jeudi 18 août 2011

Mt Kenya

I'm getting on a flight back to the states in just a few hours. It's hard to believe that my three months in Kenya is already up! It was a really great summer and I feel lucky to have been here.

Last weekend I climbed Mt Kenya, which, at 16,000+ feet, is by far the biggest mountain I've ever climbed. It was spectacular! See fbook for photos.

We started on Friday around 2 or 3 pm. The first leg of the hike is pretty interesting, as you're walking through a high altitude rainforest (around 3,000 meters). It was raining some and we got kind of wet (a reoccurring theme). There was some cool fauna: birds and baboons. We saw evidence of elephants and buffaloes (dung and tracks, respectively), but no actual animals. We arrived at the first camp at around 6 pm at 3,300 meters.

There, my guide and cook made me dinner. Yes, a guide and cook. It was pretty ridiculous to have meals prepared for me at a mountain camp, but it made the experience a lot more pleasant. Also, since we were staying in these little camper huts, I didn't have to carry my tent. Most people also had porters to carry all of their stuff. I guess labor is cheap in Kenya and it's not that much more expensive to have such luxuries.

Saturday we got on the road at around 6:30/7. I was hiking with this young British guy and he quit about an hour into the hike. He had never done any hiking before! I can't imagine trying to tackle such a big mountain with NO experience. I knew he was doomed from the moment he had to rent hiking boots for the hike. That's like begging for blisters. We were able to go a little faster without him. The second day was the biggest altitude change: we ended at 4,300 meters. Most of the flora was scrub grass and bushes. There were some cool plants/trees that I took photos of, although I've yet to find their names. A lot of the hike was through this massive valley, with the summit at the end. Once we arrived at the camp, it started snowing! The weather was surreal...I thought I was on the equator! That second night was the hardest as I arrived pretty soaking wet and had a tough time warming up. I think the altitude was getting to me as well.

I didn't have it as bad as my hiking parters, though. A 19 year old Dutch girl and 23 year old Belgian guy hiked most of the way with me. I didn't know that people could be less prepared, gear-wise, than me, but they were. They did not bring enough cold/wet weather clothing and really suffered because of it. They also carried their tent and slept in it. The second night was very cold and I don't think they slept more than a few hours.

The third day we woke up at 3 am to summit. The peak is 4,950 meters, so there was still a lot of steep climbing to go. Luckily, it was a full moon and a cloudless night, so we were able to hike without torches. Really beautiful. I tried taking photos in the moonlight, but mostly failed as my camera isn't good enough for such low light. But imagine walking through bright snow with jagged peaks shooting up all around. The last 300 meters or so were kind of difficult as we navigated boulders, ice, and the like. We got to the top at 6:30, just in time for the sunrise. It was spectacular to watch the light change. On a clear day, you can see Mt. Kilimanjaro and the Indian Ocean from the summit, but by the time we were there the clouds had come out. Although they were a few thousand meters below us! Surreal to be that high. Given that Mt Everest is some 29,000 feet, I can't understand how people make it that high! We were at 16,000 and it was quite the trek, with decreasing oxygen. I guess using oxygen canisters would make a big difference.

Taking just 20 minutes at the summit, we started down. We ended up hiking all the way down to the bottom in one day. Normally people take another night, but we were wet and feeling good enough to continue. The last 2 hours we were in a huge thunderstorm, getting totally, totally soaked.

It was a great culmination to a great summer. Going back home gives me mixed feelings. On the one hand, I'm excited to go home and see friends and family. I'm also excited about my classes and work that I'll do this year. On the other, I really loved Kenya! The work was great, the country beautiful, and the people amazing. I also feel that I was just starting to scratch the surface in terms of understanding what's going on here. I just finished reading this enlightening book: "It's Our Turn to Eat," which I highly recommend. It has some good insights on the country and I wish I could keep learning. I can't help but compare my experience here to my 2 years in Morocco. After two years, I really thought I understood Morocco (or at least the small part of Morocco that I lived in), whereas there is so much in Kenya that I'm lost on. Nairobi, in particular, is such a cosmopolitan, crazy place. Maybe I'll get to return. I'm very grateful for my time here! See you all stateside!

mardi 26 juillet 2011

Beauty and suffering side by side

Every year, thousands of mzungos travel across the globe and meet in a wildlife park that stretches across Kenya and Tanzania. The Maasai Mara (Kenyan park) and the Serengeti (Tanzanian) provide the mzungos with crucial habitat in their annual pilgrimage. "The Great Mzungo Migration" occurs in July and August when other animals like wildebeast and zebra migrate, which attract the mighty mzungo. In the grasslands of the Serengeti, the mzungo can be spotted on its own as it searches for prey. Once it has found a large enough animal, however, mzungos congregate in groups as large as 20 to consume the hunted. It doesn't stay long though, as it quickly grows tired of the animal and goes off alone in search of more animals.

OK, that was a joke. Mzungo in Swahili means white person. I did go to Maasai Mara this weekend and I was a part of the "Great Mzungo Migration." There is a real "Great Migration" that happens every July and August. Millions of wildebeast and zebra travel north into the Maasai Mara as they search for green pastures. They are accompanied by smaller numbers of other herbivores: zebra, gazelle, giraffes, elephants, several types of antelope and others. This moveable feast attracts predators: lions, cheetahs, leopards, hyenas and more. And mzungos.

It was amazing to see. The East African Savannah is a vast landscape. It reminds me a bit of grasslands in the American West, but there are larger hills, greener pastures, trees and rivers/streams. It's a fairly diverse ecosystem as there are plains with tall grass that stretch as far as the eye can see with only a lonely acacia tree or two dotting the horizon. Large hills, covered by trees and jagged rock formations, erupt out of these plains. In the river valleys, green grass grows and large trees and bushes form dense thickets.

The landscape itself would be enough, but the grass also attracts millions of animals that are new to the mzungo. We saw thousands and thousands and thousands of wildebeast. At the end of the three day trip, we drove out of the park past a herd 100,000-500,000. Honestly, I have NO way of conceptualizing numbers that big so I don't know how many animals there were. While wildebeast and zebra are impressive for their numbers, other herbivores attract for different reasons. I think that giraffes were my favorite. We were lucky enough to be quite close to a pair of young male giraffes that were "necking." Males compete by swinging their long necks against one another, often slamming their horns against the opponent's neck. In rare occasions, the horns pierce the neck, causing death. In the tame necking that we saw, the giraffes mostly danced for position with each other. They liked to be side to side, facing opposite directions, which created amazing symmetry between their long necks. Elephants are also high on my list. They leisurely wander the plains solo or in groups as large as 15 (well at least 15 was the largest that we saw). We saw a mother and juvenile bathing in a small water hole. The adults are too large to lay down, so the mother showered herself with the cool, muddy water, which doubles as protection against insects. The juvenile laid fully in the water, clearly enjoying the bath. There are far too many other herbivores to describe, but different species of antelope (especially impalas and gazelle) stand out as particularly beautiful. Birds too are attractive and brightly colored, when you can spot them.

The predators are also spectacular. There was a pride of lions that had made a den not 10 feet from the road. Obviously, this attracted lots of mzungos. One group of mzungos, in their haste to capture the king of the jungle, dropped a camera case in front of a lone male lion. They convinced their driver to reach outside of his car and recover the case. It's no joke that the mzungo migration is just as fascinating as the migration of the other animals. Cheetahs, I think, were my favorite predator. They are strong and graceful. We saw three as they crouched and began a hunt. Two hours later, we saw them feasting on a gazelle. After eating, the male and female pair laid down facing one another. They licked each others' faces for a good ten minutes, cleaning. It was an intimate moment. Leopards are much rarer and harder to spot. We only saw one as it slept high in a tree.

The Mzungo Migration plays an important role in this ecosystem. On the one hand, the hundreds of vans in the park at any one time tear up the grass. Dirt roads crisscross the Savannah, but mzungos drive off the roads in search of better pictures. However, without the tourists, it's possible that this protected area would not exist. Tourism is a significant source of income for Kenya; without foreign money coming in, the land would be more valuable as agricultural or pastoral land. In the States, we had a very similar ecosystem that was filled with millions of herbivores (buffalo, deer, antelope, bison, hunted by a multitude of predators. Now it's mostly farmland. Would these parks be protected without tourist money? Important caveat: indigenous people lived for millions of years in the African Savannah, preserving it without the "help" of tourist money.

So it was a great great weekend. I had a wonderful time with my friends as well. Being in such a beautiful place inspires singing and laughing in the mighty mzungo. There are lots of pictures that will hopefully be posted soon to picassa and/or facebook. However, I don't think that pictures or my words come close to capturing the feeling of the Mara.

.....Back in Nairobi, we're confronted with images from Eastern Kenya of a humanitarian crisis. It's the worst drought in 60 years, affecting 3.5 million people (in Kenya alone). Kenya borders Somalia to the East, so the area is full of Somali refugees, escaping worse conditions. They congregate in Dadaab, a camp built for 75,000 people. However, 500,000 people are in the camp now, with 10,000 new people entering every day. I think I had been desensitized to pictures of starving African children, but living in the same country as this disaster makes it much more real. It is an absolute tragedy that I have hardly seen covered in Western media. It's so strange to be living in a country where there is so much wealth, both Kenyan and foreign owned, and so much desperate poverty. Surreal to go on a safari in Maasai Mara, carefree and full of joy, while millions suffer and die. The World Food Programme mission to Kenya and Somalia is based out of the UN in Nairobi, so some of my colleagues are involved in getting food aid to Dadaab. They're doing their best to alleviate the suffering, but the structural causes of the famine are not going away.

East Africa/the Horn of Africa is an environmentally marginal place. Since 1989, conflict and war have torn Somalia apart; there is no resolution to this conflict in site. As long as Somalia remains unstable, Somalis will flee to camps in Kenya. While food aid to starving millions is a moral imperative, it is not without unintended consequences. MOST of the food aid given to Somalia in 1989 and 1990 was stolen by gangsters and warlords. Aid was sold for weapons and directly led to civil war. Read The Road to Hell to learn more.

It's impossible to say that any one severe weather event is CAUSED by climate change. BUT, this is exactly the sort of event that climate change has been predicted to make more likely. The Horn of Africa is home to millions of people who depend on the land. Drought, famine and the conflict they inevitably cause will get worse as concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere get higher. Climate change is seen as this thing happening in the distant future, but it is affecting people now. It will get worse. From food aid to climate change, the tragedy unfolding in Somalia and Kenya has our fingerprints all over it.

mercredi 20 juillet 2011

Lame Post Pt II

Writing here has been much harder than Morocco because I spend 40 hours a week in front of a computer, researching forests and climate change. Even during my free time I'm having many fewer interactions with locals and so I'm learning less about culture.

This weekend a group of friends and I went to Lake Nakuru, a major tourist destination. We were put off by the ridiculous park fees so instead went to a smaller lake a few miles down the road. There were thousands of flamingos, storks, and pelicans. A flock of flamingos flying across the lake is a spectacular site...keep an eye on facebook for when my friends post pics.

The only land animals were cows, sheep, goats, and humans. The lake was surrounded by small villages that supported themselves on small-scale farming, herding animals, and charging tourists a small fee for entry. There were half a dozen small boys that followed us down to the lake and made flamingo feather flowers (say that three times fast).

Another part of my life is the amazing places I've lived in. After living with Rose and Dan, I moved in with a SAIS colleague, and we housesitted for embassy staff on leave. I've already mentioned the ridiculous security at their house. Another noteworthy feature was the giant projector and ninentdo wii, which consumed many hours of my time. We're now housesitting a new house. At this house I have my OWN BUILDING to sleep in. There is also a cook and someone who does laundry/cleans up. We ate pumpkin pie last night.

We were chatting with the houseowner last night (he doesn't leave for another week) and he was talking about all the different perks of working for the embassy. House paid for. Cook. Househelp. Kids tuition paid for. The embassy will ship 7,000 lbs of your stuff (more for people with families) from the states to wherever. You can also order anything online and the embassy pays for the shipping. You can, for example, order a used car from Japan and the embassy will ship it for you. Naturally, with all this money and nothing to spend it on, our house is well-stocked with every American convenience/consumer product that you can imagine. It's amazing how easy it is to live in Kenya without having any contact with anything Kenyan.

My work is going well. I've finished the first draft of my paper and am waiting for feedback. It's hard to believe, but I only have 3+ weeks of work left. The summer has flown by! This weekend I think I'm going to Maasai Maara, a massive conservation area. At this time of year, there is the "Great Migration," where millions of wildebeasts are on the move, predators in tow. Should be great!

Hope all is well.

mercredi 13 juillet 2011

Lame post

I wasn't able to write anything this week, so instead I'm posting the intro to the paper I'm writing. Lame, I know. Everything great here; I did a nice hike up a volcano this weekend. Hopefully going to Lake Nakuru on Saturday.

The recognition of forests’ importance to global health, biodiversity, climate, and economic productivity has made protecting them a priority. Deforestation and forest degradation account for nearly 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions, more than the global transport sector. Conserving forests is a necessary and cost-effective way of mitigating climate change. Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) attempts to create a market price for forest carbon, creating incentives for countries to reduce deforestation rates. REDD+ includes conservation and enhancement of forest carbon stocks through reforestation and afforestation. Sequestering carbon in forests is a service that forest countries provide to the global community; REDD+ is the mechanism to reward the provision of this service. REDD+ is designed as a performance-based payment; although REDD+ funds are currently being used to build capacity and support REDD+ readiness, the bulk of the payments will be transferred upon provision of forest conservation and greenhouse gas emissions reduction.
UNEP recognizes the important role that forests play in livelihood creation in many developing countries. Asking forest-dependent people to reduce deforestation rates for the sake of the global community would be unfair. Furthermore, UNEP believes that without addressing the root causes of deforestation, efforts to conserve forests would be ultimately unsuccessful. If REDD+ funds are not used wisely, unsustainable pressure on forests will remain. Therefore, REDD+ is meant to be the catalyst to spur the average annual investment of the $40 billion required to halve deforestation by 2030 and the transformation to a green economy that is less dependent on forests. The recognition that forest degradation is rooted in political economic factors means that REDD+ efforts will not succeed if only Ministers of Environment are involved as economic transformation demands the active participation of several branches of government.
Smart development and forest conservation go hand in hand; the Green Economy report predicts that protection of forests will increase carbon storage by 28% and increase formal employment from forests to 30 million, versus 25 million under a business as usual scenario. Environmental concerns and forest conservation of forests are normally seen as a hindrance to economic growth, but the growing appreciation for the services that natural capital provide has shown that conservation and sustainable growth are not mutually exclusive. Furthermore, it is important to note that carbon-neutral management of forests does not preclude forest-dependent people from maintaining their traditional lifestyles. Instead, REDD+ endeavors to improve capacity so that forests are managed sustainably and to ensure that a greater proportion of forest profits are captured by forest-dependent people so that natural capital stock can be maintained.
In the first section, this paper will discuss the importance of providing policy makers with metrics that allow them to appropriately value forests. In addition to carbon sequestration, forests provide a number of ecosystem services - multiple benefits - that contribute to economic growth, public health, and other important outputs. The lack of appropriate valuation of ecosystem services is a major contributor to the overexploitation of natural capital. Second, the paper will consider the relationship between development and forest conservation, using the environmental Kuznets curve (EKC) as a framework for discussion. The paper will build upon the EKC to develop a theoretical model of forest economies to analyze the drivers of deforestation and policies to conserve natural capital. Third, the case study of Indonesia will be used to discuss the political economy of forests. Wealth distribution, poverty, power structures, governance, and institutions all play an important role in driving deforestation. Finally, transformative economic change can only take place through the innovation of new systems. Economic transformation will require substantial investments and policy changes, which REDD+ is meant to catalyze. The forest economy model will be used to predict potential scenarios and allow policy makers to decide which actions are most appropriate for their local conditions. Although there are no cookie cutter solutions that the paper suggests for global implementation, transformation to a green economy may include: investment in innovation (education, intellectual property rights and interactive learning systems), decentralizing regulation of forests through community managed forests, and cautious investment in agricultural intensification.

mercredi 6 juillet 2011

Security in Nairobi

The purpose of this post is NOT to scare my parents, I swear. Really I'm just trying to describe what I think is a defining feature of the city.

A lot of time and effort has been put into dividing wealthy Nairobians (Nairobi-ites?) from everyone else. I'm housesitting for a US embassy. The house is far from the main road, with a security guard at the entrance to the neighborhood. Houses are surrounded by high walls, hedges and electric fences. When you get to my street, there is a gate guarded by two guards. After making it past them, I get to my house, which is surrounded by walls topped by electric fences. Our front door is similar to the door of a bank vault. Four different bolts go deep into the door frame. Once INSIDE OUR HOUSE, there is one final security measure. Upon going up the stairs, there is a metal gate known as a safe haven. The idea that is if a criminal breaks into the house at night, he/she won't be able to reach the bedrooms. Every time I've heard someone discuss the housing they live in, the security features are always the first thing they mention.

Most every biggish store has security guards. The grocery store is guarded by men with machine guns. Getting into the UN (where I work) involves going through lots of security. With my pass, I can get past the guards and open the revolving metal gates to get inside the compound. Cars are checked for bombs before entering the compound. Every new employee at the UN has to sit through a security briefing discussing safe behavior in Nairobi. Additionally, the UN is already located in a very wealthy, isolated neighborhood (Gigiri) that is separated from the rest of Nairobi by a small forest. The US Embassy is in the same neighborhood and, between the thousands of employees who work at the two organizations, Gigiri is its own small city, cut off from the rest of Nairobi.

All of this adds up to a lot of barriers between the wealthy and everyone else. There are lots of wealthy Kenyans and other people of color on my side of the fence, but the vast majority of people on the other side of the fence are Africans. I think it's a class thing, not a racial thing, but the correlation between race and class creates a racial divide. There are many other reminders of the class and color divides (all the gardeners, maids, drivers and laborers are black), but I think the security aspect is the most obvious on a daily basis.

But Nairobi isn't called "Nairobbery" for nothing. A lot of these security measures are probably necessary as poorly guarded homes are broken into. With 40% unemployment in Kenya, there are a lot of poor people with few options for making a living. Pickpocketing and mugging do happen. Two other UN interns that I know have had their phones stolen in just the month that I've been here. There are some parts of the city I would never go alone - Kibera, at 1 million people, is one of the largest slums in the world. And walking anywhere after 9 or 10 pm is a bad idea.


My work is going well; making a lot of progress on my paper. In my Morocco blog I had a similar habit of only discussing the negative aspects of the place...despite the posts on security and transport I really really like it here. Having an amazing time!

mardi 28 juin 2011


I spend most of my time at work and I’m pretty interested by what I’m doing, so hopefully it will make a decent post.

I’m working for UNEP-REDD+. REDD stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation. The “+” is meant to signify afforestation activities. About 20% of greenhouse gas emissions come from deforestation. Almost all of the forest loss is in developing world countries: Indonesia and SE Asia, the Congo Basin and the Amazon Basin. It’s not realistic to ask these countries to give up a major source of income without compensation, so REDD+ is a project to pay countries if they reduce their deforestation rates. There is an initial small investment by the UN and the World Bank, but almost all the money comes after the countries have proven they have protected their forests. It’s called payment for environmental services: these nations are providing a service (carbon sequestration) and the developed world is paying them for it.

There’s lots of difficulties with this idea, however. Timber and agriculture (a major cause of deforestation) are two large sources of revenues for these poor countries. They have to be adequately compensated for this sacrifice. Another problem is control over the forested lands. If the government of Guyana declares that an area is off limits for forestry activities, what happens to the people who have lived in the forests for millennia and depend on it for their livelihood? Will they receive REDD+ funds? Or will those funds stay at the top of the government? REDD+ is also assuming that the government has control over their lands…illegal logging is rampant in many of these countries. Another problem is the governance in some of these forest countries. Democratic Republic of the Congo has the 3rd biggest forest in the world…it’s also one of the most corrupt governments in the world. And the site of terrible war and conflict. What will the effects of giving their government millions and millions of dollars be?

UNEP is interested in investing in a “green economy.” The idea is that Indonesia, Brazil and these other countries can develop without depleting their natural capital (forests). There is to be a transformation of their economies to knowledge and service-based activities. It’s basically the main selling point of REDD+: that REDD+ funds can help them develop in exchange for forest protection.

My report is about how this transformation can happen. I’ve been reading a lot about the underlying causes of deforestation and how they could be addressed. Another big idea is “innovation systems.” What are the norms and institutions that encourage innovation and would allow forest countries to transform their economies?

This transformation is partially based on forest transition theory. The theory goes that, as countries develop, they cut down their forests. However, once they reach a certain per capita income, forest activities are no longer as economically attractive as service and other activities, so deforestation stops and forests regenerate. The REDD+ idea is to allow these developing forest nations to skip this degrading period and go right to high development and low levels of deforestation.

That’s what I’m writing about. It’s interesting and I’m learning a lot.

This weekend I went to Mombasa, which is on the coast. We stayed in a small town south of Mombasa. It was sooo nice down there. The Indian Ocean is much warmer than any other ocean I’ve swam in. The beach was beautiful. Loved it.

mardi 21 juin 2011

Transportation in Nairobi

Getting around this city is my least favorite part of living here. As the city has grown and incomes have increased, more and more cars are on the streets. Infrastructure development has failed to keep up. Nairobi is growing fast and it’s only going to get worse.

My commute from home to work is about 4 or 5 miles. If there is no traffic it takes less than 15 minutes. But when I go home at 5 or 6 pm, it can take more than an hour. Almost all the streets are one lane both ways and they’re unable to handle peak hours. If there is an accident, it can bring traffic to a complete stop until the road is cleared. My first weekend in the city, we went out for dinner. It took us 2.5 hours to get home…no more than five miles.

Most of the problem is the complete lack of traffic laws. There are no lanes, stop signs or traffic lights (I have seen one set of traffic lights, but no one obeyed them). Cars will drive on the sidewalk. At intersections, cars inch their way into the streets, stopping traffic in both directions. At 4-way intersections, this quickly turns into a knot of cars where no one can move anywhere. There are really no “lanes” for people to drive in. Just space on the road for cars to fill.

Public transportation in the city is a type of van/bus called matatus. They have been hollowed out and there are five rows three people wide. It’s actually more comfortable than the transport that I took in Morocco. The matatus have a complicated system of routes throughout the city; I only know a few routes so far. The price is dependent on how far you are going and how bad traffic is. My 4 mile commute is normally 20-30 shillings ($0.22-$0.33). Most cars drive pretty crazy in Nairobi, but matatus are the worst. They love to cut people off and play chicken on the road. They are the reason that I decided against buying a bike for commuting. Not too many people have their own cars here; matatus are probably 30% of the vehicles on the road.

There are also taxis, but they are too expensive to take on a regular basis. They are 200-1,200 shillings ($2.22-$13.33) depending on how far you’re going. But matatus aren’t safe to take late at night so sometimes the taxis are necessary.

Transportation is also indicative of the huge wealth differences in the city. There are many luxury vehicles with tinted vehicles and chauffeurs. On the other hand there are always people walking miles and miles to and from work because they can’t even afford the matatus.

Apparently there are regulations on exhaust for cars purchased. But no such regulations exist for matatus or trucks. Walking along the road, it’s very common to be bathed in black exhaust. I was sick with a cold for the first two weeks I was here and I think the air quality played a large part of that.

In American cities, I think the biggest causes of traffic problems are lack of good public transportation and urban sprawl. Here it’s the absence of traffic laws. Enforcing laws would make a huge difference.

Everything else:
Work is improving as I’m figuring out what I’m doing. I think I’ll write my next post trying to explain my work. This weekend I’m taking the train to Mombasa, which is on the coast. Should be a blast! Hope all is well!