Archive for January, 2007

What should peace corps be? (Bebeth)

Tuesday, January 30th, 2007

We all have a picture of what the Peace Corps is. For most it is of 2
years living in a mud hut in a tiny village, without electricity or
running water, immersing yourself in a community. By now you all know
that this isn't the exact picture of what our experience is like. In
some ways it is the same, but in others it is different. The question
is, how different can and should it be?

Today our APCD (assistant Peace Corps director) for SED/ICT came for a
site visit. We talked about our project and some of the challenges we
were facing. He brainstormed ways that we might be able to find
secondary projects that would help keep us busier while at the same time
help us to integrate into the community.

Then he asked what we would think about Peace Corps hypothetically
allowing ICT volunteers to live in Nairobi (ignoring the safety issue).
We told him that if Peace Corps truly wanted to place volunteers in IT
positions, then they would have to place them in Nairobi. In Kenya's
current state, you simply cannot have software developers, system
administrators, etc in a town even as large as Bungoma. Of course, we
said, living in Nairobi would be a VERY different experience. There is
no question that you would never be able to gain a community in the same
way as you would in a small village. You would learn a lot about the
culture of Nairobi, but that's a very different story than the culture
of the rest of Kenya. In all likelihood, you would also be able to get a
lot more "work" done than any of the current volunteers.

The question is, would that be a "Peace Corps" experience. It certainly
isn't what most of us think of when we think of the Peace Corps….but
does that mean that it can't or shouldn't be one possible experience.
Already the experience of many volunteers today is drastically different
than that of volunteers even just 5 years ago. 99.9% of volunteers have
cell phones. Many use email frequently, if not on a daily basis. More
than half have electricity and running water. More and more volunteers
enter service with very specific skill sets and are capable of doing
highly technical (in the non-technical sense of the word) jobs. In our
group alone we have experienced CPA's, people with MBA's, software
developers, etc.

The three stated goals of the Peace Corps mission are:
1. To help the people of interested countries in meeting their needs for
trained men and women;
2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of
the peoples served;
3. To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part
of all Americans.

Is it possible to attain all three goals and still continue to attract
and use people with high skill levels in an ever increasingly
technologically advanced world? We have no answers, just questions.


Tuesday, January 30th, 2007

They've finally arrived…photos from our first 4 months in Kenya. Many
thanks to the best sister in the world, Courtney, for putting them all
up for us. Hopefully from now on we'll be a bit more regular posting

Computers and Crochet (mark)

Monday, January 29th, 2007

This last week has been “sicky” week for us. I came down with some sort of head cold and Bebeth, in an effort to keep me company, unselfishly ate something and got a nice bout of food poisoning. So this last week we’ve been in various areas of the apartment lying down, running to the bathroom, and trying to keep hydrated. Exciting huh?


Fortunately, when we get sick, we plan ahead and timed it so that we could still go down to Sam and Miranda’s and visit the deaf school for crochet and computers. Today Bebeth sat in at the secondary school with Miranda and helped with the crocheting class. Unfortunately there weren’t enough crochet hooks to go around, and some of the ones they had were bad and kept breaking, so they had to cut the class short.


I helped Sam teach two classes in basic computer skills at the primary school. For semi-political reasons we started with the teachers, so we had two classes of six teachers (some hearing and some deaf) in front of 3 computers. We started with identifying basic parts of the computer, how to use the mouse, how to open, resize, and close windows. Since the class was mixed, I talked, while Sam interpreted for the deaf teachers. It worked out quite well and all the teachers were very excited to learn.




Fast and easy … (mark)

Monday, January 29th, 2007

So Bebeth’s mom asked us about what sort of things are we eating on a daily basis here, so I thought I’d share what we can get, and a recipe that we’ve adapted from the Peace Corps issued recipe book. So in the market we can get a ton of fresh vegetables and fruit. Here’s a list of what is easily achieved from the local market:


Vegetables: Tomatoes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, garlic, green peppers, avocados, cabbage, kale, cilantro, egg plant, mushrooms, cassava root

Fruit: Bananas, Mangos, Oranges, Limes, Passion Fruit, Tiny Plums, Pineapple, Papayas, Apples


From the supermarkets we can get all of the basic things. In the bigger cities we can get a good variety of Asian ingredients. Something we haven’t tried to do a lot of is Indian food even though there are a ton of ingredients here.


So with all that we tend to eat a ton of garlic pasta dishes and stir fry’s. Sometimes we eat ugali and cabbage sometimes substituting rice for ugali. On special occasions we break open one of the fajita mixes our family sent and make burritos with home made tortillas.


Anyway we eat the following dish quite a lot, feel to try it home:


(All of the items below are per person)

2 cloves of garlic

½ an large onion

1 – 2 tomatoes


2 TB olive oil (I’m guessing here since we don’t have measuring spoons)

¼ – ½ cup of water


Spices to taste: Salt (lots), basil, rosemary, oregano, hot chilies (if you like spice)


Dice Onions and Tomatoes. Crush garlic. In deep frying pan (deep enough to hold the pasta you are cooking) heat oil and add garlic, onions, and tomatoes. Add above spices to taste. I like to add a good amount of salt. Cook till onions half way cooked. Add around a ¼ cup of water cover and simmer. Next boil water and cook pasta. When pasta is about halfway cooked strain it and add it to the sauce. Add just enough water to cook/steam the pasta. Cover and let cook till pasta is ready. Serve. Voila!


So now that we’ve shared a recipe with you we’d love if you were to share your “fast and easy” dishes with us. (Anything with an oven is out since all we have is two burners). Looking forward to your recipes.


Mark and Bebeth

Deaf culture (Mark)

Thursday, January 25th, 2007

In the states we had zero exposure to Deaf culture, something that I never
even thought twice about. Having our friends Sam and Miranda working at a
deaf school, in the deaf HIV/AIDS program, has really opened our eyes. I'm
sure there are just as heart wrenching stories in the US about deaf children
being neglected or not taken care of but in Kenya and probably all over East
Africa it is more the norm than the unusual. Children that are deaf are
often considered mentally retarded. When the family eats or has guests over
they are often made to eat in a different room, and in a culture that is so
communal and family oriented the isolation has got to be doubly worse. For
most deaf children nobody in their family knows any sign language so coming
to a deaf school is their first time to be able to communicate with people.
Sam told me of one student saying that coming to the deaf school was like
going to heaven. Sam posted a very interesting entry on his blog (Is
Negative a Positive thing?) about teaching HIV/AIDS to the deaf. I'd highly
recommend that if you have time to read it (he also posts some great


Last Saturday we were visiting their home and they took us around the deaf
school. We first visited the primary school (think k-8) where we were almost
instantly mobbed by at least 50 small children all of them deaf. They were
enamored with hair and wanted to touch and feel any hair that might be
different than theirs. So they loved to touch Bebeth's arm hair and my head
(I haven't shaved my head in about a month so it's fairly fuzzy). It was
here that I received my sign name.

So in deaf culture you have a sign name and a regular name. My sign name is
the letter M held on your left arm right where a short sleeve shirt would
end (I was wearing a short sleeve shirt when I was given a name). Bebeth's
is the letter B signed twice in a row.

After that we went and had lunch with the girl's secondary vocational
school, where they made yummy ugali, sukumawiki, and some sort of scrambled
egg dish. All very yummy. We then talked with them about what sort of
benefits there were in teaching them about computers. Would it really help
them find jobs if they had computer skills, perhaps in Nairobi, but would
computer skills be useless in the village? Some parents don't want their
children to learn computers as it won't directly benefit the income to their
family like dress making etc. Anyone back home have ideas?

Well we enjoyed ourselves a lot and we are planning on heading back to down,
Bebeth wants to help teach some jewelry making classes and we both want to
help teach computers and just play with the kids.

A Different Picture (Bebeth)

Saturday, January 20th, 2007

At this point you have heard a number of stories about how meetings could go badly, so we thought we’d tell you about a good meeting we had…actually three of them! Last week we had meetings with the Farmer Field Schools (FFS) in their Kakamega Network. You may remember our earlier post about them, but they have 5,000 farmers in the Kakamega network all organized into groups of about 30 farmers. On Wednesday through Friday we had meetings in each of the 3 districts in Kakamega. At each meeting were the 3 DrumNet representatives (myself, Mark and Njagi), a Bidco representative (Kevin), a ministry of Agriculture representative, FFS Peace Corps volunteer (Joseph, a Network head (Habakkok), the specific district head, and as many heads of farmer groups as they could organize. We had about 40 farmers at each meeting. Already this should sound remarkably different than our meetings in Naitiri.

So…here’s what each day looked like:

First we got on a matatu to head to the head office in Kakamega, about an hour away. There we met up with the Bidco representative and the FFS representatives. At this point all 6 of us would pile into a taxi to head into the bush. The ride took about 1 hour. We arrived at a meeting hall (usually a church) where many farmers would be waiting for us. (See the attached pictures) After corralling them all into the church the meeting would begin. First we all stood for a prayer. Next the head of the district spoke briefly. Since we were there, he had to say everything twice (once in Swahili and once in English). Then he asked each of the farmers to introduce themselves and say their title. After doing this he asked each farmer from a certain group to stand and introduce themselves, then again with another group, and so on until each farmer had introduced themselves up to 4 times!! Next the head of the district spoke, and finally we were asked to introduce ourselves and speak a little. Now, while Mark and I are learning Swahili and progressing well, our vocabulary still revolves around words we need in our daily activities around town. This does not include describing a software system that link farmers with buyers. So we just said our names, told them we were with DrumNet, Peace Corps volunteers, and were very happy to be there. Fortunately seeing an mzungu speak any Swahili at all is exciting and they were appreciative of our efforts.

Next Njagi began his presentation on the system. ALL of this was in Swahili, so we weren’t able to understand all of it. We knew enough to understand which part of the system he was talking about, but after an hour it starts to get a little boring. When the time comes for him to talk about the buyer, the price, etc he hands the presentation over to the Bidco representative. Njagi (DrumNet) is fairly calm and methodical. Kevin (Bidco) couldn’t be more different. His style was exactly like a Kenyan preacher; in fact I was surprised to find out after that he wasn’t. He practically yelled everything, and every other sentence required some kind of group response from the audience. I had a lot of trouble following what he was saying, but I knew enough that most of the time he wasn’t exactly talking about DrumNet. He eventually said everything that he needed to, but in a round about way. He probably had about 10 minutes of information to convey, but he took an hour to do it!

Finally when the presentations were done a few announcements were made and then it was time for closing comments. This involves each person excluding the farmers) saying something, including us. It doesn’t really matter what you say, just as long as you say something. It can even be the exact same thing as the person before you. And then, finally (3 hours later) the meeting was over…or so we thought. Next we had to sit for a small feast that had been prepared. I can’t tell you how grateful we were for this since at this point it was 3 pm and none of us had eaten since breakfast. So we scarfed down the food, said our goodbyes, and all piled back into the taxi (who had been waiting all this time) and headed back into kakamega. There we caught a matatu back to Bungoma. We finally arrived back home only 9 hours after we left!

Fortunately there was a lot of excitement with all of the farmers at the meetings about the project. When I go back down on Wednesday to meet with the district heads I will find out just how many farmer groups want to work with us!

Note: If you can’t see the pictures, go to:

u: markandbebeth
p: peacecorps

Introduction to Friends

Thursday, January 18th, 2007

Just in case people at home were worried that we might not be able to find friends like us, we thought we’d send you some proof that we’ve been able to find “others” just like us….meet Sam and Miranda.

They’re in the BCC (Behavior Change Communicator) program with Peace Corps 20 minutes from us. This means that when Sam isn’t talking techy with mark and Miranda isn’t knitting, they are working with/for the deaf community to discuss AIDS awareness issues. Additionally they’re crazy enough to do this twice….they previously served with PC in Malawi.

Another meeting….or not (Bebeth)

Sunday, January 14th, 2007

And people wonder why it takes so long for things to get done here…..

This morning we got up at 7 in order to be "on the road" at 8 to go to
Naitiri to meet with a group of farmers. Of course "on the road" only
means in a matatu. It's anyone's guess when the matatu will start
moving. The journey is only about 90 km. However, we take one matatu for
the first 30 km, another for the next 30 km, and finally what's fondly
known as a "dog catcher" for the last 30 km. A dog catcher is a covered
pickup truck with benches on either side for you to sit on. The can
"comfortably" seat about 10 people. Usually there are over 15 people. In
the US 90 km (about 54 miles) would take less than an hour. On public
transportation here, with all the transfers, it takes almost 3 hours!!

So at 10:45 am we finally arrive in Naitiri town. The meeting was
supposed to start at 10:00 am but when we arrived there was no one at
Wekesa's store (the head farmer we were supposed to meet, and the only
person who knew exactly where the meeting was supposed to be held.) So
we decided to wait, and wait, and wait. Fortunately we ran into a very
interesting man who talked to us for the 2 hours we had to wait. He has
2 siblings who live in America and had all sort of questions about
American politics, corruption, etc. Ironically enough he will be leaving
in March to study at Washington State University.

Eventually Wekesa showed up and a few minutes later the BIDCO rep showed
up. Wekesa said that a few farmers had shown up, but when no one was
there, they left. ARGH…we were there…but he wasn't. So we stood
around and talked a little about what to do now. We explained that, in
order to work with DrumNet, his farmers need to meet with us. He said
that if we rescheduled for Monday with just the leaders then they could
organize everyone else to meet on Tuesday. I had no idea why we would be
any more successful on Monday, but Njagi (our DrumNet co-worker) agreed
and so we dispersed. After a quick stop in a local hoteli (local
restaurant) since we were all about to pass out from hunger, we went to
wait for another dog catcher. There was one waiting, but it was already
long since full (and then some.) The driver tried to get us to get in,
but we said we wanted to wait to get a less full one. This prompted him
to try and kick out a Kenyan to give us room. I told him that I now was
DEFINITELY not getting in and we walked away. Soon we realized that the
truck had not left and was now backing up to pick us up. The driver got
back out and said there was plenty of room. Again, I told him that we
didn't want to get in. He said they were leaving immediately….just get
in. Finally, completely exasperated I shouted at him (in Kiswahili) "No,
you're not leaving…you're sitting waiting for us. We are not coming.
So go!" As usual, a mzungu shouting in Kiswhali usually shocks them
enough to do whatever I say….so off they drove.

After 20 min one eventually came and mark and I scored seats in the cab
instead of the back. Then, after waiting another 15 minutes for the
truck to fill up, we finally took off. It had started to rain, only
lightly, but the roads were already a muddy mess. Down the center of the
roads were 2 parallel ruts about 1 foot deep. The mud made the road
extremely slippery. After much confusion we finally understood that the
driver was driving with one wheel IN the rut because scraping bottom of
the truck was preferable to sliding off the road into the side ditch.
Now, all of this may sound dangerous, but in fact it really wasn't. We
were going so slowly that had we actually slid off the side, we wouldn't
have been hurt, just thoroughly stuck. More than anything I didn't want
to get stuck and have to start all over with waiting for a new ride.
But, after turning around a number of times, trying multiple roads, lots
of mud, and 1.5 hours, we made it back to the tarmac (pavement).

At this point it was POURING!! We hopped out and ran to the waiting
matatu…only to find out that it was missing 2 windows (on opposite
sides) and none of the doors closed properly so there was water
streaming in everywhere. None the less, we hopped in, zipped up our rain
coats, pulled on our hoods and hoped the 40 minute drive would go
quickly. At this point I got a terrible case of the giggles (and some of
you know just how unstoppable I can be.) Once again I had everyone
looking at me…the crazy mzungu laughing uncontrollably inside a
raining matatu. Unfortunately we were not able to take a picture, but if
you could have seen it, you too would have been laughing. At the
junction we hopped out, waited 5 minutes in the rain and hopped in
another matatu. Home free….at least we thought. 3 km outside of town
this matatu decided he didn't want to go any further and kicked us all
out. Apparently this guy had a conscience though, and gave all of us 10
ksh to pay a tuktuk to take us the last little bit. 3 hours after
leaving Naitiri we finally arrived at home.

So, all in all we spent 6 hours traveling, 2 hours waiting, and only 1
hour in a "meeting", but not the one we went for.

Work (Mark)

Sunday, January 14th, 2007

So we just got back from Nairobi from four days of work in the office. Our
goal was to get a better idea of what we are doing and how to go about
achieving it. We spent the majority of the time flowcharting how each
"actor" will operate within the system.

The software development company that is developing this system needed to
get some answers about how certain processes worked in the system, so they
sat in for the first morning session. It turned into a grueling and
fruitless discussion that thankfully ended at lunch time. The software
developers were looking for specific details but the executive director
could only explain things in the big picture. Realizing that we were
probably confusing the developers we sent them home and spent the rest of
the afternoon trying to answer the questions they left us. Unfortunately we
never were able to get away from the big picture and down to details, so we
were no closer to answer the developer's (or our) questions on how the
system would work.

The next morning we decided that we would try and update the old manual.
This would in turn help clarify questions and provide details that the
software developers could use. We ended up spending the whole morning and
didn't get past the first page of the manual.

It was fairly evident that we didn't have a good enough idea of the how
things flowed. We decided that what we needed to do was to flow chart all of
the actors interaction with the system, so that's what we ended up doing for
the next two days. It ended up being the best thing we've done so far. It
got us all onto one page as far as how things would work, and it quickly
pointed out where we still had details to work out.

Although there are plans to extend the system in the future, currently we
are only working with one product (sunflower seeds) and one buyer (Bidco, ), and hopefully one microfinance (Opportunity
International). We and our alliance partners (Bidco and OI) recruit farmers
that are in self-help groups that are registered with the government. These
groups are evaluated by the microfinance for risk and, if approved, are
allowed to join the DrumNet system. When they join they sign a contract with
the buyer to provide a certain amount of sunflower seeds to Bidco in
exchange for a guaranteed price. They will receive a line of credit through
the microfinance which will allow them to purchase inputs (seeds and
fertilizer) through the certified stockist. The group will have elected a TA
(transaction agent) who will report to the DrumNet system on information
regarding the crop (planting date/amount, harvest date, etc). This will
allow the buyer to be better prepared for the upcoming harvest. The buyer
will know about all of their farmer groups and will alert each group to
bring their seeds to a central location for pickup. After pickup, the Buyer
will pay DrumNet (for the transaction fee) and the microfinance for the
value of the seeds. The microfinance then takes out the principle and
interest for the line of credit and passes the rest on to the farmer. This
eliminates many middlemen that are currently in the system as the buyer is
directly connected to the farmer and it also guarantees the farmer a good
price (sometimes more than double what they get now). So.this is all more
technical than some of you care about, and not enough information for
others. If you'd like more details, we'd be happy to provide them, just let
us know..we don't want to bore everyone! Also, we've attached a link to the
flow charts we created for those business-minded people.