Friday, June 30, 2006

The pre-wedding

Our friend Kioko is getting married soon. (The date is uncertain, as he is still negotiating with her family on dowry.) We attended his "pre-wedding" ceremony late last year.

This friend of the couple was selling little lapel decorations. The idea was to buy one and support the couple's wedding expenses. There were other fund-raising efforts too.

There was a lot of mind-numbing repetitive music performed via a distorted sound system. Yes, my tastes often converge from the norm in rural Kenya at times.

It was fun to see Peter and Grace's friends and family gather from far and wide to celebrate the coming marriage.

The highlight of the event was a meal at the end. We thought it would be lunch, but it turned out to be more like dinnertime when the meal began. We had to eat and run, as travel on the roads in Kenya at night is not advised. (One of the reasons is that it can be very hard to see pedestrians! And people on foot sometimes feel like they need to be in the middle of the road.)

Thursday, June 29, 2006

A world of contrasts

This Maasai guy was standing guard over Heather and Rachel. (He is on a semi-opaque mural in front of the elevator at the fancy Panari Sky Hotel, a place I have mentioned before.)

He is certainly out of his normal context. So are we.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Random mannequin

This chef was in the window of a uniforms store here. We bought Rachel's pre-school uniform from them.

He is circa 1972? Unchanged since then...

Tuesday, June 27, 2006


This was so hilarious, I had to share it with you. Sorry, later I tried to come up with the link and failed. But if you want one, you just might find, you get what you need.

(Look closer; the clock has hands that move, so you're never "in"!)

Monday, June 26, 2006

Matatu art

I've written about "matatus" before ("mah-tah-
too's"). They are the main means of public transport in Kenya. Most are minibuses the size of the hearse I featured before. Some are a little larger.

The artwork on matatus is great. I have a fantasy of doing a book of photos of the artwork on matatus. Alas, it's hard to get such photos taken when you have a full-time job. And a better camera (and better photographic skills) would be necessary.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Africa is largely ignored

Those readers who are not African may not know that Africa is almost completely ignored by western media. It's a huge continent with vast numbers of people and oceans of need.

One reason for the ignoring is that few of the commodities the west consumes come from here. (Oil? Mostly the warring Middle East. Manufacturing? China and now Viet Nam.) Oil is being explored in southern Sudan - thus some of the reason for their conflicts. Nigeria has lots of oil too, but unfortunately very little of those earnings make it to the average Nigerian.

Historically, Africa has been the recipient of western aid. Some of that paradigm is changing. Kenya sends many nurses and many other professionals to the States now. They can get much better pay there for doing the same job. And just like immigrants from Mexico and Central America, much of those earnings end up back in Kenya - helping their families, and the economy here.

On May 1st, Kenya’s president announced that the national minimum wage was increased to about $77 per month. That is staggeringly low to a North American. That brings up the issue is world equality... if the lower strata of society and the world were paid enough to have a basic minimum standard of living, the whole world economy would get messed up. (Would you be willing to pay four times what you paid for the Sony TV you just bought?) Maybe that wouldn't be a bad thing. But it would take a lot of adjusting on the part of everyone!

Lest I be so Africa-centric, I do realize that most of the rest of the world beyond the borders of the US is largely ignored by the world's biggest superpower.

Some of you readers out there are thinking, "Paul, please stick to the trivial observations of life in Kenya." Every once in a while, I feel the urge to dig a little deeper.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Local art

This truck delivered maybe a ton of flour for drought relief. Our sister organization, which focuses on literacy and Bible translation in Kenya, works among several of the marginalized people groups in Kenya - many of which are in drought-stricken parts of the country.

Recently they sent lots of food to some of those people. This truck was from the vendor.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Notable things about this product

1. From Malaysia (bought in Africa)
2. Pringles-sized container
3. Company that made this savory product is Cocoaland
4. It's "Cracker" and not "Crackers" (though the container has more than one)
5. Flavor: about 50% like Cheetos and mix in some sugar - oh well, another thing my kids will like (but not me)

There's hope

A recent development in Kenya is the government's decision to take away vehicles from most government employees. (Formerly, many officials had several vehicles in their private fleet, all paid for by the government.)

What a refreshing change! It always bothered me (and just about everyone here) that nearly every big Mercedes Benz had government license plates. When one wafts past a duka (small shop) whose owner makes about $100 a month, the contrast is unbearable.

Government-funded vehicle use is not gone altogether but is greatly reduced.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Traffic traffic traffic

Yes, a very real part of life in Nairobi is fighting traffic. It can get hugely annoying.

The other evening we decided to go as a family to dinner at a restaurant about five miles away. It took us about 45 minutes. Heather was at the straw-that-breaks-the-camel's-back point. She spends far more time in traffic than I do, and that traffic jam was the last straw. Two frequent journeys are ferrying Rachel and two classmates to pre-school and driving to Orchestra rehearsals. (I walk to work and am thus very blessed.)

So anyhow, back to this photo. If you look at the center, there's a salesman. He sells hand-made leather purses while walking between the lanes of the very slow-moving traffic. There are certain zones where sales-people sell specific things. Fruit is in one area, hand-made wire art is in another.

Monday, June 19, 2006

When copyright is non-existent

Yes, the makers of Coomes juice took a little inspiration from Ocean Spray.

We bought some Coomes juice because it was on sale. (All the juice is roughly the same price. There are about six different brands. One you would recognize is Del Monte.)

By the way, copyright is part of the system here, but enforcement is (basically) not.

Sunday, June 18, 2006


This scrap of old tire tells a story...

In Kenya, the Maasai like to wear sandals made out of old tires. When they make the sandals, very little of the tire is left unused.

When we were in Kenya in the early 90s, margarine came in cans: Blue Band. Those discarded cans were made into kerosene lanterns.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Of fuel

Last night, the price of petrol (gasoline) went up to around $4.15 a gallon in Nairobi. On the radio, the government minister in charge of such things said the extra revenue would go toward fixing the roads. I often joke that the potholes here are measured in meters and not inches - in depth, that is. I also say (not joking this time) that roads are often made with one inch of asphalt. The first good rain that comes, and oh well, so much for that road.

I don't have a problem with roads getting fixed. But I do have a problem that all too often such earmarked funds "disappear" before they reach their intended purpose.

I also don't mind that the rising cost of fuel may cause someone to pause before they make an unnecessary extra drive somewhere. But that extra cost will negatively affect the average person taking public transport just to get to work.

As a reference point, petrol in England now costs about $7.00 a gallon! The government there (and in western europe) slaps high taxes on fuel to reduce pollution and petroleum consumption. It works.

Your choice

Is it a hostel for deluxe girls or is it a deluxe hostel for girls?

(This place is across the highway near my office.)

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Design philosophy

In a recent Fortune magazine, John Lasseter was profiled. He's the genius behind the new movie Cars, as well as other greats like Toy Story. (Cars won’t get to Nairobi until late July, I think.)

He had a few great comments I thought were worth repeating: "[The Japanese] will design something and then they take away until they can take away no more. We have adopted that same philosophy here in our films."

And John quotes his brother, " 'What I think makes sense in fashion design is to take really wild fabric and then make a classic piece of clothing with it. Either that, or you take a classic fabric and make a crazy pattern with it.' He said if you design things that way, there is something familiar for people to relate to. But if you do both - take a crazy fabric and make a crazy pattern - people can’t make any sense of it."

I believe this applies to any creative process - whether naming of an organization or designing of a toaster.

A game of bowls, anyone?

"Bowls" is the English version of bocce. We briefly visited the Limuru Country Club and saw these ladies enjoying a beautiful afternoon.

The Limuru Country Club is one of those places left over from Kenya's colonial era. It truly has not changed much since then. Perhaps the clientele is a little more diverse these days. Thankfully.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Kenya's Enron

A few weeks ago, Uchumi, Kenya's second-largest supermarket chain, shut its doors. There were a number of factors why. Mainly, they were billions of Kenya shillings in debt and saw no way out of that tunnel. Bad decisions on the part of high-level management were the reason.

Many were outraged - particularly those who lost their jobs. My outrage (trivial in comparison) was that lines at our local supermarket are now longer than ever. (That chain, Nakumatt, certainly is triumphant in the situation. Curiously I saw no reflection of this in the many newspaper articles I read about it.)

The main difference between Enron and Uchumi is that Enron's demise was because men at the top willfully did bad things. Uchumi's top guys may have done their harm with a bit less awareness of the depth of their

So yes, it was yet another case of a few being selfish in their decision-making and affecting an entire country.

Once again, I created the picture via

Monday, June 12, 2006

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Smoke stacks

I was intrigued at all the little smoke stacks sprouting from this building.

We peeked in the windows - it's the kitchen for a boarding school near Limuru. Notice the brown slowly fading up the side of the building. That is a common sight. (If there is dirt next to a building, when it rains...)

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Our backyard

You can tell it was a good rainy season. Everything is lush and green. (I took this shot about a month ago. It's still very green. This was the best rainy season in about 10 years, according to some accounts.)

The stone house is next to our apartment complex. An Asian (Indian) family lives there. I think their business relates to trucks and cars. When they are testing car alarms, we know it. When they are testing diesel truck engines, the engines run at idle way beyond the amount of time it would take to start the vehicle.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006


Part of my job involves helping new staff to buy cars and buying cars that are used by the office. As such, I deal with various dealers. Abbas, an Indian-Kenyan, is one of my main guys. A few days ago, he told me of this situation, and it was confirmed in yesterday's newspaper.

The Kenyan government is now requiring that all importers get clearance from the Japanese Embassy before registration can be given. Here's the funny part: "...the new rule was introduced without any consultation with the Japanese Embassy"! And the Japanese are refusing to comply. A classic case of the government not planning ahead before they acted. (It's a good lesson for me to remember!)

Part of the reason for this new extra hassle is that the government is trying to prevent stolen cars from being sold. A month or so ago, it was discovered by Interpol that false documents had been given for some vehicles that were being driven by members of parliament! (They had been stolen in Japan and imported to Kenya.)

This affects everyone who wants to buy a vehicle. It used to take 7-10 days for registration to go through. Now it takes 4-6 weeks. As soon as the government can tell the difference between an egg and an apple, we might start getting somewhere.

Dot Com Biscuits

Britania is a major cookie maker in Kenya. (Yes, you guessed, that name originates from Kenya's colonial roots.)

I was amused at how one of their popular products is based around a "has-been" name. The CDs in the title are pretty funny too.

I think you figured out that "biscuits" is British-English for "cookies".

There's a massive billboard
featuring these lovely biscuits. All visitors to Nairobi see it, on their way into town from the main airport.

Monday, June 05, 2006


I think you may have read how "matumba" are clothes and shoes that make their way to Kenya from the States and Europe - after they have been rejected by various charity shops there. We do most of our shopping for clothes and shoes at those open-air markets. (This tag came from something Heather bought here.)

Critics have complained that such cast-offs killed off the formerly thriving Kenyan textiles industry. But it's not that simple. Matumba markets provide employment for a lot of people! I would argue that it is a lot better to work as a salesperson at a stall there, compared to running a sewing machine in a factory. There's also a lot more incentive for being a good business person. If you display your goods in an attractive way or even shout out your low prices (as one salesman did), you might earn more!

I guess one thing that bothers me about this system is the reflection on the west - who discard perfectly good clothes, just because the style is not the absolute latest.

- - -

By the way, I will be posting a few pictures from the family vacation - in about a month, after I have access to Photoshop again. Thanks for your patience.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

How would you feel if you were Italian?

Switzerland is a land of many languages. (So is Kenya!) German and French are the two biggest. Italian ranks third. Romansch is a distant fourth.

These two sides of a small shopping bag reflect this reality. The catch phrase is something like, "an advanced idea" [in shopping].

The other aspect of this reality is most Swiss Italian speakers are probably quite fluent in German and/or French. In the same way, most Kenyans in Nairobi are quite fluent in English. Few of the shopping bags here have any Swahili on them. (English is the language of trade in east Africa, even though it might not be the first language of speech.)

By the way, the bag is courtesy of a colleague who brought me back a little treasure from her recent journey up there.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Yes, there were palm trees

So yes, we're back in normal life again. Thus I'm now equal with you... the vacation is over and it's reality time.

We went to Watamu, a small town about 70 minutes' drive north of Mombasa. It was a great family vacation. We spent great quantities of time on the beach and at the pool. And eating - that was lotsa fun all by itself.

By the way, I'm Mac-less for about another month, so I can't crop or play around with my photos (rotate, change saturation and other cheats). However, I have lots of posts with photos I created before my beloved Mac left me. Yes, I am sad, but happy is coming; my very good friend John is bringing over the replacement Mac when he and his family come to visit in early July.

It will be great to see them here! They are the first non-relatives to visit us in Kenya, during this time living here or our previous time. (It's so far to come from the States!)

Where you can find Paul Merrill

If you are looking for Paul Merrill, go over to  Shiny Bits of Life , which is my main blog - or  Greener Grass Media , which is my somewhat...