Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Miaka miwili

I remember sitting on the floor of my mom's studio two years ago, reading my 'welcome to kenya' acceptance letter for the first time. Then, I had no way of knowing what Kenya would throw at me, and how challenging it would really be. I didn't know how tired, energized, uplifted, and depressed I could feel on a daily basis. I couldn't have known how hard I would have to fight for my independence from men. I never really knew how much one person's understanding smile could make a whole day at peace. They say that for most volunteer it is not the amenities (or lack of) that produce the most challenges. For me, at least, that could not be more true. I hardly blind anymore when my water is deep dark dirt brown, or when my electricity is out. I enjoy the half and hour walk just to get to the village where I get a matatu to arrive in a substantial town. I love the feeling of accomplishment when I finish a load of hand-washed laundry and hang it out to dry in the blazing equator sun. No, the challenges run much deeper. I struggle to be heard in a culture that, in my experience, does not value the opinions of women. It is a challenge to be without the family and friends that I am used to. It is a challenge to teach students that have so much going against them.

When I first got to site, these challenges were far too overwhelming. I remember waking up each morning with the pep of getting ready for school, only to sag my shoulders as I remember 'two years'. Even knowing I could finish my service, I still had that question in the back of my head of 'really, can I do this?' As I got used to my students, people in town started to smile when they saw me, and my neighbors learned my name (Caroline and Karen are close enough), I woke up less and less accompanied by that big number of TWO YEARS hanging over my head. At some point it disappear all together.

In two weeks I will travel to my Close of Service conference, which is supposed to prepare us for leaving the country in just a few months. Naturally, this leads me to reflect a little. At first glance, the two years seem like such a short amount of time. But then I remember the weddings I have missed, the babies that have been born, and the changes in the US since I have left. I remember that we have a new president who is almost halfway through his term. I remember that I have almost spent one year each at two different schools. I remember all of the people I have met during my time in Kenya. I remember the first volunteer in our group who left early, through to the last one. I have spend two birthdays, two 4th of Julys, two thanksgivings, two christmases, and two New Years here.

It is funny to look back at the things in Kenya that annoyed or baffled me that I now have accepted:

-I always used to ask the teachers how they could stand to be in the loud matatus and didn't understand how they could actually PREFER them. Now, I am secretly disappointed when I step into a quiet matatu. Who wouldn't want to hear Celine Dion or UB40 for 3 hours?
-They eyebrow lift (meaning 'yes') and active listening grunt have become my go-to form of communication.
-I am ecstatic when a meeting only starts 2 hours late.
-I am a little offended if a teacher walked into the staff room and doesn't greet me.
-I feel ok picking my nose (though not as integrated, in that regard, as some PCVs)
-No tissue, no problem
-It is now just a delightful surprise to get my own matatu seat or to find a working seatbelt.
-I pass babies and bags of fruits through a matatu like it's my job.
-I bargain my little heart out when I am being ripped off.
-I wash my shoes.
-I say things like 'I am just used' and 'she really tried'.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Not the fastest gazelle

It is 5:30 in the morning when we pull in to the main gate of the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. At first, it seems like there is no one awake except for the bright full moon that lights up the trees and a sleepy KWS guard. However, as we start driving through the park, I see groups among groups of people walking in the shadows of the moonlight. I have never seen anything like this. Children are running, teenagers are rolling by in their slow pace, even mamas are walking with sleeping babies on their backs. This is my welcome to the Lewa marathon.

When the sun peeked its rays in the sky, a herd of little Kenyans ran by: some sneakers, many croc-type shoes, and even more completely barefoot. All proudly wearing their runners shirts. As people start to swarm the start line, I am dealing with my own self-consciousness of my body. In almost two years here, no one has seen my legs above the knee (except for that one unfortunate incident of a wrap-around skirt and wind relationship gone wrong). I am not normally scared to show my legs, but it has been almost TWO years. It feels weird, out of place, wrong at first. When I look around, I realize that everyone is practically dressed for a marathon; all cultural dress codes are forgotten.

The children line up at the start line for their 5K race, as we all wait patiently or impatiently for the helicopters to give the clearance. Sorry mom and dad, I didn't think the helicopters were for the animals, but apparently they were. I guess they are checking for hungry lions. As I wait, I engage in my long-loved pastime of people watching. It hits me that many of the Kenyan runners, some of the best, are dressed simply. Simple shoes, simple clothing, no ipod, no camelback, and no specially formulated gels. The foreigners tended to be the groups carrying all of that gear. It is obvious, but a good reminder, that the equipment does not make the runner. You can look at someone without all of the gadgets and just know that they run; it's in their face and in their body. When I return to the states, I may also return to my camelback, my ipod, and my shot blocks. Even so, I cannot help but think that all of this is unnecessary, that it may take away from the act of running itself.

When the children have set off, leaving a path of dust, it is our turn to line up. There is the usual chatter amongst nervous runners: 'you ready for this?', 'I don't really know why I'm here', 'Did I train enough?', 'where did you put that extra Gu?'. The gun goes off and there is a moments hesitation before we create our own dust trail. There is so much dust that when I swallow I can feel it lining my mouth and my black shorts quickly turn brown. I try to stay off the dirt road, preferring to dodge elephant poop and ankle-twisting rocks instead. It is as I start my first major assent, a few kilometers in, that I spot my first animal life; gazelles. All I can think of is that they are one hell of a form of inspiration. They bound around, either completely oblivious to us, or confused as to why there are a bunch of overly colourful animals on their turf. I meet a few people on the way, some who pace me, and some who I pace. None of them compares to my usual running partner; wish you were running with me and the gazelles too dad! A few hills later I hear something rustle, and a snort of sorts to my right. Not 30 feet away stands a magnificent zebra. I have been right close to them in a car, but it just cannot compare. They are so much bigger in person.

I walked. I am not the fastest gazelle. Normally, I hate the idea of walking during a run. I tell myself that I will not, and then I don't. It is hard to be upset, though, when I have the scenery that I do. I just want to take it all in. Instead of crowds of spectators throughout the race we have helicopters who watch the people and the lions, and pick up a collapsed runner here and there. Towards the end of the race I am lapped by the first marathon runner; a serious Kenyan professional runner (the half marathon is once around a loop in the conservancy, the full is twice, giving some of us a chance to be lapped). It was incredible to see this man run so effortlessly and I couldn't help but be proud that I was very close to the end of my half when he passed me, instead of kilometer 10. I am welcomed by a fairly silent but surprisingly large finish line crowd, with just a few people locating the number pinned to my shirt and shouting 'go 164'. So what if I am not the fastest gazelle? I'm not the slowest either.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Matatu perspective

I do not usually love sitting in a matatu waiting for it to fill. Lately, however, I have been soaking these moments up. If I sit in a place where I am just a little hidden, it provides an opportunity for serious people watching. There are too many interactions occurring simultaneously to take it all in: touts calling to potential customers and trying to not-so-gently nudge them into their matatu; mamas holding bananas up to more potential customers in matatus; young men selling biscuits, lollipops, sodas, and gum; wazee hobbling with canes, umbrellas, or sticks for support; old mamas carrying bags heavier than they on their backs permanently bent over from carrying such bags through a lifetime; Somali-descendant mamas selling perfumes; street boys with old rum bottles filled with glue stuck to their lips, getting high while bouncing around to ask for food and money; touts wrestling in their joking manner; secondary students, with their uniforms in various forms of disarray, coming from or going to school. It is all too easy to walk through the stage an ignore all of these, but waiting in a matatu forces me to slow down a little and take it in.

I do usually love the children in Kenya, but on a bad day when the 'mzungu mzungu mzungu' is ringing through my head it can be frustrating. The secondary school shares grounds with a primary school of about 150 students. They LOVE to say 'mzungu' and LOVE to do what I think is their impressions of us speaking. It isn't English, Kiswahili, or Kimeru. It is a made up language that sounds something like what they do when they imitate kung-fu movies. I have been meaning to go to the primary to greet them and introduce myself during their assembly. I also planned to tell them that I really hate being called 'mzungu' and it is bad manners to shout their made up language at me., especially while I am teaching. After being here for 3 months it was far overdue. The words I wanted to say had been spinning through my head during every morning run. At their assembly I sat through all of the normal procedures (hymns, prayer, and words from the teacher on duty) before it was my turn. It struck me that all of the teachers spoke to the students in English. The younger students don't know English! When it was my turn I started with a 'hamjambo'. They looked at me with those wide eyes, like I was a recently landed alien. Regardless, I continued in the best kiswahili I could muster. When it came to asking them not to imitate me, I was stuck. I am not sure how to explain the made up language in English, much less kiswahili, and my efforts did not prove successful. It came down to some instant serious thought of 'am I going to imitate them mimicking me'. What choice did I have? At least I made them laugh so early in the morning. My success was tested the next day when I walked passed the primary students coming to school on my way to the staff room. Would they 'mzungu' me? Would they do the weird language? Low and behold, they did neither! They ran past me yelling 'teacher Rose, teacher Rose' with big smiles on their faces and hands waving franticly. Kenya has made me realize again and again that you cannot always expect people to know what bothers you. If no one has ever told these children that 'mzungu' isn't really appropriate, but it is all that they know, how can I expect them to act any differently?

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Soles of my shoes

'You pass through places, and places pass through you. But you carry them with you on the soles of your traveling shoes'

I found this amongst the many words of a letter from a friend as I was looking back on old letters and it has been sticking with me. It isn't that I ignored it the first time I read it, but it holds a deeper meaning to me now that I am starting to reflect on my time in Kenya. Yes, I have 7 months left, but time is flying. I often wonder what I will remember the most clearly, or what will stick out the most about Kenya after I return home.

One of the teachers recently asked me what I thought about Kenya (or Africa) before I jumped my feet off of the plane. I am so often asked 'how do you see Kenya', but am hardly ever asked what I thought before I came here. His question was a healthy reminder. After being here for a year and a half, I can forget that at home we only receive highly negative images about the state of Africa. I am not proud of it, but if I don't grab the paper at the right time when another teacher isn't reading it, I can go weeks without even knowing what is going on in the bigger world around me. While it leads me to ignorance about the world, it allows me to focus just on what I feel about the place that I am in. The times I do get my hands on the paper, or discuss the current status of Kenya or Africa with others, may confirm the images that appear at home: there is corruption; HIV is prevalent; there are many families drowning in poverty; in select countries there is danger and violence. But not everything is included in that big picture. It doesn't show the families who, while they may not be rich, are comfortable. It doesn't show the people living their lives and feeling content. It doesn't show the smiles and generosity of the market mamas. If you sat at home and learned about Africa through the images being thrown at you from the TV, you would never know how hard some students are working to bring themselves to a better situation. You wouldn't see that people are happy. Not all, but are all of us happy in the US?

Another false impression I had was that people would be more in touch with nature. In many ways they are. Students can tell me which plants are a good substitute for a toothbrush, which plants treat certain ailments, and can definitely show me up when using a jembe or panga. So sometimes the nature disconnect takes me by surprise. As I was walking from the school kitchen to my house the other day, a student was patiently waiting for me under the shade of a tree. She looked a little flustered. "Teacher, there is something that looks like a bird in my locker. I am fearing, and the others won't help me". She was flustered, and she did have a baby bird in her locker. I had the audience of two different classes huddled around me to watch me take it out. Walking back to my house, bird in hand, I couldn't keep my laughter in. I've never heard of anyone fearing a baby bird and not knowing what it is. Looking at it, I understand. Its mouth is WAY to big for its head, but it is very clearly still a bird.

I have recently discovered another cultural tick that I love. When older people are happy to say hello to friends, they do not just wave, but raise their hands towards the heavens and give them a little shake. I think I'll bring this one home with me...

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Mango under candlelight

Mango season is coming to an end. A season for new fruits is surely taking its place, but mango season is my favorite and I'm sad to see it pass. Every time I travel to a new place in Kenya, including Mugona, I discover a different type of mango. Outside of my door is a mango tree that produces mangos smaller than your palm. They are yellow inside, juicy and extremely fibrous. These are not a 'first date' appropriate mango, or one you would want to eat on the way out the door. No matter how dainty you try to be (and lets face it, I should not even try), bunches of mango fibers will always lodge themselves in your front teeth. It is better just to embrace the mango mouth. The mangos I buy in the market are bigger than grapefruits, orange on the inside, and by far my favorite. I can only find them in Chuka town. With the move, I now live a 20-30 minute walk from the main road, then a 15 minute matatu ride to chuka. It has taken some adjustment to learn how much food to buy to last a week, and how much I can carry. I've learned my lesson with mangos: when the market mamas told me they were going out of season I freaked and bought 10 of the biggest I could find. It was quite the workout to walk up the road to my house, but completely worth it.

The first few nights in Mugona were accompanied by electricity from a generator, but it has been on and off (mostly off) since then. I have not grown out of the excitement I used to get when the power went out during storms at home. I happily light my candle and read with a mug full of hot chocolate. It would be far more efficient to buy a lantern, but I am too stubborn in my ways.

When I first came to kenya my one request for site placement was to be in a place where I can grow my own food. Namanga was a lot of things, but a place to garden was not one of them. I feel like I've been given a second chance. So far I've started tomato, kale, and spinach plants, accompanied by two mango trees. I have learned that I am an impatient gardener, or maybe I was just too excited. The day after hiding the seeds in the soil I kept looking outside to note their progress. There wasn't any, of course. The day I saw them reaching their little arms up to the sky for the first time, I couldn't help but smile to myself. There is something so rewarding in seeing your garden grow.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Mzungu anakimbia

I woke up this morning with the determination to start a new running routine. It was short, but otherwise perfect. At 6:30 in the morning the moon was still out, while most people were still in. I ran by fields of coffee, maize, and bananas. My plan was to run the short loop twice, but the mud had other ideas. When it rains the mud forms a sticky goo that attaches to your shoes until your feet feel too heavy to move. When I got back to school the student I had said good morning to on my way out told me 'that was TOO short!' Tomorrow she will show me the long way. I am ready. I got back home just in time. Mugona is enveloped in a thick chilly cloud, bringing more rain. There are rumblings of thunder in the distance.

I finally broke down and purchased a computer. I went back and forth countless times. I like my life here; it is simple. The only possession really have to think about is my camera. I don't have a TV or radio, although I do treat myself to an ipod dance party every now and then. I didn't want the access to a computer to change my nightly reading and journal writing routine. It is all in my control, but it is just so easy to find yourself engrossed in CNN or home life. As it turns out, the lack of electricity and only 3 hours of generator time per day adds a little assurance that I can only waste so much time. My decision came down to my affectiveness in my new home as a volunteer. I am able to research methods for lesson planning, how to make a barometer from simple materials, information on FGM, ideas for building a bakery for the school, and sponsorship opportunities for the students. I laughed to myself yesterday while typing up the activities I've done in class for biology, because I had no water and no electircity, but I could check my e-mail!

A few days ago I was riding in a party matatu and watching music videos; some from kenya, some from the states. It was about a 1 1/2 hour ride. A half an hour in, I was so absorbed in the music videos (its been a while) that when I looked out the window it hit me like a slap in the face (a good slap) that I'm in Kenya, riding through giant hills of terraced tea farm country.

My definition of a party matatu: A 15 passenger van that in kenya can be stuffed to 29 people (the highest number I've experienced) with loud music and a TV for passenger enjoyment.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A bell rings, and minutes later I hear girls singing to fill the empty, chilly air. There are no children crying or roosters crowing. I can hear nothing but the singing. It is 5:30am and pitch black. It takes a minute until it dawns on me that I'm not in Namanga anymore. I make my way out of bed when I hear someone's footsteps crunching on the stone pathway to my door. I take my delivered bucket of steaming hot water and get ready for my bucket bath. After bathing, I am brought a thermos of the milk taken from the school's cows the night before. This is my new life, and I love it.

Namanga will always be a part of me: the duka owners, market mamas, and the in-your-face mountains. I will never forget the students and how much they meant to me in my year there. I will never forget their attempts to teach me their mother tongue(s) and how they welcomed me into their lives without question. I will never forget my little neighbors, Eric and Sandra, who had just learned to call me Rose instead of mzungu. I won't forget my last night in Namanga, taking goofy pictures with the families in my compound, and eating dinner at my neighbor Victoria's house, wondering why we hadn't made dinners together earlier. As much as I was sad to go, my only regret is not being able to say my goodbyes...and never making it to the rock face that I woke up to every morning.

It has taken a lot of energy to start over, but I am excited. My new life presents me with challenges different from those I found in Namanga, but behind those challenges are opportunities: I'm not teaching many classes, so I might as well try to start a bakery, milk cows, organize the library, and figure out what to do with all of the water pouring from the tank; my new school canes the students, which allows me to continue the discussion on alternative to corporal punishment (while concurrently coping with the actual caning). On the ride to Mitheru, the matatu stop to my new town, I realized how much Kenya has changed me. On my first trip to Namanga I was excorted by the principal, nervous about everything, and maybe just a little bit teary! This time, I caught my own matatu to Mitheru, made a friend along the way, and enjoyed the lush, green, curvy ride. I wasn't worried about the driver forgetting to stop in Mitheru, or how I would get from Mitheru to my new school in Mugona...things just work their way out.