A Travellerspoint blog

I never finished this

22nd April


Sunday 22nd April.

Been a while since I blogged. Done lots of stuff since then.


1. Visit to Nakuru National Park
2. Conference in Mozambique
3. Camping with Samburu tribes people over Easter
4. Rant about how European attitude to GM is damaging Africa

1. Nakuru National Park
Yup, so back in March I went to Nakuru national park – about 2-3 hours north of Nairobi. Some buddies (including my friend Borris from FAO-Rome… used to do the lake swim with me) and I hired a vehicle and drove along the rift valley up to the park one Friday afternoon. As we checked at the park gate, I met Sandra a teacher at the German school I’d had coffee with several weeks ago (a friend of another Rome buddy from the lake, Sebastian). So we decided to check into the same youth hostel/banda/ hut things and hang out together. This should be surprising, but… well the Nairobi crowd really is small – and there’s a good chance to bump into people all over the place.

Got up early to be greeted by a beautiful sunrise behind our hut with a heard of Buffalo. Beautiful.

The centre-piece of the park is Lake Nakuru, surrounded by some gentle hills and the special thing about the lake is that it is packed with Pink Flamingos - squillions of them. We went down to the lake side and the mass of pink birds was mind-boggling… Borris commented that the sound of all their feet walking around the lake, in and out of the water, was like a waterfall.. and yes. He was right.

Also met about 15 Rhinos (both white and black). The white ones are bigger and lighter in colour but actually get their name from the fact that they have a WIDE mouth.. and then the word was mistranslated somewhere to become white. Anyhoo, the wide mouthed white rhinos are grazers, eating vegetation off the ground (grass) – they are also social creatures that hang out together a lot. The black rhinos, which are smaller and more solitary, have a pointy mouth to help them browse for food from the trees.

The usual lions and monkeys were also seen, but the coolest thing was my first leopard – a baby, curled up on a tree. Auaaaahhhh.

The Saturday night, Borris and I wanted to take a slash around 2am… and opening the hut door to cross the site to the toilets/bushes, we were greeted by three great big Buffalos, the closest within 5m of us. I think I mentioned before that Buffalos are the 2nd most dangerous animal in Africa… killing and maiming many each year. Yieks!

Sunday morning we breakfasted outside with Zebras (including a baby) munching grass within a few metres of us.

I feel so spoiled here.

2. Conference in Mozambique
Yes, at the end of March, I went to Maputo for an incredible week. The conference brought together all the people funded by the Rockefeller Foundation in Africa. Over 400 of the best crop scientists, breeders and seed distributors on the continent, all doing amazing work. I am not funded by Rockefeller (an American charity run by an oil rich family) but when I heard about the meeting I demanded an invite. It was inspiring to meet these guys who have been nurtured by the Foundation over the years and trained to be top-class people and are really working, using plant science to improve crops… make them disease resistant, drought resistant, high in vitamins, low in toxins, insect resistant, striga resistant. Then at the same conference were breeders who could transfer the improved traits into locally adapted varieties. This is normally the furthest a scientist would think about a problem.. but having worked with the UN in Africa I now realise that its only the start of the problem. We have a lot of good crop varieties which aren’t being used by farmers… either because farmers don’t know about it… or because they know about it but can’t access the seed. There have been enormous problems making enough good seed for farmers to plant… and then getting the seed to the farmers.

You see almost 80% of Africans are small holder famers with about a hectare of land each. There are therefore, almost by definition the rural poor of Africa and any pro-poor policy or new variety should really target these people. They tend to live a long way from cities along very very bad roads. It used to be the job of governments to get seed/education to farmers, but the economic policies of the west, which led to reduction/removal of agricultural subsidies mean there isn’t enough money to do this effectively. It is in the domain of the private sector… but if there are no (good) roads to reach the small holder farmers, it is difficult to transport the seed. Even if there was a means to transport the seed, it becomes difficult to sell to the farmers who may not understand why its better, may be nervous about taking a risk on something new and don’t have access to any credit and rarely have spare cash. The same is true for fertilisers.

The issues of Seed Production and Distribution is big. Possibly almost as big as the issue of how the farmer will get their produce back to the market to sell once she/he’s grown it.

And the Rockefeller initiatives have made enourmous progress in this area reaching millions of small holder farmers. Some people would claim the issue shouldn’t be that big. If Coca-cola can get its product (which helps nobody) to the back of beyond and generate demand (which it can) then there is no excuse for the seed industry.

Rockefeller is using the small-scale private sector to help with its seed. It’s sad but true. The individuals working in the public sector have little interest in success… and if small shop owners can get

Posted by happydaves 16:33 Archived in Kenya Tagged business_travel Comments (0)

On the move

overcast 14 °C

Johannesburg, 10th April 2007.

It was funny arriving in Jo’burg. Completely against all UN rules, I booked myself into a backpacker type B&B hostel on my arrival. As I was taken to the airport the thing which really struck me was that I was on a Highway. A motorway. Wide, smooth, clear, organised. We do not have them in Kenya. Also, the area around my accommodation looked very like suburban America. Wide roads, leafy criss-crossed residential, 4-way stops, malls… just more security here.

Sao Paolo, 11th April 2007

I have seen less of Brazil than I saw of South Africa… I don’t know if it is my romantic ideal or the winter light, but, as we came down to land in Sao Paolo and drove around the airport, it just seemed like a shiny happy place. Something that I can’t describe…

I’m sitting around in the airport now. When I saw the Air France plane and then the KLM… I felt somehow sad/happy. I am now so far from Europe (in my experience, Africa and many months are between Europe and Brazil) and seeing these things from home was quite a surprise… not at the intellectual level, but at the emotional level. I am sure that many people have shared this experience when far from home but the urge to walk smuggle myself on board the Air France plane was almost overpowering. I almost forgot how excited and fortunate I am to be coming here.

I spent 15 minutes watching the Air France plane leave its gate, taxi to the runway and take off. Just thinking about the connection.

Posted by happydaves 16:23 Archived in Chile Tagged business_travel Comments (0)

New Orleans: Disaster or Conspiracy

Tale from my Aunty Anne - a concerned resident


My Aunty Anne lives in New Orleans and understandably her life was turned upside-down when the Huricane hit and flooded the city.

She and many of the other residents are at a loss to understand why so little has been done to help their city withstand floods and hurricanes - both before and after the event. At a loss to explain why the media does not report their tale.

Following a public meeting in the city - they agreed to tell their stories themselves. The story of New Orleans therefore came to me and I pass it on to you.
Greetings from New Orleans!
We went to a meeting of experts and concerned citizens concerning the plight of our city. One of the speakers who works for a national newspaper said that it's up to us citizens to disseminate the truth of what has happened and is happening in our town - we cannot rely on the media. She recommended that we tell everyone we know and ask them to tell everyone they know, etc. so the word gets around. Following her guidance, I'm sharing a bit of what I know, hoping you will pass it on to those you know, so our situation can be understood.
Another speaker at this meeting, a lawyer, mentioned that he was involved in the bill to get funds from our Federal Government to improve our levees since they surround canals which are fingers of Lake Pontchatrain. Their needed improvements were thus included in the Hurricane and Flood Protection Act. When the bill was finally passed in 1990, the improvements agreed upon were EARTHEN levees and the funds distributed were enough to buy the necessary land from the homeowners in order to enlarge these levees. The speaker's mother lived right on the levee, so he visited her to explain that she would have to sell part of her back yard in order to make New Orleans safer with higher levees. He said he doesn't know what happened after that except that the Army Corps of Engineers did not buy people's land and much of the money that was allotted for these improvements promptly disappeared. Meanwhile, a friend who is a contractor and walks his dog around the 17th Street Canal told us that he watched the Army Corps building the "improvements." Instead of the promised earthen levee, they used light peat soil, short pilings, and cheap, light grade concrete to build a concrete wall extension because they couldn't afford anything better. When the water from the lake pressed against this flimsy wall, it toppled, flooding New Orleans.
A man in the audience of our meeting stood up to say he used to work for the Army Corps of Engineers, and he knows for a fact that these "improvements" were built to merely run off the storm surge, not to stand up to water next to them, as in a flood. He encouraged us not to believe what the Army Corps says about the levees being O.K.- "they are NOT!" A woman in the audience mentioned that she knows someone who had moved out of town because he doesn't trust the levees, and he is still employed with the Army Corps of Engineers.
There is a movie out now, Hurricane on the Bayou, that attributes the devastation of New Orleans to the storm surge of Hurricane Katrina, yet a local hurricane expert, Ivor Van Heerden, says 80% of the flooding was caused by the collapse of the levees. Only 20% was caused by the storm surge. The film also neglects to mention that the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, a canal that was built in 1965 to diminish the trip of seafaring vessels from New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico by 40 miles, has been documented to increase the storm surge by 20-40%. It has also devastated the marshlands that offer protection to New Orleans from hurricanes, (see the book, The Storm, by Ivor Van Heerden). Though the media seems to like to blame Hurricane Katrina ("the worst natural disaster in our country's history"), the fact of the matter is that the destruction of New Orleans was vastly man made - yet there is no accountability.
A petition is being distributed calling for an official impartial investigation into the New Orlean's levees and what happened during Katrina. The "official" investigation in 2006 was led by a Lt. General of the Army Corps of Engineers! Three unofficial investigations found their report, "incomplete and technically inaccurate." Yet, the Army Corps continues to be in charge of the levees that protect 1.5 million people.
Crime is also rampant on the streets and in homes. One group was stealing copper pipes in houses being renovated as soon as they were laid. They were finally caught, but released the next day because there were not enough guards in the prison for them! Criminals of any kind are also being released if their paper work isn't processed within 60 days. Judge David Bell of the criminal justice system spoke to our women's club. He mentioned that the juveniles in the system were ready to evacuate with their families, but the official protocol from FEMA was to separate the children in one bus, the women in another and the men in a third. The reason they gave is they did not know if there were any pedophiles or other criminals in the group, and they wanted to "protect the children," They were all supposed to go to Houston, but the kids were rerouted midway to Arkansas, and the other two buses were also separated and sent to different locations. After we were allowed back into our city, the kids found their way home, "as stray animals often do," only they no longer had viable homes, so they have been living on the streets. FEMA will not release the whereabouts of their parents because they say it goes against privacy laws, but did mention they are safe in trailer park settlements. The judge said he's been trying for 18 months to get the information, and FEMA refuses all approaches. Meanwhile, the kids are fending for themselves with prostitution and theft . . . or are themselves the victims of crimes. Four hundred out of 800 kids in his jurisdiction signed up for school without parental signatures. Monday through Friday, they are getting 2 meals a day, but the summer months are approaching. The judge's story of the lost parents was one of many tales of horror. All the departments seem to say the same thing - "We have no money to do what needs to be done."
A friend mentions how her church has been organizing volunteers from all over the world to come to New Orleans and help people rebuild their homes. She asked, "If our church is able to orchestrate this huge relief effort, why can't the Administration of our technologically advanced country, wealthy from all our tax dollars, do the same?" To us, the answer is obvious . . .
On a positive note, a friend said, "I would never have stopped in the 9th Ward before Katrina - I would have passed through quickly with my doors locked, feeling afraid. After the disaster, I brought over food, supplies and T-shirts and handed them out to whomever I could find. It was a delight and a joy to be there." The tremendous fear of our neighbor that inhibited our interactions before the storm, for a great many of us, has washed away. We're just grateful to be alive!
Please help to spread the news of our current status! Anne & Christine

Posted by happydaves 08:37 Archived in USA Tagged business_travel Comments (0)

Visited an Island and a Mourning House

sunny 25 °C

Sunday 25th February 2007

Things are well.

Yesterday, fed up with the city a matatu’d out to Lake Naivasha again and took a boat onto Crescent Island. The island (a crescent shape) was a former volcano crater rim and commands a view of another volcano Mount Longonot (blog…), the cliff of Hell’s Gate (blog… ) is full of lots of beautiful animals. During the boat trip I saw my first hippo (with Longonot behind).




I just walked around the island for a few hours, in amongst the Gnu (Wildebeast)... you remember that song Mr Fee used to sing
"I'm a GeNu, How do you do?"



Dave is in Africa, Honestly



Thompsons’ Gazelles, Grants Gazelles, Imapala, Water buck



and the ubiquitous Zebras. But I had been warned to keep away from the thick trees and bushes because that’s where the Buffalo were hiding… Yes, Buffalo, together with Hippos are by far the most dangerous animals in Africa – killing and maiming many more people than lions or leopards… because their grumpy!

On arrival back in Nairobi, I met Ben (Kenyan guy from work). We headed out to Eastlands for a drink in a properly African pub, with African music, dancing and no Musungos (whites).. it was great. Then onto his cousin’s mourning house in South B to hang out for a while. Similar in many ways to the mourning house Kai and I visited in Sri Lanka … people hanging about outside the house under a covering sitting chatting, laughing, most not seeming to be particularly interested in the fact that Ben’s cousin’s wife had just died. The difference was that in Kenya they were playing a Shine Jesus Shine dvd at full volume on the TV and I was very careful not to pay any attention to drunken uncles who might ask me to sing a song. There was no repeat performance of Brown Eyed Girl from Dave.

After the death house, I attended the ex-pat party of the week… hosted by The Italians.

Oh, and here's a pic of Paul flipping pancakes at my place last Tuesday


And here is my office


Some of my Colleagues in the office and my office through the back


My at my desk


Posted by happydaves 11:52 Archived in Kenya Tagged business_travel Comments (0)

Pancakes and Pathology

More rants about international pressure

sunny 20 °C

Had a pancake party last night. Was great fun! Yummy.

Today I got chatting to a lady mycologist at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute. She and her colleagues in the Plant Pathology division are the main centre in Kenya to help farmers who have a problem with diseased crops. Farmers send in cuttings or samples of afflicted plants and the labs try to diagnose what is causing the disease and then advise or help with its control. They have people specialised in bacterial diseases, fungal disease, nematodes and viruses. This is vitally important to the livelihoods of Kenyan farmers and food security for the nation, since only by knowing what is wrong with your crop can you act properly to cure it. Diseases left unchecked can spread across a whole farm, province, country or even continent. Control may involve the use of chemical sprays to kill the causative agent or changing the way the crop is grown to avoid it being grown at a time of year when the pathogen is at its nastiest. It may also involve changing the crop… some pathogens are very selective to one species of plant, so if a field is contaminated with a disease that kills maize, then growing cowpea may be an option. Or it may involve planting varieties that are resistant to that particular strain of pathogen.

Obviously fast diagnosis and detailed knowledge of the disease causing agent can have a big impact… however, sometime in the last 10 years the Kenyan Government, in its wisdom decided that agricultural support and extension work should be self funding. I have a feeling that this is due to international reforms forced by the rich countries of the world (through institutions like the IMF, World Bank, WTO) on the poor countries to remove agricultural subsidies. The government cannot subsidise seed supply, fertilisers, pesticides, fungicides… the argument being that if people pay the full value of something they will use it more wisely and it will encourage entrepreneurs and the private sector to help out in a more efficient way than a 3rd world government ever could manage… if farmers pay the full value of seeds then it will support the breeding for and development of new locally produced varieties that are particularly adapted to the national setting. Somehow, these rules on not subsidising farming enforced upon the developing world do not apply to USA or the EU. We pay a British farmer 70 pence to make a bag of sugar that will sell on the market for about 40 pence. I don’t want to get too much into the unfairness of this situation as we’ve all heard from Make Poverty History and other campaigns the effect that our farming subsidies have on the ability of an African farmer to get a fair prices for his crop… if she/he makes sugar at 50 pence a bag then there won’t be a market for it!

What I’m ranting about today is the absolute madness of the withdrawal of government subsidies from a plant pathology unit. Here we have a few well trained scientists and agronomists (some with PhD’s from UK/Australia) who know how to use the relatively cheap and efficient biotechnological techniques of PCR or ELISA (which uses antibodies) for diagnosis of disease in a very quick and specific manner. They have an ELISA machine in their lab and some access to other equipment and yet they are rarely used because the Plant Pathology Unit must be self financing. They must take in as much cash from farmers as they spend… and when local farmers struggle to pay the 500 Kenyan Schillings per sample (about £3) the advanced techniques can’t cover their costs. Instead they resort to old school taxonomic analysis of looking at the fluffy shapes that the fungal cultures make.

It seems to me incredibly short sited of the powers that make the rules. I am not an economist and I don’t know how to do proper cost/benefit analysis, but I imagine that the benefit of knowing early about threatening diseases is worth more to the country than just to the farmer with the diseased plant… and could certainly be worth more than £3… if it stops the disease spreading to his neighbouring farms and destroying livelihoods of farmers who will then be unable to pay for their kids to go to school and may also rely on food aid handouts from the government. So expecting the farmer to pay the full cost of stopping an crop infection does not seem reasonable.

I would really like to know if this is driven by the agenda of the Kenyan government or the rich donor countries of the world.

Posted by happydaves 07:48 Archived in Kenya Tagged business_travel Comments (0)

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