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letters from africa, nine months with shannon switzer Letters from Africa - Nine Months with Shannon Switzer

jettygirl photographer shannon switzer February 1, 2008

Dispatch No. 7: Crying for Kenya

I am back in Kenya, but tears are staining my cheeks this time. I'm crying for my deep well of naiveté, for the mistrust intoxicating hearts of fellow brethren, for the all-corrupting forces of power, money, and greed, for the unsuspecting children thrown amongst chaos to see their homes burned and friends trampled- gunned down, for hunger screeching in displaced bellies and parents left with no home and their hands tied, for the stench of rotting fear and disenfranchisement, for fat politicians sitting in their comfortable leather chairs fanning flames of hatred to gain leverage, for rioters buying into the promise of violence, death, and destruction, and for a nation attacking itself along resurrected tribal lines that had almost finally been buried.

I have only been here twelve days but it feels like an eternity has passed. I delayed my flight for a week upon hearing about the chaos that broke out after Kenya's presidential election results were announced at the New Year. Moving Mountains (MM), the organization I was to work with, warned they couldn't guarantee my safety and suggested I wait until things calmed down. Every night I kept my ear glued to the BBC's "Focus on Africa" report and eventually got the go ahead from MM staff to fly in on January 10th.

I wasn't sure what to expect, but the flight was relatively full and Nairobi International Airport seemed to be business as usual. MM coordinator and all-around-go-to-guy Kelly Kioko and our driver, OT, both met me at the airport with welcoming smiles, and I was quickly whisked away to the safety of the MM headquarters just outside of downtown Nairobi.

That first night I met a worn-out handful of people, all in some way affiliated with MM and bedraggled by the recent violence. They helped me piece together the reality of the situation in Kenya:

Gale- A British medical student whose 7 week placement at a clinic in western Kenya (one of the most affected areas) was cut short by the violence that had broken out, including a church being burnt to the ground with 40 people locked inside. She was one of the lucky few who managed to get a flight back to Nairobi and out of harms way before things got too serious.

Carol- A native Kenyan from the Kikuyu tribe who normally works as a nurse in the free medical clinic funded by MM in the Kibera slum (the one portrayed in the Constant Gardener, which had been another hotbed of violence AND was right down the road from where we were staying- not exactly reassuring). Her home had been burnt to the ground because she is Kikuyu (more on this later- it gets complicated). Homeless and battling painful ulcers but with all dignity still intact, she graciously served Gale and me a lovely dinner of traditional Kenyan ugali and beef stew the night I arrived.

Kioni- Also a member of the Kikuyu tribe. His business shop on the outskirts of the Kibera slum was similarly burnt to ashes. When I met him, he was on his way to transport the salvaged bits of his belongings to a relative's home. A father of five, including one adopted daughter, he was to be our leader for the "Water Project" we were scheduled to start in a few days.

I spent three days in Nairobi before Kioni returned from transporting his stuff and we were able to head up to the project site in Embu County, known to be a peaceful and neutral area. My time in Nairobi was similar to being on house arrest with a few brief and guarded excursions. We were able to walk to the nearby supermarket, but the tension in the air was thick and uncomfortable and we had to avoid the usual route that passed by the Kibera slums. So I basically used these days to piece together the dynamics of the conflict.

This is the culmination of what I gathered:

There are 42 tribes that comprise the nation of Kenya, the two biggest tribes are the Luo and the Kikuyu. Mr. Moi Kibaki, the contested re-elected president who had been in office for the passed 5 years, is from the Kikuyu tribe.

Kikuyus are known to live in wealthier areas and to be good farmers and shrewd business managers. They see themselves as hard-working and deserving of what they have. A majority of the Kukuyus that I spoke with, as well as Kenyans from some of the smaller tribes, said Luos are lazy. That they want a better life and more money but aren't willing to work for it or be wise with their earned wages.

Luos say that President Kibaki is corrupt and favoring people from his native tribe, which explains why the Kikuyus have better jobs (especially government related), better homes, and overall more power. The majority I spoke with accuse Kikuyus of being thieves, especially of land that has traditionally belonged to the Luo tribe. They say that if you hear about theft in the newspaper, you always know a Kikuyu is responsible.

This is what had been brewing in the pot before it all boiled over on the night of December 27th. Kibaki was suddenly declared the winner of the elections just minutes after it was announced that Ryla Odinga (the opposition candidate, supported strongly by the Luos) had been leading by some 400,000 votes. That's when all hell broke loose and it hasn't settled down since. At least 700 people have died and 300,000 have been left homeless with the devastation still growing daily. From what I can tell, the leaders are still miles away from a solution, mainly because neither side is willing to talk to the other. Come to think of it, neither of the leaders strikes me as wanting to settle anything. They seem content to let their nation rip itself apart while they thumb-wrestle in parliament. I have little respect for either of them and wouldn't want either one as my president. But that's just my humble opinion.

So enough of my ranting. One of the days we spent in Nairobi, Gale (the medical student) and I were determined to visit the nearby refugee camp and see if we could be of any service. We stocked up on boxes of cookies and sweets on our way, which the head of the volunteer staff said was essential for luring the refugee kids to makeshift schooling sessions. I was expecting to find down-trodden people, but instead found dancing and singing and hundreds of kids playing together.

Kelly (the MM go-to-guy) had escorted us to the camp and explained that most of these families were actually getting more food here than they ever would at home in Kibera (where most of these refugees were from). After hours of playing with the kids and spending time with the families, I was looking forward to going back to a safe home, comfortable shower, and cozy bed.

That's when the reality and guilt sunk in simultaneously. This wasn't fun time for these people- they didn't get to go home and call it a day. They passed the night in the cold with the oppressive knowledge of no longer having a place to belong. I began wrestling with the idea of switching places with one of them (maybe even 3 or 4 since what I spend in a day to feed myself, one person could live off of for a month). Maybe that would make up for something, for the uneven hands life had dealt us. This idea went round and round inside my head until the realization of its uselessness slowly sunk in- that switching places didn't solve the underlying problem- it just swapped one poverty-stricken person for another. So instead I did what most women do best- I wasted an inordinate amount of energy and time crying.

The next day we left for Embu ("E-Town" so lovingly dubbed by the locals) with Kioni and seven young strapping Kenyan men who comprised the work crew for the "Water Project" at the County Primary School (which consisted of digging ditches, laying pipe, and filling ditches- all of which I did right alongside the boys, despite their initial opposition to a girl helping- achem). Once up in Embu we met our host, Gilbert, who quickly became one of my new heroes.

The day we arrived it began raining and didn't stop for five days straight, creating streams and torrents and miry bogs of blood red mud for us to slog through each morning on our way to the school and each afternoon back to the Rescue Center. Gilbert introduced us to EVERYONE and EVERY incredible project MM is involved with from the orphanage, to the street kid's various businesses (i.e. running a fruit stand in the local market, shoe-shining, sewging, etc), to the Black Cats soccer team, to the home for children with HIV.

Gilbert taught me this: The best way to make a positive contribution to humanity is to look around your own neighborhood, recognize where there is need, and do your best to love, give, and make change happen. Every country has rich and poor, and fellow country men are in the best position to understand their brothers and sisters situation and help make it better. There is no need to travel half way around the world to help.

That is exactly what Gilbert has done in his hometown of Embu and the difference he's made in the life of the street kids in his community is phenomenal. The kids here have a deep respect and love for him that I can only hope to earn someday, somewhere down the road in life.

I could go on and on with the different experiences and epiphanies I've had in Kenya, but I am sure you have a life to attend to! I want to thank everyone for the wonderful birthday messages (I had a great birthday with my Kenyan family that included singing and a proper cake from the work team- so sweet!). I know there are a lot of you I haven't been able to write back to lately, and I sincerely apologize. I'm currently living in a forest in Uganda (I'll explain in my next update) with no electricity and far away from any type of internet , but I try to get to the nearest village every 10 days or so, so I'll do my best to get back to you. Definitely keep the messages coming, I love getting to hear from everyone!

Pamoja (unity)



Shannon's Previous Letters: I'm in Love - 2007.12.22
  Ode to Surfing - 2007.11.29
  Bachelorhood and the BBC - 2007.11.13
  She Sells Sea Shells - 2007.10.23
  Unexpected Flight Delays Lead to Unexpectedly Good Times - 2007.10.05
  Whale Sharks, Sea Turtles, and Chimps- OH MY! - 2007.10.01



About "Letters From Africa - Nine Months with Shannon Switzer": JettyGirl photographer Shannon Switzer left a few weeks ago on the trip of a lifetime. Although not necessarily a surf trip per se, we think her adventure is a story well-worth sharing with others. Before she departed, a few surf companies jumped on board with sticker donations for Shannon's trip. Her plan is to pass stickers out to the kids she meets as she travels throughout Africa. Special thanks to all who answered our call for stickers: Transworld SURF, Walking on Water, Mutiny Media, Leucadia Surf Shop, and Dal Sarcos. The kids are going to be stoked! If you or your company is interested in donating stickers to Shannon, please contact me at --Chris Grant



Photo: Gabe Rogel


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