to pay and they were all running out of food. The first barbecue we had, we felt bad cooking in front of them without giving them some food. After that it became a nightly ritual to cook for them.

The main thing that bothered us was Mrs. F.'s goiter. It was hard to communicate with her, but after some inquiring, it ended up that Mr. BAS was lying and that she had never seen a doctor about her goiter, though she had had it for eight years. We of course gave her some iodized salt, but it was beyond that. So we decided to take her to the doctor. One day last week, I picked her up and we got Jess from work and went to Kenyatta hospital, which is on the other side of the city through insane traffic. I could write a whole nother post on driving in Nairobi, for now this Archer blogger has already summed it up succinctly. I have a phobia of doctors and hospitals, not to mention cars and driving, so I can't think of a worse way to spend a day. This day we went for the consultation. Just as we expected, severe grade 3 goiter. If left untreated, it would continue to grow and block her esophagus even more and cut off her breathing, or become cancerous. She had had it for eight years, and being that she had been Mr. BAS's maid for ten years, he had known about it this whole time and had done nothing about it.

We had to go back a few days later for a follow-up and to jump through some more bureaucratic hurdles. Each time was a goat rodeo. Driving in insane traffic, and then trying to park. Everything here is riddled with inefficiency and corruption. We had to jump through all these hurdles, navigating our way around the Kafka-esque complex of Kenyatta hospital, the administrative offices, the phlebotomist, the ultrasound, the medical records office, etc. with lots of waiting around on the crowded wood benches lining the halls. And as far as hospitals in Kenya go, this is one of the nicer ones. It was an interesting experience and a good view into the cross-section of Kenyan people (though the ones that can afford to go to a doctor are probably the privileged richer people). I didn't bring a camera. Taking pictures in hospitals doesn't seem kosher to me.

Anyway, the outcome is I need to go back once more with Mrs. F. as she forgot her ID, so we can release her medical records. Then we can get an appointment to go to the thyroid clinic. After that we can finally schedule her operation (which could take up to 2-3 months to get an appointment). This cost us a few thousand shillings already and the operation will cost us 20,000 shillings (about $300+ dollars). We could expedite it and skip some steps and get an appointment sooner, but it would cost five times this much. We were also encouraged to bribe a doctor if we wanted her bumped up on the list. Everywhere in the hospital, I kept seeing posters and signs that said "Kenyatta hospital is an anti-corruption zone." At first I was wondering what this was about. Now I knew. Even parking, the public parking was ridiculously full, people parking in the road all over the place, blocking each other in and abandoning their vehicles left and right, creating a huge clusterfuck where people couldn't come and go. A security guard told me I could park in this one private area, and when I asked if it would cost anything, he said no, but that I needed to come talk to him, and of course he started on this whole spiel about how he wanted me to get him a job as a driver. Anyway, it's not really a lot to pay considering how much it helps Mrs. F.. She is a rather shy woman, probably rather ashamed of her goiter, that would never ask for help—she only even consented to the consultation after much pressuring. But she has opened up, especially to Jess, and said that she is going to be a free woman once the goiter is gone. She's stoic but has broken down in tears a few times. I can't imagine living for eight years with this thing hanging off your neck, cutting off your breathing, not to mention screwing up your hormone levels (what the thyroid is supposed to do). The doctor had noticed that she had been to local medicine men, because there was incisions in her goiter, where they had tried to drain it. Like a goiter trephination.

So that's Mrs. F.'s story, which is not nearly over.

Bicycle Power and The Wizard of Oz

When we got our bikes, I told Mr. R. he could borrow mine whenever he wanted to. Which he did, and was extremely grateful. Ends up he did get a day off, but the village he lived in was 20 km away and no matatus ran there, so he couldn't visit his family, without walking 40 km roundtrip in a day. So he usually remained in the compound on the day off, which wasn't really different than the other days. Borrowing my bike, he could go visit his family on his day off and also could go out to get supplies, etc. So when we moved our bikes, he noticed right away and had a sad look on his face. So I went out and got him a bike, one of the chinese one-speed bikes that everyone rides around here. The look on Mr. R.'s face was priceless when he saw it. He said that whenever he rode his bike he would think of us.

Ruben on Bike

We were starting to feel like the fucking Wizard of Oz. For you Mrs. F., we give a goiter operation so you can live the rest of your live without a huge lump hanging off your neck. For you Mr. R., we give you a bicycle so you can be mobile and visit your family. Mr. J. we weren't sure about. That was like when the wizard pauses on Dorothy. And he was the most helpful to us, translating between us and Mrs. F. We had been cooking him meals every night, but that was hardly anything. The one thing he wanted was obviously a new job. He had worked at a security firm before, where he had benefits and job security, but Mr. BAS hired him on directly and turned him into an indentured servant. He wanted to go back to working as a legitimate security officer with rights. Jess talked to the security firm where she worked and they called Mr. J., but it ended up not working out for whatever reason. But we tried, and are still trying. Since the first of the month had come and gone and Mr. BAS had not paid him, his slumlord had put a padlock on his shack until he paid his rent. So we ended up "lending" him 2000 shillings so he could pay his rent. Call us ignorant, gullible, bleeding-heart, do-gooder mzungus that don't understand "the way" here, or that were being taken advantage of. But I don't know how you could live with yourself otherwise. It's really not that much different than the times of slavery. And it reminds me somewhat of how some areas of the American south remain now, the vicious cycle of this subservient dependency. That an outsider can't be expected to understand, the relationship between black servants and their "masters," be them rich Indians in Nairobi, or rich old-school racists in America.

We have "servants" where we are now. We had the option to use the maid that our landlady already has employed for many years. We chose to employ her part-time to do our laundry and dust our place twice a week, and we're paying her 4000 shillings a month, and that's just an extra bonus for her on top of what she already makes. Our new "maid" is healthy and has a son that is educated and living in England that I'm sure was paid for from her job. We also have a security guard at night that works for a security firm.

So these are profiles of people we have encountered so far in our living situations.

What is the story behind What is the What?

Dave Eggers What is the What Earlier today, I had the opportunity to meet Dave Eggers and Valentino Achak Deng. Dave wrote a book about Valentino, his story as a so-called lost boy in Sudan. I had mixed feelings about reading it (from a literary standpoint), but reading some of it, and meeting with them today, I feel different about the whole thing. One thing that we always grappled with when I worked at Millennium Promise and well, basically being married to the Millennium Village Project, was how to get Americans and other privileged people to be able to relate to the plight of the people in these villages and in Africa or the bottom billion of the world living off a dollar a day. It always came down to wanting stories.

On one hand, reading it, I was disappointed at it's lack of creativity, strictly in terms of the writing (being a writer, that is what I'm most interested in, especially when reading Eggers who is obviously capable of more). I look for art. This could have been written by any old ghost writer. But would it be right to stylize it? To turn it into art or sensationalize it? The reason it's "a novel," is because they were relying on Valentino's memory from when he was young, so while factually accurate, the details are only as reliable as memory. I'm all about unreliable narrators, and take that as a compliment when people say that about my writing. But this is different. So rather than end up like James Frey or J.T. Leroy, they chose to call it a novel. Why Valentino's name is not on the cover, I'm still not sure and didn't ask. But Eggers is obviously very close to and supportive of Valentino, and it's commendable that he took years from his creative life when he could have been working on something else completely fictional, art for the sake of art, to write What is the What? and having his recognizable name on it has probably brought a lot more eyes. And Valentino's foundation is doing great work as a consequence. This was the reason for our meeting, to cross-pollinate, and talk about how the Millennium Village project could help them.

Anyway, I'll have to read the rest of the book before saying more, in the context of a book review. Suffice to say, based on what others have said, including our new and improved landlady who is also a photographer that just happened to be taking pictures of the lost boys during this time, it's a very accurate and true depiction of what the lost boys went through. There was also this good documentary on the lost boys that I'd recommend. They are definitely getting the exposure and coverage they deserve. There's is a story worth telling. And the telling of such stories has changed their lives for the better good. That is power of telling true stories, especially when people can't tell their own. It goes back to The Crying Game analogy, when you can put a face to it, it makes the difference in the world.


(c) 2008 Derek White