Jonas Lähnemann
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Impressions from Kenya
Nairobi, February 2005

As a participants of the Berlin-Nairobi Exchange Program for physics students I arrived in Kenya during late September 2004 and I will be staying here until August of this year. At this point I have been in East Africa for almost five months, so it might be a bit inappropriate to write about my "first" impressions. On the other hand there are so many impressions I could include in this report, so I will just focus on a few. It should maybe be said that the time so far has fundamentally changed my perception of Africa and all the time I am still learning about new aspects.

After my arrival I had time before the university started in mid November. The beginning of the semester was delayed for a month after a three months strike of the lecturers a year earlier had disrupted the academic timetable. Additionally six weeks into the semester the university closed for it's three weeks Christmas break. This free time and some weekends I have been using to travel through Kenya and the neighboring East African countries. I have spent two weeks on the Kenyan coast between Mombasa and the idyllic Swahili island of Lamu, two weeks in Uganda and another two weeks over New Year in Tanzania, including a visit to Zanzibar. While all of these trips gave interesting insights into life outside the metropolis Nairobi far beyond the pure touristic viewpoint, the absolute highlights were a trip on Mount Elgon and a hike to Point Lenana, the third highest peak of Mount Kenya and definitely the highest point I ever been outside of an airplane. Mount Kenya offered an awesome variety of scenery and an intense nature experience, besides our fortune of doing this trek as part of a Kenyan group.
From all these travels I learned a lot about Africa and Kenya in special, but the experience is completed through living in Nairobi for a longer period of time. I am also trying to learn more through reading newspapers, mostly the weekly East-African, and reading novels from Kenyan and other African authors.

A unique possibility is to live among Kenyan students in the halls of residence. Getting used to a six sqm. room with only a wooden wall to my roommate actually was easier than I thought. This room with a bed, a table and a cupboard is the place for sleeping, cooking, reading and studying, but the weather also allows to just go outside anytime. It is very nice to be surrounded by so many students, though one also had to find ways of getting the necessary privacy. Frequently in the evenings friends come over or just drop by for a few minutes. Often we cook together. Even beyond the university the society displays more components of social interaction than in Europe with people getting into conversation more easily and extended families still playing a very prominent role.

The campus in general is a very pleasant place, being a little of a quiet oasis in the bustling city of Nairobi. Lawns and well tended flower beds and hedges lie between the departments of Chiromo science campus. Towards the main campus are big fields and this is a nice way to downtown.

The physics department is in one building with mathematics, meteorology and geology. Due to limited space the labs and offices are small compared to a German university and even postdoctorates sometimes have to share a room. Also the equipment is far less advanced. This can be seen especially in the field of computer facilities for lecturers as well as students (which are a lot better for the math department, due to them getting money for doing so many service lectures for other departments and not needing any other labs). Similar is the situation in the labs for the student's practicals, where all of the equipment is rather old, however, in this point even the FU-Berlin has need for improvement. The research labs are not exceedingly equipped either, but several very modern instruments are available to some research groups, a considerable problem there being the access to spare parts. Still my impression is that in the solid state physics group researching on thin film solar cells and in the spectroscopy group, both of which I have gotten to know a little, several researchers are very dedicated to their work and especially the first is involved in international cooperations. Here my impression is that the doctorate students that recently spent some time in a European country are very committed. However the general conditions of limited resources and particularly also the bureaucracy at the university are definitely restrictive factors for the work. When I came in late September and ever since then I have been warmly welcomed and assisted by all staff and students of the physics department. The atmosphere is always very friendly. Besides the chairman, Prof. Aduda, several doctoral students have assisted me notably not only in the very beginning, easing some of the encounters with university bureaucracy, of which I also had my share up to now.
My rather good English has been of much use, as I did not have any trouble with this being the language of lectures, etc. and various accents being present. The lectures are of very differing quality. Some are only dictates, a way of teaching that I can not get used to and therefore did not register for such a class, whereas others are of better quality. They also differ in how challenging they are. Prof. Barve, who has started a lecture on theoretical elementary particle physics on our request, which was then joined by several other students, and has promised to teach us general relativity during the next semester is actually among the best lecturers I ever had, giving a better course than many I had in Germany. He really has a way of presenting in a motivating and understandable way that is too often lacking in physics.
The Kenyan students are partly more focused than we in Germany, as being a student here is much more of a privilege than for us. Also studies are more directed towards the open work market after achieving a bachelor and less towards following an academic career. Generally one can maybe say that memorizing also plays a more important role in many courses.
Besides the lectures I have also started to work on a project that is a kind of research internship. For the Kenyan students in the fourth year this is part of their bachelor requirements and mainly centered in the second semester. In cooperation with the Institute of Environmental Physics at Bremen university, operating a differential optical absorption spectroscopy (DOAS) instrument at UNEP in Nairobi, and supervised by Dr. Angeyo at the department here in Nairobi, I will look at ozone data from this DOAS instrument and compare it to similar measurements from satellites and profiles received by balloon borne ozonesondes. Currently I am busy retrieving and working through literature, as this is a completely new field to me, while at the same time finishing a short proposal. I am especially motivated by getting to know one of the topics of physics touching also environmental issues, what I could very well see as a possibility for future orientation.

Learning about Kenya and Africa, I have to admit, has to a certain degree compromised my efforts for the courses taken. However, this is such a unique chance and a big part of my motivation to come here, while I can focus more on physics again when back in Berlin and I think I am broadening my horizon in a way that would not have been possible in Germany or any European country.

Since mid December I have been taking private Kiswahili lessons together with Christopher, one of the other two German exchange students of our program. We have hired a teacher to visit us three times every week to familiarize us with the basics of this language. Although many friends in the halls of residence now start to small talk in Kiswahili with us, it is not too easy to learn this language, as everyone, not only on campus, is very fluent in English. Many students even converse among themselves in English most of the time, it also being the language of teaching and business. This is very different to Tanzania, where Kiswahili is the main language. On coming here I was surprised to find the majority of people speaking at least two or three languages fluently (their tribal language, Kiswahili and English).

There are so many other things to tell about that would simply overload this report. There is the ever present break between poor and rich in this town, the street children next to businessmen in downtown, the slums versus the estates for Nairobi's elite and the expatriates, roadside markets in contrast to American style malls with every desirable convenience, and so on and so forth. There is the political situation with many of the hopes in the new government, especially concerning corruption, being shattered, while the people doe enjoy many freedoms that were denied for years. There are the matatus: minibuses where every ride is fun again while trying to ignore the thought of possible accidents. There is the freshly roasted maize or bags of peanuts one can just buy on the streets and all those many other small things making life ever interesting. There is the landscapes and the encounters from travels that I could talk about for hours. But there is also the bureaucracy making it time and energy consuming to get certain things done, like getting the student visa (we did succeed!).

While ahead of coming to Kenya I had already started to read more about the whole continent and especially this country, which a few years back I might never have thought of visiting, but only coming here and having this experience of life in Nairobi could really show me so much. Actually only now I realize how little I knew before. My gains from this time go far beyond physics and will extend far into my life after returning to Berlin.

During the following months I hope to deepen and broaden all of what I have learned so far. At the university I want to put a focus on my project during the next semester, but I am also looking forward to continue the class with Prof. Barve in particular. Sure enough, I also hope to get further chances of visiting more places in the country, maybe even traveling to Uganda again and to Rwanda during the short break between the first and the second semester and I'm looking forward to show Kenya to my parents when they come in the summer.

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