letters from nairobi

The Story of How a Few Special Goats Could Cure Malaria

I wrote this blog post for work, and after it was picked up by the Post’s Innovations blog, I thought, hey, it’s technically relevant to Kenya — the more cross-posting, the merrier! “It’s my blog and I can post what I want to,” Anthony. Ahem.

The Story of How a Few Special Goats Could Cure Malaria

Each year, malaria is responsible for the deaths of more than 650,000 people worldwide. In Kenya, where I live, the disease ranks as the number one cause of death among children, killing tens of thousands annually. Unlike other infectious diseases, malaria is both preventable and treatable – but in Kenya, like many other parts of the world where the disease runs rampant, lack of education, funding, health services, and infrastructure leave the population vulnerable to infection.

The statistics are grim, despite ongoing global efforts to eradicate the disease. But new and innovative approaches are being developed all the time, from breakthroughs in vaccine research to experiments using lasers to zap disease-carrying mosquitos before they infect humans.

But, according to one researcher, the key to combating the disease lies elsewhere: in the milk of some very special goats.

Mark Westhusin, a professor of veterinary medicine and biological science at Texas A&M University, is involved in a project that aims to genetically modify goats so that the animals produce anti-malarial vaccines in their milk. These so-called “pharm animals” could in theory produce vast amounts of the vaccine at a fraction of the current cost.

“There is tremendous potential to produce malaria vaccines and other types of medicines, especially for Third World countries,” Westhusin told Fast Company’s Ben Schiller. “If you produce these proteins in goats and other transgenic animals, it’s way more efficient, and cheaper, than the old-fashioned ways.”

Currently, the vaccine present in the goats’ milk must be isolated and purified before being injected. But, Westhusin says, with further research and development, the goats could eventually produce a drinkable vaccine – perhaps within ten years.

The implications of this pharmacological innovation are stunning – imagine the convenience, efficacy, and cost effectiveness of relying on goats’ milk to inoculate a population in place of traditional methods. In a rural village, where mosquito nets are few and far between, and health services even scarcer, a pharm animal could save countless lives.

But there is, as always, a catch: vocal criticism from animal rights activists, who allege that genetically engineering animals is cruel and unethical, and call for the practice to be banned.

As scholar Ned Hettinger argues, “There exists a significant burden of justification against the production of such monstrous transformations of living beings into mechanical, artificial modes of existence.  Prima facie, biotechnology should not be used to impoverish creatures, to strip away their capacities, or to diminish the richness of their lives.”

Westhusin, unsurprisingly, doesn’t give credence to the position of animal rights proponents. Endeavors such as developing vaccine-producing goats are “great,” he says, “but they run up against a lot of hurdles. One of the first are the animal welfare groups who jump on top of this, and say we shouldn’t be using animals for anything. You know, blah, blah, blah.”

Westhusin may dismiss the concerns of the activists as “blah blah blah,” but critics of bioengineering are by no means a small minority, and it is safe to assume that technological advancements involving transgenic animals will continue to be a source of controversy.

From a scientific standpoint, though, the importance of Westhusin’s work can’t be overstated. The devastating effects of malaria could, theoretically, be eradicated during our lifetime – and it will be difficult to convince health practitioners to prioritize the welfare of kids over children.


How Is a Clock Different From a Spoon?
April 19, 2012, 18:43
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When I set my mind to accomplishing something, I tend to develop tunnel vision until the goal is achieved (see college GPA, wedding planning, bread baking). I generally consider this a positive attribute – a triumph of determination, if you will. (The less flattering “obsession” comes to mind, but I’ll stick with “determination.”)

My latest “project” has been a straightforward attempt to learn Swahili. And today, during my third Rosetta Stone lesson, everything came to a crashing halt.

The cursed name of my troubles? Dare I utter the words? Noun. Cases.

For a bit of background: unlike my linguistically talented brother, father, and husband, who are able to begin chattering away in whatever language they hear with astonishing speed, I have not been so linguistically fortunate. I have learned to speak Spanish, after studying it in high school, college, abroad while living in Peru during my senior year, and finally, after a year-plus of living in Nicaragua. But I am not by any means good at it – I still stumble over grammar and can’t for the life of me understand a movie filmed in Spain without subtitles. But I manage. “How much does the flying purple cow cost?” I can ask. Or “Excuse me, little boy, but I am hungry and would like to find a restaurant that serves fried Twinkies.”

You know, the important things.

I had heard that learning Swahili was relatively easy – like Spanish, everything is pronounced phonetically, and unlike Spanish, objects aren’t arbitrarily divided into masculine and feminine (be careful, or you could easily call the Pope a potato). Why not, I thought naively. How hard can it be.

Why not, indeed.

I’ll tell you why not: NOUN CASES.

My first two Rosetta Stone lessons were encouraging enough – being the perfectionist I am, I completed each lesson twice, just to make sure I had the vocabulary correctly memorized. Man and woman drinking coffee! Girls riding bicycles! Girls NOT riding bicycles! What is this? This is an egg!

And then I got to lesson three, chillingly titled “Lesson three.”

It started out easy enough – One egg. Many eggs. Boy with books. Green fish. Yellow ball.

And then came black and white.

White. Nyeupe. Okay. Baiskeli nyeupe. White bicycle. Kalamu nyeupe. White pen. I got this.

Paka mweupe. Cat – something. Kitabu cheupe. Book – something else. Yai jeupe. Egg… I don’t know. Shit.

As it turns out, all of the descriptive words – mweupe, cheupe, jeupe – mean white. And the fun doesn’t stop there.

The spelling of the adjective is not based on the spelling of the noun it modifies – I spent a good bit of time trying to make sense of the correlation this way. But then I realized that kitabu and kalamu both begin with “k” and are modified differently (kitabu cheupe, kalamy nyeupe). Back to square one.

The Rosetta Stone lesson doesn’t offer explanations; it’s more of a visual teaching methodology, which I generally find useful. But in this case, looking at a photo of a white cat, white car, and white ball, all with different words for “white,” was not helpful.

So I made a list to try and determine how each noun was modified. There must be some sort of logical system – right?

This is what the list looked like:

  • Yai (egg) = Jeupe
  • Gari (car) = Jeupe
  • Baiskeli (bicycle) = Nyeupe
  • Kalamu (pen) = Nyeupe
  • Paka (cat) = Mweupe
  • Farasi (horse) = Mweupe
  • Kitabu (book) = Cheupe
  • Mpira (ball) = Cheupe

The only conclusion I was able to derive was that paka and farasi are both animals – an impressive feat of deductive reasoning. But why was book modified differently from pen? And why were bicycle and car grouped into different categories?

I took to the Internet to clear up my confusion.

What I discovered was a system that seems to be have been designed solely for the purpose of making language acquisition impossible. A grammatical structure created by a delusional schizophrenic who lived in a room with walls covered in obscure newspaper clippings, annotated with cryptic messages like “BOILER ROOM ZERO VELOCITY” and “REVERSE POLAR BEAR TERMINAL.”

In other words, the inventor of noun cases.

English has zero noun cases. Swahili has sixteen.

A noun case is a semantic grouping of words with its own set of grammatical rules. In Swahili, the modification of singular and plural words differ not by prefix but by content.


For example, case one and two, m/wa words, are names of human beings. Case three and four, m/mi, are names of trees, plants, nature, parts of the human body, and “human activities,” whatever that means. Case five and six are names of fruits, “uncountables,” “everyday life objects,” persons, augmentatives, and nouns of Arabic origin. There are separate cases for “abstract and concrete things,” “natural elements,” substantivated verbs, and names of countries.  Several cases overlap and the boundaries are unclear – what is the difference between an “everyday life object” and “domestic object”? Why is a clock different from a spoon?

Why is a raven like a writing desk?

Suddenly, el Papa and la papa doesn’t seem as intimidating a distinction, after all. At least they both have eyes.

April 16, 2012, 13:56
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I am well aware that the last thing the blogosphere needs is another food blog – and it’s not my intention to turn into one of those people who poorly photographs every morsel they ingest and displays it publicly.

That being said, THIS MAY HAVE BEEN THE BEST DISH I HAVE EVER MADE. It is a stromboli/calzone – the only difference being the shape of the dough, apparently – filled with ricotta, caramelized onions, mushrooms, and spinach, and topped with marinara sauce:

I think my ability to produce food that is not only edible, but tasty, comes as a constant surprise to me. I grew up completely uninterested in cooking or baking in a house where my father, a consistently impressive cook, could whip together a delicious, balanced meal seemingly without any effort – not to mention without a recipe. I always assumed that the natural-cooking-ability gene skipped a generation, leaving me no choice but to rely on take-out for the rest of my natural life.  And, honestly, I was okay with that. We all have our strengths and weaknesses – and I can ride a unicycle, after all.

But, as it turns out, I really love cooking. And baking bread. And especially preparing a meal for other people. I realize that this may qualify me as domestic, and/or geriatric, but that’s okay.

And I can still ride a unicycle.

From My Gaaaaaarden
April 12, 2012, 18:48
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Dear reader(s) —

I know what’s been bothering you. I know all about those sleepless nights, tossing and turning in your 600-thread count sheets, awake and wondering. You can think of nothing else — your work is suffering, your health is suffering, you are suffering. Thinking. Pining. Questioning.

But no need to prolong this agony any longer. I am here. And I can finally answer the burning question that is consuming your every waking — and dreaming — moment: How is Hannah’s garden doing?

You’re welcome.

The last time I checked in on The State of the Garden, it was shortly after I planted herbs on the back balcony and crossed my fingers that they wouldn’t all immediately die, leaving me to question my competency as an adult and someday parent.

None of the plants abruptly perished, but some have done better than others.

(As a side note: N. and I can’t utter the words “from my garden” without giggling. When we lived in Nicaragua, we ate at an organic restaurant in the city of Granada, where we were served by the expat chef/owner/waiter who insisted on explaining each and every dish on the menu and then intoning, in the most pompous tone imaginable, “from my gaaaaarden.”)

Without further ado, the plants I am growing — in my gaaaaarden — and three of my new friends who live on the front balcony:

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Now, you can rest easy.

Matzo Madness
April 10, 2012, 11:08
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On Friday night, N. and I hosted a Passover seder at our apartment for our “Nairobi family.” (Calling it a seder might be a bit of a stretch — we did have a seder plate, and blessings over the wine, matzo, candles, and greens, but that was about it. No “Dayenu,” no Elijah, no “wicked children” asking questions. “An emphasis on wine over Hebrew,” as the invitation promised.)

Preparing the meal was one of the more difficult culinary challenges I’ve faced, but everything turned out better than expected. I made matzo, charoset, matzo ball soup (substituting crackers for matzo meal), challah (yeah, yeah, leavened, I know), hashbrown/latkes, and spinach with pine nuts and raisins. N. cooked a brisket which I was told was delicious, and friends brought cakes and brownies for dessert.

Between the meal, hours of charades, a childlike obsession with noisemakers, birthday cake, exhibitionist performances by my dog, and bottles of Belvedere vodka (very traditional at a seder), I neglected to take photos of the evening. The only proof I can offer is this before-and-after photo:

Next year in Jerusalem?

Where Men Now Fear to Tread
April 4, 2012, 12:23
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The piece I wrote about Umoja, the women’s-only village in Samburu that I visited a few weeks ago, is now online. The text, and a few bonus photos not included in the published version, are below. (And no, I did not write that headline.)

Where Men Now Fear to Tread
By Hannah Rubenstein

UMOJA, Kenya, Apr 4, 2012 (IPS) – No man, except for those raised here as children, lives in Umoja village in Kenya; one has not for two decades. It is a village only of and for women, women who have been abused, raped, and forced from their homes.

In the culture of northern Kenya’s Samburu district there is a saying: “Men are the head of a body, and women are the neck.” The neck may support the head, but the head is always dominant, towering above.

But in this remote village, located in the grasslands of Samburu district, this mantra does not ring true. In Umoja, as one female resident says, “We are our own heads.”

Umoja, which means “unity” in Swahili, holds a unique status in the country: it is a village populated solely by women. For more than two decades, no men have been permitted to reside here.

The rule is one of the requirements of a community that has fought against overwhelming odds to become a place of refuge for women. It is a sanctuary where men – who have been the cause of so many problems for these women – are simply not welcome.

In the 22 years since its founding, the village has had a significant impact not only on the women who choose to call Umoja home but within the communities that surround it. The example that Umoja has set, coupled with the outreach efforts of its residents, has touched the lives of women in the region.

Celena Green, who is the Africa programme director for an organisation called Vital Voices that works with the women of Umoja, told IPS: “The existence of Umoja has allowed women’s groups in other surrounding villages to learn from the empowerment and pride of the Umoja women.”

Women from nearby communities attend workshops in the village that are aimed at educating women and girls about human rights, gender equity, and violence prevention. When the women return home, Green explained, “they begin to change the culture, demanding a safe, violence free community where women and girls are valued and protected.”

“Ideally, no woman or girl should ever have to flee her home to come to Umoja in the first place,” she added. “But ultimately, the aim of Umoja is to provide an emergency safe haven for those women who are in distress, and more importantly to contribute toward building communities where everyone is valued and can succeed.”

Umoja’s history began in 1990, when a collective of 15 Samburu women, who called themselves the Umoja Uaso Women’s Group, began selling beadwork and other goods to raise money for themselves and their families. As the group began to grow financially lucrative, they found themselves facing increasing harassment by men in their communities who felt that economic growth was not appropriate for the women, who traditionally play a subordinate role.

In response, the women, led by matriarch Rebecca Lolosoli, decided to break away and begin their own village, in order to ensure security and cooperation for themselves out of the reach of those who sought to undermine them.

Today, Umoja is home to 48 women who have come from all over the country. Their stories vary – some were young girls fleeing forced marriages to old men, others were raped or sexually abused, and several were widows who were shunned from their communities. Moreover, several women residing in the village are Turkana, taking refuge from the tribal violence currently raging in the central region of Isiolo.

The villagers, who rely on the sale of beadwork and profits from a nearby campsite and cultural center, pool their funds as a collective to support themselves. In addition to providing food and basic necessities for village residents, profits are used to cover medical fees and the operation of a school that serves both the village’s children and its adult women who wish to learn basic skills and literacy.

Nagusi Lolemu, an older woman with delicate hands and a melodious voice, is one of the village’s original founders. Sitting in the shade, her nimble fingers string red beads deftly in one fluid, unthinking movement, as she speaks rapidly in Samburu.

Lolemu’s story echoes a recurring theme in the village: she was widowed after years of marriage and subsequently rejected from the community she called home. “There were too many single women,” she explained to IPS through a translator. Single women, who are not permitted to hold property in Samburu culture, and generally are not educated, are viewed as a financial drain on the community. When her husband passed away, she was no longer welcome in her home.

Nagusi, who has been living in Umoja for 22 years, has two grown children. She does not question her decision to leave her home for Umoja.

“My children are educated, working, and giving back to the family and the community,” she told IPS. “In a regular village, this could not happen.”

In her village – like any other traditional community – there is little opportunity for women’s education and the consequential financial benefits it brings, she explained. Her daughter would have grown up as she did, illiterate and dependent on men for all her basic needs.

“Here,” Lolemu said, matter-of-factly, “everyone is equal.”

Green echoes this statement, explaining to IPS: “In a traditional village, women may not have had the opportunity to exercise leadership, to be in control of their wealth or resources, and they would more likely experience domestic violence, female genital cutting, child marriage and other traditional practices that discriminate and physically harm women and children.”

In addition to barring men from residing in the village, the women of Umoja live by a set of self- imposed rules, which, as Lolemu explained, are based on ensuring equality and mutual respect within the village.

Residents are required to wear the traditional clothes and intricate beadwork jewelry of their people at all times, in order to preserve and promote their cultural heritage. The practice of female genital mutilation is not permitted. And the only males allowed to sleep in the village are those who have been raised there as children.

One of the most striking aspects of Umoja is the women’s attitude towards men. In a place where men have been the root cause of so many hardships, and, in most cases, the reason the residents fled their homes, it is tempting to think that the victims want nothing more to do with them and are happy to live the rest of their lives surrounded by other women. This is not the case at all – in fact, most of the younger women in the village plan on marrying and raising families.

The difference is that they are going to do it on their own terms.

Judy, a 19-year-old resident who fled an arranged marriage to a much older, polygamous man five years ago, is planning on getting married some day. She dates – outside the confines of the village, which is not only permitted but encouraged by the older residents – and is raising a six-month-old named Ivan, who squirms and coos in her arms as she speaks. One day, she will marry and leave Umoja for her husband’s village. But, until then, she is happy here.

When asked if there is anything she misses from her previous life, any element of living in a women’s- only village that she finds lacking, she laughs.

“No. Here we have everything,” she says, and smiles.

In Umoja, women are not only their own “heads” – each is her entire body.


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April 3, 2012, 15:10
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It’s official: we have a mosquito problem.

This means war.

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