Thursday, 9 January 2014


It's hard to believe we've been in Kapsowar, Kenya for 10 days now, but we are starting to get settled.

There are so many things to write about, like "what do we do all day?" and "what is God teaching us here?" but the internet is slow and we've been busy so I thought I would at least fire off a post about a few aspects of life on station at Kapsowar Hospital, and what's the same and what's different, both from home and from our expectations when we arrived.

Here are a few first impressions (and generalizations) we've noticed so far.

The time difference: 
a) Time zones: We are 9 hours ahead of Saskatchewan time, so yes, we can predict your future. It does make calling/contacting home a little more challenging since when we have time, you are probably at work or sleeping.
b) Africa time: Nothing happens at the scheduled time and everything takes longer. On the plus side, people take more time to speak to you or help you out. On the other hand, church is 3 hours long and things that are broken may get fixed... tomorrow.  Additionally, if you are at someone's house, you are on their clock. It is EXTREMELY rude to leave before they release you. Yup, like literally, "I release you."

If you truly love something, let it go...

Internet/phone service: 
Time to catch up, North America! We unlocked our phones so we could use them in Kenya and for about $35, we have a new SIM card, data and calling. Granted, the internet is extremely frustratingly slow, but we are also in the middle of nowhere in the Great Rift Valley, so I'll take it. It is also amazing how much closer to everyone at home I feel, knowing I can check Facebook or call my sister.

Everyone has a cell phone here. They are cheap methods of communication, commerce, and entertainment. You don't think you have enormous prejudices resting inside of your skull until they are jarred when the 6 foot Masai gentleman you've been observing (gawking at) pulls out a Samsung and snaps a photo of Emily. That's cool. She didn't need that piece of her soul anyway...

I know I'm white. Like really white. However, now I am reminded of it several times a day. Kids run after me yelling "Mzungu!!" (white person/foreigner) and if I happen to be walking with another white person (apart from Emily), then it's "Wazungu! Wazungu!" (plural!). Since we are in a fairly rural area, white people are oddities, resulting in Emily being touched/kissed by adults and pinched by kids, who want to feel the weird white skin and ask us why we're here... Wait. How do you know I'm not from here? Just kidding. I've felt fairly conspicuous in other parts of the world, but walking through the market or down the road here can be overwhelming.

Even though Kenyan culture is changing, most women in rural areas wear shirts that cover their shoulders, and longer loose skirts (cover those sexy shoulders and thighs!) and men dress quite formally in dress pants and button-up shirts. Patterns and colours are all the rage and the matching dress and blouse suit in print is a popular outfit. Fabric and tailoring is extremely affordable here (cheap cheap cheap), so I'm going to get something made soon... Tomorrow maybe :-)... I miss pants (that's trousers, British friends).

Because the weather here ranges from 12`C at night to 28`C during the day, Kenyans are freezing all the time and top their outfits with parkas, mitts and toques (woollen hats). There are some exceptions. The Pokot men wear a sort of a traditional mini-skirt.

Emily and I wearing skirts of the non-mini variety.

It's English... with some Britishisms and some Kenyanisms. For example, "flashing" someone means calling and letting it ring once before hanging up. This is important to note if someone asks you to flash them. There's a lot of Swahili thrown in and there are also many local "heart languages" spoken, so nice try with the beginner Swahili, Mzungu! Side note: The kids yell all the English they know at us in horribly nasal voices in imitation of our horrible American accents. 

Sometimes people arrive at the hospital and no one on staff speaks their language, resulting in delays and confusion... although not as much as you'd think because, as Nathan put it, usually you can SEE what's wrong (hey, your arm seems broken/there's a machete in your head/you were in an accident), the medical history's pretty short (been on any meds in your entire life? Nope), and since the Marakwet don't keep track of birthdays, age is an estimate if they were never told the year they were born.  Works for me. Here, I'm still 29ish!

I've got some basic greetings down in Swahili and hope to learn a lot more. Speaking of greetings...

In rural Kenya, you greet and shake hands with everyone you pass. Men make brief eye contact with women when greeting them, however prolonged staring while not being introduced is acceptable for everyone. Women are known by their first child, so I've gotten used to being introduced as "Mama Emily".  There is no touching of the opposite sex in public (apart from hand shaking) in Kenya, but it's not uncommon to see men walking along holding hands (as friends... homosexuality is illegal here).

In church (which lasts 2 to 3 hours) if you are a visitor or a white person (or both), you will be expected to stand up at the front and introduce yourself; in addition to your name and where you are from, you need to mention that you love Jesus and that you are saved, to resounding applause (I assume if you don't and if you aren't, then you're probably not going to put yourself through those 3 hours... or you might be by the end of 3 hours? Who knows...).

Public transportation (they drive on the left... sometimes) consists of walking, matatus (the little vans crammed with people), and pikipikis (motorbike taxis). These last two methods result in a lot of the cases in the hospital, as accidents are frequent.

A variety of Marakwet houses, Kapsowar

In the Great Rift Valley, housing ranges from traditional homes with sod walls and thatched dome roofs to concrete modern houses with tin roofs. The hospital compound has a variety of houses as well. We are on one side of a brand new (two year old) beautiful duplex donated/built by two American contractors. It is extremely cushy, has two bedrooms, a lovely living area, and a full kitchen, including a microwave (which works if you turn off all the lights in the house). Speaking of electricity...

Adaptors, converters and voila! At home, electricity is pretty much a constant (most of the time). Here, not so much. There are planned power outages each week, but unscheduled outages are common and when the power is out for 200 km in the mountains, it is DARK. Really really dark. Hooray for a gas stove and candles.

Maji ya kunywa (drinking water) and beverages:
The hospital has water plumbed in, but it is not safe for us crazy wazungu. We leave our bottles of water out in full sun for 8 hours, then we run the water through a charcoal filter. It doesn't taste too bad compared to other filtered water I have encountered and it is great to not have to haul in bottled water. Some people in the area drink river water, which is not safe and results in cases of leeches in throats (like Nathan saw on his first evening here) and other health problems.

We get about 2 litres of raw milk delivered twice a week in semi-clean vegetable oil containers from the cow down the lane (well, from the owner of the cow down the lane). I boil it and then separate the milk from the cream.

We also have a crate of 24 glass bottles in our house and for 500 shillings (about $6 Canadian), one of the maintenance men takes it into town and it comes back full of Fanta, Sprite and Coca-Cola. So far, Blackberry Fanta is a favourite.

Mmmmmm Fanta.

Food & Cooking:
Apart from dried lentils, cornmeal, eggs, fresh fruit and veggies, lamb, and Blue Band (a butter substitute that makes margarine look organic), which are available for purchase in Kapsowar, most other groceries are only available in Eldoret, the large centre 2.5 hours down the road. Veggies have to be fully cooked to eat safely and fruit has to be peeled. Between the acquiring of food (at the market, little stores, or so-and-so's house in the case of eggs and meat), the boiling/filtering/prepping and the making everything from scratch, this takes up a lot more of my day than it does in Canada (no, there's no Costco. I asked).

Many of you do a lot from scratch at home, but this is a big adjustment for me. To add to my already shaky baking/cooking skills, the oven doesn't actually show a temperature, it just has a high/low knob to guesstimate and because we are 7,400 ft (2,250m) above sea level, recipes don't turn out exactly like they do at home (more flour, less sugar for reasonable success).  At least here when supper doesn't turn out, I can blame the elevation...

Garbage day:
Just kidding. So... where DOES the garbage go? Oh, to the lovely garbage pit behind each house (How far can you throw a diaper?). These are periodically (and acridly) burned and eventually buried. Sorry ozone layer.

On a unrelated note, this dog seems to like to hang out by the back door for some reason...

Laundry & "The Help":
All the washing here is done by hand and hung to dry, but there are several housekeepers the station employs to "house help". I felt a bit weird (really uncomfortable) about this, but, like in most parts of the world, if you can afford to employ someone and DON'T, you are considered both strange and unkind. Our amazing house helper, Edna, comes by for a few hours on Tuesdays and Fridays. She does most of the laundry (except delicates... apparently Western lady undies are a tad shocking to Kenyans) and then yells at me for having washed the dishes and the floor. Edna is teaching me Swahili and keeps trying to get me out of the house so she can hang out with Emily (no objection from Emily or me). She taught me to make tortillas and English muffins on the stove top and soon we will conquer chapatis. Edna and the other housekeepers shop, cook and clean several times a week for the international doctors who live alone.

E & E!

Wrap it up, already!
Kapsowar is a dichotomy. It's an oasis of beauty situated on hills overlooking stunning valleys, it is fairly peaceful (armed guards are part of life in most of the world) and safe, and settling in here has been a lot easier than I had mentally prepared myself for. Because of the altitude, there is no malaria, no yellow fever, and very few dangerous insects and animals (although a two hours walk into the valley is a completely different story). As one of my friends, Aaron, pointed out when I had posted a picture of the scenery, "That doesn't look like the Africa I see in the World Vision commercials!"

However, all this loveliness is juxtaposed against a consistent level of poverty and subsistence living. Kapsowar is the closest hospital for many people travelling four or more hours by car and most people can't afford medical care or even to send their kids to high school, never mind post-secondary education. The staff and patients rely on God in a daily practical way as HE heals because the hospital itself is subject to equipment shortage and failure, lack of staff, and tough decisions on how to distribute (or withhold) medication and supplies. The wazungu doctors are bridging a gap that can't be filled locally. They are here to relieve suffering, to help train, equip, and encourage local medical staff, and to be the hands and feet of Jesus in a place where faith is coupled with action.

Hopefully this gives you a glimpse into our first week here, through our biased imperfect lens! Thank you for your continued prayers. A whole lot more about what we are learning in our time here is coming soon. Kwaheri!


  1. Abbie! Thank you for this awesome post!

    Though Kenya and Ghana are on opposite parts of the continent, it's incredible how many of the bigger things are similar! The word for "white person" here is "Obruni" and, like you, I am constantly reminded of the colour of my skin every day by children and adults alike! Matatus are called Trotros in Ghana, and yes, Blue Band everywhere. We've managed to find legit butter and only use that now. I was weirded out by Blue Band when it DIDN'T MELT in the frying pan?!?!

    Would love to chat with you more about your experiences so far!

    1. Hey Jo! Yes, the similarities are crazy even from so far away! Blue band: store in a dry place. What? Like not under water?? Shudder. We will figure out a way to connect. I want to hear all about Ghana and can't wait to hear more on your blog.

  2. Hey Abbie - Awesome post - look forward to reading more

    Nigeria is pretty much the same - I used t go there for my holidays when my dad worked there (27 yeras he was there in a small viallge called Offa) - foreigners are called "Oga" that included us - not so white people but more like brown :) . Just so you know - you can churn butter with the cream that you get from boiling the milk - that is how I made butter back home - collect the cream in a container - add 1 tbsp of yoghurt in the beginning and then keep adding the cream every time you boil the milk and get cream - when you have enough cream - put it all in a pot and churn it with an egg beater (not a whisk - but the one where it looks like a hand blender) and voila you will have butter and really delicious and healthy buttermilk (read low fat) :) - Chappatis are easy to make - as you know being Indian I make them very often - make the dough with wheat flour - a little firmer than pizza dough - using water and salt to taste - make round balls - roll them out as thin as possible and cook on pan over stove top - :) hope this helps - Enjoy your stay - and keep posting

    1. Leena, thanks so much for all your advice and information! So interesting and Nathan is now interested in churning his own butter (I was ready to cheat and get someone to pick me some up in Eldoret)...I may be contacting you for recipes!! Thanks again.

  3. Hey Abbie - absolutely feel free to ask for recipes etc any time - I would love to share them with you - by the way the butter milk you get when you churn the butter - that is what "lassi" is made from - add sugar to make sweet lassi - add salt, fresh grated ginger and if adventerous some finley chopped green chillies for savoury lassi :) - once you have this butter on bread or by itself you will love it :)


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