Osiri, a Lake Victoria fishing village

Osiri village is a 15 minute walk from the Luanda ferry dock that takes me to Mbita town. It is a small fishing village with a population of about 500. The people there struggle with poverty and the unfortunate lack of adequate clean water and sanitation.

Osiri fishermen

Osiri fishermen

I was introduced to the community through Meshack Andiwo, a fellow who as had the opportunity for a bit more education than most there. He indicated that the community was concerned about the children not getting any schooling. It is near this village that CanAssist has built the Stewart Geddes School. Fishing had been the main source of income for people in the village but this is becoming more challenging for a number of reasons.

Firstly, as in the rest of lake Victoria, the fish stocks are being depleted. Nile perch were introduced to the lake in the 1950’s as a potential source of fishing income. This was both a blessing and a curse as these fish have a voracious appetite and have consumed many of the smaller species in the lake, upsetting the ecological balance. They can grow to be very large. Nile perch caught in the lake are packed in ice and taken to a larger city, Kisumu or Nairobi, for filleting and shipping to Europe.

Day catch of Nile Perch. These four fish weighed 38.5 kg.

Day catch of Nile Perch. These four fish weighed 38.5 kg.

Although the price that the fishermen can get for the fish has fallen, it is still an income. So the people who live here are forced to sell the fish and go without. Despite being close to this nutritious food source, they can not afford to keep the fish which end up in European markets.

Another introduced species that is causing problems in the bay is Water Hyacinth. You may know this as the lettuce-like floating plant on ornamental garden ponds in Canada. They sell for $4-$5 each in garden centers in May and June. They have a nice purple flower and spread out over the pond only to be frozen at the first frost.

Somehow, this native of South America entered the Lake Victoria system in the 1980’s and since then, they have rapidly taken over. Millions of them float in clumps or even large islands in the lake, being blown around by the wind and currents.image Although they may shelter the fish in some ways, the fishermen have trouble with their nets brewing caught up in the rafts of plants and when a large crop blows in to the shore at the village, it makes landing or launching a boat impossible.

Water hyacinth floating on the lake.

Water hyacinth floating on the lake.

They also act as a breeding ground for mosquitoes, thus increasing the spread of malaria and dengue fever.

I told the folks here that the poverty problem in their community could be solved if they could just sell these plant pests to North Americans and Europeans for their backyard ponds. Another inequitable obscenity, when you think about it very much.

This unventilated latrine is the only toilet for the 500 people living in Osiri village.

This unventilated latrine is the only toilet for the 500 people living in Osiri village.

There are few households with any toilet and most of the people in the community either use the bush or one small latrine found near the centre of the village. They collect their water from the lake but the lake is becoming increasingly polluted with sewage, laundry detergents and other effluents. Many do not boil or purify their water before consuming it as this takes time and money or consumes scrounged firewood that is needed for other cooking.

Kids swim in the lake and others bathe there. Many are infected with bilharzla, a parasitic fluke that can infest kidneys and bowel.

Despite these challenges, the people who live in Osiri Village are cheerful and optimistic and my visit to the community and the Stewart Geddes school was heart-warming.

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Leapin’ Lizards

The first time that I saw a monitor lizard, I thought I was hallucinating. It was about three years ago. I had come out of my room, here at ICiPE and this three foot long lizard scurried across the pathway in front of me. I am used to geckos and small foot-long lizards that sometimes sun on the rocks (or the wall of the latrine) but I was totally unprepared for this huge reptile. They tend to live along the lakeshore, mostly camoflauged in the bush or under a rock. Today I was out taking some photos of birds, as I often do late in the afternoon. I came upon a cat by a pile of garbage. It was crouched watching some weaver birds and waiting for the right moment to strike. I took some photos of the cat and the birds, thinking it was a good photo opportunity. Suddenly through my viewfinder another movement appeared in the grass and the birds flew away. There was a monitor lizard slithering over a mound of grass toward the garbage pile. image But wait. At the garbage there were two, no three more. They are about three feet or more long and they scurry, low to the ground with a side to side motion, their tail waving behind them. When they stop they often flick their six-inch long black forked tongue in and out. I find them creepy. image Two days ago I startled one … No, it startled me … in the grass by the lake. But on this occasion I had enough gradual introduction to be able to control my instict to run away as quickly as possible and got some good photos.

Another uniquely Kenyan nature adventure.

A surprise at the Stewart Geddes School

My father, Stewart Geddes, has been generously supporting the development of a small rural school in Kenya for the past couple of years through the CanAssist African Relief Trust. Today I headed back across to the mainland on the ferry to visit the community and the school which has about 75 students from age 3 to 8. Without this small school these little kids would have to walk several kilometers every day to receive education … or not get any at all. Girls, in particular were at a disadvantage and only two girls in the community of 500 people, have gotten beyond grade 4 until now.

I was enthusiastically welcomed and treated to demonstrations of counting and identifying animals in English (remember this is a seoond or maybe third language for these young pupils.) The name S P GEDDES EARLY CHILDHOOD DEVELOPMENT CENTRE is emblazoned on the school gate and the children were happy to chant a Thank you message that they wanted me to take back to my Dad.

Me and little  Stewart Geddes at Osiri Village, Kenya.

Me and little Stewart Geddes at Osiri Village, Kenya.

But the big surprise for me was when the head teacher showed me her six month old Grandson. “We have named him Stewart Geddes”, she said. “At home he goes by Geddes.” I found this both amusing and touching. When I got back to Mbita, I called Dad to share with him the deep appreciation that this community has for his gift to them. I plan to visit a few CanAssist project sites in the next several days and I know that this is just the beginning of the wonderful expressions of gratitude to Canadian Donors through CanAssist that I will receive. I wish that this was something that I could bottle and send back to share with all of you who have supported what we do through CanAssist. Perhaps this little video clip will give you a taste.

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Lake Victoria shoreline …

The room that I am staying in now is about 50 metres from the shore of Lake Victoria. I sleep with my screened door open and under a mosquito net. This morning I woke up about 7:30 to the deep croupy bark that I recognized as coming from a hippo. I bounded out of bed and down to the shore in time to catch two big hippos swimming past about 20 metres off shore. It reminded me of seeing dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico … only a little heftier. They would submerge and then come up with a snort for a breath of air as they cruised along the lakeshore.

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There is also a pair of African Fish Eagles that have a nest in a high tree behind the local clinic and they have entertained me annually with soaring flights over the shore about sunset.
This year they have not failed me. One seems to have taken to sitting on the bow of a local boat to scan the waters and surrounding area. Last night one of them was perched by the dock, seeming to enjoy the sunset. I tried to get a photo of him but found the light from the sun too bright. But with a little repositioning, his shadow in the setting sun made the photo I was looking for.

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Getting to Mbita …

The trip to Mbita from Nairobi involves a short flight to Kisumu, a two hour taxi ride to a ferry dock at Luanda and a one hour ferry trip across Homa Bay to Mbita town. There is now a relatively new Tarmac road to the ferry. Before this road was made asphalt, it was muddy and twice in the past, the McGill student group has been stuck on the road, once having to leave one of our overlander trucks mired in the mud overnight.

imageThe ferry trip is always amusing. This trip I arrived about 15 minutes after the ferry had left and had to wait two hours for the next one in a dirt-floored lean-to with benches adorned with ripped cushions, the stuffing belching out of them. It is certainly hotter in this part of the country. In Nairobi the temperatures were pleasant and actually cool. In Kisumu it was in the mid-thirties.

As I waited for the ferry, I watched the fishermen come into the landing nearby in their wooden boats, typical of the region. There is always an on-shore wind early in the evening and the lake actually turns from calm to treacherously rough.

Finally the ferry arrived and a few cars and passengers disembarked. However, there was a small herd of cows that had spent the trip on the main deck and they had to be cajoled and whipped to leave the boat down the car ramp. The region has had more rain than usual in the latter part of 2012 so the lake water level is higher than I have seen in the past. This meant that the ramp for cars ( and cows ) was steep so the cows balked and slid as they exited the boat. In their anxious ride over they had produced a fair amount of dung which littered the deck and the ramp, so much that the cars that were boarding ferry were having trouble getting up onto the boat, their wheels spinning in the “bullshit” and spraying it around. Eventually, two and a half hours after I had reached the landing, the ferry was loaded and ready to depart.

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I happened to meet Linda, an Amercan woman who now lives on Rusinga Island. Our paths had crossed on my previous visits the region. She  was returning to Rusinga Island with some new wicker furniture including a couple of nice chairs, so the two of us sat on the deck of the boat amidst the dung having a visit and watching the sunset.

My "home away from home" for the next three weeks.

My “home away from home” for the next three weeks.

The bottom line is that I arrived safely in time to have dinner and a Tusker with the film crew for Nightrunners, the movie. I feel quite at home at the ICIPE station here and figure it is my 8th stay here. I know all the staff and vice versa. I will be staying in the same room I have had for the past few years, overlooking the grounds that lead to Lake Victoria.  I have already had welcoming  hugs from Tabitha, the lady that cleans my room. Another of my international homes.image

Election anxiety in Kenya …

January 22, 2013

Kenya is starting to get tense in the lead up to the elections scheduled for March 4. Last week,  parties were to nominate their candidates. Administrative delays and many allegations of improprieties in the process have led to skirmishes, accusations and some violent confrontations in various parts of the country.

After the 2008 election the country fell into chaos with ethnic rivalry and mistrust being the flash point. Since that election there have been many strange realignments of previous rivals which may have diffused the tribal separations somewhat. But the redistribution of voting districts and realignment of party alliances has resulted in fierce competition to gain party nomination. Several sitting MP’s appear to have lost out and thereby will be stripped of their power, authority and privileges. This has not sat well with some.

Kenyan politics would make a good soap opera. But for the average citizen elections become times of tension, desperation and guarded hope that things will slowly improve. The country is still suffering from the disturbances that followed the election in December 2007. One has to hope that the democratic process will be allowed to grow without causing another debacle in March when the country goes to the polls.

Today, I head to Mbita via Kisumu, an area where there have been some significant disruptions. I am hoping that the hot tempers of the past few days will have cooled off somewhat and that calm will prevail in the upcoming weeks.

Visiting my Moiko family …

For the past 9 years, I have made a point of visiting the Moiko family who live just outside Nairobi on wonderful piece of land that has a panoramic view of the Ngong Hills. imageI have watched their family grow up and grow in size. Last January when I was at their home, Liz was pregnant and hoping that the baby would come along any day. Little (actually not so little) Charles was born in mid-February and so this past weekend was the first time that we were able to meet. He is a robust, happy, curious child that is well loved and cared for by the extended family that lives at the Moiko compound.

Sandra and CharlesSandra. a toddler when I first met her, is now a tall 10 year old in Class 6. She goes off to school, six days a week, taking the school bus at 6 am and not getting home until 7 pm. And then there is homework to do. African students spend many more hours acquiring their education than Canadian children do. Education is seen as an important responsibility and opportunity to get ahead.

Another tradition is to hike through the hills to a cliff above Kona Baridi where I soak up a spectacular view of the Rift Valley. There are two trees that I visit there every year and a few minutes spent sitting quietly listening to the wind and the birds and the j angle of distant cow bells is something that I look forward to am would not want to miss. This year I hiked up to the hill with Daniel, Stephen’s nephew who has matured into a responsible young man over the years I have been visiting.

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imageThe four generations of this family all living in the compound – from Stephen’s elderly grandmother, Gogo, who still milks the cows to young Charles splashing in a bathtub in the sun in the yard, make me feel right at home. I am privileged to be part of this traditional but progressive and modern Maasai family.

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A visit with one of my “kids” …

In blog post in December, I told you about my Maasai goat, Veronica. (My goat, Veronica – December 8, 2012) Well this weekend I had the opportunity to revisit V2, Veronica’s daughter. Veronica is apparently off with the larger goat herd grazing somewhere more removed from the Moiko farm but V2 was a bit too young to make the trek so is still at home with about ten other goats and the sheep. I think she had had sons as well since I inherited her but they have likely ended up in a stew.

Veronica Lake

Veronica Lake

I can now recognize V2 easily in the flock by her speckled face and the eyebrows inherited from her mother (which led me to name the mother Veronica after Veronica Lake, a movie star from the 1940’s)

The Massai mark their animals for ownership by making distinctive cuts in their ears. My goats have my own branding which is two cuts on either side of the left ear and nothing on the right ear. So if they get lost or when mixed with the other goats it is always clear that they are mine.

John, Dennis and V2  - 2013

John, Dennis and V2 – 2013

Me, Dennis and Veronica - 2005

Me, Dennis and Veronica – 2005

A bonus was that I also got to visit with Dennis, who gave Veronica to me in 2005. We got our photo with V2 who happens to be pregnant. Dennis promised to send me a photo of my next grand-kid so stay tuned to see the next member of the Geddes ole Moiko clan of goats.

You can notice, as well, that I am wearing the  same Maasai beaded bracelet that Dennis gave to me in 2005.  An enduring friendship .

Political tension this week in Kenya…

January 18. 10 pm. Nairobi

As our group made our plans earlier this week, we had concerns that the nomination process for the upcoming election may result in some violent clashes in Nairobi and other parts of Kenya. There was to be voting yesterday to nominate candidates for the election on March 4. With changes in riding compositions resulting from the renewed constitution and party realignments since the last election, there would be some ridings where sitting members of parliament would be challenging each other for the local nomination. Here, to be a member of parliament confers considerable social and financial gains so several people had lots to lose if they are not nominated.

This was to have occurred yesterday and there was anxiety and tension throughout the country with worries that there would be skirmishes and outbreaks of violence at certain ridings. Unlike the debacle that followed the 2007 election here (1400 killed and many still displaced due to tribally-based attacks ) the problem this time may have been because of intra-party squabbling. In a strange combination of events, leaders of parties that were violently opposed to one another in the last election have combined forces to resist the slight edge that Raila Odinga, the “defeated” candidate has in the current Presidential race. To add an a bizarre element, both of the leaders in this new merged party have been indicted to The Hague with charges of crimes against humanity resulting from their part in installing the carnage that happened after the 2007 election.

Well, as fate would have it, there was some confusion in the delivering of ballots yesterday and the vote was postponed to today. Our group was scheduled to visit Kibera slum yesterday and then again today but, based on security concerns and advice from the Canadian Consulate ( where we attended a wonderful cocktail reception on Wednesday evening … thanks, Canadian friends) and from associates living in the slums, we decided against taking that security risk. There are security concerns when visiting this slum at the best of times. (Close to a million people live in tin shacks in poverty in a space the size of a golf course.) I have visited there three times in the past with no adverse events but both last year and this, we have happened to be in Nairobi at the time when political changes were occurring and the slums deemed unsafe due to the probability that if there were to be any violent clashes, this may be where they start.

As I write this at 10 pm, I have heard of no significant disruptions and so I hope this continues as I will be crossing the through the city tomorrow on my way to Kiserian to visit my friends, the Moiko family.

One hopes that the country will be able to carry out the election this year, both fairly and with acceptance of a legitimate outcome. One step closer to a functioning, open democratic society.

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