Welcome to my "everything" blog where I write about my musings, and post pictures, links and videos that inspire me.

Business school student at UBC. Digs a good laugh, a good read and all things pretty. An economics nerd and a fashion junkie. Obsessed with travel, photography, design and living a healthy life. There's nothing wrong with a little indulgence.

From Vancouver, Canada but currently located in Nairobi, Kenya.

My name is Cecilia, enjoy your visit.
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Motivational Monday
This past weekend, I hiked up and around Mt Longonot in Naivasha, Kenya. The rim of the crater is a 7.2 km loop and in the background, you can see the highest point, which has an elevation of 2780 m. As I was trekking along the jagged rim, I started reflecting on the challenges I encountered in the past 2-3 months and came to a nice analogy. I hope that you’ll find some meaning in this as well.
They say life is a journey much like climbing a mountain…or a stratovolcano in my case. We go through series of peaks and troughs—highs and lows. Getting to the peak is hard and takes efforts, but it pays off to see the view in the end. However, if we keep focusing on the steepness that’s ahead, we might never attempt to make the climb. Be courageous to make the first step! As with the circular nature of the rim, our highs and lows are constantly in motion. Just because we make it down to a low point, doesn’t mean that we won’t encounter a peak soon again…but yet again, it necessitates patience and work. 

Motivational Monday

This past weekend, I hiked up and around Mt Longonot in Naivasha, Kenya. The rim of the crater is a 7.2 km loop and in the background, you can see the highest point, which has an elevation of 2780 m. As I was trekking along the jagged rim, I started reflecting on the challenges I encountered in the past 2-3 months and came to a nice analogy. I hope that you’ll find some meaning in this as well.

They say life is a journey much like climbing a mountain…or a stratovolcano in my case. We go through series of peaks and troughs—highs and lows. Getting to the peak is hard and takes efforts, but it pays off to see the view in the end. However, if we keep focusing on the steepness that’s ahead, we might never attempt to make the climb. Be courageous to make the first step! As with the circular nature of the rim, our highs and lows are constantly in motion. Just because we make it down to a low point, doesn’t mean that we won’t encounter a peak soon again…but yet again, it necessitates patience and work. 

The importance of water in urban slum settlements

I love going into the field because it’s always a new learning experience. Lately, I’ve been stuck in the office doing a report on microcredit so I was really happy when the Executive Director told me early this week that he had another project in mind for me. Basically, I’ll be helping document the “success stories” of a few health-related initiatives, like for instance, how community outreach workers convince families about the importance of hand washing, the installation of basins in households that have limited access to water, or the successful exit of a once-malnourished child from the nutrition clinic. I was put in contact with a man named Yunus, the community outreach project officer who I thought was a woman because his name is pronounced exactly like Eunice, and he decided to take a “seeing is believing” approach in explaining to me what their field workers actually do.

So, on Thursday morning, we set off to go to the Kibera village of Gatwekera, where the railway line literally runs parallel to the busiest “street”. I would imagine the sound of a train regularly passing through your village to be a major annoyance for those people, but they didn’t seem to mind.


As we walked deeper into the village, Yunus was explaining to me how the water collection points operate and how Kibera residents basically depend on water cartels—collection points that don’t belong to the cartel are coincidentally “not in service”. That explains why every morning, I see men filling up or carrying handcarts full of jerrycans of water. It’ll cost 20 shillings for someone to bring a jerrycan to you but if you collect it yourself, it’s 5 or 10. Sounds cheap for us but these people actually pay more for water than some of their neighbours who get water pumped directly to their house. Really odd how that works. You know you’re in a residential area when the alleys start becoming smaller and the open sewage starts getting worse. At one point, the smell of human excreta was overwhelming. Yunus told me that the sewage waste gets its distinctive green colour from people brewing illegal alcohol called changaa. These changaa dens are well-hidden because they’re illegal and the owners bribe policemen to turn a blind eye. This stuff is cheap and extremely addictive. Its name literally means “kill me quick” because of methanol poisoning from additives used to speed up the brewing process. Yunus explained to me how it consumes people’s lives, and all they can think about is getting drunk. Imagine the first thing you think about when you wake up in the morning not being what you will eat for breakfast or going to work, but how much changaa you can buy today. If you see drunken men stumbling in the middle of the street during the day, chances are they’re an addict. 

We followed the outreach workers as they went from home to home educating mothers on sanitation, hygiene and cervical cancer/HIV. They explained to the women the importance of regularly cleaning the sewage in front of their house also measured the MUAC in children under five to quickly screen for any signs of malnutrition. The living conditions would shock the normal person. These shacks are built using a wooden frame and reinforced with dried mud. I suppose with the climate, there is no need for insulation. The roof is made from tin sheets to keep the mud dry in case of rain. For the sheets to perform this function, they need to stick out a little in order the catch most of the raindrops. Unfortunately, they stick out at head-level so it’s not uncommon to cut yourself on the sharp edges, risking tetanus. Another hazard is getting electrocuted from touching the sheets if there are exposed wires providing illicit electricity to the households.

Since I got invited into most of the homes I visited, I also got to see the inside. Most are no bigger than 50 square-feet, which is probably the size of a normal bedroom. There is usually a curtain dividing the “bedroom” from the “living room”, but some are more spacious and have actual rooms separated by doors. None of the homes we visited had kitchens and I was told that those who are lucky enough to have some space in the entryway can buy a small charcoal cooker.

Just next to the railroad tracks is a huge facility that stands out so distinctively due to its size. I asked Yunus what it was and he told me it was called the Human Needs Project. He told that they have a very deep well that can provide clean water to local residents and it was started by an American who visited Kibera. He managed to get us both a complete tour of the place and we found out that they do much more than just water, although that was only the initial vision! The HNP deserves a post of its own because I was so impressed by what they do yet I still have some reservations about the realistic accessibility of their services. 

Until next time!

Cycling Hell’s Gate National Park

This past weekend my co-worker Micaela and I went on a day trip to Hell’s Gate National Park, the location that helped inspire Disney animators to come up with the scenery in The Lion King movie. We started our journey early in the morning, took a taxi into town and boarded a matatu direct to Naivasha. Our 3-hour matatu ride only was incredibly cheap and only costed us about $2.50. When we arrived to Naivasha Town, we had to board another matatu that would take us to the road leading to the park gate where we could also rent bicycles for the day… but not before we were harassed non-stop by boda boda (motorcycle) drivers who wanted our business. 

We biked through some amazing views of rocky cliffs and savannah terrain, right next to zebras, warthogs and species of antelope. This picture was taken not long after my first fall off my bike. Being a novice biker, I was not used to sharing the road with the crazy Kenyan boda boda drivers, so needless to say, as one passed me (rather close I might add) on our way to the main gate, I went flying off my bike as it fell into the small ditch on the side of the road. The driver actually alerted Micaela about my little accident by telling her, “Your colleague has fallen.”

We arrived at Rangers’ Post after maybe a 12km bike ride. It was a rest area to have lunch before a ranger would take us on a hike in the gorge. The baboons were so vicious and generally unafraid of humans so you kind of have to use physical violence to make them go away. Micaela actually punched this little bugger.

We were told scenes from Tomb Raider 2 was filmed in the gorge. What a coincidence just last year I was visiting Cambodia and went to Ta Prohm, the temple where the first Tomb Raider movie was filmed.

Our ranger told us that people have died as a result of the flash floods, but only because they just ignored the warnings and went into the gorge anyway. Rangers were usually good at predicting when those floods would come. There are also “emergency exits” to get out of the gorge or just get high enough to avoid the water. 

There were some intense boulders to climb.

One of the geothermal hot springs - they were way hotter than I expected.

Admiring the amazing view. Yup, this picture was taken not long after my second fall. My tires got caught in sand and I got thrown off my bike. Luckily, scrapped knees were the extent of my injuries.

During the hike, we met a woman called Roseanne who is in Nairobi for three months working as a nanny. We both talked about wanting to hike Mount Longonot, a stratovolcano not far from Naivasha. Apparently the ascent, circumnavigation of the crater and descent takes around 4 hours. I really hope that we’ll go in two weeks!

These have been the hardest few months of my life, but not in a way that you’d expect

Disclaimer: This post is not as light-hearted as some of my usual posts and deals with some of my struggles living in Kibera.

So many people back home have been asking me how I’m doing in Africa and I thought I should finally address this question honestly rather than give my customary “everything is fine” reply. As the title says, these few months have been the hardest of my life.

I’ll start by admitting that I’ve been called a princess a handful of times in the past but I’ve actually adjusted fairly well to living in one of the largest urban slums in Africa. In some respect, it has made me really appreciate what I do have compared to more economically-challenged families in Kibera, like having a shower and a flushing toilet. While the societal ills are definitely present – stray animals that roam the streets and keep me awake at night, burning garbage and exhaust fumes assaulting my sense of smell, the abject poverty all around me (the debate about poverty is actually an interesting one, which I’ll talk about in another post), I’m still able to live a fairly normal life. I’m also extremely lucky in that I can access and afford to go to a decent gym 30 minutes away from my house. I’m willing to bet that my fitness is the single factor that has prevented me from becoming sick so far. Protip: exercise keeps your immune system in top shape by increasing the circulation of antibodies throughout your body.

There’s a lot of things that people don’t tell you about living in a slum and it’s easy to understand why. First of all, very few foreigners actually do it. Even NGO workers will tend to live in a more upscale place near their work and commute in. Secondly, everyone’s experiences are different and it’s very hard to predict what will happen to us once we’re there.

In short, my struggles have made me hyper-aware of my identity not only as a foreigner but especially as a non-Caucasian. I get all the assumptions of a foreigner (has money) but without any of the “admiration” or “affection”. Regarding the first half of the statement, many of my conversations in the street that start out harmless will inevitably result in the other party trying to acquire some assistance from me, especially when they learn I work for an NGO. I get so many requests for my number and email that I’ve started to dread it, because I know that I cannot possibly help them in the way they hope. 

Let me now explain the second part of the statement and my main source of frustration, which somewhat illustrates the extent of European hegemony on not only her colonies, but on the rest of the world as well. I apologize in advance for generalizing, but in many places of the world, there is a sort of admiration and amazement given to people of European descent, which I’ve noticed after spending time in Asia and now in Africa. Non-Europeans look at Europeans (including Americans) with wonder because hundreds of years of dominance and power have instilled this notion of superiority. It’s not a coincidence that European beauty standards have become the norm in cultures around the world – skin bleaching, hair straightening, double-eyelid surgery, etc. Yes, I’m aware that there is a historical connotation of violence as well, but that’s not what my post is about. I’ve seen this happen many times – whenever a Caucasian person walks by a place that has not been exposed to a huge expat presence (e.g. China in the early 2000s, Kibera slum presently), people will get very excited as if seeing a rare mythical creature. But for me, there is hardly any excitement. All of this is replaced by blatant racism on a daily basis. When I walk through Kibera, I hear everything from “Chinese!” to “Japanese!” to any random combination of the sounds “Ching”, “Chang” and “Chong”. There is no positive undertone to this, no affection; it’s pure mockery. I cannot get out of my head that incident involving groups of women who yelled out racial slurs at me while laughing with their friends. I cannot get out of my head the insults one man yelled out to me from the back of a matatu while my American co-worker sat right next to me. So for the first time since my childhood, I started to feel something I’m not particularly proud to admit. I started to feel ashamed of my identity.

I’ve tried very hard to justify people’s behaviour as ignorance or just tell myself “they don’t know any better”, but that has failed to alleviate my anxiety. Other non-Asians have told me to ignore these people but I feel the constant urge to stand up for myself. It’s as if I’m treated as an inferior, for no reason other than the race I was born with. This is purely surface level as well, as even my North American upbringing will not shed away the assumptions attached to my skin colour. I’ve been told several times that I cannot be a Canadian because I “look Chinese”. Just last Saturday while riding a matatu to Hell’s Gate National Park, the conductor ask my American co-worker and I where we were from. I told him we were both from the United States, to make it simpler, but to my surprise, he replied “She’s American, you’re not. You are Chinese.” 

As if being Asian in Kenya is hard enough, I’m also a woman, which effectively counts as two strikes against me. Racism is not the only thing I have to deal with, but the occasional sexual harassment as well. Just on Saturday, a drunk Kenyan man joked about raping me while the same co-worker and I were waiting for our cab driver in a sketchy part of town. I’ll never forget his words. He said “I’m your friend, I can’t rape you.” As if only strangers can commit rape. He also grabbed my arm several times and proceeded to ask very loudly across the street if I had a man. See my earlier post about door-to-door HIV testing for another incident. I’m fortunate that this hasn’t happened as often because I try and avoid interactions with questionable men, even if it means giving up potential friendships with people from the community that some of my other co-workers have seemed to accept.

As a result of both these things, I have lost my sense of security, which I had no idea I could even take for granted in Canada. By the way, walking outside after dark is out of the question, but when I must walk to/from the gym or work, I tend to walk at a faster pace than usual, with my hood up and avoiding all possible eye contact, but this still doesn’t deter people from verbally harassing me. I laugh to myself when I recall that UBC chose to have us stay with a family in Kibera to avoid the closed-off feeling of gated communities. But I feel as though it has done more harm to me than good. I know I shouldn’t let the bigotry of a few people affect my entire perception of Kibera, but it’s easier said than done. I feel extremely guilty when locals ask me if I wish to return (permanently) to Kenya because the truth is that I wouldn’t. When I hear my American co-workers constantly gush about what a great time they’ve had and how they would definitely return to Kenya, I can’t help but to wonder why my experience hasn’t lived up to the same level as theirs. I think if my circumstances were different, I would have a different outlook for sure. Nevertheless, I think Nairobi is a great city but the biggest flaw of my trip is that I have almost no experiences with Nairobi. I’m sad to say that my perception of Nairobi has been inaccurately influenced by Kibera.

Side note: As I was walking home from the coffee house chain (located 30 min from my flat by foot) just after I had spent a good amount of time reflecting on racism, I was victimized five times in the span of only these 30 minutes, which is a normal number. I decided to respond to three of these to see what would happen. The first instance, I turned around to my provoker, a young man, and said firmly, “What did you say to me?” while maintaining direct eye contact. He stared at me for a few seconds and walked away. The second instance was a couple talking about me in Swahili to one another. A young ambulance driver named Moses heard the exchange and told me what they were saying. Apparently, the man was telling the woman, “There is China in Kibera.” He was telling me how he would smash those people if he could because we are supposed to love one another. A little bit ironic but the thought was appreciated. But to my dismay, as he was telling me about his work as a “ghetto ambulance” driver, he was more interested in knowing if I knew any NGOs that could connect him with ambulances. I told him that I didn’t think I could help him and bid him a good evening. The last instance, I confronted a couple of young men sitting on couches in a furniture store. I told them it was very rude and asked them why they think it’s okay to say this to people. I finally got an apology but the way I received it was not how I imagined. How did it happen? One of them said to me, “So you are not a China?” and I decided to say no. By denying my identity, that was how I earned their apology. I was completely speechless.

Sometimes I wonder if the large amount of Chinese foreign investment in Kenya contributes to negative local stereotypes of my race. FYI, China is helping Kenya with developing infrastructure in exchange for debt. In some respect, thay could be considered a form of neo-colonialism and I suppose Kenyans (I should specify more so the less educated) come to regard us as predators.

But regardless of the reasons, I know that I will come out of this experience a stronger and better person. That’s my biggest motivator right now.  

Adventures on a 4x4

Last weekend, I went to Maasai Mara with a co-worker and it was hands down my favourite experience in Kenya so far. Everything was perfect from the moment we arrived - the camp facilities were top-notch, the staff was incredibly friendly, the drivers and spotters were very competent and the food was delicious. 

Let me start off by mentioning that everyone I talked to was amazed at how little I paid for the whole thing. For KSH 18,000 or about US$ 210, I got 3 days and 2 nights at the campsite, one full-day game drive and two partial-day game drives, pick-up and drop-off from/to my residence in Nairiobi and all my meals covered. Having a student pass definitely helped, since I was considered a Kenyan resident and benefited from a substantially-reduced park entry fee - from $80 to KSH 1,200. 

All together, I took over 900 pictures. I anticipate about 1/3 of them will get uploaded to Facebook when I get back, but I wanted to share some of the best ones on my blog first. 


We made a short stop at the Rift Valley Escarpment, with some of the most amazing scenery I’ve ever seen!



Our tent! We had actual beds, a nightstand and a lamp that was solar powered. Their toilets were also the cleanest I’ve ever encountered. They were pit latrines, meaning our waste would just go into a hole in the ground. The camp had dug the hole extremely deep so there was virtually no smell. I dare say it even smell nice in there with all the air fresheners they must have used. They also added a nice touch by making seats with lids that you can open/close as needed. Laura, one of the owners, told me they usually dump ash in the pit to neutralize the smell about every six months. 






Buffalo: our first encounter with one of the Big Five animals. By the end of the trip, we would have seen four of the five, missing the leopard.  


Sunset over Maasai Mara - breathtaking view. 


We spotted two young lions playing with what appears to be a wire. 2/5





Sunrise on Day 2. I can’t decide if I prefer sunset or sunrise. 


Vultures feeding on the stomach contents of a wildebeest. 


We saw not only one but two rhinos! They are apparently so rare to spot because there are only 44 of them in the entire Mara. 3/5


Sausage tree - the fruit can be made into alcohol which kind of tastes like cider. image


Packs of wildebeest tend to form straight lines like this one. 


Funny story: in the Mara, there aren’t any washroom facilities so when nature calls, you have to find a bush to use. I ended up choosing one that was maybe 10m from a couple of lions. 



Me with my co-worker Brandon.


Hippos look like big blobs of fat.



Migration of the wildebeest, not Nat Geo quality but still cool. 






One of the puppies the camp had!


Sunrise on Day 3


Arguably the coolest thing I saw during my entire trip. A couple of cheetahs were stalking a group of wildebeest contemplating an attack. They weighed the odds and eventually abandonned the operation.


I wonder what they were saying to one another.


Our Land Cruiser!


Baby zebra and mama zebra


Pretty much the attitude of things here.


We arranged a visit to a Maasai village where they danced for us and showed us their homes. One of the more touristy things we did. 

Encounters with the wild

I’m so excited to be going on a safari at Masaai Mara from the 18th to the 20th with another American intern called Brandon. The safari operator I’ll be using is Mara Explorers, recommended to me by my friend Sarah. They have a 3 day/2 night package that’s very reasonably priced since their target market is backpackers and budget travelers. Not to mention my Kenyan work permit gives me amazing perks like residence (“local”) rates for parks. I’m looking forward to seeing and taking pictures of the Big Five - elephants, lions, rhinos, leopards and buffaloes, identified by colonial hunters as the five most difficult animals to hunt and kill. 

I’ve gotten a chance to get close with some wildlife these past few weeks in Kenya - through the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, the Nairobi Safari Walk and the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage. Here are some of the most exciting pictures from those encounters. 

Our vehicle with the awesome pop-open roof. 

Warthogs and female impalas

Black rhinos and monkeys


Feeding (and petting) a blind northern white rhino called Barraka at Ol Pejeta, a last resort for these animals to reproduce and be reintroduced in the wild. They are critically endangered/extinct in the wild and Barraka is supposedly only one of seven remaining of his species. 

Spotted: a female and male lion

A beautiful giraffe!

Feeding an ostrich

Some monkeys (most likely) escaped their habitat and were relaxing on a bridge

Look at this little cutie pie!

Orphaned baby elephants drinking water

Thoughts on slum entrepreneurship as a viable income-generating activity*

In Kibera, micro enterprises are the backbone of the community. The streets are filled with small businesses - hairdressers, food stalls, restaurants, grocers, pharmacies, internet cafes, the list goes on… One could spend months living here without needing to set foot in the outside world. The things that are sold in slums are so perfectly catered to the people’s needs and purchasing power that slums are often referred to as hotbeds for innovation. Consider the mother in Kibera who cannot afford diapers for her newborn but a shopkeeper will sell them to her by the unit. Consider the child who wants to play video games but cannot afford to spend money at an arcade. However, the makeshift arcade in the neighbourhood will charge him 10 KSH ($ 0.12) to play in 10 minutes increments. These are some examples of adapting products and services initially created for middle-class consumers into low-cost alternatives that the local market can afford. These small adjustments may not conform to our traditional interpretation of innovation, but they start to make sense when we think of the process as ‘reverse-innovation’, or even market adaptation. 

With all these businesses crammed into 2 square-kilometers, I naturally began to wonder how profitable they were and in turn, how effective they were at lifting people out of extreme poverty. What I realized was that I held a too-hopeful view of entrepreneurship and the more I read, the more it seemed like livelihood improvements were marginal at best. Owning a business may not turn around someone’s life significantly, but it may help smooth out their income and reduce the likelihood of huge shocks. 

In another instance, I sat in on a work readiness lesson aimed at preparing young people for either work or entrepreneurship. The participants were able to go to college to study different things, from hairdressing to hotel management to social work, and complete an internship. A number of them wanted to study and work two different things, like study social work but open a hotel (in Kibera, hotels are like small cafes). I asked myself why people would not want to focus all their efforts in one endeavor, and I learned that it was a way of distributing the risk, since new businesses have such high failure rates. Still, I was not entirely convinced that they had the burning desire to become business owners. I began to wonder if the message of starting your own business is communicated simply because there is no better alternative - either you do it or you deal with the absurdly high unemployment rate in the formal labour market. Thus, with all the businesses saturating the market selling commodity items at low profit margins, can it be still be a viable income-generating activity? Is entrepreneurship seen as a ‘need’ here rather than a ‘want’? And in this sense, do people have the passion it takes for businesses to succeed? 

These are the questions I’ve been struggling with during my time here, and in the near future I hope to collect enough stories to help me dispel these concerns.

*Edit 10/7/14 I learned that there’s a small difference between income-generating activities (IGAs) and micro and small enterprises (MSEs). According to Haan (2006), IGAs are the predominant type of MSEs, especially in rural areas. They refer essentially to pre-entrepreneurial activities with low barriers to entry that serve as a last resort for survival, including under-employed hawkers and vendors, subsistence farmers and many women’s household activities. Micro-enterprises are mostly family firms with one single worker  although others have some regular workers. They usually use traditional technologies based on widely existing technical knowledge, existing labour skills and existing raw material supplies and typically serve local markets; MEs are typically located in the house of the owner. Finally, small enterprises employ roughly 10 to 50 workers and use non-traditional or ‘modern’ technology in some aspect of transformation process. Their products are services range from simple to complex, and similarly span a range of consumer types. Some SEs are on the margin of formal, paying some taxes and registered with municipality. The vast majority of ‘businesses’ in Kibera are IGAs and MEs.

Door-to-door HIV testing and dealing with drunken Kenyan men in Kibera

Last week I accompanied the sexual and reproductive health team on some field work. On Tuesday, I went with YPP (youth peer provider) volunteers into the heart of Kibera to test adults for HIV. Other than that, the YPPs also give out free condoms (donated by UK Aid) and offer information on family planning/birth control. First of all, I had no idea that these instant HIV tests even existed. After disinfecting the person’s finger, the counselor pricks the fingertip and draws a tiny sample of blood into a small vial which then goes into a little kit. One line mean negative and two lines means positive. If positive, the counselor will then write the person a referral to CFK’s Tabitha clinic for follow-up procedures.

Sounds like a great way to tackle HIV in the slums? By the way, it is estimated that 9% of people in Kibera are HIV+. There were several issues that I learned while tagging along on this really amazing walk. Each team is composed of one HTC (HIV Testing and Counselling) counselor, who is the only one able to do the actual testing, and several volunteers who help. The daily quota is 20 so I’m told, but almost every time they exceed this number. I ask what percentage of people test positive for HIV, hoping to hear some reasonably conservative number like 1 or 2 out of 20. I’m told that they will almost never find anyone HIV+ because those who are confident about their status will insist on being tested to prove it to themselves. We cannot force anyone to be tested, so those who are unsure about their status or who may be HIV+ refuse the test. Secondly, because we are testing a very poor area of Nairobi and because they know that we’re an NGO, a number of people will demand food or money first. How do we even begin to help these people when some of their basic needs aren’t even met? Additionally, even condom distribution can be misleading. You may think, “Hey, so many people are taking condoms today!” but a volunteer told me that Kiberans just like free stuff.

We navigated the winding and narrow alleys of Kianda village in Kibera, talking to adults who looked cooperating. They talked, I just observed. At first, it was relatively easy-going, and we were slowly inching towards our target. I was holding a box of 100 condoms when a lady we had just tested came over and grabbed the box out of my hands and put its entire content in a black plastic bag. We didn’t know if she planned on keeping the condoms for herself or if she wanted to distribute them to the group of men we had also tested. I was confused by what had just happened, but the volunteers didn’t seem to care.

My interesting encounter with a group of drunken Kiberans will definitely be one for the books. We stumbled upon a household and the lady saw us first. She was speaking things to us in Swahili, being very loud. Apparently, she wanted me to buy her a drink first so she can be prepared for her result. I’m not sure if she was annoyed at us for disturbing the gathering. A few other men came out of the house to see what was going on, but the last one to come out was the most eccentric. He first wanted all of us to listen to his music and put his ear buds in all of our ears. An older gentlemen asked me what country I was from, so I told him I was Canadian but of Chinese descent. He said, “I like China. When China comes, we get roads.” He was referring to the many Chinese contractors that come to Kenya to build highways and buildings. Apparently, Mr. Walkman took a liking to me. I didn’t know what he was saying most of the time but I was told that he said he wanted to take me home with him and give me a child. Creepy sana. The volunteers quickly made up a story about how I was married to one of their brothers and that I had two children, all while laughing their asses off. Of course the dude didn’t believe the story because they kept changing the number of kids I had. When it was his turn, he also wanted me to come with him but it was not allowed due to patient-tester confidentiality. When we were leaving, he even tried to kiss me! But I dodged it in time and his lips ended up kissing my chin. It was an experience we could only laugh about.

I had to leave early to get back to the office for a meeting but when I later found the group again, they told me they had once again exceed their daily target. I mentioned earlier that the results are quite susceptible to bias but when considering the big picture, this is actually huge step in the right direction. It gets people talking about the problem, rather than pretending it doesn’t exist, which I’m told happens often in Kenya with hot button issues like corruption and human trafficking. In 2010, almost nobody would agree to even be tested, but in only four years, the organization has gotten people interested in safe sex and contraception. There needs to be a gradual shift in public opinion before change can happen – and we’re on that path right now.

June 15 — Learning how to fit in when you stand out and initial impressions of Kibera/CFK

When it hits you, the smell is excruciating – it’s a mixture of garbage, toxic fumes from burning plastic, and diesel. It’s no wonder that there are so many health problems endemic to slums. It’s unfathomable just how many people, especially kids, live in Kibera. Half of the population is under 15 years old. 

Through experience, I’ve finally managed to avoid getting my pants muddy from walking on the dirt roads after the rain. I’m also getting more orientated with the area and can manage to find my way home without getting lost, which is a minor success considering how there are no street names. Here, I’m told people learn how to navigate themselves and give directions using landmarks.

My first day of work involved an orientation of all the facilities and initiatives my NGO operates, led by Daniel, a field worker for the Economic and Entrepreneurship Department. Our first stop was to a nutrition centre for children up to 5 years of age. The centre goes around homes in Kibera and screens children for malnutrition. Only the most severe cases are taken into the centre for treatment and monitoring all-day. The kids arrive in the morning and are fed four meals throughout the day. The most common malnutrition problem they see is stunting and low body weight. What concerned me though was that the centre fed the children mostly carbohydrates, with soy being the only protein I heard. They also administer Plumpy Nut and macronutrient packets. It was so fascinating seeing international nutrition in action.

Our next stop led us to Fruitful Talent Women’s Group, where Mama Beatrice leads a program focused on making jewelry from paper and art using banana fiber that they sell at the market. Part of the profits are used to fund a preschool program in the makeshift school next door, pictured below. 

We then met Frederick from Victorious at his workshop. This group makes jewelry and crafts from cow bones purchased at slaughterhouses at 2 shillings apiece. They wash, bleach, carve, polish and paint the bone pieces into all sorts of beautiful handcrafts, like necklaces, bracelets, earrings, key chains and bottle openers. He told me he also makes all-bone smoking pipes, which he claims is unique. The great thing is that all their workers are native to Kibera – that’s the “social” aspect of their social enterprise. They’ll train local young men in the art of jewelry-making and carving so they are able to acquire useful skills and escape unemployment. Frederick knows that competition is stiff yet he maintains that the quality of his products are always superior. He is a great man, and always willing to teach me useful Swahili phrases.

We were then handed off to Daniel, the manager of Agatha Clinic, the very first service that CFK birthed, and named after one of its co-founders. It is an outpatient clinic that provides basic medical services to Kibera residents free of change, and at a subsidized rate for others. The clinic has grown to an impressive three-story building with a lab, an x-ray room, and several examination rooms. They also have peer counselling for patients diagnosed with HIV and treat malnutrition.

The Trash is Cash recycling centre collects plastic containers and other plastic items from the community and resells the material to industries. Once the plastic is delivered to the recycling centre, workers sort out the different items by colour and they get pelleted by a large shredder into very small pieces. This is the value proposition of the recycling centre – industries are willing to pay a premium for pre-shredded plastic because it can be moulded directly into other things. I was told the plastic needs to weigh at least 2 tons before it can be put in the machine to cut. Unfortunately, they’re experiencing fierce competition by individuals who offer to pay a small fee to collect unwanted plastic. Although they can’t cut the plastic down into small pieces, they can still profit from selling the whole thing to companies. The city has no recycling program. In fact, in informal areas such as Kibera, the city provides no waste management service. All of it is handled by NGOs, the private sector or individual trash collectors.

Trash in abundance!

Our final stop was Zero Waste, a women’s group that meet weekly to turn cheap plastic bags into beautiful crochet bags that are durable and colourful, which they them sell in a nearby shop. They start off by cutting the handles of the regular plastic bags and then cut the rest into one long strip, which they then use. Last Thursday, I learned how to crochet with one of the women and I only managed to produce a circle about 2 inches in diameter.

I’m also slowly coming to terms with the fact that I will never fit in here. Having that hope going into this experience was basically setting myself up for disappointment. I am at least five shades lighter than average and my oriental features stand out a mile away. But there is hope – I’m basically a regular at the café and gym near my home. Small things like that make me feel at home. The insecurity does frustrate me, but mostly because it means that I need to be extra cautious all the time. Whenever the sun is setting (every day at 6:30pm, thank you equator), it’s basically a rush to get home before dark. I definitely miss the freedom I had in Vancouver, to be able to go anywhere and stay out as late as I want. The problem is that I’m a foreigner, and I attract attention everywhere I go. When I come home late, I’m told that people may pay attention to where I live and this may also paint a target on my family’s back. But despite everything, I’ve been able to cope with being locked up past 7pm most evenings. Having a routine definitely helps and I’m becoming such an early riser. But funny enough, it’s always awesome to see a little reminder of home in Nairobi. Pictured below: me and Walter, a program volunteer. :)

June 8, 2014 — First Days in Nairobi

Since I’ve arrived in Nairobi on the 5th, it’s been like entering into a whole new world. So much has happened but yet I feel like I’ve done so little. The first two nights, we actually stayed at a wildlife research centre in Nairobi National Park – the only national park in a capital city. You can see a lot of wild game from the centre like gazelles (photo above), buffalos (photo below), zebras, impalas and giraffes. I got picked up at the airport by Dr. Ibrahim, the founder of the research centre. Teacher by training and conservationist by trade, he currently sits on the constitutional committee on a contract basis, a job which he cannot wait for to end. The man is one of the most intelligent individuals I have ever met. What his job entails is reading through bills introduced to parliament and ensuring that everything complies with the constitution. With the constitutional reform in 2010, Kenya essentially replaced all old text with new text. This means all the existing bills had to be rechecked and rewritten (a work still in progress) – even the most basic ones like the marriage bill. Dr. Ibrahim is Muslim, and he comes from the Northeastern part of Kenya. On the car ride to the research centre from the airport, we had a very fascinating conversation about camels. The meat stays fresh longer and is leaner than beef. The milk supposedly acts as a detox (although it can be more of a laxative for the uninitiated) and can be drunken by those with lactose intolerance. We later learned that camels can “cry” like humans when they know they’re going to be slaughtered. What kind of monster would kill a crying animal?! Dr. Ibrahim actually kept his promise and brought over some camel meat for us to taste but that morning, my stomach was fairly upset from all the food we had eaten the previous day that the smell was enough to make me feel queasy. Speaking of overeating (is that a thing?), over at the National Park, the in-house cooks fed us so much that we dubbed it our very first First World Problem. Quite honestly, there wasn’t much to do besides talk, eat and maaaaaaybe a short walk around the compound to see the wild animals. By lunchtime, we were already begging them to stop feeding us so much.

The tea here is divine. People call it chai but it’s not like the kind we have back home. It is sort of like a black tea except you have to add the tea leaves in a boiling mixture of equal parts of water and whole milk. Once you have let the tea steep for a good 3-5 minutes, you pour the finished chai into a kettle or a thermos. There is a joke that Kenyans put tea in their sugar instead of the other way around to capture the ridiculous amounts of sugar they put in their tea. I found that coffee is not as prevalent as one may think, which is surprising given the reputation of Kenyan coffee overseas.

Salim also took us to a restaurant called Talisman in the Karen neighbourhood, which is known for being the expat hub and also home to Kenyan Cowboys, decedents of the British aristocratic settlers several generations ago. These people were born in Kenya and speak perfect Swahili, so they are considered just as Kenyan as the black Kenya population. They looked incredibly posh and spoke English with a refined British accent, switching to Swahili on occasion. It was a stunning contrast of the widespread poverty just across town. I swear the only black people at that restaurant were the wait staff.

Yesterday, we got sent to our homestay. My mum Mary is a retired schoolteacher and her husband is a retired government agent but I forget what he did exactly. She has two adult sons who have moved out, both engineers. Her younger son Alan lives in Windsor and his wife is in Detroit. Her older son Victor lives here and has a five year-old son, who I’ve been told to call Junior. They have a rural home about 8 hours away by bus from the capital, near where President Obama is from actually. They also have a bigger apartment which they currently rent out. The best way to explain her living situation is basically like having the nicest house in a bad neighbourhood. I’m fairly certain the school assigned me to the most well-off host family because I came across as the most entitled person of the group. Apparently the American interns at my work were given more upscale housing in a gated compound. I can appreciate that UBC insists on us not becoming part of the secluded “expat” bubble, but I would have preferred a choice. I found that living independently in my “safe” expat community was a better experience than living at home with my controlling relatives. This is also radically different from how my friend’s overseas internship program at Yale handled their Shanghai group. They all got rooms at a pretty fancy serviced apartment. But I’m aware that Kenya =/= China so I’ll stop trying to compare the two.

I love where I’m staying but I feel like my freedom is extremely constricted due to the insecure setting.  We’re not able to walk around freely after sunset and we must have a buddy wherever we go. As a fairly independent person, this will definitely cause some issues. What happens if I want to go to the gym after work and the cabs refuse to take me to my residence? What if I want to check out the markets and no one wants to go with me? I guess I will have find a way to keep myself entertained and slowly become a morning person.

I guess to illustrate how chaotic the infrastructure can be in the Third World, I’ve not even been here for 24 hours and we’ve already lost power (got it back) and water (not back yet). I’ve already gotten used to not flushing every time I go pee and washing my hands with a small jug of water. I took a basin bath for the first time ever today and I think I got clean. Even managed to wash my hair and not use up all the water! My mama is super nice but I’m afraid my politeness and quietness will come across as rude. I’m definitely not as boisterous or as opinionated as the other girls in the program. I hope that it’s just a matter of time before I open up. 

As we were going for a walk around Ayany (our estate) yesterday, we got caught in a monsoon all of a sudden. Otto, the son of one of the homestay mums taught us the saying TIA, which means “This is Africa” and TINA, which means “This is New Africa,” an all-encompassing catchphrase to explain all the going-ons you simply don’t understand. It’s funny because last year in Shanghai, we would sometimes say TIC for “This is China”. I love how I’m getting to learn their country’s culture just as much as I’m sharing mine with them. For instance, mama and her niece were so surprised to hear that in the West, we don’t do dowries for marriages. 

Work will start soon and I’m looking forward to meeting the employees of my NGO. I’m feeling a mix of excitement and homesickness, with a splash of anxiety. I’ll keep updating this blog with my initial impressions of Kibera and my work. 

10 Things I Learned About London (in Only 3 Days)


On my way to Nairobi, I booked myself three days in London because the way my dad redeemed his British Airways Avios points required him to book the flights separately. According to him, he could only redeem a certain amount of points per booking so that’s why he opted to separate the flights. For me, it was a great opportunity to see old friends and revisit a great city. Breaking up a 16-hour flight into two 8-hour chunks was also a bonus.

This was my third time in London and as it turned out, I became less fixated on checking off all the must-see attractions. Instead, I wandered more and discovered interesting places by simply passing by them. I got the idea for this list after my first day in city, when I started noticing repeated occurrences that I previously did not notice. Maybe I had more time to people watch since I was alone. They say you can’t judge a book by its cover and it’s true. But this list’s intention is to point out some of the unique facts about London some travelers may not have been aware of.

1. At busy stations during rush hour, the entrances to the tube gets congested like crazy. I’m talking unable to even get down the stairs! At Oxford-Circus, there was just a sea of people surrounding the entrances not even moving. At first I thought they had temporarily shut down the station and ended up walking 1 km to a less crowded station on the same line. When I asked my friend’s roommate, he said that it was just everything getting off work at the same time.

2. Three-quarters of the takeout options are Indian food. #Commonwealth

3. British working professionals like trench coats. They will change into running shoes after work. The look grows on you.

4. If you take the tube, you can never win with the temperature. Some trains are like furnaces but you have to wear a jacket because it’s not warm enough outside. Therefore people will just keep their jackets on in the hot train.

5. Heathrow is considered the rich-people airport. My British friends made fun of me for flying into LHR with British Airways every time it came up in conversation.

6. The twenty-pound note is probably the highest bill denomination that most people will usually see. As a result, they won’t go in the cashier’s till but in a lower drawer instead. Coming across a fifty-pound note is like seeing Bigfoot. You heard that it exists, but regular folks will never come across it in their life.

7. There are a lot of French imports in London – Laduree, Paul, Pret a Manger, etc. – but Sephora does not exist. What’s the deal with that? Boots just does not cut it.

8. British people are disproportionally beautiful, gender-wise. My friend Dimitar actually pointed this out and I started paying attention to the number of attractive men vs. attractive women in the city. Now, I appreciate beauty regardless of sex but surprisingly, the number of attractive women paled in comparison to attractive men. But maybe it’s the navy suits talking, I don’t know.

9. The area by the door outside pubs is really cool. Unlike Canada, there’s no law against open containers in public. I personally think smoking in front of bars is way worse than drinking in front of bars.

10. The Queen’s entrances and exits are like 20 minutes long because of her parade of guards. She eventually came through in her little horse-drawn carriage and the crowd went wild! It was a coincidence that I was at Westminster at the right time and caught her as she left the House of Parliaments.

Reblogged from iwanita  60 notes


Rameses B - Moonlight

We go about our daily lives understanding almost nothing of the world.

We give little thought of the machinery that generates the sunlight and makes life possible.

To the gravity that glues us to the earth that would otherwise send us spinning off into space.

Or to the atoms that which we are made.. and on who’s stability we fundamentally depend.

Few of us spend much time wondering why nature is the way it is.

Where the cosmos came from.

Whether it was always there.

If time will one day flow backward.

Or whether there are ultimate limits to what humans can know.

What is the smallest piece of matter.

Why we remember the past and not the future.

And why there is a universe.


- Carl Sagan

(From an introduction to “A Brief History of Time”  by Stephen Hawking)