Monday, May 23, 2011

Looking for the lost apostrophe

Barack Obama will be visiting Poland this Friday, at the tail-end of a whistle-stop tour that also takes him to Ireland, Britain and France.Just this past weekend, i was in the capital Warsaw, but it was impossible to detect or sense anything that felt like the imminent visit of the President of the United States.
Why that probably struck me as odd, is that one month before VP Joe Biden visited Nairobi in 2010, security agencies and city authorities were already turning the city inside-out.
Something else that struck me today was an article about the village of Moneygall in Ireland, where Obama's great-great-great-grandfather on his mother's side was a shoemaker. In a speech, Obama told the crowds that he had come to find the apostrophe that he lost somewhere along the way.'O'bama' tshirts and other merchandise have been selling like hot cake in Ireland.Kenyans from Western Kenya might want to create  controversy out of that, since 'Obama' and other names that begin with the letter 'O' usually have their origin in that part of the country.The attempt at 'Irishizing' Obama to 'O'bama' to fit the pattern of other Irish names like O'Toole, O'Reilly and O'Kelly would not go down well with the village elders in K'Ogelo village, where Obama Snr. was born. During his inauguration ceremony, an invitation was sent out from Washington to the Kenyan Boys choir, to provide entertainment.In the following clip, you will see just how at home they were performing a song in Luhya language, (one of the tribes in Western Kenya),praising Obama.

You see, my surname is 'Ottaro', so like Obama i also might want to find the 'lost apostrophe' and rediscover my Irish roots in some village that has two pubs but no bank, no ATM and no petrol station.And wear an O'ttaro tshirt while irrigating my throat with a pint of Guiness.Like O'bama says, it 'tastes better in Ireland!'

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Hakuna Matata na Fairtrade!

On my previous visits to Europe, in 2006, 2007 and more recently 2010, i started and ended my trips in Frankfurt am Main. The endings, usually 2 to 3 days before my return flights to Nairobi, were at the house of a friend, Stefan, who runs a Fairtrade shop on Bergerstrasse in the Bornheim region of Frankfurt city.So naturally i found myself spending an hour or so at the shop on each occassion, and was quite delighted to discover soap stone carvings from Tabaka, near Kisii town in Western Kenya. I had been on a field study class project on environmental management plans for the soap stone mining region before, and knew exactly what it took to get the final product ready.

Ursula and Stefan infront of the Fairtrade shop in Bornheim
Well, this year i found myself making a presentation on Fairtrade, at the parking lot of the Forest School Barbarka where i live and work, on World Fairtrade Day, celebrated across the world every 14th of May. This year's theme was 'Trade for all-Fairtrade your world'.I prepared a basic presentation in English; basic means i put in more pictures than words and avoided creating an 'academic sounding presentation' in favour of a more general, easy flowing and colourful presentation.

Winding up the presentation
For the simple reason that i am still learning to communicate in Polish, and was relying on a translator to explain things.I have learnt that this modus operandi takes twice as much time, than if i were to do the presentation in one language.
The weather was abit 'iffy' with clouds hovering over the skies for most of the afternoon, and that probably put a dent in the attendance.The concept of Fairtrade in Poland is also not as strong as in other countries such as Germany, for example, and you will be lucky to find a Fairtrade shop or products in most cities.Nevertheless, we got quorum a little after 15.15hrs and i went through the slides, explaining what Fairtrade is and its contribution, socially, economically and environmentally to producers and their communities, as well as showcasing products from Kenya, from vegetables to flowers to soap stone to tea.The translation bit was a welcome relief as it allowed me to catch my breath and reorganize my thoughts.My colleague, Michał has proven himself, time and again since my very first day here, to be an excellent translator.More helpfully, he had the sense to come to my room and for a brief discussion over a cup of Tanzanian Fairtrade coffee, on the content of the presentation before we started.

The Fairtrade coffee and tea table

Now a few days earlier, the Director of the Forest School, Monika, had suggested that i cook something Kenyan for the audience to sample as part of the day's event. Those of you who have known me longer, can attest to the fact that calling me a lousy cook would be an  insult to members of the 'lousy cooking fraternity'.It was no mean feat trying to wriggle myself out of the idea. Eventually i succeeded in convincing (perhaps even confusing!) all concerned that the real typical Kenyan dish was ugali, and getting the ingredients for that would mean flying me to Nairobi and back.And of course being an ecological organization, we are mindful of our carbon foot print and the idea was eventually tossed out the window. However, the director is a shrewd operator. If i couldn't cook, then i had to sing. Fair enough, i thought to myself. But the offer became more tantalizing, when on Friday morning, Lukasz, a colleague who works on the line park or 'parki linowy' as we say in Polish, very calmly broke the news that he plays African drums, and has singers who sing African music.
Lukasz, (in the long-sleeved 'African' shirt) and his team

He offered to back me up with the drums and the background singers. It was an offer i couldn't refuse!
After the presentation, Lukasz and his team performed two songs from Mali and Senegal. Soon it was time to sing 'Hakuna matata', a song in Kiswahili which means 'No problem'.
On stage with Lukasz's team
The backup was simply superb and the result was evident from the thunderous applause of those in attendance.And in the spirit of East African-Polish co-operation, there was free Fairtrade Tanzanian coffee for all.Hakuna matata na Fairtrade!!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Bardzo piękna pogoda!

I was done with posting for today, but for some reason decided to return.With a seemingly strange title, that translates into English as 'very beautiful weather'. My uneducated guess reliably informs me that you had already figured that out the moment you saw it-thanks to the wonders of Google translator. Even more beautiful is that i wrote it without external support or reference; fruit of days and weeks of painstakingly trying to learn the Polish language. Now that's a story for another day.
From the corner of the world that i come from (to use an expression Charles Onyango-Obbo created recently), it is either raining or it isn't. End of story. Well, if you live at the coast or in North Horr, you are already used to 30+C temperatures.If you are in Nairobi, Central and Rift Valley highlands, then you know it will be cold around June and July.Cold means between 13 and 18C. No one really bothers to check anyway. You just know its cold, and do the next sensible thing which is to grab a warm coat and drown in an endless supply of hot chai.
So folks on the side of the globe that i was born would sometimes find it perplexing that their colleagues living in regions that experience 'seasons' in the name of winter, spring, summer and autumn, seem to be pre-occupied with weather-based discussions. Indeed, 'prognoza pogody', or 'weather forecast' in the Polish language, forms a very important part of every news segment and commands great attention.
So what's the fuss all about? You see, after a dozen weeks in Poland, and having lived through the transition from winter to spring, i don't have to have a reason to talk about the weather. Its second nature.During the winter i had to learn and get accustomed to a ritual that involved putting on several layers of clothing,including gloves, before stepping out the front door.
The idea is to cover every part of skin that can be covered, as thickly as possible. Once inside another building, the ritual would also involve removing some layers of clothing, since buildings are fitted with heating systems. Day in day out.Days that end at 5pm when it gets dark.That is how to cope with sub-zero temperatures.I am glad i was triumphant...or rather survived.
...and now
Fast-forward to April and the story gets more interesting.Temperatures are more on the +ve side, at least in day time-and it seems that the general mood of people follows suit. Soon, the trees have leaves and there is more colour, a transformation from the winter grey.
...the colours

By May, it feels even better than Nairobi, and the mode of dressing changed long time ago. No more rituals, and the kilos of clothing are tremendously cut down.The days are longer too and it is still bright at 20.00hrs.There is a real transformation. Why would anyone not want to sing, leave alone talk about that?!
I leave you with a song from one of my favourite flamenco singer, Aurora Vargas, entitled, 'La Primavera' or wiosne...spring!

Wherever in the world you are reading this from...including my best friend Emmanuel Ndayisaba in Adelaide...i wish you piękna pogoda!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Help Save Mount Kenya With a Web Link

Recently a colleague at work asked me whether i had climbed Mount Kenya. It was rather embarrasing to listen to myself explaining that i hadn't. Now that's a terrible indictment for an Environmental Planning and Management expert that i claim to be.
The second highest peak in Africa at 5199 metres, Mt.Kenya is also a UNESCO World Heritage site,playing host to a variation of flora and fauna with altitude change.According to information on the UNESCO website, Mt.Kenya's vegetation varies with altitude and rainfall, with a rich alpine and subalpine flora.The evolution and ecology of its afro-alpine flora also provide an outstanding example of ecological processes.

Due to global warming and climate change,12 remnant glaciers and four secondary peaks that sit at the head of the U-shaped glacial valleys, are all receding rapidly.
Several initiatives are however underway to counter deforestation which has disastrous consequences on Mt.Kenya's delicate ecosystem.One such initiative is called 'Tupande Pamoja',a Swahili phrase that means "Let's plant together".The initiative brings 'pamoja' the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the East Africa Wildlife Society, Kenya Forests Working Group, Nature Kenya & Kenya Forest Service (KFS). Africa Point, an online travel agency has pledged to donate one seedling for every 'Tweet' or Facebook 'Like' to be planted on the Mt.Kenya water tower.You can also be a partner by displaying the badge below:

save mt. Kenya campaign
In partnership with

Better still, you can come to Kenya and plan a mountain climbing activity or a visit to Mt.Kenya National park, just like i have resolved to do!!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Non abbiate paura...

May 1st 2011...The Beatification of Pope John Paul II. How wonderful it felt today, to be on the homeland of a Saint!And only months after having been abundantly blessed to visit the places of his birth, life and vocation.

Blessed John Paul II
Pope John Paul II was an excellent communicator.He spoke to the world.To a broken world.I never had an opportunity to see him. But he spoke to me.Many times."Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors to Christ."