A day in pictures- Isebania Edition

Before coming to Isebania, I had never heard of a “hand washing station” nor had I heard of “Safari Ants.” I didn’t know what a mosquito net actually looked like and the idea of showering under an electric contraption was synonymous with suicide.

My perceptions and standards have drastically changed since then. Now, instead of trying to explain everything, I’ll walk you through a day in pictures:

Let’s start with some aesthetic pictures that show the lay of the land, and illustrate what typical houses in Isebania, -and most of rural East Africa- look like:

Isebania Sign
Sign to Isebania if you’re coming from the Tanzanian border
Typical House
Typical house made of mud, timber and iron sheets.
When you’re not distracted by extreme poverty, you realize it’s pretty beautiful out here.

Scenery from road Now that you get the general overview, let’s get go through some of the interesting objects, practices and scenes you deal with here:

The Shower Contraption

You start by turning on the water and then stepping out to the hall to turn on the switch below:

Shower Switch
Switch to operate water heating contraption

Then the electric heating contraption below starts buzzing and magically heating your shower water. Just for the record I’ve never been electrocuted, but I’ve also never been dumb enough to touch the wires or the contraption when the switch was on.

Shower heating contraption
Shower heating contraption

For those who find that tough and/or dangerous, here is how 99.9% of Isebania gets its water:

People Feching Water
People fetching water from drying stream
People carrying fetched water
People carrying fetched water

If you’ve always lived in places with indoor plumbing, then you never would have needed

The Hand-Washing Station

Handwashing Station
Hand-washing Station:You make this with old oil container and bit of plastic that you melt to make a faucet. You then keep manually filling the container with water from the closest water source.

The Latrine

Latrine: The idea is you dig a ridiculously deep isolated hole to separate waste from your crops, underground wells, and other creatures.

The Boda Boda/Piki Piki

Since, I gave everyone debrief of transportation in the last blog, I’ll leave you with this picture:


Safari Ants

Safari Ant Army
Safari Ant Army

These things are NASTY. They literally climb “you” at the speed of light and start biting.  They’re ruthless to say the least. Avoid at all costs.

Safari Ants

The Community and its Priorities

A Classroom in a typical school
A Classroom in a typical school
A Nuru Farmer Meeting
A  Farmer Meeting to learn about our new food crop loan

This is a community of subsistence farmers. The priorities are your “shamba”, your cows and chickens (if you’re rich enough to have any), and your children. Your biggest financial hurdles are school fees, healthcare expenses, farming inputs, dowries (paid by men), weddings and funerals.

Farming inputs
These are enough inputs to grow one acre with maize, sorghum and millet. The big bags are fertilizer and small bags are seeds!

The Wonders of the Market

Kerosene Lamps
Kerosene lamps fashioned out of old tin containers.
Local Ovens
Local Ovens
African Dress Display
I think the awesomeness of these picture speaks for itself
These display pictures were actually taken in Kisumu, but the beauty standards are pretty much the same in Isebana. Obviously, the pictures were just to great not to include.


Giant Spoon
This was by far my favorite market purchase. People actually use them to cook for big groups here.

 The Purchases that Changed My Quality of Life in Isebania

The Fake Floor

Fake Floor
The Fake Floor

Fake floors are available in hardwood, granite, all kinds of colorful ceramic patterns, and carpeting. This how I brought “luxury” to my otherwise gross cement floor.

The Rat-Proofing Bucket

The only way to guarantee the safety of my precious snacks!

The Ratproofing Bucket
The Ratproofing Bucket

The Fancy Mosquito Net

For everyone who has never seen a mosquito net, here you go:

Fancy Mosquito Net
Fancy Mosquito Net

I should add that this “fancy” rectangular mosquito net changed my life. Before that I had a small one (see below) that I got tangled in every night (not fun.)

Typical Mosquito Net
Typical Mosquito Net

The Makeshift Board Game

People know how to have a good time here. Who needs overpriced commercial boardgames when you can make your own?

Local checkers
Local checkers

So, in the end I’ll just apologize for my inferior photography skills and my pathetic iphone camera. I’m going to steal some better quality safari pictures from my  coworker for the next picture blog in order to end everyone’s suffering. In the meantime, I leave you with this amazing picture of our cat “Kali,” which is “Danger” in Kiswahili.


Kali the amazing cat

Welcome to Isebania

It’s been a crazy week. I got mistaken for a missionary (twice) and had to awkwardly explain that I wasn’t even Christian. I got offered a room with a glass door and the word “Lounge” written across said glass door in Nairobi, and had to politely explain why that was weird. My bus from Nairobi to Isebania stopped around 30 minutes before reaching (what I thought) was the final destination. Thankfully, a nice nun-in-training helped explain to me that the driver just stops and pays for you and your luggage to get a matatu (micro-bus) to the final destination. 2 days ago I suffered all malaria symptoms, and went to a clinic to get tested. Results were negative (sigh of relief,) it’s only a nasty stomach virus which apparently is like a right of passage thing.

I have a ton of blog-worthy stories about work, and fun stories like how some co-workers told me the “locally” brewed beer (Changa) cures typhoid, but might destroy your eyesight. However, I’m starting with a blog that just lays out context for all future blogs so here we go.

Rural Kenya

So, I’ve been telling everyone I’m moving to rural Kenay with Nuru International and I think it’s about time I stop referring to my new home as “rural Kenya.”

So, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Isebania! The place that a non local would know only if : a) they were a missionary or b) they work for an NGO -that’s according to every single person I spoke to between Nairobi and my new full time residence at Nuru house.

About Isebania

Here’s a map of Kenya with Isebania highlighted.

Map of
My new home: Isebania, Kenya.

We’re a 20 minute walk from Tanzania, a 7 hour bus ride to Nairobi, a 5 hour bus ride to Kisumu and 2 hour drive from Kisii (the closest red dot, which more importantly also happens to hold the closest Nakumatt (Kenyan superstore, which will feature in future blogs.)

I live in what is referred to as “Nuru House” with 10 other expats. Here are a couple of pictures of the house so you get the picture. I’ve had to learn to co-exist with all kinds of fun “creatures,” and I now think of geckos as an excellent pet that scares away other insects.

Nuru House
Nuru House
Multi-Purpose Table
Multi-Purpose Table
Lower House Deck
Lower House Deck


There is only one road here, which is the road you would use to cross the border. Otherwise, there are dirt roads for things like hospitals and schools and then just natural raw land.(I wasn’t kidding about the remote rural location.)

The main or rather only means of local transportation here is a “boda” or a “piki,” which is a low budget dirt bike (I’ll get some pictures later.) A 20 minute ride costs around 50 cents and boda drivers are crazy resourceful. In one week here, I’ve seen them attach my giant suitcases, a large aluminum pot full of hot pasta alfredo, Eggs and over 20 Kg of vegetables and that’s usually in addition to me……

It took me 3 rides to go from being terrified of bodas to asking Charles (the trusted expat boda driver,) for driving lessons.


3 tomatoes are around 20 cents and an avocado is around 10-15 cents. Kale is the local lettuce. Refrigerators are rare, so if you want any type of meat, you need to go the butcher the day of the kill or learn to butcher animals yourself. Needless to say, I’m becoming a semi-vegetarian.Dairy products are also rare because of the same refrigeration issue. For water, people dig shallow wells or use the closest questionable stream.

I already know I hate ugali (maize mixed with water to form a hard dough) and love chipati ( sort of like fried naan.)


Everyone here is a subsistence farmer and grows maize to feed their family during the long rains (Feb-Sep) and sometimes a cash crop (in this area, it’s tobacco), during the short rains (Oct-Jan.) All irrigation is done solely through rain. There’s zero power/water infrastructure so farmers are dependent on the fertility of their lands and the whims of the universe. This year the universe has been cruel and there has been a drought, and just to be clear, in an area like this drought=famine.

As you would expect, women are second class citizens here. Women were not allowed to legally own land up to 2009 and upholding the law remains a bit tricky. When you ask some of the guys at work about their kids, some of them would only count their male offspring.

Mazungos or “white people” which I have now re-defined to “non-local,” are a rarity. When locals here see Mazungos, they would actually yell out “Mazungo” at you and start waving. Others would yell “Mazungo, how are you?” or all kinds of Swahili greetings that I am yet to decipher.

Being called a Mazungo was probably one of the weirdest experiences of my life…… People  expect you to learn KiSwahili and KiKuria (the local dialect,) so wish me luck! We all know I’m not exactly gifted with languages.

Everyone wakes up around 6.30 and our house goes into lock down at 6 pm and no one here has a smart phone! Next blog will definitely be about my new sociological experiment that is life without a smart phone…

Grief is a terrible terrible thing

My dad died last September – Yes you can’t say “passed away” or “left us” or “departed.” You have to say “die.” The first lesson about grief is realizing the harshness of it. It’s not something you get over by using words that are easier on the ears. Saying “passed away” won’t make my father’s death any less final. Grief is just a harsh reality that you need to embrace with your heart and mind. You just need to yield and surrender your all.


It will take over your life, but the quicker you let it in, the quicker you will adapt and just learn to live with it until it became a scar that is part of you, but not one that dominates you.

I’m definitely not there yet. I tried to resist. I thought: “People die, “hard fact,” I need to get used to it. I need to be stronger for all those “weaker” souls who aren’t as strong as I am. Boy was I wrong.

I’ve always been been proud of my ability to control my emotions and never understood why it was so hard for others. Now I understand. I have become a ticking time bomb prone to explosion at any given moment.

At first, this idea terrified me, but there was nothing I could do about it. When grief hits you, there is absolutely nothing you could do, you are helpless and broken and you need to acknowledge that you have a problem. It’s time for you to say words like “died,” “مات” despite all the pain. It’s hard.

A month after he died, I forced myself into a state of denial. I tried to ground my denial in faith and optimism. It didn’t work. I had to let things be and stop forcing it.

My advice to you if you are afflicted with the loss of someone you care for is: let grief consume you and embrace it because otherwise, you are forced to deal with an infected hole in your heart that requires intervention rather than a hole that would have simply healed with time.

Quick Reality Check on the Average Egyptian Woman

I am by NO means the “average” Egyptian woman. I have had a privileged “liberal” upbringing, an understanding family, and an unhealthy bubble of similarly minded women that kept me sane.

Yet, in many other ways I AM the average Egyptian woman. I am terrified of walking the streets of Cairo without an adequate male “guardian”. People care more about the length of my skirt, my marital status and the time I get home than they do about my education, interests or skills. I feel judged and scrutinized over my every word, action or look.

And, I have lost all hope for an Egypt where women can walk the streets without fear.

Fact: An estimated 83% of Egyptian women report to have been exposed to some form of sexual harassment. Be it verbal, molestation,  groping, or assault. -Personally, I find that number too low.

Fact: This year we saw female protesters grossly violated and humiliated such as the infamous girl with the blue bra and the courageous Samira Ibrahim who has been named one of Time’s 100 most influential people for going public with the “virginity test” the Egyptian military put her through.

Sameera Ibrahim
Sameera Ibrahim, Egyptian “virginity test” victim
Fact: The Virginity test army doctor accused by Sameera Ibrahim was acquitted March of this year. Also, No case has been bought against the criminals who attacked the girl with the blue bra.
-FYI, these atrocities and what they represent are not even considered “real issues” by the Egyptian public.

Fact: This year alone, International media was rocked with the sexual assault testimonials of three female journalists.  Mona El Tahawy was assaulted by riot police – Central Security Forces – at Mohamed Mahmoud St while, Laura Logan, and Natasha Smith who were sexually assaulted by the masses in Tahrir square during the momentous celebrations of Mubarak stepping down, and Morsy’s presdiential win.

Mona ElTahawy
Mona ElTahawy with 2 broken arms after being assaulted in Cairo

Fact: Not a single candidate running for office post or pre revolution made sexual harrassment an issue nor made it part of his/her campaign program.

Fact: Mrs. Kamilya Helmy, the head of the “International Islamic committee for women and children” claims the constitutional language of “equality despite gender, religion or race” is destructive western language intended to destroy Egyptian family values and advance gay rights. Her Arabic article can be found on the Muslim Brotherhood’s website here. – I’ll try to translate it in full later.

Fact: Egypt’s newest first lady, Mrs. Naglaa Mahmoud most likely does represent the average woman.

From this  NYT article, we learn that she prefers to be called “Um Ahmed” or “Mother of Ahmed.” She never went to college and got married at 17. The article also followed Um Ahmed’s career. She was “a homemaker,” then she translated sermons for women who were considering converting to Islam in the US. After she returned to Egypt, she taught “young girls about marriage” via one of the Brotherhood’s female divisions. The NYTimes quoted the curriculum saying “Men are designed to lead and women to follow.”

Egypt's First Lady: Naglaa Mahmoud
Egypt’s First Lady: Naglaa Mahmoud

Another sad fact. Instead of asking the first lady her stance about women’s issues such as  sexual harassment, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) or honor killings, they asked how she plans to “greet” foreign dignataries and criticized her attire.

I hate being one of those pessimistic people who listed problems without offering any solutions, but I really genuinely don’t know how to fix this. Ideas, anyone?


“Smell No Taste”

“Smell No Taste” is the name of a famous Liberian village located between Roberts Intl. Airport and the infamous “Firestone” plantation. The village got its name because its residents were used to smelling the food and riches coming from Firestone, yet they never got to taste it.

Map of Smell No Taste
Smell No Taste, Liberia

It’s sad to say most Liberians feel the same way about the “expat development world.” There are hundreds of NGOs in Liberia yet the locals remain cynical about the true motivations of all these “expats” having learned their lesson from the days of the “Firestone Republic.”

Last week I had a meeting with the team working on Liberia’s World Trade Organization (WTO) membership proposal. The team had just recieved their second sponsorship rejection from an International Ogranization. The rejection email included a recommendation that the Liberian government hire an “international consultant” to help with the proposal. This is how my Liberian coworker reacted “All these people want is to look for jobs for their friends. They just want us to train them and teach them then they go make a ton of money.”

This is a very serious accusation. It just goes to show you that Liberians today still believe they’re being dealt the “Smell, no taste” hand. Today Forbes published “World Bank Mired In Dysfunction: Mess Awaits New Head” about the dysfunction and corruption of the World Bank. These problem could  be generalized to most large International Organizations who lack objective supervision. This article couldn’t be more timely.

Something needs to change.

The Egyptian Sexual Harassment Plague Claims Another Victim.

Rana El Hattab:

Follow up to “The Plague of Sexual Harassment in Egypt” post. The sad thing is only the educated and the foreign dare speak openly about this. So, while you read, think of all those girls who go through this everyday, yet wouldn’t even dare tell their own families.

Originally posted on Natasha Smith:

I have been forced to leave Cairo prematurely following a horrific sexual and physical attack in Tahrir Square.

The atmosphere was one of jubilation, excitement, and happiness as I walked, accompanied by two male companions for safety along Kasr El Nil bridge. I had had an awful day, caused by problems in personal relationships, so I was so happy to be in such a wonderful environment, getting such amazing footage. Women, children and fathers smiled, waved, and cheered happily at the camera, calling out the widely used phrase “welcome to Egypt! Welcome!”. Fireworks lit up the sky. It was a moving and captivating experience.

Just as I realised I had reached the end of the bridge, I noticed the crowd became thicker, and decided immediately to turn around to avoid Tahrir Square. My friends and I tried to leave. I tried to put my camera back in my rucksack.


View original 2,022 more words

MOCI, Three weeks In

Work Update 

I started “week 2″ by moving to the MSME (Micros, Small and Medium Enterprises) Division to sit in a big office with eight other people. It felt good to be part of a team. I met with the amazing division director Mrs. Edwina who asked me to help with the following projects :

  • The Business Show - Poster @ MOCIFinding a sponsor for the second season of “The Business Show,” which is a radio show intended to educate and inspire future Liberian entrepreneurs and small business owners.- Most of which are Liberian women in rural areas.
  • Develop a project plan and implementation framework for mobile business registration for small businesses in rural areas. Currently there are only three business registries in Liberia which are located in Monrovia, Buchanan and Ganta.

Towards the end of the week, I got a messenger from the Minister inviting me to her office. It was a humbling moment. The Minister is an inspiring modest woman. She is trying to slowly yet steadily fix a broken organization from the top down with an air of quiet optimism. We discussed her priorites and where she believes I’ll be able to add the most value then I was moved to a new office right next door.

So, now I am working with the Research and Planning Division to help create a monitoring and evaluation framework in addition to my work with MSME.

So much work, so little time, yet I’m also trying to think of solutions to the “real problem” at the Ministry. If you’re curious what happened in week 1, click here.

Internal MOCI -Work Request
Yellow Work Assignment Sheet

The Real Problem

I remember being upset that the Ministry was not very responsive to my emails before I got here. Now I know why.

Most communication here takes place by “messenger,” and by messenger I mean an actual person who goes between offices to deliver these “yellow work assignment sheets.”

There is a very real capacity problem in Liberia and by capacity, I mean the actual skills of the available work-force. All recommended solutions include high level concepts such as automation when the average worker has problems writing a grammatically correct sentence.

I spend several hours a day helping people write their reports/memos and work products and now, I am working on developing trainings for workers and budget templates for divisions.  It just  makes you think where would money be better spent? Low level trainings or high level consultants?

To truly develop Liberia, we need to develop its workforce. Coming here and doing the work for them and then leaving them to figure it out is naïve. I guess this is becoming a theme, development without maintenance is a disaster waiting to happen.