Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Coin Toss

September 1, 2008

Within our two-week stay, our team had one free day. Basically two options. Visit Tsavo East National Park or go to Mombasa, East Africa's main port on the Indian Ocean. Majority rules. And, unfortunately, we were tied. Three of us wanted to go to the national park. The other three longed to see Mombasa. Both options sounded SO great, but a decision had to be made, so we agreed on a coin toss.

And the trip to Mombasa won.

The road out to Mombasa on Safari Rally Road (which was a game drive in itself: zebra, eland, and elephants!) was a bit tense for our team. It was difficult to only have one free day--inevitably someone would feel that this precious time was taken away from them. I hoped Mombasa would bring with it much enlightenment. Peace. Togetherness.

Team dynamics are a delicate thing. And we soon realized that communication was the only way to make it work.

The long, red ride out to Mombasa. Excitement in my heart. Sienna Tsavo roads and scrubland change after about three hours. Construction. The traffic! But then the land begins to transform. I notice the palm trees. The sandy-colored soil. The Arab faces. Sunday afternoon in downtown Mombasa brings crowds of people shopping, attending open-park like sermons, walking along the streets. Horns. Engines revving. The warm, humid air on my skin.

There is a dark history here on the coast. The Swahili culture emerged when the Persian and Arab merchant trade began in the 9th century. Marriages between Arab and Africans created the Swahili culture, language and race But between 7th and 19th centuries. Arab and Swahili traders enslaved over four million people to haul ivory, horns, and skin to the coast. Eventually, slaves were sold across the Middle East. The Swahili people engaged in countless rebellions against Portuguese invaders (that leveled the city twice.) The Portuguese built Fort Jesus in hopes of staying in Mombasa, but the fortress was a target for rebel leaders. They finally gave up their claim to the coast in the early 18th century. Local Swahili people also engaged in conflict against the sultans of Oman (who defeated the Portuguese.) The British took control of Mombasa for a few years in the early 1800s to keep it from the sultans, whose massive need for a labor force marked the peak of the slave trade in the 19th century. The British government was able to help end the slave trade. And in this treaty, the British East Africa Company took over management of Kenya's interior. Here lay the beginnings of the East African Railway--a 16 km wide coastal strip. (Ghost and The Darkness-In 1898 the British started building a railway bridge over the Tsavo River. One hundred forty railway workers were killed by two large male lions--The Ghost and The Darkness. In December of that year, chief engineer Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson finally shot the both lions.)

Today Mombasa is rich in its Swahili past. The Arab-influenced architecture. The population mainly African, many of whom are Swahili. But many ethnicities run through the heart of this port city. Indians-descendants of railway workers brought here by the British in the 1800s. Chinese. Italians. British. Most residents predominantly Muslim.

We are greeted by our guide, Fauzi, or daktari, the doctor (PHD from England.) He is a lovely, reserved man who takes us through the ancient streets, pass Fort Jesus, and into the heart of the city. We have great conversation about the city, the people, and his Greek, prankster friend.

We shop--and try to be smart in our bargaining (and keep the conversion rates straight in our head! That was problem for some of us. No names mentioned!) The crafts are all beautiful. The masks. Kangas. Carved animals and bowls. But what strikes me as more artistic are the old wooden windows filled with colored glass. The ornate, wooden balconies that adorn the tightly packed, dilapidated apartments. (These balconies, almost completely shrouded, were built to "protect" and cover the Muslim women. )

Many of the old streets and buildings are structurally hurting. The European Union has a grant program in place that helps business and home owners by matching funds to refurbish the area. Bit by bit, it seems to be working. But even in this chaos--litter, masses of electrical wires, walls almost completely without paint, there is such a richness.

The colorful kangas and other cloths billowing out run-down windowsills.
The laughing fishermen selling "langostas" (lobster in Spanish...such a crazy mix of culture and language here!) who try to get me to hold a big, pinching lobster.
The connection between a young boy and Andy. No words. Just in the eyes. Barefoot on the street. Kicking a soccer ball. Bouncing between them like an invisible line.
The rainbow of shoes scattered on the steps outside a Sunday, Islamic school for kids.

The kids are shy. I try to talk to a beautiful child, but she turns away. She does let me take a picture of her. Then as I return, there are three more. I finally get to pull out my stickers and present them with a gift. The smiles grow, like the flutter of my heart. They are my friends now, and pose one more time. I don't want to leave them. I want to know them. Play with them, if only for a while. But our guide moves on, and I run down the alley, waving to them as I go. I will never forget the light in their eyes that day.

In the Internet cafe, Seth and I make friends. A high school boy is excited to meet us--in his broken English, he tells us he wants to be a biologist! An older man who speaks no English talks to me. "Italian?" he asks me. "No, hablo Espanol." So we talk a bit in my broken Swahili and in his broken Spanish. Once again, the magic of language breaks down barriers. I like the people here in Mombasa. Curious and friendly about who were are.

The downtown port. Everything comes in here for transport around East Africa. Men on the beach. Hustling. Looking for business. One guy talks to us for awhile about his experience as a guide on a cheetah project. Seth hooks him up with Andy. Hustling brings hope for work. For survival.

And the Indian Ocean. Warm. Fine white sand. Andy, Seth, and I wade into the water--fighting fields of sea grass as we go. And within minutes, we are baptized. I float like a buoy next to a beautiful, wooden boat. I don't want to leave. (Seth has been taking pictures of EVERYTHING to document the Earthwatch fellowship he received to come to Kenya. For the picture of us on the beach, he told me, "I'll get a copy of this photo from you, Lori." Unfortunately, the guy working on the beach was unable to see through my view finder, and the picture came came out WITHOUT Seth's head! LOL! Sorry Seth. The dangers of being so tall:)

Swim time is over. Back to the team. We're late again! Caught up in the moment. Not hard to do in such a place.

More reflection on the ride home. Back at camp we have a chance to talk about group dynamics a bit. We work out our glitches as a team, and from here on out, I think we are able to understand each other more.

A day of contrasts. A day of beauty.

(Thank you , Nic Clarke for your beautiful eye in shooting the first 11 photos here of Mombasa!)

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