Roof repair

The fundis (a fundi is someone who can fix or make things. It is a great Kiswahili word to me…) were up on the steel roof replacing some panels with holes in them, and painting the roof with aluminum paint. They made this great ladder specifically for this job. They explained to me that they have two types of eucalyptus that they cut down to make this ladder. One is for the long pieces, and it does not split easily. The cross pieces are a different type that is more prone to splitting, so they like to wrap the nails around those when they are small enough.


They cut down the trees and trimmed off the branches, and then cut and shaped them to make the ladder with just a panga. This is a big knife, but I am not as skilled as these guys are in using it. It is truly impressive.

This ladder, made on site with materials close at hand and simple tools, is one of the things I love about Africa. People are so resourceful and inventive. So many times, if they do not have something, they either know they can live well without it, or they make it themselves. (This does not work with drugs, however. Uncle Sam, Unicef, WHO, etc., keep sending those drugs here!)


The gardener witnessed me wielding my panga,  and paid me a lovely complement. He said, “Good, Dr. Ball, now you can be a panga-boy!” For those of you who know my record with knives, you can stop cringing now. So far, in several days of chopping down invasive vines around the compound’s perimeter, I have only cut one fingernail. And not even all the way through!

My panga. I promise to clean and oil it tomorrow.

Ice Cream in Kenya

Who knew you could make really good ice cream by just throwing the ingredients in the freezer? We don’t have cream, so technically it was ice milk, but it was really good, nevertheless. The ice cream container is back in the freezer, ready for another recipe this weekend. Since it will be thoroughly cold, perhaps it will make the ice cream while we stir it this time.

Joyce tells me there are people who make butter from their fresh cows milk. She asked if I wanted some butter, and of course I said yes, so I imagine she will find some and bring it next week. She finds all kinds of stuff for us: currently we are enjoying papaya, pineapple, watermelon, oranges, sweet small bananas, and avocado. Vegies new this week are green beans and carrots obtained in Migori.


Hot and Cold in Kenya

I guess it all depends on what you are used to. We Americans keep being surprised by our Kenyan co-workers and how they bundle up when the weather is on the cool end of the range. The range is pretty small, relative to say, Reno, where the weather can be 50 degrees different between night and day. It is almost always between 60 and 90 here. Here’s the thermometer on the morning of one day last week:

73 degrees Fahrenheit or 22 C. Pretty nicee weather, right? Also note elegant hanging system: duct tape on solid block wall.

On this day, Tamara and I showed up to work at 8 am in our usual short sleeves and long pants or long skirt. It had rained a little bit and was still dripping lightly, but nothing to get excited about. But our morning parade which is usually under the trees in the center of the compound, had been relocated to the porch in front of the lab. And our friends were dressed quite differently than we were!

Sorry the light is so bad–I was in a hurry and didn’t want people to pose.

I had observed before that what felt cold to people here did not feel cold to me, but this was the first time that I remembered the thermometer I found in Nairobi for the lab, and had my phone handy. Also, after almost 5 months here I feel comfortable laughing and joking with the wonderful staff about our differences. And laugh we did!

Joseph N, the IT specialist, adherence counselor, defaulter tracker and accountant!

Aren’t You Doing Any Medicine?

Someone asked me this, because I was only talking about my work gardening and pulling weeds on the grounds, learning Dholuo, and sightseeing or fighting with the bureaucracy in Nairobi.

Yes, I am doing a little medicine. I am currently studying malaria, trying to really understand the life cycle, why it is important, how the drugs work and their pharmacology, and the host factors or treatment refinements that may change how the disease responds to treatment. Every time I read the 2015 World Health Organization (WHO) Guidelines for the Treatment of Malaria, I learn something new or see something in more depth. Amazing how motivating it is to have daily reminders of the seriousness and incredible prevalence of this disease!

Then I try to create an engaging, interesting conversation with the staff, who have all seen much more malaria than I, and transmit the current global standards for diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of resistance. That’s the hard part–overcoming months or years of the habits of professionals–and helping them change the way they practice. I have to remind myself regularly that practice changes often take decades to implement fully, and they aren’t going to happen in a year just because some ex-pat describes the ideal a few times!

Figure 1

Timlich Ohinga (Scary Forest Place)

Our driver and friend, Daniel at the entrance to a compound.
No dug foundation, no mortar. Just stones laid atop one another. They still don’t know who the original builders were.
Tam, Daniel, and our guide under a cactus tree, at the bench built 500 years ago just for sitting. So nice those ancient ones!
This fellow was very interested in our picnic lunch. Look at the size of his tail!
One of the gates in a defensive wall. Purposely made low, with guard towers here on the inside, so as to easily attack anyone entering the compound.
Home again after a long day on the piki-piki. Ero kamano, Daniel!

Malaria gives me Best day ever in Matoso!


What a great day today. The day began with a great discussion of a case study I prepared –a conglomerate of many malaria patients I have seen since my arrival in Kenya. We had a lively discussion of the case, and everyone participated: nurses, lab, pharmacy, reception and even the Information Technologist. There were real differences in how people interpreted the facts of the case, and even differences of professional opinion. Everyone was respectful of each other, and everyone with patient contact contributed.  I think we aired some very good issues, talked about best practices and how to best implement the guidelines, even down to some discussion of where to best treat the patient, when to ask the lab to come to the patient rather than sending the patient to the lab, and how to prepare tablets that get crushed and administered to children. (During regular hours we can ask the pharmacy to prepare, and when we are on-call, after hours, the nurse can crush and mix with drinking water right in the holding room.)

Next, I saw some patients with one of the nurses, and one was a child with a positive blood smear for malaria. It turns out that she had been to another facility and had been given oral anti-malarials just two weeks ago. The family decided that she had actually been bewitched, and so she did not complete the medications. Instead, they took her to the herbalist who gave her remedies, but of course the child stayed sick. The mom even told us the child had vomited, in an apparent attempt to get an injection. Turns out the child was eating okay and last threw up three days ago. The mom said the child was “afraid” of the oral medicine, so we asked why. Turns out, the whole family had the impression that an injection was better for malaria than oral medication. Since I had just reviewed the treatment of malaria, I was able to describe the actions of the oral medicine, how quickly it entered the blood stream (peaking within 2 hours), and the benefits of using the combination pill rather than the single drug injection.

I was also confident that we were treating recurrent malaria due to inadequate treatment, rather than treatment failure which would require other drugs. Two weeks is too soon for someone to have a positive blood smear (visible parasites in the blood cells) if they have been adequately treated. After the three day treatment is complete there is a period of time, 4 or 5 days, in which one is somewhat protected from re-infection by a new mosquito bite. Then, there is a period of time, 7 to 9 days, after the bite, when the malaria parasites are hiding in the human liver and not causing any problems. During this time they are not visible in the blood smear.Figure 1


In the end, the mother agreed that the oral medication sounded good, and felt that she could explain it to the father in a way that would also convince him. They left happy even though we did not give her a shot, and I was fairly sure that this time the child would finish her medication and eradicate the parasites in the blood—at least temporarily!

This part of Africa is called “hyperendemic” for malaria, and we are even more prone to get it being in a lakeside area. This means that malaria is always present in the population, is present in high numbers, and is highly transmissible—lots of the mosquitoes are infected. The mosquitoes here prefer human blood, and they live a long time in the mild climate. This corner of Kenya, the lakeside west, near the border of Tanzania, must be the best kind of environment for the mosquitoes that carry the Plasmodium falciparum parasites. P. falciparum is responsible for the most serious and deadly form of malaria, and is the most common cause of malaria here.

Migori County, Kenya. Matoso is on the shore of Lake Victoria perhaps 10 or 20 km north of the Tanzanian border.

Back to the Ochuna Craft Cooperative

Tamara talks with Gideon while people work. In the distance you see the office/classrooms closest to us, and the long school building on the right.

I went back to Ochuna and the Craft Cooperative with friends and took some more pictures of the crafters, crafts and the organizers. We had a lovely time and the basket makers even let me try my hand at adding rows of sisal fiber. They do it by threading a needle with one fiber, then binding on the bundle of fibers to the round. Sewing is the same here at the end of the road!

Various pots. These are all fired but unglazed, and are made with the pinch method–the clay is formed into the desired shape by pinching, not by coiling or other methods.
Making pots with the pinch method.
New Luo pots ready to dry.



Porridge cups or bowls, made from gourds.

A nice selection, showing market basket, smaller baskets, and the really fine ones made purely of sisal threads. I like the natural colors, but apparently the pink and purple (see featured picture) hotter sellers here.
wood carvings
Some of the wood carvings. Compare the boats shown here, to the real thing, below.


What do we eat in Kenya? Part 2

Joyce makes us lunch Monday through Friday. Tamara is vegetarian when possible, and I told Joyce I prefer not to eat meat, but we both will eat fish. She makes us lentils, beans, rice, and sukuma wiki, the local kale. We sometimes get pasta with a tomato sauce, and even pizza. (You have not lived adventurously until you have had Joyce’s pizza with Nile Perch and vegetables on top.) Tamara scored some mozzarella cheese at the supermarket, which we keep frozen. That can be used for pizza and pasta. Parmesan cheese does not seem available anywhere in Kenya, but we have a tiny stash that Jack sent (thanks, Jack!) that greatly improves the pasta. Usually when she gets a perch, Joyce cuts it into chunks, fries it, and then makes a stew with vegetables. It is quite yummy.  She made potato salad one day, which was very good, and she also makes a nice potato soup. The vegetables we have plenty of are cabbage, kale, red onions which are incredibly sweet, firm plum tomatoes, green bell peppers and potatoes. Sometimes we have some green onions, but not as commonly. When I first got here we had carrots, but I have not seen any lately. For fruit we have green oranges that are orange inside, pineapple, and bananas. Papayas grow here but I never see them in the market. Watermelon grows for people with irrigation, but the season is short here and we haven’t had it for a while. Just got one in the supermarket in Migori, imported from heaven only knows where. Mangoes seem quite seasonal, and July and August are not the season! Joyce bakes cookies and cakes, but we have to store the cookies in the freezer to keep them from the ants. I think we have given up on cake for a while—we didn’t get to eat any of the last one she made because the ants found it first.  I don’t really enjoy ugali, the corn flour staple, so Joyce makes chapatti or really good corn bread.

For dinner we usually eat leftovers, unless one of us is inspired to make pasta, rice, eggs, potatoes or lentils, or some combination thereof. Joyce will make popcorn for us, and that is nice to snack on.

As you can see, we are quite spoiled and none of us is losing any weight–no danger of undernourishment for us. The poor people are always at risk–more on that tomorrow.


What do we eat in Kenya?


My darling step-father, who gave me his Tilley hat for my journey to Africa, asked for this topic. Stefan, this one is for you!

First I will tell you how we mzungus eat in the cookhouse with the luxury of Joyce’s experience, years of cooking for visitors from all over the world, and the specialized tools here: gas burners, a stove-top asbestos baking set-up, and the solar oven. (The freezer comes in handy, too, but the refrigerator has apparently outlived its rubber seal and no longer keeps things cold OR free of ants.)

We prepare our own breakfast for the most part. We have oatmeal, homemade granola (thanks to the solar oven), scrambled eggs with vegetables, or cold cereal. The Kenyan cold cereal is called Wheatabix and Tam likes it but I do not. It is soggy, which makes sense after I learned that it is used to make porridge—hot cereal. I found some corn flakes that taste breakfast pretty good and stay crispy long enough to make me happy. We have whole milk, so of course that tastes delicious. We have a good brand of Kenyan instant coffee and black tea. I occasionally stop somewhere for mendazi and chai. Mendazi are fried dough, and are often served with a weak, very milky and sweet tea called chai. I’m sure it is the unhealthiest breakfast ever, but I actually enjoy it a lot. We miss toast, but occasionally we buy the terrible white bread and “toast” it over the gas stove or fry it with margarine. I have also found some natural peanut butter and will eat peanut butter and banana, sometimes with bread. The rest of the peanut butter in the stores is full of sugar and tastes terrible to me. Macadamia nuts are grown here, so sometimes we put them in cereal. They are expensive, but available in the bigger towns.

This week we had french toast! We had it for lunch, but still, it is a good breakfast food to keep in mind. There is no maple syrup here, but honey works, and I like it plain, anyway.


Tomorrow, lunch!

Fishermen, RIP

I feel so bad that I posted the last post about fishermen being at high risk of infectious disease, and that I had not heard of them drowning. The very next day, a young man  drowned here in Matoso. He was out fishing with another man, and the waves were higher than usual. I guess the boat tipped, and they both went into the water. One survived, and one was not found. He was apparently quite young–not yet married–and from a family in this area.

I have been told that the family must stay in the village center, near the small fishing dock, for at least three days, or until the body is retrieved. So please forgive my insensitivity. Fisherman die here, in the same ways as they do all over the world.