Vervet monkey at Lang'ata Training Center
The rains are late this year in Kenya. By now the country should be in the latter stages of the first month of the two-month-long rainy season. The country relies on the regular downpours of “long rains” as they are called to let the maize and other food crops germinate and sprout. But the rains have not come.
My partner, Mia, and I are in Kenya working with the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Wangari Maathai, on her next writing project. Although it is the off-season for tourism, the Fairview Hotel where Mia, my partner, and I are staying is full. The hotel is set amid an extraordinarily verdant garden, full of jacaranda trees and bougainvillea, which are full of orange, pink, and red blooms, amid the rich foliage of cacti, eucalyptus, and even some indigenous Kenyan trees. The Fairview is conveniently located near government ministries, including that of Wangari Maathai, who is the Assistant Minister for the Environment.
While it is good to see that the government does not spend too much of its citizens’ money on unnecessary perks, one could hope that a little bit of public money could be spent on the building that houses the Ministry of the Environment. Wangari’s offices are cramped and dingy, the hallways without decoration or, more to the point, any greenery at all. Also absent, it seems, is the Minister for the Environment himself. Rumor has it that he spends most of the time campaigning for the presidency in elections that have yet to be called.
Wangari herself is much in demand—with constituents dropping by, camera crews from around the world, and courtesy calls from ambassadors and the like, each of whom apparently gets a seedling to plant in their embassy grounds. She sees them all and squeezes in asking and answering questions in Parliament and visiting her constituency... (Apologies for the interruption, but a tabby cat just came and said hello, so I had to interrupt myself.) In the meantime, Mia and I have been to the Green Belt Movement offices and to Langata, the training center, where we taped Wangari, and were entertained by a troop of vervet monkeys who almost distracted us from the Pentecostal rally that took place next door to Langata for about five hours the Sunday that we were there.
Nairobi is a bustling town which works better than you think but not as well as you would wish. Things move at Kenyan time and not at American time, which takes some getting used to. Unemployment is unfortunately high, so there are a lot of people who need work and are happy to help you do something even when you want to do it yourself. Kenyans are in general friendly and opinionated and eager to discuss things with you—and ready to bargain. Luckily, Mia, whom we have calculated is on her seventh visit to Kenya, knows just about everybody in Nairobi by name and can bargain with anyone for anything!
Being a vegan so far hasn’t been a problem. Spinach is ubiquitous as are variations of millet. There’s also porridge, rice, and potatoes. Kenya has just become the world’s largest producer of tea—so there’s no shortage of that—and Kenyan coffee is world famous. Neither Mia nor I have gotten sick yet, which is good, although the humidity here means we both have to take our asthma medicine more than we would in New York.