Today we are buying the supplies needed for the six day trek up Mt. Kenya. Here James and John are picking out fresh grains, fruits, and vegetables. The quality of the fresh food here is excellent and the prices are good, in part due to the mild climate and rich volcanic soil. On the trek we will have a cook and porters who will carry the fresh supplies and prepare them every meal.
Before we left Camp Kongoni John looked through the stuff I have planned to take on the trek. He thought I had underestimated the cold temperatures and recommended a thicker coat and some gloves. Fortunately, this mountain town has lots of little kiosks that sell these items. Being a mountain guide gives John not only a good income, it clearly brings him respect and clout in the community. John took me to a jacket kiosk, for example, then let me fend for myself. I could tell that he was in the middle. He wanted me to get a good jacket at a fair price, but did not want to interfere with his fellow business associates. I found a decent lightweight but warm jacket and John agreed that it would be adequate. I asked the price and the store owner wrote on his arm 2500 Kenyan Shillings.
I have never been much of a haggler, but I did sell stuff at a swap meet when I was in high school and college. I usually was on the receiving end of the bargaining strategy, and one I did not appreciate was the aggressive or deprecating method. I complemented the store owner on his quality merchandise and on the fine jacket, but said that it seemed a bit expensive. I could afford 1500 shillings, I said. We settled on 1800 shillings, and now the exchange rate is about 100 shillings to a dollar, so that’s $18. I probably paid too much but felt good about it all, and I’ll gain more experience over time.
When I walk around town, I know that the local people see me as wealthy, and relatively speaking I am. In Arizona I am an optometrist that has a full-time job and decent income, but I am certainly not rich. Here I am seen as rich, and there is almost nothing I can do to change that perception. When in a bargaining situation, as in the market or in the small shops, I will be quoted a higher price. Over time, it will be my job to learn what the fair price is and smoothly negotiate a compromise.
There is one more aspect of life here that I find interesting. As I walk around town I hear people say, “Mzungu.” Passersby say it. Little kids look at me and say, “Mzungu!” By the way, it is pronounced by making the “m” sound, then zungu, where the u is pronounced “oo,” same as Spanish. Yesterday I asked John where he bought his Land Rover and he replied, “It was owned by a mzungu, then a local guy, then I bought it.” The term is not derogatory and does not mean disrespect, it just means “white person.” I asked James, “Is someone from Asia mzungu?” Yes, he replied. “Is someone from India mzungu?” No, we have a different name for people from India. “Is a black person from America mzungu?” I asked. James looked at me like I was crazy, “Of course not,” he said. “Okay, I think I’ve got it now,” I said and we both laughed.
Kenyans are accustomed to ethnic and racial diversity. Located in East Africa and on the Indian Ocean, not far from the Middle East and India, they have been trading with foreigners for centuries. Perhaps more importantly, there are 42 tribes that make up Kenyan society. Each one of these tribes has certain attributes, such as a different language, physical differences, and a propensity for certain occupations or livelihoods. Relations are peaceful now but people seem quite aware of tribal affiliations and who is from where and what tribe.
I met Peter, for example, who works as a security guard at Kongoni Camp. Peter told me that he is Maasai and I have noticed that Maasai are often hired as security guards. He tended cattle and lived with his family until his mother became ill with cancer. They tried to get treatment for her at a local hospital but did not have the money to pay. There are government hospitals but Peter told me they did not have the money to pay the bribe to get her in. Peter sold his cattle to try and help his mother, but nothing worked and she died last year. After that he took up the job as a security guard here.
I asked Peter if there was anything that I could do to help. I had told him that I was an eye doctor and he mentioned that his eyes were red and itchy. When in Nanyuki, I found a pharmacy and asked for an eye drop to help with allergies but they gave me neomycin, an antibiotic known to cause allergic reactions. I found another pharmacy and they had a good selection of eye drops. I purchased cromolyn sodium ophthalmic solution for 300 shillings ($3) and gave Peter the bottle, telling him how to use it and that he could buy it on his own if it helped him. I am not sure how affordable that might be for Peter, but at least he can try it to see if it helps.
Here is another aspect of Kenyan history and society that I find fascinating. As I mentioned in my last entry, Kenya was under British rule for 68 years. There was a fight for independence that ended in December, 1963, just months before I was born. Kenya has invited the British back and there are military compounds all over the country. Adjacent to where I am staying there is a British army training facility, and just south of Nanyuki we passed a helicopter training base. At Kongoni Camp many of the guests are young British men on leave. They sit in small groups in the restaurant eating and drinking beer, and use the pool. The local people seem to accept the British presence without any animosity, despite the relatively short 52 years since the end of the war.
I must mention at this point a disclaimer. I have only been in the country a few days, and some of my observations and impressions are most certainly incomplete, biased, or ignorant. What I am telling you is based on casual conversations with my guide John, apprentice guide James, and the employees I have met. Of course, I am not new to traveling in developing countries and working in poor areas, Honduras for example, and there are similarities.
More than race or ethnicity, economic status is probably the most influential factor in Kenyan society. I am surrounded by crushing poverty. I am writing from Kongoni Camp, a rustic but comfortable lodging facility on the outskirts of Nanyuki. Kongoni Camp is surrounded by an 8 to 10 foot fence. There is a front gate manned 24-7 by armed security guards, supplemented by several roaming security guards like Peter who carry batons and a few friendly but vocal dogs like the one pointed out the monkey in the trees this morning.
But the main issue is not the monkeys. Theft is rampant here, mostly through non-violent crimes of opportunity. I have a locked room so I feel comfortable leaving all of my belongings here, including a couple thousand dollars in optometry instruments, the laptop computer I am using, and my personal items. I have clothing and necessities for the trek tomorrow, but also have all of my belongings for at least a year in Kenya. What I don’t have and need, I will buy. But if I were not in what I perceive as a secure situation, I would no doubt be at risk of losing everything through theft. I sense, below the surface and sometimes quite apparent, a desperation among the local people as they try to survive. By the way, on trek I will leave a bag here at Kongoni Camp with non-essential items, my laptop, and optometry instruments. No, I will not be doing eye exams up there.
What allows me to be here, especially now that I am between jobs, is a bank account with modest savings and a credit card (that I don’t like to use much). I realize that I am fortunate to have an excellent education in optometry and vision science and the fruits of decades of full-time work. It is a privilege to be here and in the upcoming year to share my knowledge of eye care with young Kenyans who too are trying to improve themselves and make a difference.