Elizabeth’s brother and new wife are off an an around the world trip and are beginning this month in Egypt. They’ve got an ambitious schedule and I’m full of envy! You can follow their trek online and live vicariously through them as I plan to do.
By APNWLNS payday loans
Rod sent an invite today for a welcome back potluck picnic and who I am to skip an event hosted in my honor? You know how much I like Seattle parks so I’m definitely in. Anyone else want to join us?
Potluck this Sunday at 5pm
Cal Anderson Park (one block off Broadway at Pine) / Elysian Brewpub
1635 11th Ave, Seattle, WA 98121 US
Rain plan: Rod’s Condo in Belltown (call for directions)
Everyone’s invited/bring friends.
Rod writes: “Please join myself, Erin, and Samantha in a welcome back party for our favorite globe trotting, volunteering, and all around cool hip person, Cat! Here’s the plan: We’ll do a picnic/bbq/potluck in Cal Anderson park at 5pm on the 22nd, and relax and enjoy the lovely outdoors. We’ll group somewhere just east of the large cone-shaped fountain, spread out, and eat. Then, as the evening draws on, we’ll mosey on over to the Elysian Brewpub, just a few short blocks away for a drinks. If it rains, call Rod for alternative plans: 206-383-8256.”
After leaving Austin last week and trekking through Roswell, the Grand Canyon National Park, Sedona, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Crater Lake National Park, and Portland, Caroline and I made it to Seattle today! Yay road trips! Other than a little smoking engine in Roswell (maybe it was the aliens?), the drive was uneventful and super fun. Visited lots of friends along the way (Chris & Aimee, Meg, Scott & Zoey, Ajit, Sue, Jess, Alan), camped at and visited national parks, made it to Flagstaff on the day of BeerFest 2007, missed the Roswell 60th anniversary space ship crash celebrations by one week, enjoyed lots of fantastic scenery, managed to avoid all rush hours, did some short hikes, and did lots of people watching. Managed to only stop at one Dairy Queen the whole trip (despite the frequent barrage of attacks on my will power/self control). A fun time overall and a highly recommended trip if anyone is looking for an excuse to get in a car for a week.
I’m now in Seattle… time to unload the car, look through my boxes in storage, and start catching up with old friends! Also time to look for a job, though that’ll probably wait till Monday. Hope everyone is well!
Caroline and I are in San Francisco this morning drinking smoothies and laughing lots with Alan. Today we head to Oregon for Crater Lake National Park and then will be in Seattle by Friday or Saturday. It’s been a lot of driving, but has been fun to see stuff along the way and visit many old friends. I will post photos and more updates upon my return!
Guess who’s posting this from her Honda on the side of the Texas highway? Caroline and I started the reverse road trip today… wish us luck!! More later… for now we’ve got to get driving!
Josh sent another email update and I thought y’all deserve to hear some of this thoughts on his two years volunteering in Africa. We met him in Malawi when I was out with my second round of malaria and his dry humor won me over pretty quickly. His service site is in Zambia, a country in southern Africa that gained their independence in 1964. About 73% of Zambians live below the poverty level, about 1 million Zambians are HIV positive or have AIDS, over a half-million Zambian children have been orphaned, and life expectancy is down to about age 40. Zambia, coincidentally, was the first country coming from South Africa towards the north that really felt like Kenya. There was something about the people, the dress, the culture, the smiles that just made me instantly like the country and made me miss Kenya all the more. Here’s a little bit of Josh’s experience that highly resonated with similar experiences of my own.
I’m currently in the village on my way back from 4th of July vacation in Livingstone which was good times all around. A big group of volunteers were down there for a few days, all but one of whom was from my intake. so, I got to see some old friends from training for the first time in a while which is always nice.
The highlights of the trip for me were the lunar rainbow and the whitewater rafting. one evening we went down to Victoria falls to see the rainbow that appears for a few days during every full moon; during the day there’s always a rainbow as the falls throw up so much mist, and we were lucky enough to be down there when the moon was bright enough to create a rainbow as well. The rainbow looked like a gray version of a regular rainbow except it was incredibly long, it emerged from the mist in the gorge and traveled all the way up the face of the falls until it curved up and over the lip. The gorge is deep enough and the mist so thick that you couldn’t see the rainbow all the way to the bottom, it simply disappeared into gray mist far below. Pretty neat sight, something I didn’t realize existed.
The rafting was intense, the Zambezi is one of the best rivers in the world for it. We could only run the second half of the river as the water volume was too heavy for us to shoot the first series of rapids, but the second half was plenty. I’ve done some rafting in maine but there were spots on the Zambezi where the water was bigger than anything I’d ever been in before. In fact, there are spots where people go surfing on the waves that are created, it’s a bizarre sight. At the beginning of one rapids (appropriately dubbed ‘the washer machine’) we dropped into a big hole which made the wall of white water in front of us appear even larger than it was. I was in the front of the raft and when we hit the raft simply stopped, skewed into the air at about a 45 degree angle, then slid off down the side of the water wall and got completely buried. The guy sitting across from me came flying across the raft and knocked me out into the water. I’ve grown up around water, am a strong swimmer and was wearing a life jacket and helmet, but as I was getting sucked down through the rapids I experienced several moments of “deep concern” (a guy in the raft with me said I looked scared when I first popped up, but I corrected his misperception). There’s one general, down-stream current to the river but there’s also a cacophony of other, smaller currents flowing every which way-when you’re in the middle of it it’s incredibly disorienting. I was surfacing long enough to grab a quick half-breath before I’d get smacked in the face by another wave, spun around and then taken under again. I was finally spit out at the far end of the rapids and floated about in a pool until a kayaker retrieved my bedraggled self and ferried me over to another raft. Once they’d pulled me in I lay on the bottom trying to project an air of nonchalance, an effort hindered by my loud gasping for air and clearly waterlogged state. It was amazing just how massively powerful the rapids were, I’d never experienced anything like it before.
One of my next door neighbors got some batteries for her radio recently and has been playing it full-blast; the kids I hang out with next door have now taken up dancing as one of their main pastimes. 4 or 5 of them, ranging in ages from probably 3-6, will wander into my yard and start a spontaneous dance party, it’s high comedy. Bellies bulging forward and torn shorts flapping around their spindly legs, they crouch bowl-legged and begin slowly, like they’re underwater, shimmying their hips and waving their arms back and forth. They’re still so young that they aren’t able to dance as rapidly or as fluidly as adults, so they mostly resemble small, black old men tottering about the yard. The dance routines are quickly becoming the highlight of my days.
I’ve started a gardening project and seed multiplication program with the smallest and poorest village I work with. About 50 people live in the village, their huts scattered throughout the bush, some of them very isolated. I’ve grown to enjoy more and more visiting them as the people are incredible; the last time I was there 3 different families presented me with armfuls of sweet potatoes and groundnuts. This type of generosity is typical in all villages but more pronounced for whatever reason in this one. Yet I cringe when I see them disappear right before I leave because I know that they’re going to get me food to take or to eat there. It is difficult for me as I don’t need the food and they very much do. A few times I’ve even tried sneaking away or leaving abruptly so I wouldn’t have to take their food, but every time they make a determined effort to give me something. If someone from their family hasn’t already gotten me some food the man will tell me to wait while he hustles out to his field and digs up some sweet potatoes or ground nuts for me.
So why don’t I simply refuse? Part of it is that it’s a custom, a show of respect. But the bigger reason is the pride it gives them. Poverty is largely a corrosive attack on people’s dignity; when they present me with a gift that I express appreciation for, it is dignity-confirming-they have something of value that even I, an obscenely wealthy (by their standards) white foreigner enjoys. When I thank them profusely (my gratitude is always genuine, given the circumstances those handfuls of groundnuts and sweet
potatoes are absolutely some of the nicest gifts I’ve ever been given) I can see their faces glow with pride. Accepting their gifts with gratitude and humility may well be one of the most important things I do over here to mitigate the effects of poverty.
So I invariably end up biking away from this village deeply, deeply humbled, ashamed of my own selfishness, and filled with admiration for these people’s generosity. I undergo the same experience when I attend church and watch a stream of people move forward to make an offering. The sums themselves are tiny, but taken as a percentage of their income I’d be willing to bet it would shame most people in the west who consider themselves charitable. These villagers are generous in the midst of their need, they give from their want, and it is sometimes staggering to watch.
Well, I’ve rambled on for long enough, I hope you are all well and enjoyed your 4th of July holiday.
NOTE: Josh has written many thoughtful email updates, but this particular one spoke to me as I had almost identical experiences on every level. White water rafting on the Nile was indeed a bit terrifying when you get sucked under over and over. Kids dancing (and dancing with kids) was always a highlight of my day. I had a much greater time at Vic Falls than I’d expected possible. I’d feel truly humbled and deeply thankful for every day I was alive, and even more humbled on the days I was showered in the extreme generosity of a local family who’d insist on giving me sweet potatoes, eggs, ground nuts, or a home cooked meal.
I think South Africa is up there for having one of the best plastic bag policies… no thin plastics allowed, and if you want the thicker ones at a grocery store or shop, you have to pay for each bag used. Stores all sell cheap reusable canvas bags, keeping the land pretty and landfills free of excess waste. C’mon US lawmakers… what an easy step to take to help the environment. I know, plastics companies here would lobby till the cows come home and it’ll likely never happen since the government tends to love business profits more than the environment, but a girl can still dream. In the mean time, kudos to Uganda for taking their first step towards cleaning up their own environment. Yet another third world country that’s more progressive that our “developed” first world nation. Maybe Uganda’s legislation will help convince Kenya and Tanzania, or maybe even the US, to adopt similar bills!
Uganda: Uganda is in the East African Union and shares Kenya’s western border (only about 1-1.5 hours from where my village was). Uganda gained independence in 1962, had messy civil war for years till 1985 with the end of Idi Amin, and has active internal fighting still happening today between the LRA and the Ugandan army.
Two recommended recent films: Invisible Children and The Last King of Scotland.
One recommended musician: Samite, a cool guy we traveled with for a brief period who’s done work with Paul Simon, shared managers with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and has put out 9 solo albums after fleeing Uganda as a refugee and eventually resettling in the States.
Read on for info about Uganda’s struggle to better their environment…
Why Uganda hates the plastic bag
By Mark Whitaker
BBC News, Uganda
This weekend Uganda joins the growing number of East African countries which have banned the plastic bag in an attempt to clean up cities and prevent environmental damage including blocked drains.
Before your eyes become accustomed to the sight and the stench, the Chitezi municipal dump – which serves the Ugandan capital, Kampala – is like a scene from a painting by Bosch, a premonition of the Apocalypse, or a vision of Hell.
High in the sky, great birds wheel around on the thermals. At first glance, they look like giant vultures, casting ominous shadows on the ragged human scavengers strewn around below.
But as they touch down on the grey, stinking moonscape, they seem to take on a ghastly sub-human form themselves. Like cowled priests bent over the rotting piles.
With their moth-eaten plumage, grotesque “alopecia-ed” heads, and sinister reptilian eyes, these are Africa’s nightmare birds – marabou storks – fencing with their murderous bills over the carcass of a plastic sack they have ripped apart.
Flocking here in their hundreds, the ravenous birds are making a feast of Kampala’s refuse, squabbling with their human competitors over the richest pickings.
Grey women in flip-flops – some with babes in arms – clamber over piles of jagged metal and broken glass. Men – dust-bathed and ragged – push and shove to be first in line when the next truck comes, bringing the very latest delivery of detritus from the city.
One of the ragged men, Ezekiel, told me he had worked at Chitezi every day from sun up to sun down, collecting plastic for the past 10 years – for 50 pence a day.
Ezekiel told me he had thought long and hard about how the city could better organise its ramshackle waste management. Nobody ever listened, he said.
But Ezekiel – a man at the very bottom of Uganda’s social heap – still had lots to say about his country’s most talked-about attempt to tidy itself up: Uganda’s proposed ban on plastic bags.
Here they are called buveera, and they are everywhere.
Only a tiny fraction of them end up at Chitezi. Instead, once discarded, they are blown in the wind, washed into drains and water courses and eventually ground into the earth.
Uganda is blessed with some of the richest soil in Africa, but around the towns and villages it is laced with plastic.
New strata are forming – a layer cake of polythene and poisoned soil, through which Uganda’s rains can never percolate.
Instead, dotted around Chitezi are stagnant pools where even the storks will not drink. Their fetid waters bubble with the methane brewing beneath them.
In the slums and shanties buveera are breeding grounds for disease.
With no mains water and no sewerage system, the bags are used as toilets. Flying latrines they are called, because when you have filled them, you throw them as far away as you can.
And when the rains come and wash them out there is a good chance that some little boy or girl sent on an errand will see a bag in the street and use it again, to carry firewood or maybe food.
In one of Kampala’s slums I spoke to Bobby Wine – currently Uganda’s biggest home-grown pop star, a man who styles himself Ghetto President and Hygiene Ambassador.
He still lives and works in the slums, and he has written pop songs about plastic carrier bags. He calls them poison.
He points to neighbouring Rwanda. “Man”, he says, “that’s a poorer country than Uganda – but at the border if you have buveera, they tell you that you can’t come in. Why can’t we be like Rwanda?”
Well, the answer is that Uganda will be like Rwanda.
After a fair amount of stalling, the government has just announced that from 1 July the manufacture, import and use of plastic bags thinner than 30 microns will be banned. All other polythene will be subject to a whopping 120% tax.
The decision is perhaps timely. Kampala is gearing itself up for a visit by the Queen in November for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting – or Chogm.
Everyone is talking about Chogm. The symptoms of Chogm fever – a rash of new buildings, a sudden outbreak of civic pride, general hyperactivity and the smell of new paint – are everywhere. And Chogm may have spelt the beginning of the end for buveera.
With disarming frankness, the country’s environment minister, Jesca Eriyo, confessed to me that she was embarrassed by her capital city’s lamentable standards of waste management; by Chitezi; by its sea of polythene, and its flying latrines.
Now, at last, they could all be headed for the exit door. And not just in Uganda. Neighbouring Kenya is introducing similar legislation. Tanzania wants to go even further and ban plastic drinks containers as well.
Despite its problems and its poverty, East Africa is blazing a trail which many in prosperous Middle England can only dream of following.
And the people I spoke to – the minister, the pop star, the shopkeepers of Kampala, or Ezekiel at the dump – all seemed happy to be pioneers in a post polythene age.
As one man in a corner shop put it: “Good riddance, who asked for all this plastic in the first place?”
Sidenote by Cat: I don’t think of marabou storks as “Africa’s nightmare birds.” I think they’re actually pretty cool… they’re giant, about 3-4 feet tall, and stand hunched over in dark feathers like an undertaker. I rather enjoyed seeing them all over Kenya in addition to Uganda and other countries.
Now that I’m home back in the States, people keep asking about culture shock. Often times, it feels less like culture shock and more like culture dismay. I get dismayed seeing the extreme consumerism. I get dismayed seeing the waste. I get dismayed at the lack of even basic knowledge around Africa’s current events. Most Americans can name the three countries in the continent of North American where we live, but not all Americans even seem to remember that Africa is a continent of its own made up of over 53 diverse countries. Each country has their own government, cultural norms, foods, diverse tribes, religions, and multiple languages. I feel like I’ve been doing a lot of educating of friends and family lately about many countries and current news, and figured one way to continue that would be to post news here from time to time.
By now readers here should know a fair amount about Kenya since I spent the majority of my time there. So today we’ll start with news from one of Kenya’s neighbors to broaden the scope and keep the conversation going. Somalia is to Kenya’s north, gained independence in 1960, has been involved in a series of messy dictatorships and coups for years, and has been in civil war for the last 16 years. Most recent fighting has been internal struggles for power as well as outside fighting with Ethiopia, another of Kenya’s neighbors.
FROM THE BBC:
Somali children die in mine blast
Five children who were playing with a landmine in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, were killed when the device exploded, witnesses say. The children between the ages of six and 12 were playing football before they found it. One of them picked it up and threw it against a wall.
One of the children’s mothers said they were on their way to mosque for Friday prayers when they had stopped to play.
Somalia is awash with guns and other weapons after 16 years of civil war.
An extensive operation to confiscate weapons in the city in house-to-house searches has been under way since late April, when Ethiopian-backed government forces drove insurgents from the northern suburbs.
Ethiopian soldiers have been in Somalia since December, when they helped oust an Islamist group that had taken control of the capital and surrounding areas.
The BBC’s Mohammed Olad Hassan in Mogadishu says the explosion occurred around the livestock market in the north-east, where supporters of the ousted Union of Islamic Courts and other insurgents live.
“The mine went off and caused a huge explosion killing five children and three other people passing near by,” local resident Ashkiro Mo’alin told the BBC by phone.
“We sent the children to the mosque to attend Friday prayers but they stopped on the way and started playing football before they died in the explosion,” said Shamsa Abdi Mahdi, the mother of a six-year-old boy who died.
An imam at a nearby mosque said a 16-year-old girl had lost her right leg and had been rushed to hospital. Two others had less serious injuries, he said.
Our correspondent says the insurgent groups are known to plant roadside bombs and mines to target government officials, soldiers and Ethiopians when they pass by.
Today the new “Seven Wonders of the World” were announced. On my continual quest for places to visit, sights to see, and cultures to explore, I’m posting the new list as well as a few others I compiled way back when on my old site. As always… if you’re up for exploring and traveling, I’m always looking for great travel partners to visit new places! For the places I’ve already been lucky enough to visit, I’ll mark them with a *.
New Seven Wonders of the World
(decided globally by 100 million votes on www.new7wonders.com)
* The Colosseum in Rome
* The Great Wall of China
* India’s Taj Mahal
Jordan’s ancient city of Petra
the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru
Brazil’s Statue of Christ Redeemer
* Mexico’s Chichen Itza pyramid
Seems a little odd for South and Central America to have three when Africa doesn’t have a single wonder, especially when Africa is the birthplace of humanity and is home to the oldest of all civilizations. We don’t even get the Egyptian Pyramids or Great Zimbabwe or anything? I guess when it’s compiled by online votes instead of scholars/experts, we get what we get. Not that I’m complaining… I’m just surprised that’s all. Besides, I couldn’t complain even if I wanted to since I didn’t actually vote. (Consider me current events-challenged after my time in Africa without access to fast internet and English language newspapers).
Anyway… enough babble. On with the rest of the lists! Enjoy!
50 Places of a Lifetime (from National Geographic)
- Urban Spaces: * Barcelona
- Hong Kong
- * London
- * New York
- * Paris
- Rio de Janeiro
- * San Francisco
- * Venice
- Wild Places: Antarctica
- Canadian Rockies
- * Grand Canyon
- Papua New Guinea Reefs
- * Serengeti
- Venezuela’s Tepuis
- Paradise Found: Amalfi Coast
- * Boundary Waters
- British Virgin Islands
- Greek Islands
- * Hawaiian Islands
- Japanese Ryokan Kerala
- Torres del Paine
- Pacific Islands
- Country Unbound: * Alps
- * Big Sur
- Canadian Maritimes
- Coastal Norway
- * Danang to Hue
- England’s Lake District
- * Loire Valley
- North Island, New Zealand
- * Tuscany
- * Vermont
- World Wonders: Acropolis
- * Cyberspace
- * Giza Pyramids
- * Great Wall
- Machu Picchu
- Mesa Verde
- * Taj Mahal
- * Vatican City
- The Final Frontier: Space
Another List: The Wonders of the World
I’m not really sure who came up with these older lists, but I’m posting anyway.
Ancient Wonders of the World
* The Great Pyramid of Giza (the only remaining ancient wonder)
A gigantic stone structure near the ancient city of Memphis, serving as a tomb for the Egyptian Pharaoh Khufu
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon
A palace with legendary gardens built on the banks of the Euphrates river by King Nebuchadnezzar II
The Statue of Zeus at Olympia
An enormous statue of the Greek father of gods, carved by the great sculptor Pheidias
The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus
A beautiful temple in Asia Minor erected in honor of the Greek goddess of hunting and wild nature
The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus
A fascinating tomb constructed for King Maussollos, Persian satrap of Caria
The Colossus of Rhodes
A colossus of Helios the sun-god, erected by the Greeks near the harbor of a Mediterranean Island
The Lighthouse of Alexandria
A lighthouse built by the Ptolemies on the island of Pharos off the coast of their capital city
Natural Wonders of the World
Angel Falls in Venezuela
The Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia, Canada
* The Grand Canyon in Arizona, USA
The Great Barrier Reef in Australia
Iguaçú Falls in Brazil/Argentina
Krakatoa Island in Indonesia
Mount Everest in Nepal
Mount Fuji in Japan
* Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania
Niagara Falls in Ontario (Canada) and New York State (USA)
Paricutin Volcano in Mexico
* Victoria Falls in Zambia/Zimbabwe
Modern Wonders of the World
The Channel Tunnel
* The Clock Tower (Big Ben) in London, England
The CN Tower in Toronto, Canada
* Eiffel Tower in Paris, France
* The Empire State Building in New York City, USA
* The Gateway Arch in St. Louis, USA
* The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, USA
* The High Dam in Aswan, Egypt
* Hoover Dam in Arizona/Nevada, USA
Itaipú Dam in Brazil/Paraguay
* Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota, USA
The Panama Canal
The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
The Statue of Cristo Redentor in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
* The Statue of Liberty in New York City, USA
* The Suez Canal in Egypt
The Sydney Opera House in Australia
Forgotten Wonders of the World
* Abu Simbel Temple in Egypt
Angkor Wat in Cambodia
The Aztec Temple in Tenochtitlan (Mexico City), Mexico
The Banaue Rice Terraces in the Philippines
Borobudur Temple in Indonesia
* The Colosseum in Rome, Italy
* The Great Wall of China
The Inca city of Machu Picchu, Peru
The Leaning Tower of Pisa, Italy
* The Mayan Temples of Tikal, Northern Guatemala
The Moai Statues in Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Chile
Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy, France
The Throne Hall of Persepolis, Iran
The Parthenon in Athens, Greece
Petra, the rock-carved city, Jordan
The Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar
* Taj Mahal in Agra, India
The Temple of the Inscriptions in Palenque, Mexico
Kenya has lots of thugs, the most well known, active, and organized of them a mafia-type group in Nairobi called Mungiki. When we passed through Nairobi most recently in May, Mungiki had just blown up a bunch of matatus on the 6/9 route I take, only about 1km where I stay when I’m in town. Yuck. I expect the violence in Kenya, but kind of forget about physical security in the States. How bizarre to sit on the subway here in Chicago on Thursday afternoon next to a black man, look over his shoulder at his newspaper, and see a front page article in the Chicago Tribune on Mungiki? While I might otherwise be glad to see Kenya making front page news in the US, I’d prefer it not to be about extreme violence. On second thought, I guess it helps balance the news Kenya usually gets about the Masai Mara and our world class safari parks and nature reserves.
FROM THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE:
‘Madness’ in the shantytowns
With thousands of followers, the vicious Mungiki cult preys on the poor and vows to disrupt Kenya’s fledgling democracy
By Paul Salopek
Tribune foreign correspondent
Published June 28, 2007
NAIROBI, Kenya — Francis Nganga says he has never chopped off anyone’s head. He swears he has never drunk the blood of his enemies (only his friends), or extorted protection money by torching people’s houses, or bullied women into swapping their jeans for traditional African wraps — all practices attributed to the secretive Mungiki cult.
“I just collected payoffs from taxi men,” a frightened Nganga, 31, said in the gigantic Mathare slum east of this African capital, where he was in hiding after abandoning the gangsterlike sect. “But when I saw them cut off a taxi man’s head, I wanted out. I ran away. I thought, ‘How can any religion behave like this?’ ”
Three months after headless bodies started appearing with jarring regularity in Kenya’s vast and fetid shantytowns, residents of one of Africa’s most stable democracies are asking themselves that same question.
“Mungiki madness” — as the cult-related crime wave is dubbed here — has touched off a round of pained soul-searching in Kenya, where political analysts and sociologists pin the spike in bizarre violence to everything from the dehumanizing poverty in Kenya’s slums to a brutal campaign of political intimidation in the run-up to Kenya’s December elections.
Commentators have described the Mungikis as slum vigilantes, class warriors, alienated youths and back-to-roots idealists gone bad. Others even cite the virus of global jihad: The criminal sect, whose members worship African ancestors, began beheading its victims only after watching insurgent videos from Iraq, one expert said.
At least 30 murders have been linked to the cult since April, according to local news media tallies. The same reports say 15 victims were decapitated, including three more hacked-up bodies found last Friday.
“We are supposed to be in a new phase of our history,” said Peter Kagwanja, a Kenyan political scientist who has researched the cult. “Our economy is good. We are going into our second democratic election. But the fact that young people are still drawn into the Mungiki shows we’ve got serious problems.”
In fact, Mungiki troubles aren’t new in Kenya.
Inspired by the Mau Mau rebels who fought the colonial British half a century ago, the murky sect emerged in the late 1980s as a tribal self-defense force, experts say.
Mungiki foot soldiers — almost all of them impoverished young men from Kenya’s long-marginalized Kikuyu tribe — rejected Christianity as a polluting Western force and revived traditional rituals such as blood oaths, purification ceremonies and praying toward Mt. Kenya, a sacred peak in the nation’s central highlands.
By the 1990s, however, the movement had spilled along with millions of Kenya’s rural poor into exploding shantytowns. And there, despite their vitriolic hatred of Kenya’s corrupt and Westernized elites, the sect members eventually were co-opted as armed youth wings for ruling politicians.
Vicious criminal mafia
Today the Mungikis — which means “masses” in Kikuyu — are thought to number in the thousands, cult watchers say. The group has morphed from a fellowship that once wore dreadlocks and eschewed the trappings of Western life, such as television and blue jeans, into a vicious criminal mafia.
Mungiki extortion rings target garbage collectors and mutatus, the armada of battered mini-buses that ply Nairobi streets, police say. The cult burns down shacks of shopkeepers who refuse to pay protection “fees.” And by flaying and decapitating the bodies of enemies — and drinking their blood — the sect deploys its occult reputation to terrorize opponents. Lately they have even vowed to disrupt Kenya’s elections.
President Mwai Kibaki, a democratic reformer whose police have unleashed bloody crackdowns against the cult, is seeking a second term in December.
“There are many gangs in the slums,” said Julius Mwelu, a resident of Mathare, a colossal scab of rusty tin roofs that covers the hillsides outside Nairobi. “The Mungiki are just the most powerful one. They kill innocent people and rob from the poor. Even the other gangs don’t do that.”
The Mungikis’ power was clear enough one recent morning in Mathare.
Though police had stormed the shantytown only two weeks before, shooting dead at least 33 residents in a brutal anti-Mungiki sweep, most slum dwellers still were too scared to talk about the cult. A few admitted, warily, that they were glad to not pay — at least for the moment — the 90-cent-a-month fee the Mungikis had been charging to use open-pit toilets. But in the scrap-board bars, some no bigger than closets and serving home-brewed grog, nervous silence greeted inquiries about the Mungiki.
Outside, meanwhile, amid the endless alleyways oozing raw sewage — a world few of Kenya’s safari tourists ever see — the state’s power was invisible.
“Police raids do nothing,” said Mutuma Ruteere of the Kenya Human Rights Institute, who noted that even with a healthy 6 percent economic growth rate, little of Kenya’s resources was trickling down to millions of the extremely poor.
“As long as there are places like Mathare, the Mungiki will find breathing space,” Ruteere said. “The fury of young people in the slums is unbelievable. It frightens me.”
Kagwanja, the political scientist, saw connections between Kenya’s ruthless Mungiki and Afghanistan’s mercenary Taliban, whose Islamist agents recruit among the desperate youths in refugee camps.
Kagwanja recently interviewed a group of Mungikis who said they got the idea of beheadings after viewing jihadist videos on the Web.
“They told me they had to keep up with the times,” said Kagwanja. “Globalized violence finds its home in Kenya’s slums.”
In Mathare, one ex-Mungiki was pondering how to leave all that behind.
“They used to help poor people, give them a little pocket money, but now they have become too cruel,” Nganga, the former cult member, said in an anxious whisper. “I had to leave the country for six months. I heard they were looking for me.”
A rangy, frowning man, Nganga performed a rite of secrecy when he first joined the Mungiki in 2002. The gang’s members obliged him to cut his palm, mix his blood with theirs and drink it from a cup.
Today he has moved to a different part of the slum. His arm was swollen to twice its normal size. He had been savagely beaten by police during a recent anti-Mungiki raid. The arm hurt, but he had no money for medicine. He was cadging food off strangers. He was looking — had been looking for one month — for any kind of job.
Currently listening to: The Who
After six months on the road in Africa and Seoul, I’m now on a month long tour of the States. I’ve done Austin, Houston, and Chicago, and am getting ready for Asheville and the cross country road trip from Texas through California to Washington. In honor of all this time spent traveling, I offer you a selection from my iPod. I don’t actually have a playlist called “Songs for Travelin,” but I probably should. If I did, this song would definitely be on there. Gotta run… my plane leaves for Newark in less than 12 hours! Enjoy the lyrics!
Simon and Garfunkel, Only Living Boy in New York
Don’t get your plane ride on time
I know you that you’re part of those flyers
Fly down to Mexico
And here I am, the only living boy in New York
I get the news I need on the weather report
I can gather all the news I need on the weather report
Hey, I’ve got nothing to do today but smile
And here I am, the only living boy in New York
Half of the time we’re going,
But we don’t know where, we don’t know where
Don’t get your plane ride on time
I know you that you’ve been eager to fly now
Hey, let your honesty shine, shine, shine now
Like it shines on me
The only living boy in New York,
The only living boy in New York,
Here I am