The recorded ramblings of an unschooled writer, aspiring biologist, amateur equestrian, ardent bookworm, avid music appreciator, increasingly addicted runner and college student spending the summer in Ely, MN.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Easy Skanking – Matatu Style

Easy Skanking – Matatu Style
September 15, 2009

Today I visited both the Natural Museum in Kenya and the University of Nairobi’s sciences campus with the L+C group. We traveled in a pair of matching matatus that were decorated with “Easy Skanking”, “Legend” and “One Love” written all over them; marijuana leaves spray painted here, there and everywhere; images of Bob Marley everywhere and lots of loud contemporary music videos playing on the screens and out through the speakers. I’m certainly being exposed to lots of new music of the rap and hip hop genres here, though very little of it is African in origin!

I really enjoyed visiting the museum and once again it made me absolutely and entirely impatient for the start of the safari portion of the program. I’m more of a biologist at heart than I thought, because I keep feeling like meeting people is well and good and experiencing culture is important and yadda, yadda, yadda, blah, blah, blah, but damn it! I just want to see some animals!

The museum had an incredible hall of mammals containing stuffed specimens of everything, including, a giraffe, fruit bats, a flying squirrel, a chimpanzee, a gorilla, a hyena, a cheetah, a lion, a porcupine, a giant pangolin (looks like a porcupine but with “scales” instead of spikes), a jackal and another hall with just about every species of bird you can imagine just to name a few of the many animal species represented. There was also an entire elephant skeleton! I really enjoyed seeing all of the specimens and reading about them, but as you can imagine it just made me really want to see them all in real life, because fascinating as the differences in animal morphology are, I think the differences in behavior are even more interesting.

Also, in the mammal hall, there was a scale you could step on which would tell you which safari animal you were comparable in weight to. The scale couldn’t seem to decide if I was an aardvark or a warthog and kept flickering back and forth between the two. Rachel’s hypothesis was that I was solidly an aardvark pre-East African cooking! We tried as a group to fit as many people on the large scale as possible but even when wearing heavy backpacks and holding people, we could never manage to weigh as much as a hippo, only a very large zebra.

Also, interesting to me was a huge section in the museum on human evolution, complete with some very famous fossils, including the Turkana boy skeleton, the oldest nearly complete ancestral human skeleton along with the famed “Lucy” skeleton. It was fascinating to look at all of the different skulls and see the differences between them and be able to trace the evolutionary changes that occured over the years as jaws and teeth became smaller and less powerful, muzzles and brow ridges less prominent and the brain encasing part of the skull became larger. I also learned several interesting facts I didn’t know about humans/human evolution.
1. Many scientists believed that human brain size peaked quite a while ago and has been decreasing every since, and is currently about 80% of the greatest historical size. However, since body size has also decreased in that time, the brain to body size ratio has remained the same.
2. The modern day phenomenon of having to have the dentist remove your wisdom teeth exists because in order to eat, humans no longer need to have large jaws (so jaw size has decreased), but the number of teeth has not yet decreased through evolution, so many people literally have more teeth than can actually comfortably fit within their jaws.
3. The “arch” in a human foot and loss of the fully opposable big toe are adaptations designed to aid in bipedal (on two legs) walking and aren’t seen in the other great apes.

I also wandered a bit around the section of the museum concerned with tribal life, artwork, rock art and customs in Kenya, but honestly was much more interested in and spent more time looking at the more biologically relevant exhibitions.

After our time in the museum, our easy skanking and one love matatus picked us up and took us to the university where we shared samosas and lively conversation with a handful of Kenyan graduate students in various biological and medical fields. They told us something of the history of the university. It started out as technical school run by the British and over the years gradually evolved into a full fledged university in its own right.

The students were telling us that in order to get into the university they must sit various tests at the end of Form 4 (equivalent to senior year of high school in the US) and then fill out paperwork with their top choices of universities and fields of study. Then there is a complicated procedure which no one seemed to quite understand in which school officials review test scores, school records and application forms and select the students who appear to have strong aptitude in various areas as “regular” (government sponsored) students. If you don’t make the cut, but your family has the money you can also go as a “self-sponsored student” though many of the other students and faculty look down upon this and think that it lowers the level of the school and education.

Also, students finish high school and then wait two years before starting university here in Kenya. This is because due to the post election violence of a few years ago, the colleges stayed closed for two whole years and when they reopened could only accept the new students who should have begun before the violence because of space available and that gap time has just stuck and become standard.

The students showed us around, taking us to the room where medical students perform their cadaver labs (no cadavers, however, were present, much to the L+C biology students’ disappointment and the L+C general culture students’ relief), which was a very large and open room filled with metal tables and very old and worn looking wooden stools. They explained that even in year one of medical studies, each student receives their very own cadaver to work with.

Next, they showed us the library, a very spartan affair, with what seemed like more sets of chairs and desks than books. There were only a very few computers and there was an extensive card catalogue system used to locate specific volumes. Zach and I were browsing the veterinary section and were particularly amused to find an entire book entitled “Goat Reproduction In The Tropics” – such a very specific topic! The floor is cracked linoleum and there are large areas where the ceiling appears to be cracked or unfinished, but even though classes haven’t officially started back up again, there were many people studying in the library so it is clearly a popular place. It was though, a very far cry from Lewis and Clark’s very homey and comfortable library.

After that we walked over to the “hostels” or student dorms. We walked through the halls, which were very narrow and dark and didn’t actually get to see a room as they are not open yet, but they sound as if they are arranged very similarly to most US dorm rooms, as two students of the same sex share a room, with everyone on the floor (floors are either all male or all female) sharing a restroom. We did see the restroom, two separate concrete floored rooms, one encompassing showers and toliets and the other many large sinks where the students do their laundry by hand as well as wash up.

We didn’t have time to visit the large cafeteria on campus, but we were shown around to the place on campus where most students prefer to eat. It is a combination café serving foods like chips (fries), nyoma choma (roast meat), ugali, pilau (rice with meat), etc. and bar, complete with an area for playing pool and smoking. Several of the L+C students stopped for a Fanta, but most of us couldn’t wait to get out of the smoky atmosphere.

Then it was back to the Marley matatus. We made it back around 6:00 and even though it was getting late I was determined to make it to an internet café to e-mail some friends back home. Well, one e-mail led to another and I was seated in the back of the cyber café and didn’t realized how late it was getting until I happened to take a glance outside and realize that it was almost pitch black. I sent one e-mail, unfinished, mid sentence, paid for my ‘net minutes as quickly and possible and sprinted the couple of hundred feet home. If there is one thing we’ve been told over and over it is “Don’t be out alone after dark!”. Luckily though I managed to make it home before mama started to even worry.

I better get to bed. It is late and I am meeting Alex for a run before shule tomorrow so that I have the afternoon free to go to the Nakumat with Rachel to find gifts for our host families.

Miss you all,

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