Homeward Bound

Sitting in a lounge in the Brussels airport drinking a cappuccino and eating cheese and bread I am having a hard time connecting this reality from that which I just came. It is truly remarkable how quickly one re-adjusts to a new setting, where past realities can feel more like a dream than anything else. Even the running water and lightning fast Internet already feels standard before my arrival in DC later this afternoon. But I have a suspicion there will be some facets of my experience that will carry with me.

It has been sometime since I posted a blog. Perhaps it was the slow internet connection, lack of time, or just my common challenge of being in communication. In any case, here I recount the past months leading to my departure from Kenya.

I suppose I should start by filling in some details about my research project. Without giving you all the boring details, I was conducting research on the adoption of latrines. The basic study was to implement a behavioral intervention known as community led total sanitation (CLTS) and see if, when, and where people decide to build latrines (a basic pit toilet). CLTS is becoming increasingly popular as it basically relies on the fact that people don’t like shit (you have to excuse the language, those working in sanitation usually aim straight for the ugly word). Through basic demonstrations (involving actual shit), CLTS connects the simple truth that if you shit outside it goes into the drinking water and then those collecting this water consume it. The take home message…if your community does not shit in a hole they are eating and drinking their own shit. Simple, straightforward, and a downright disgusting thought. CLTS is now used all over the world (mainly in rural areas in Africa and Asia) and has been extremely effective as once the message is clear people don’t wait around for someone else to build a latrine, they just start digging. That is basis of my research and as far as studies go this one is pretty straightforward …that is after you deal with the bureaucracy.

Enter the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) and the ethical review process (IRB in the US). For those not familiar with the ethical review process, you are lucky, it’s a bit of a headache. But the simple explanation is that all studies dealing with human subjects have to get approval from an institution or a university who looks over the study details to ensure no study participants are being taken advantage of. This approval must be granted before any data collection. In my case I needed two of these reviews, one from the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) and one from KEMRI. I submitted my documents to KEMRI when I arrived and they somehow managed to delay my approval for nine months. This might be understandable for those studies dealing with HIV treatments or other studies with significant health risks, but I am just asking about toilets.

For contrast, UCSF took less than six weeks for the ethics approval.

So there I found myself with eight weeks left until heading back to the US, no KEMRI approval, and seriously doubting whether my research project would even start. With no other option, I decided to go forward with the CLTS intervention and hope I would have approval when it came time for data collection. Luckily two weeks prior to my departure I received approval. So now my study goes on…without me, though managed by a dedicated team of Kenyans.

I have to say it was entertaining watching people’s reaction to CLTS and in fact it is working already, with people building latrines in several communities throughout Mfangano Island. There are still significant challenges ahead, however, as the eventual goal is to get all 20,000+ inhabitants of Mfangano to stop shitting in the bush and use a latrine. This is far beyond the research project and may take years to achieve, but the challenge allures me.

Reflecting on the past year, I think it may have been one of my most challenging to date. I will leave with no overwhelming sense of pride or accomplishment, but a subtle satisfaction that I made progress, however small. This progress extends far beyond work, as living in remote regions can teach you a lot about your relationships, your ability rely on others, and communicate across cultures. It can teach you to relearn your relationship with your food, your environment, and all the basic necessities of life. It can surprise you by demonstrating how our obsession with new technologies does not translate into quality of life, how easy access to whatever we want may not actually make us happier or healthier.

Living on Mfangano was by no means a life of paradise, but there is plenty I will miss. I will miss the fireflies dancing at night to a chorus of frogs with a backdrop of stars and thunderstorms on the horizon. I will miss heading to the garden and leaving with a satchel of fresh vegetables, of cars being a rare sight, of a friendly interaction with a local neighbor, or the excitement of seeing a deadly snake at a safe distance.

Despite the things I will miss, I am welcoming this homecoming and the next chapter which will see my return to my hometown of San Diego where I have accepted a position as program director for a non-profit known as the ECOLIFE Foundation. It is an exciting opportunity that will send me back to Africa as well as Mexico, but will also allow me to engage with communities at home, a personal interest that has been growing for some time.

With less than an hour until my plane flight, I think I am ready to head home. It has been a year mixed with a multitude of emotions and experiences, a year I will never forget and one that will likely impact me for years to come.





This (rural) Kenyan Life

Living in a state of constant cultural translation, the reality that I have been accustomed to is constantly being challenged by the social norms of my surroundings. Take my name for example: Morgan, simple right? Well here, no matter how many permutations I have tried in getting across the American pronunciation of my name it inevitably ends up morphing into “martin, margin, mergin…”, none of which I am too keen on. So, let me introduce myself, “Hi my name is Mogan”. Pronounced more like Mow-gone, it is a silly transformation, but in the reality I live in, that is my name, they even spell it as “Morgan”. Life in Africa is full of these cultural transformations, holding a semblance of western culture, but with an African infusion.

Often times I am faced with situations and conversations that from my perspective are a slight deviation from what I would consider logical. Take for example the uncontrollable laughter I invoked when I told a few locals I did not believe in Voodoo. “But wait a minute”, I asked, “you guys are Christians”. “Of course we are” they responded, “that’s why we are immune to Voodoo charms”. This may go against my understanding of Christian religion, but as evidenced by the hilarity in my thinking, my reality is clearly in the minority. Another such example occurred during a conversation while taking a pikipiki (motorcycle taxi). I have been amazed at how many pikipiki drivers wear heavy winter jackets when the temperature is 75-85°F. At first I figured they were for protection in the case of a motorcycle crash (which happen frequently), but being as almost none of the drivers wear helmets this did not seem likely, so I decided to ask. The answer…to protect against pneumonia. My explanation on how one acquires a pneumonia infection only seemed to incur a look that said, “this poor American has no idea what he is talking about”.

To be honest, I have learned significantly more from immersing myself in this reality than any information I may have passed on. Take for example a broken bicycle pump that was missing a piece to depress the pressure valve. I am an engineer and I figure it is broken. A local says, that thing just needs a small rock. In fact with a small rock in the right place it functioned just fine. Out of gas, nope, just need to turn the motorcycle over for a minute and then blow some air into the gas tank to force the gas into the motor. Examples of such resourcefulness are too many to recount.

One facet of this reality that will always be at odds with my beliefs are the gender roles. The local language, Dholuo, is indicative of this, with the word for marriage also meaning cooking. Though the word for husband also means greed, so at least the language is seemingly unbiased. In Kenya, it is not uncommon for men to take multiple wives.  It still takes me by surprise when I find out a colleague or a neighbor has multiple wives or comes from a family of such. The women are generally opposed to this, but often have little say in the matter and end up having to accept the husband’s choice. Most often this is not an enlargement of a household, but a fracturing of families, with the father leaving his old wife and children unsupported.

Unfortunately, it is common to find households where the women are left supporting entire families, generating income, keeping up the house, cooking, and paying school fees… and they don’t even have such basic rights as inheriting land. Many of these single parent families, however, are a result of the HIV/AIDS epidemic which has heavily impacted the region.

Financial challenges here affect most households, with school fees, books, and uniforms often causing much of the burden. As there is little access to loans, the local community becomes the informal moneylender, with everyone indebted to one another in some fashion. So when money comes into hand if it is not readily spent the neighbors come calling for the repayment of an old loan or some extra cash for school fees. So it has become a spend it or lose it system, a difficult platform to invest in ones future.

In the end, these lessons have been instrumental in understanding the flow of life in Kenya and how policies and programs function in society. It definitely paints a complicated picture from a development perspective and makes one realize that real change takes a slow course and often has slower returns. And though I believe change for the better is inevitable, it seems to take more than a few detours along the way.

Hope you enjoyed some cultural notes. Next up, the island life part 2…running from a hungry horse, trying out my green thumb, and bathing in style.

The Island Life

Besides almost stepping on a Cobra, I don’t have many complaints about life on Mfangano. Kristine and I have moved from our mud hut to a house a stone throw away from the lake. The sound of the waves lapping on the shore lulls us to sleep, while a chorus of birds and other wildlife act as our natural alarm accompanying the sunrise visible from bed.

Paradise has its limits though, as cooking by wood fire, purifying water, and living without electricity can add a significant amount of work to your day. Cooking has become a welcomed event and we have been adventuring in making tasty meals with the basic food available on the Island. Stocked with enough supplies and spices, we have found a surprisingly large number of meals that can be cooked with tomatoes, onions, potatoes, and kale; basically the only vegetables you can find on the Island. With no refrigerator, microwave, or gas stove every meal means another smoke session with the wood-burning stove. It is ironic that only a few months ago I was measuring the emissions of such wood burning stoves in India and Mexico. I was not envious of this chore then, but it has quickly become part of life.

Surrounded by water it is amazing how little of it is fit for drinking. I have been quite excited to geek out with my water quality background and build a water system. The water in Lake Victoria is …let’s just say I hesitate to get my feet wet. Though most of that is due to the risk of getting a Bilharzia infection, the amount of human waste and dumping that goes into the lake definitely make you think twice. We have set up a pretty sweet system consisting of a settling tank, three filters, and a bit of chlorination. Overkill, maybe, but I am not super eager to try out the local amoebas. If anything, the process really makes you think about how precious your water is, particularly when purifying a conservative amount of water to clean your toothbrush takes 10 minutes. A rough calculation shows our water usage at 20-30 liters per day per person, which is about 25% of what the average is back in the states.

With the extra sweat labor required to get by each day, showering is a must, though it is in itself another chore. Most people on the Island bathe in public on the lake shore, often with only a few reeds to block peering eyes. As a naked Mzungu (aka a foreigner) can draw a lot of attention, we have opted to shower on the compound, which provides a bit more privacy, though our makeshift shower could do with some improvement. We are on our third shower iteration, still bound to the less than functional REI solar shower. Within a week this will hopefully come to an abrupt end when the shower we are building comes to life. We may have gone a bit extravagant with the stone tiled floor and hot and cold water, but this solar shower will be a welcomed improvement.

I know I have been a bit slow on the posts, but I will try keep them up to date.

Next post…my new name in Kenya, a bit of voodoo, and bugs vs. kittenIMG_2662 DCIM100GOPRO DCIM100GOPRO IMG_2642 IMG_2682

By planes, by cars, by boats…to Mfangano Island we go

After five flights, two boat rides, and a few taxis Kristine and I finally arrived at our new island home. We spent the week prior on the grassy highlands near Mount Kenya to help with an Engineers Without Boarders project.

Mt. Kenya

Mt. Kenya

The quiet landscape and amazing views of Mount Kenya were a great way to ease into East Africa, but after what have been several months of travel and preparations we were eager to drop our bags and settle into life on Mfangano.



A House in Segera

A House in Segera

As we boarded the ferry from Mbita I caught my first glimpse of Mfangano through the morning haze. The island’s plateau was higher than I imagined, but seemed to fit the mountainous coastline of the region. After the ferry waded through what seemed like an eternity of green algae, we finally arrived at our destination. Immediately off the boat I was faced with what I know will be one of the biggest challenges on the year, eating fish. Luckily, my time in Tanzania prepared me for the challenge and I was able to eat enough to constitute a meal.

Algae Art

Algae Art



As full on fish as I ever might be, we headed to Mfangano’s Ekialo Kiona Center where my research project will be based. The center, started by the local non-profit Organic Health Response (OHR), has a host of community-based programs focusing on HIV/AIDs, water, and nutrition. All the work they have been able to accomplish in the past few years is impressive and I am happy to work with such a talented group.

Our Mud House

Our Mud House

Our mud house does leave some room for improvement, though the chicken we evicted from under our bed seemed to be quite content there. Our first night in the hut was accompanied by a raucous storm. The heavy rain beat the corrugated metal roof like a drum and the lighting lit up the darkened rooms as none of our headlamps or lanterns could. It was a dramatic introduction to the Island, particularly since it hadn’t rained for several months.

Breakfast Under Bed

Breakfast Under Bed

That’s the brief update for now. Will send some more news on the water situation, not so private bathing, tracking mud into a mud hut…