Thursday, July 23, 2009

Ready, Set, Go!

July 15th - July 23st, 2009

Work has been incredible this week. This past week has been full of activities and was probably the one that put a lot of momentum into the project.

The four of us have been visiting the hospital and Ober (our farthest distribution site) since Wednesday to collect missing data from the study participants for the research. Roy and I visited Ober while Jen and Amanda covered the hospital catchment area. After compiling the data of over 600 study participants we realized that we were missing crucial data for the study participants that are important for the research. We also needed to distribute the client ID cards to them, which the 1st 300 study subjects will need to carry with them every day in order to receive their packet of yogurt.

Visiting Ober was great. It is such a quiet and peaceful village surrounded by a gorgeous view. Today was the first time I met the study clients. All the clients from Ober were HIV positive and some were so much healthier than the other. I had a pretty chilly experience with one of the clinic's patients who was interested in joining the study but we could not accept her as we had reached our quotas for the number of men, women and children required. To appease her, Roy said that she can be part of the 2nd group, the control group, for the study which begins in 6 months. Before leaving she looks at me, dead in the eye, and says "I will be back in 6 months if I am not dead." Not to sound like a weakling but I had to sit down as it hit me once again that most people, especially in hard hit regions such as Oyugis, don't have the luxury to plan for the future. They have to concentrate on surviving today, and maybe perhaps planning for the immediate tomorrow if they are able to, but even planning ahead for the month is far too down the road for many. Suffice it to say that patient was not pleased with Roy and I at all.

Aside from that, I had a great time getting to know the other client subjects who came in that day. Since I have started learning Swahili, and gotten really well at it if I must say so myself (my teachers agree too!), I was able to converse with them since many are unable to speak English. It was a awesome talking to the clients in Swahili, although I still needed Roy's help occasionally. The clients were also patient with me as they could clearly tell I was a newbie.

At the end of our second day in Ober, one of the study clients dropped by to sell us some dinner buns and told us they were made using solar energy. These buns were baked using the Sun's heat! How cool is that. The oven, very creatively so, is called a Sun Oven. It was donated to the citizens of the Ober community by a US NGO. I think it is a great addition to the community as the people here work collectively to bake the buns then distribute it to orphanages and sell the surplus. Also there is no electricity in Ober (not even in the clinic), so this is a very creative way for them to bake goods.

After finishing work in Ober and passing the message along to the clinic staff that the pro-biotic yogurt distribution will commence on Monday July 20th, 2009 we left the hospital. Since we had time, Roy took me to visit his home in Wire, a village located next to Oyugis. Such a picturesque area. We walked up the hill to where his house was and the view was breathtaking, especially with ominous rain clouds in the horizon. It was a great day: we listened to the radio, had mangoes from his tree, and then went over to meet with his cousin and her son whom I had met when we went to Lake Victoria. The four of us together had a mini photo shoot, which was fun. We ended the day with my daily Swahili lessons.

The next couple of days was a similar a roller coaster ride as it was full of meetings, smoothing out conflict issues, meeting with the women's group Chair Lady, working with the milk supplier to make sure we receive the milk on time on Sunday and so much more. Despite all of this I am very, very happy to let you all know that production for the study began on 20th July of 2009, and distribution took place on 21st July of 2009. These have been some of the most exciting days for all the partners involved especially for the Mamas, the Oyugis project team and the study participants as the start of the production has been looked forward to for a very long time.

91 study subjects showed up on the first day at the three different distribution centres (Kitchen, District Hospital and Ober Health Centre). Although this may seem like a low turnout, I know this will increase in the upcoming days as word of mouth will spread the message to the other study participants since many do not have access to a telephone. We had distributed to almost 150 participants by Thursday. We also placed posters around the area to notify the study participants.

The on site team is also eagerly looking forward to the site’s certification by the Kenya Dairy Board which should happen before us interns leave Kenya. I can't believe I have less than a month remaining!! That thought itself is daunting.


Memorable and Amusing Occurrences

• I have so far been bit by mosquitoes and insects a whopping 31 times!
• Jen, Amanda and I have started a "Sick Day" count to record how many days each of us have been sick. Jen is in the lead, Amanda was 2nd in the running until this past Sunday when I took over. Jen should watch out since at the rate I have been ill these days I might just be in the lead soon. =/
• Ironically enough, one of us is always sick. We seem to be taking turns being ill, which is a good thing cause because it is always imperative that two of us are always at the kitchen, although all of us are needed.
• The adults in the study LOVE the yogurt! Kids, not so much since it is not sweet. So the feedback for the yogurt has been mostly good. We have been taking videos of the clients telling us how they like the yogurt which is excellent.
• Our friends Christopher, Boston, Claudia, Austin, and Bruce who live behind our hotel surprised us with such nice and thoughtful gifts yesterday. Their grandmother has weaved baskets for us and the work on them was so intricate. I have already started using mine as a fabric basket. Almost makes me want to take up knitting so I can use it as a knitting basket. Nevertheless, with my luck I will probably accidentally end up hurting myself with the needles.

Living, Loving and Laughing in the Motherland

July 4th - July 16th, 2009

Today marks my 1st month in Kenya. As cliché as it sounds time has flown by. Even though I miss home I do not want to leave my work and new home here. I have explored so much of Western Kenya in these past two weeks that the list of my adventures is exhaustive. Not complaining at all though.

On July 4th, Jen, Amanda and I had made plans to visit Lake Victoria that day to celebrate Jen's birthday. We went to work that day as it was the 2nd last day of training. Amanda and I had planned to sneak off to arrange some surprises for Jen. I had found us someone in the town who could bake us a cake. May not sound like a big deal, but in a town like Oyugis it is HUGE! I think the guy who baked Jen's cake is one of the few who owns an oven here. Probably 97% of Oyugians use Jikos (charcoal stoves) for cooking purposes. So we were really excited. Rightfully so, as it was the best cake I have ever tasted!

So after arranging to pick up the cake in the evening, Amanda and I rushed to the hotel to prepare for the day trip. We were very excited as we were taking some of our good friends with us to spend the day with. Not only did we explore the lands but we also went on a boat ride. It was the first time on a boat for a few of our friends. Regardless of warnings that there might be hippos and crocodiles in the water we still went ahead. Like Jen put it, you can't live life in fear of being eaten by animals. The day was beyond amazing. I don't remember ever laughing so much so often. It also felt different yet so right to be walking on the same grounds as our ancestors thousands of years ago had walked on. The same grounds on which they had lived, hunted, fought and prospered on. Africa is truly the Motherland in all sense.

The next day was the last day of the training. It was a bittersweet day. Mamas from both the groups and us interns were sad that we would be bidding farewell to the Mwanza Mamas the next day. Despite of that sentiment we still celebrated all that the Mamas had accomplished so far in both, Kenya and Tanzania. We sang and danced to some traditional African songs sung by the Mamas and exchanged a few words with each other that conveyed our appreciation for the efforts put in by all those involved with the project. The speeches got many of us very emotional and tears flowed freely. That much was a given as there were at least 20 women in the room. Roy was the only representative of the other gender. Great addition to the group too as he was translating between Luo, Kiswahili and English the whole day. He is a translating machine.

The rest of the week was more or less the same. The girls and I said goodbye to the Mwanza Mamas and caught up on personal related things. Work had kept me incredibly busy. I had also been really sick for a good chunk of the week so that had continued to drain me of energy. Thankfully I got better by the time the weekend rolled around since I ended up going to Kisumu, Kenya for the weekend (so last minute!).

Saturday was Imamat Day (Shia Ismaili religious celebration) so I visited our family friends to take part in the celebrations with the Aga Khan community in Kisumu. It was so different to be visiting a city after living in a rural town for almost a month. Roy, who had traveled with me, took me to Nakumat (Kenya's "Walmart") where I was reacquainted with the modern way of living. Saw freezers, insane amount of shopping options, a bakery (my fav part of the store!) and so many other items I use to take for granted back home. It was a bit overwhelming but introspective at the same time.

After the shopping excursion, I went to my Uncle's house where I had a home-cooked meal! I also realized that being a vegetarian is not a permanent change for me as I could not resist my Aunt's food. It was a major change from my daily diet of rice, beans, chapatti or fries. I even had a salad! Jen was really jealous. The weekend continued to be loads of fun: went to Khane (Mosque) for the first time since I had left Toronto, met an eclectic mix of people and partook in the religious celebrations. Also saw lambs being roasted on an open spit for the first time! Def took a picture of that.

What was interesting to note while I was in Kisumu were the dynamics that existed between the different racial ethnic groups. Even though I was not there long enough to deduce anything concrete, I noticed that the different racial groups hung out within themselves. Indians were usually with Indians, Caucasians were with Caucasians and so forth. Also even if you were, say a 4th generation Kenya, if you were anything but local you would still be considered a foreigner. For example, my uncle whose family has been established in Kenya for many generations is still considered to be a foreigner. I think for countries to prosper they need to unite to grow. Obama summed it up pretty well in his speech to the citizens of Accra, Ghana on July 11th, 2009:

"Africa's diversity should be a source of strength, not a cause for division."

After a fun weekend in Kisumu, I returned to a jam packed week at work where things were functioning at a great pace. We will be beginning production on Sunday and distribution begins on Monday for the 1st 300 participants. So excited!! More about the project in my next blog =)

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Ndoto Zinakuja Ukweli! (Dreams Do Come True!)

June 30th – July 6th, 2009

Work has been full of action and progress this week!

A far cry from the previous weeks when every time we would take a step to get anything done, we would meet a barrier. More often than not it would be gov't institutions.

Monday was a very productive day. After meeting with Roy on what needs to be purchased the three of us left to go purchase and place orders for the necessary lab, production and hardware supplies. We spent the whole day running around Oyugis and the kitchen collecting the items required. Branding of the kitchen also began that day which created a lot of excitement in the neighbourhood! In the afternoon, we headed over to the Matatus station (Matatu’s are one of the modes of transportation in Kenya) to pick up Ashley (Mwanza Intern) and the Mamas.

Tuesday was the first day of the training. Our guests were very impressed with our Kitchen and the expertise Roy, who is a dairy technician, brought to the table. Our Mamas slowly began trickling in around 9 am. I was impressed with how many showed up that day, and how active they were. The Mwanza and the Oyugis Mamas took over the training. They took it upon themselves to split the Oyugis Mamas in Groups A and B so the training held was smaller. Originally the Training was supposed to last for 3 days, but that was extended to 6 days so the Oyugis Mamas were given the training to fully prepare themselves for production. I thought it was great how the women took control over the training sessions. Ashley, Jen, Amanda and I observed from the sidelines once training began as it was conducted in Swahili. We worked on production reports, supplier’s lists, more KEMRI hassles, and the list continues. Unfortunately I was ill for most of this past week so I was not at the kitchen as much as I would have liked.

Till Saturday the Mwanza Mamas trained Groups A and B on hygiene standards, quality controls, production process, equipment sterilization, packaging. The Mamas were trained on each step of the production process from when the milk arrives in the morning to when the Yogurt is distributed. Wednesday and Thursday were spent on the Mwanza Mamas demonstrating every step to the Oyugis Mamas. Friday and Saturday is when the Oyugis Mama were asked to step in while the Mwanza Mamas observed their performance.

Sunday was the last day of training as the Mamas and Ashley were leaving on Monday. It was a bittersweet day. During the morning the Mamas went about following the production process. After that the Mwanza Mamas quizzed the other Mamas on what they had learned and held a Q&A session. What followed soon after that was a very joyous session of singing and dancing. We joined the Mamas in the singing and dancing. The air was charged with the energy and joy of the Mamas on how this past week has been so successful and the journey that awaits each one of them as we move ahead with the project.

Before lunch the Mamas and us each said a few words of gratitude for everyone who came this past week. I was impressed with all the Mamas and Roy’s dedication to this project. Many tears of happiness were shed and there was an outpouring of appreciation for all those who are committed to the success of this project.

After that lunch was served. I had my 1st home cooked meal since I have left home! It was delicious. It was a traditional Kenyan meal which consisted of kale (spinach), Ugali (a ball of cooked dough made from maize), Spiced potatoes, Beef stew (stayed away from it!), and of course the yogurt produced at the kitchen (although that is not traditional).The Mamas left on Monday after an exciting and intense week with huge smiles.

I will never forget this week as this week reinforced for me on my purpose for being here. It has been a dream of mine to travel to Africa and work with an NGO as I am interested international social and economic development if of interest to me. I can’t get over how this opportunity has made that dream come true in not only allowing me to be part of this initiative, but for allowing me to use the skills and knowledge I acquired in school for the benefit of the kitchen. I realized that the bumps encountered so far in this journey are all part of reaching the destination of making this kitchen successful.

God, Obama-Mania, and Footbal

June 27th – July 6th, 2009

This summer is definitely one that I am going to journal and blog my way through! There is always so much happening that it is impossible to go a day without noting down the occurrences of the day.

I have already been here for three weeks. Three things which strongly influence Kenyans are God, Obama, and Football (Soccer). Most of the Oyugians, even kids, I have met so far have spoken about all three topics within the first 5- 10 minutes of our conversation.


Kenyans are very religious. Folks here go to church on either Saturday or Sunday, some even go both days. Church sermons are usually couple of hours long and involve long sermons by the priest and loads of Gospel Choir. A few of the churches near my hotel have outdoors speakers attached, which always end up jolting me to consciousness during the weekends. What I have noticed here is that the sermons sound very, very angry. The priest is usually screaming for hours at end.

Life here seems to be defined here by the Bible (I have only met Christians here). When visiting schools many of the songs the kids sing are about biblical stories such as the 5 foolish and wise men etc. Even when playing with the kids in our neighbourhood, after asking them to sing songs were us they sung us songs related to the Church.

Even the “hoodlums” here seem to be very religious. On Jen’s birthday one of the guys we had met at the internet cafe signed “T-H-U-G” on her birthday card. It stood for “True Homies Under God.”Jen, Amanda, and I doubled over in laughter after reading that since we never thought of it that way.


Obama is considered to be a level just under the Divine Being here. He is from this province in Kenya, the Nyanza Province so he is a HUGE deal here. Not even kidding. I have been to so many shops and establishments where his picture is hung. Many people ask us if we are from America. They get disappointed when we tell them we are from Canada, but cheer up as soon as we tell them we border U.S.A. Many folks have also asked us if we have met him. I wish.

Roy, our Project Coordinator, is a good example of how Obama is viewed. When we asked him if Obama is his role model, he said no because Barack Obama is too great of a person to be emulated. He doesn’t even think it is possible to be him. Kenya as a whole would go wild with joy should Obama ever choose to visit the land of his ancestors.

There is even a hairstyle called Obama. Although it looks nothing like his. It basically consists of cornrows. Very popular here, rightfully so as well. Come on, it is named after Obama!


The Kenyans cannot live without this popular sport. Young kids to adults have come and joined us in our afternoon games. Many kids have shared their dreams with us. Many of them wish to be Christiano Ronaldo when they grow up.

The three of us have been visiting Roy’s high school football team and watching them train. Amanda even joins them in their games. All of them are so talented. Their training is very gruelling and rigorous. Nothing will deter the students from playing football, not even Mother Nature. It has been raining a lot for the past two days, yet the boys continue playing soccer regardless of how muddy the conditions get.

Many of the students we have met have also asked us to get them football scholarships. It is so difficult to explain to them that scholarships are not easy to come and involve a very competitive process. Many of the kids here are so talented that it is saddening to see that their dreams will fade away at some point, especially when the struggles of life greet them.

Football has introduced us to many people here. Many of them are now some of our friends whom we hand out with daily. It is a game that has created many friendships that I hope will last a lifetime as it has allowed us to meet some truly incredible people.

Lesson of the Week:

Citizens of industrialized nations have so many options available to them in pretty much every aspect of their lives. For example, in the beverages industry here the big two players here are Tusker and Coca Cola. Tusker is a beer company, and a very famous one at that. Water seems to be more expensive than Tusker and Coca Cola here. Here in Oyugis at least, I only see Coca Cola brands such as Sprite, Fanta and Coke. I have yet to see any evidence that Pepsi is sold here. Soda prices here range from 20 to 40 KES while water for a similar size would be sold for 30 – 50 KES.