Saturday, May 12, 2012

Green Leaves and Gummy Bears

And here we go again. I am back in Marsabit. Every return feels the same and at the same time feels like I am starting over. This return was touched with the usual feelings of boredom, lethargy, homecoming, frustration, and anticipation; and I also felt new feelings of apprehension, expectation, and sadness. The boredom and frustration come immediately after dumping my dusty backpack on the floor. I realize what i had forgotten in the companion and travel filled excitement of Down Kenya, that I am on my own again. None of my fellow teachers or friends were back in town yet and, with the lack of public transportation, there is nowhere to go and no one to see. That feeling leads to the lethargy; the less I do, the less I want to do. I slowly eat my way through the packages of ramen noodles and instant coffee I brought with me from Nairobi. I always forget how tough (or maybe just annoying) it is to re-adjust to not having internet and cell phone network. Fortunately, this period didn’t last long. Immediately after dumping my backpack on the floor, before the first pack of noodles, I went out to the choo and was instantly spotted from across the valley by Nuria, the loud and obnoxious little four year old. She thoughtfully announced my return to the entire village and, after the ten minutes it took for her tiny little legs to run down the rocky hill and up the other side to my house, Nuria arrived at my door, bringing with her my neighbors, Abusu and Galgallo (equally adorable, slightly less obnoxious). After the round of hugs, and their new favorite trick of kissing sloppily on the cheek, they made my life significantly less boring by swirling around my house touching and knocking over everything. Abusu has entered the “dress-up” stage of her life and had to run home after an hour or so of ruckus-making to change into a pretty new dress and new rubber shoes, bright blue. After a little showing off on her part, she tried to make me pretty too. She ran around my house and found my lip gloss, face powder, and sun screen (which she thinks is just pretty smelling lotion) and put it on me (I was not allowed to help). She also had had her nails and palms painted with henna, and since I had none, she found an equal substitute in purple marker. I let her decorate my hands but disappointed her when I wouldn’t let her purple marker my face. For sure, life can never be lethargic with those three bundles of trouble.

Now that the term is officially started (opening staff meeting was Wednesday), I am ready to get started. I, and everyone around me, is suddenly aware that this is the last large chunk of time that i will be here. This term is fourteen weeks long, while the last term is only nine weeks. That means that anything that needs to get done should probably get done soon or never. In addition, I am going home for my older sister’s wedding at the end of this term. That means I am going to be counting down every second between now and then. I am afraid that excitement will make this term feel like an eternity.

  The last emotion I am feeling right now is sadness. From what I gathered from the rumors going around, on Sunday night, a Rendille tribe member was attempting to retaliate for past attacks that were perpetrated by the Borana community. This man came to my village, Diribgombo, and, just down the road, was following some footsteps in the dark. It was not yet midnight when he lost the trail and apparently became frustrated and attacked the only people around. Tragically, he took his anger out on three children, aged seven, five, and two years old. He shot them multiple times in the chest and head with his AK-47. With no significant police presence in the area, the Rendille man got away, and the children laid where they had been killed for long enough for many of my neighbors to walk down to the scene and absorb the details for gruesome retelling. The funeral for the three children was Monday. The anger in the village is obvious. Everyone I have talked to has expressed the same sentiments: there will be revenge. Another tribal battle has begun, and I am afraid this time will be worse than before.

I am still in the transition phase, from Down Kenya-travelling, Facebook-addicted, couch surfer to out-of-touch teacher. It’s easier after the first day of school. I walked around my village, talked politics with the guy who owns the little duka where I buy flour and cell phone credit (he knows WAY more about Obama’s re-election prospects and opponents than I do), and remembered my Kiborana greetings as I, with my return, surprise all the mamas who are fetching water. I walked through my favorite manyatta making sure all the little kids remember how to high five me instead of hand-shaking (I like to think I get less sticky that way), and just marveled at the flowers and the forest of grass and vines. The rains, though they are only recently returned to Mars, have turned everything that used to be a bare patch into a field of grass that is at least a foot over my head. Every tall grass stem has a vine climbing it like a spiral staircase. The fat, iridescent dung beetles zoom loudly through patches of the sunset snapdragons that are more plentiful than last year. Every previously shriveled tree trunk is now full of green leaves. And everywhere are my favorite Martian flowers, small stalks that branch at the tip to form what looks, from the side, like a white handlebar mustache. The mustache is made of delicate flowers, only a centimeter wide at the top, flowing down into tiny buds. A snow white waterfall. I see all this and Nairobi starts to fade. By next week it will be gone, but for now I can still remember the taste of the Java House ham and cheese sandwich. And I feel like I should have spent another thousand shillings at the frozen yogurt place where you can put one swirl of pistachio and coffee yogurt in a huge tub and fill the rest with cheesecake bites and gummy bears. Then they charge you by weight for a dessert that is mostly just cold, hard gummy bears, and all the more delicious for it. So for now, I am in the middle of shifting my focus from gummy bears to green leaves. In a week or so, I will forget Down Kenya, and I will no longer notice the snapdragons. I will be back in my zone where I constantly vacillate between “I can’t believe I live here,” to “I can’t believe I live here,” and occasionally “I can’t believe I live here.”

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Lullaby from a Mouse Playing a Guitar

I am in a village in Kiaoni at my fellow volunteer’s house. Jen Hagen is one of my favorite peace corps people with her dry sense of humor, ability to turn life into a kick ass musical, and her plethora of stories about her many brothers and sisters that are extraordinarily entertaining. I have never heard anyone, besides myself, who talks about their siblings with such unconditional fondness. I have been here for two days. As usual, my vacation away from mars makes it difficult to sit down and write about anything. I am too regularly caught up in the Haraka Haraka life of down Kenya. But after the events of last night, and update is necessary.

I left mars on the tenth of April and headed down to Nairobi on a plane. The plane first stopped in Korr, a tiny ring of manyattas in the middle of a white sand expanse. It was interesting to see a place that was even more empty and remote than my village and I wish I had an opportunity to explore. When I finally arrived in Nairobi, I was met by my friend, Alyssa, who is from western Kenya. We laughed, used more swear words than usual, and ate at Java House, the modern American style coffee shop. The next day was spent in Nairobi, in the Peace Corps office, officially to catch up on reports and paperwork, and unofficially to collect hugs from Peace Corps staff that haven’t seen or heard from me in three months. It is always like a small homecoming.

The following day was an event that I have been looking forward to not only since I joined Peace Corps, but since I was a little kid watching the Discovery Channel. I went to the Maasai Mara. For those who are unfamiliar (and therefore less dorky), the Mara is a large animal reserve. It is huge, and most of the land is in Tanzania where it is called the Serengeti. It is the site of the famous Wildebeest Migration. So I crossed off another Life Goal. We had a three day safari and it was amazing. The Mara is stunningly beautiful. Endless vistas with miles of long waving grasses the color of a lion’s fur meeting the crystal sky. We drove through huge herds, hundreds strong, of cranky Cape buffalo with their flocks of orange and yellow ox-peckers. We parked next to prides of lazy lions, looking huge and fierce, but acting like fluffy housecats as they looked at us with no concern in their eyes despite being close enough for us to scratch their bellies. We sped through the plains when our driver heard of a black rhino sighting, an extremely rare event. And we took a million pictures of the pack of hyenas that feasted on a buffalo kill and fought off the goofy yet severe looking vultures. There was a pack of black-backed jackals that played chicken with three warthogs who only cared about rubbing their backsides on a fallen log. We had a few encounters with elephants; big and small, indifferent and grouchy. And of course, the crowds of grazing wildebeest, antelope, gazelle, giraffes, and zebra, which were so numerous that we, eventually, just told our driver to drive on by without pausing to look. The first day and a half, we safaried in the rain with mist clinging to the plains. The rest of the time it was hot and sunny as only an African scene can be. My favorite part of the trip was a trip to Hippo Lake, a popular wildebeest crossing during the Migrations, but in the off season was a nap zone for hundreds of giant grunting purple hippos and sleeping crocodiles. Hippos were never in my top favorite list of African animals, but they have shot to the top of the list now. They are so much bigger than my imagination and have a beautiful purple- grey and pink skin and a permanent smile. They are surprisingly graceful when walking around on land, and swim fast and grunt loud. I just adored them. The Maasai Mara was everything I wanted it to be and so beautiful that it will forever be one of my favorite places in the world.

After the Mara, I was off to a have a different experience. I took a typically horrendous bus ride to Makindu where I met Jen for an evening at the Sikh Temple. This is a peaceful retreat that has lots of grass, peacocks, bench swings, and absolute quiet. No one bothers you for any reason. It was a little slice of an American park. I went and, before Jen arrived, sat on a bench in the grass reading a book and watching an impromptu group of youths play cards. They didn’t even glance at me. I took a nap on the bench in the sun, and was not harassed or woken up for an hour. The Sikh temple, in addition to being beautiful, is completely free. Jen and I got a room with fluffy sheets and a ceiling fan (a FAN!!) for no charge and no trouble. We went to the dining hall and had delicious vegetarian meals for free. All the temple asks is that you do not bring alcohol, eat all the food you take in the dining hall, and wear a head covering when in the buildings. I was sick with a cold, from all the traveling, the safari in the rain, the lack of sleep, and overabundance of excitement but managed to recover a bit from simply being in a quiet, peaceful environment.
 
 Now I am here, in Kaioni. It has been a crazy two days. Jen and I spent the first day in her village market buying fabric to give to her fundi (seamstress) to make dresses and sitting at a table with a cup of hot chai designing simple and adorable America-style dresses to shock aforementioned fundi. Some of the features that took serious coaxing for the fundi included: v-neck that showed a tiny hint of cleavage; strapless, one strap, and halter; above the knee length, zippers that were longer than the four inches standard on a Kenyan dress; and mixing two bright patterned fabrics. But, we did convince the fundi, and the woman will have four dresses in new designs finished in five days. Impressive and exciting! On Monday night, Jen and I watched a lightning storm on the plateau behind her house. She lives near a river that, rumor says, contains hippos and crocodiles. The ground of her school compound where she stays is carpeted by chains of morning glories with simple white petals. As we stood there in the dark, watching the lightning flash all around us, Jen pointed to the huge baobab trees standing sentinel in the darkness. The pair in the field are called “The Twins” and have arms that reach out to each other; the other, larger, tree is called the “Snake Dancer” one, because of the branches akimbo seeming frozen in some strange motion, and two, because of the numerous snakes that circle the trunk. We stood watching the lightening illuminate The Twins and Snake Dancer for a while as the wind whipped around us and the air started to smell like rain and I realized how incredibly amazing it is to be here, in Kenya, and to get to see things like this. I have never stared at a scene in America and been struck with an almost spiritual fervor. I am a lucky girl.

Yesterday, Tuesday, was extra special. Jen and I did nothing but watch movies that we could sing along to, eat food, and chat. As the evening progressed, the clouds came in and the rain started to fall. Soon, it was too loud on the tin roof to do anything but yell at each other about the various leaks in the ceiling. The windows were open and started pouring rain onto the floor where the couch cushions absorbed it. The stima went out and Jen and I stumbled in the dark trying to light candles, put pots under drips, and hide books and electronics under fabric for protection. The rain just poured in the open window so I ran to it to attempt to close it, but discovered it can only be closed from the outside. I looked at Jen who looked at me with a “yeah, I know,” expression on her face before she ran out into the storm to close the window. After that was accomplished, we swept the puddles of water out the front door and stuffed a towel under the door to prevent scorpions from coming in (an act performed way too late). After, there was nothing to do but sit on the bed in the dark. Fortunately, this being Kenya, we are both very used to entertaining ourselves with no light and no electronics. We sat and talked and told stories of life before Peace Corps and our lives to come after. As we talked, the rain slacked off a bit. We were sitting there laughing about something when she abruptly sat up and said that she had felt something on her leg. She did this approximately fifty times a night; Jen has a bit of an obsession with scorpions being everywhere in her house. In the two days I have been here, we killed five, so it is a pretty valid concern. So Jen sat up to flick on her headlamp and direct it on her leg. There, in the beam of the lamp was her worst nightmare. “I just got stung by a scorpion,” she said with surprising steadiness for someone who has spent the last year and a half dreading this moment. She said later that the first words in her head were, “this is not a drill!” She sat and killed the scorpion (only death is a worthy punishment for that crime) and I got up, re-lit the candles, and found her Venom Extractor kit. Her leg was burning a bit but we couldn’t find the actual sting site so we just suctioned at a few places where she felt pain. Her leg was cleaned with lidocaine, leading to a very brief period where she thought the poison was making her leg go numb before I told her it was the drug. As I crouched in front of her, trying to decide if we should perform an emergency amputation via candlelight, I looked down to discover another scorpion between my feet, tail poised for attack. I dispatched him immediately, and, upon discussion with Jen, we decided that we must go on high alert. The next twenty minutes was spent on a thorough hunt for more scorpions, then a dressing down of the bed where all superfluous sheets were removed and the bed was scanned before we got in and tucked the mosquito net in tightly around us. It was too hot for sleep, and Jen was concerned that death was still imminent (by morning she was downright pleased that she had survived and that being stung by a scorpion was not as irritating as a mosquito bite). So we chatted some more, lying side by side in the dark, laughing hysterically as only a near death experience can make you. After an hour or so, it was now about 1:30am, we heard a noise. Jen said it was her guitar in the corner so I of course think “Oh god, a ghost is playing her guitar!” but the reality was a lot more hilarious, and to Jen, a lot more frustrating. It was the mouse that lives in her house; it had climbed into the guitar and was tripping along the strings. And so, the rain-soaked night filled with an army of scorpions came to an end with us being lulled to sleep by a mouse playing a guitar. This morning, we kidnapped a cat and her kitten (for obvious reasons).

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Picking Noses, Shaking Hands: Social Norms in Kenya

Even after a year and a half of living in Kenya, I am still everyday amazed at the difference in cultural norms. The minute you step into this country you realize how different everything is. My favorite cultural difference is the extended greetings. It makes the world seem so friendly when every person you meet greets you with a smile and a loud “Habari Yako!!” And then you must stop to shake their hand, greet them in return, and have a short conversation about their family or yours. If they are strangers, this can get a little tedious; walking through town can take five times as long if you stop to talk to every person you meet. Even the language barrier does not stop the friendliness from overwhelming you. If I pass an old mzee on the road, he will stop and take my hand in his wrinkled grip, and say hello in the local mother tongue. I smile and greet him back and, when he goes off on a long rant in kiborana, I tell him I only know a little Kiborana (“Afan anin kiborana”). Undaunted, he will continue to chat amicably, not at all concerned that I am not answering. Eventually, he will wave, say his one English word, “Goodbye!”, smile, showing off his yellowed, chipped or missing teeth, and continue on his way. And this encounter will be repeated by every person you meet. If you are in a hurry, you can get away with a wave and just call the greetings over your shoulder until you are over the next hill. My least favorite social norm is the acceptance of picking your nose. I find it disgusting to see grown men, sitting across from you at a staff meeting, “digging for gold”. It is normal and no one cares. I will never get used to seeing someone approach, finger firmly up their nostril as they come over, pulling the finger out in time to inspect it and wipe it on their shirt and then hold their hand out for me to shake. One thing that I am bothered by, but accidentally acquired as part of my “Peace Corps Quirks” is the tendency to stare. Everywhere I go, I feel like a movie star. I do not know what is so interesting about me that requires near constant eye contact. I will wear the same clothes every day, walk the same path, see the same people, and after eighteen months, the sight of me requires everyone walking in front of me to slow their pace and everyone behind to run to catch up. Once the person is next to me, in nine out of ten cases, they do not want to talk. They just want to look at me. Walking side by side, neck craned to never lose eye contact, just in case I break into dance or change color or have a fit. I rarely do. I have seen many a person trip over stones, fall off a bicycle, and ride into a bush on their pikis, while attempting to get a good look at me. Once, while being followed by a group of primary school kids who refused to make conversation, in any of the three languages I know, I decided to do something crazy just to see what would happen. I started singing along to my iPod, and without hesitation, the kids just started singing along. I was belting out some Glee hit and they sang a traditional Borana song. It was weird and strange and less entertaining than I thought it would be. When you walk into a room filled with ten Americans, it is polite to say a “Good Afternoon” to the room in general. And if there is something going on, an important meeting for example, it is polite to not say anything, either wait outside until they are finished or come in and sit down without interrupting. In Kenya, the proper etiquette is to come in and greet the room, then go around to each person and shake their hand and greet them individually. The important meeting will come to a halt while you make your rounds, and then you may go outside to wait. If two groups approach each other, you line up like opposing Little League teams and go down the line shaking hands. Another custom that I dislike is the custom of mentioning flaws. If you have acne, a bad hair day, have gained a little weight, or just look scruffier than usual, you can be guaranteed that people all day will ask you about it. And they are blunt. “You look fat today.” I have never been called fat in my entire life and yet somehow I am pressured to go on a diet because of all the “you gained some much weight!” comments I have received. Sometimes, they comments are just in inquiry. “Why do you have spots on your face?” They worst are the ones where the person implies that you have been looking terrible for awhile. “Yeah, I’ve noticed you hair has been looking strange lately. What happened?” The flip side of this custom of bluntness is that everyone is also generous with the compliments. If you look slightly nicer than yesterday you get a whole slew of “you look so smart!” Yesterday, I wore a short skirt (it was one of the few clean things I had) and a pair of black tights to hide my white legs, and I had one student say I looked like a movie star, and another say I looked like an angel. Pretty high compliments for a Wal-Mart skirt and old tights. And so, as hard as it is to hear blunt, sometimes negative, honesty, I will never complain because I love the habitual self- esteem boosters. Another social convention that was difficult to get used to, but I am afraid I might have begun to emulate, is the Kenyan concept of keeping time. For Kenyans, the phrase “on time” is never heeded. If you have a meeting scheduled for 9am, people, including the organizers, will not start to show up until 11am. And with all the greetings and introductory chatting, you will not get started until 1pm. This can be extremely frustrating for Americans who are very time conscious (early bird gets the worm and all that) and hate to be kept waiting. In Kenya, the unofficial motto is “Haraka Haraka Hyena Baraka” or “Hurry Hurry brings no blessings.” Even in the cities, time moves at its own pace. A movie showing at a popular theatre will start at least fifteen minutes late. If you call for a taxi to take you home at night, you will be waiting for over an hour every time. Even on a large scale, or for events of great importance, end up being very, very late. When reporting to public school, it is guaranteed that not one of the two hundred students will show up on the first day. Most will not even come the first week. That is usually fine because none of the teachers will have reported back from vacation either. Most will come a week late, and then sit around complaining that they can’t begin teaching because the classes are empty. It is baffling to me. Recently, my school acquired a number of computers from the government. We hired a local man to come install them for us and after three WEEKS of waiting for this guy to show up, I am still the only one incensed at this appallingly unprofessional behavior. It is frustrating and difficult, but on the other side of the coin, people never question you when you are late. You are pretty much free to show up to important events whenever the mood strikes you. I only worry about my friends and colleagues; if they ever go to America for jobs (as they all endeavor to do); they are going to have a lot of trouble adjusting to the “Haraka Haraka” nature of life over there. Living in Kenya has been a very different experience from living in America. It is an adventure everyday just trying to navigate the social waters with no life vest on. I am sure that I fail, committing faux pas nearly constantly, and am only saved by the overwhelming kindness of Kenyans. Now that I am closing the distance to the end of my time here, I am starting to worry about going back to America and behaving like a crazy Kenyan. I only hope I don’t walk into my first American job interview an hour and a half late with my finger up my nose and say to the interviewer “wow, you are kinda fat!”.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Yes, It's Still Hot.

I have been very lax in my writing lately. After being here for a year and a half, everything I want to talk about just seems repetitive. In case you were wondering: yes, it’s still hot. Today, I am driven to write because it is Saturday and the stima (electricity) has been out for hours. I am running out of things to do around the house. I went to town this morning to pick some food and supplies for the week (It must be spring Down Kenya because there are green peppers the size of my fist and mangoes as big as my feet!). I forgot to pick up toilet paper. That was unfortunate; you really do not want to know what I will be using this week. I am recovering from a cold. I had a fever and stayed in bed a couple of days last week. I feel better now but had almost no voice at all over the weekend. I didn’t mind, it gave me an excuse to lie in bed all day and be antisocial. After going to town, I came home tired and attempted to take a nap. The neighbor kids, Galgallo and Abusu, who had woke me up at seven am this morning, prevented that by wanting to come in and play with all my stuff. And when those two want something, there is no point in resisting or they will scream and throw rocks at my door. At only four years old, they think that is ‘playing’. Nap plans abolished, I went and greeted the neighbors who had been gone for over two weeks. I had heard from others that the father, Abdi, had lost his sister while she was in childbirth. He and his family all got together at his mother’s house in a nearby village for the funeral. Afterwards, he left to return home, stopping in Marsabit town on the way. But that is as far as he got; while in town, he received a phone call saying his mother, very grieved with the loss of her daughter, had died. And so the family returned for a second funeral. As I spoke to him about his loss he seemed stoic, saying “But death is a part of life. We are not meant to be here for long. We go through the world, just passing through, until it is time for us to leave this life.” Now, I am sitting on my porch watching Galgallo drag his younger brother, Guyo, around in a home-made racecar. It is made by cutting a hole in the side of a 20L jerry can and pulled via a rope attached to the handle (engine noises provided by Galgallo). I’ve done enough laundry to get me through the week; I hate that activity a little more each week. And I made the most time consuming lunch I could think of (fajitas, because making the stack of tortillas takes and extra thirty minutes). My cell phone network is gone, which happens at least a few hours every day and, at least twice a week, it goes for the entire day. That means I can’t text my Down Kenya friends to entertain me. I did watch some local women rebuild the Stick-and-grass hut on the church compound. That was pretty interesting. They take long, bendable branches, and, using bark as rope, lash them together in a large arc. Then they add horizontal, straight sticks for support. Finally, they weave grass into thick mats to tie over all the gaps. They also make benches and curved armchairs for furniture to go inside. This is the second time I have seen them rebuild the meeting hut. Because the Borana are a traditional nomadic tribe, the huts are only intended to last a season or two. To make the huts more permanent, most people in my village cover the walls with mud or cow dung. The roofs get protected by old trash bags or plastic tarps. I also see a lot of cardboard box reinforcing. I had a conversation the other day with my Rendille friend, Joseph, about the tribal fighting in our area. Joseph is a Peace Worker working at the local primary school and so I asked him if he felt unsafe being a Rendille living in an exclusive Borana area. He said that no, living here was fine because our village is safe. But he is wary of traveling. When the fighting was going on a few weeks ago, Joseph, Martha (his village mate), and another friend were having an event at the primary school. The three needed some supplies from town and decided that the friend would be the one to go pick them up. Martha also gave the young man a message to pass along to her mother. The young man left Diribgombo on a piki (motorbike) but was ambushed on the way to Marsabit town by a group of Borana men. They shot and killed him and an old man who was with him. Each time someone is killed, the tribe must revenge the death by retaliating. So far, there have been three Borana deaths and four Rendille. Joseph says there will be no more attacks because his tribe knows that the fighting doesn’t solve anything. That philosophy did not help the tribes in the town to the north of us, Moyale, where the fighting killed many and drove hundreds across the border into Ethiopia for protection. And in Isiolo, the town to the south of us, hundreds have been killed over the last few months. Here in the Marsabit region, and Diribgombo (my village) in particular, every time there is fighting we feel the effects. Food shipped from Down Kenya is disrupted on the roads and the market becomes empty. The food that is there becomes more expensive. The fear of attack keeps the market mamas away. This week, one of my tasks is to speak to all the classes in my school about the increase in use of skin bleaching creams. The creams are a problem for many reasons. The first, and most important, reason is health. The creams contain mercury and the students are unaware of how that will affect their health. Unfortunately, the creams work so the students want to continue using them. I informed them of the health dangers and also told them how the creams only work temporarily. I asked why they used the creams and was told “to be beautiful.” That is an obvious answer and so I asked them to be more specific; if the creams only make you lighter by one or two shades, what was the point? They said that very dark skin was ugly and light skin was always better, even slightly lighter. The worst was when a student said “we want to look like you.” I pointed out that no matter how much cream they used, they would still be much, much darker than me. I also told them that in America, us white people go to tanning booths and use creams to make us darker. In America, the tanner the better. They laughed at the notion. I tried to paint the scariest scenario for them. I said if they used bleaching creams, besides the mercury danger, there was a possibility of irritation and acne resulting from the harsh chemicals. Already some of the girls were having those effects. I also talked about the consequences if the cream actually worked. They would be lighter skinned and more susceptible to UV related skin damage and sunburns. I mentioned freckles (showing them my many freckles) and wrinkles. I told them about skin cancer and how it can affect even young people. I dramatically made those creams sound like an express train to old age and death. Judging by the gasps from around the classroom, I think it worked. I then had to spend the next half an hour analyzing the ingredients of their other lotions, powders, and oils to make sure they all were safe for regular use. The pharmacy business in Kenya is very unregulated. Anyone can buy dangerous chemicals or prescription medications over the counter with no explanation. Just another strange Kenya practice. Three more weeks in the term. I am looking forward to four weeks relaxing in Down Kenya with my Peace Corps friends. And of course, I am waiting for the upcoming rainy season with great anticipation. I need a little rain in my life.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Lion King

When I was sixteen, I worked at a grocery store in New Hampshire. One day, this customer came in and looked at my name tag. I was used to getting all kinds of “Hey, Ryan? Isn’t that a boy’s name?” type comments and so when he repeated my name I expected something like that. But he looked at me strangely and said in a slow voice, “Ryan the Lion.” It made me smile at the time and my fellow cashiers took on the casual nickname as a joke. I didn’t mind, my favorite movie my entire childhood had been the Lion King and I still love it to this day. A decade later, I am here living in Africa. My adorable neighbors, Galgallo, Nuria, and Abusu (who I call the three musketeers because of the amount of trouble, and drool, they foment) were the first in Kenya to call me “Lion” due to their lack of front teeth, in Galgallo’s case, and general inability to pronounce R’s. When I come home from school, if the three musketeers are within a mile of the area, they will chant my name loudly and rally to be the first to run up to me and for a hug and a chance to wreak havoc in my house. A few weeks ago, a colleague of mine was visiting a neighbor when I came home and he heard the chants. Ever since then, he has called me Lion at school, leading some of the other teachers to follow suit. Then, yesterday, I was walking home from class when I was surprised by a group of six primary school boys who were waiting in the shadow of a tree for me to walk by. As soon as they saw me, the oldest and therefore ringleader of the group jumped up to great me. He yelled, “hey Ryan! The Lion King! How are you?!” It made me laugh. I can’t imagine that movie is popular here, its not even popular in America any more. And the chances of the primary school students seeing it are slim. None of my teachers have seen it and only a couple have even heard of it. But it makes me smile. I think that more people know my nickname in the village than my actual name. It is to the point where I am only ever called “Lion” or “Mwalimu” (teacher). In the future, I think that few will even remember my real name. They will say, “remember that mzungu who lived here? She was called the Lion.” It is the hot, dry season, as I’m sure I’ve already complained about. The tall grass that towered over my head during the rainy season is still tall, but now it is brown instead of green. The wind and dust of last year is still present but lessened by the grass which absorbs the dustornados into the waving fields. There are still thousands of giant moths, green and blue grasshoppers, tiny gold butterflies, a strange green bug that looks like a shield, and countless termites. The abundance of insect life has, in turn, brought flocks of birds. There are my favorites, the Jet Fighters, bright green on top and yellow on their breasts with pointed wings and long sharp beaks. They swoop like, well, jet fighters, catching bugs using acrobatics. There are the Sailor Birds who are a clean white color over most of their bodies but with a cap of black on their heads and black on the wings making them look like they are wearing uniforms and sailor hats. They also have sharp orange beaks and long orange legs. They run around on the ground like pipers eating bugs from the ground. There are the Iridescent Robins; they have bright red breasts just like robins in America but they have head, throat and shoulders covered in shiny blue and green feathers like a magician’s cape. Of course, the hornbills, anyone who’s seen the Lion King knows what they look like. Except they are not blue, they are black and white with orange beaks. And the most prolific of the birds, the sparrows, plain in appearance but amazing in their numbers. They swirl around the school compound in the thousands. The small, black birds move in a giant wave and when they alight on a power line they sit wing to wing causing the wires to dip and still not allowing enough space for all to fit. It is amazing to see them all take off at some invisible signal to swarm over the grasses in a completely crazy yet somehow perfectly synchronized dance only to veer off at once when they’ve had their fill of the insects. I am only describing all this to remind myself that it is still beautiful here. See, I forget often because it is SO HOT. It is hard to focus on anything else. Every day I wake up and, when deciding what to wear, think “I’ll wear a short sleeve shirt and my knee length breeziest skirt because I am tired of showing up to school dripping with sweat.” Then I remember that every shirt I own is so worn that it is practically see through so I have to wear a second shirt underneath. And I can’t go outside wearing only a skirt that goes to my knees, I’ll get stared at, so I put on a pair of capris. So before I even step outside I am sweating in multiple layers of cloth. I walk to school with the equatorial sun beaming down on me and I plod, trying to decide whether it’s better to walk fast and get out of the sun quicker, or walk slow and try to sweat less. Either way, I get to the staffroom and someone will make the comment, “Ryan, you are sweating!” and I respond with as little sarcasm as I can, “yeah, I’ve been walking for an hour, its HOT out.” I had one guy actually come up to me to complain about how he was so exhausted after walking to and from Dirib (where I live) once. I just glared at him. I tasted camel’s milk for the first time today. It was…not bad. I have been told by many people that it is extremely healthy for you and can cure a million different illnesses. One of the Borana women brought it to the school at the request of one of the teachers. After milking, the women store the milk in a (sorta) clean container, usually an empty jug that originally contained cooking oil. I saw this jug sitting on the desk and opened it to see what it was. First, I saw the blackish crust around the edge. I peered down into the milk and noticed there were three mysterious black lumps floating in it. The secretary saw me looking and asked if I had tried camel’s milk before. When I said no, she proceeded to pour me a small amount into the cap of the filthy bottle while telling me just how very sweet the milk tasted. I had really no choice, and I was pretty curious, so I drank it (after checking that none of the black lumps had made it into the cap). It tasted strange. I think some of the taste must have come from the filthy container it was in. It tasted smoky, like the black around the rim of the bottle was maybe ash from a cooking fire. After I got past that taste, the milk was creamy but had almost less flavor than cow’s milk. The liquid was warm, like all liquids that sit around in the 90 degree sun, and thick (like a thin milkshake). The worst part was the aftertaste, which I did not enjoy. I can’t even describe what it tasted like; it wasn’t terrible, just strange. It tasted a little like Elmer’s glue smells. And the taste sticks with you. Even after chewing my very last piece of Dentene Ice gum, I can still taste the milk, but now the flavor is mixed with mint.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Can a simple compliment lead to rashes and bleeding from the eyes?

It is almost February and my school is getting ready for the form one students to report. I am anxious for them to come so I can begin teaching. I am currently only teaching one class and am afraid I am getting relaxed and used to my light schedule. I also think it is not the best practice to have students show up to school more than a month after opening day. I am actually not looking forward to the first few weeks of teaching the form one students. It will take them a few weeks to understand my accent and a few more weeks after that for them to get and trust my method of teaching. I expect I will do better this year than last year, since I know what to expect but I am still wary of those “what, is she crazy?” looks I am going to get for the next month or so. I am working with an all male staff these days. Our deputy principal, who I loved, moved to Nairobi to go back to school for her Master’s degree. Our other female teacher moved to be with her husband and have babies (she’s pregnant with twins!) in down Kenya. I actually enjoy being with all men. I think it teaches them to be less sexist. They had to pick a man to be in charge of the weekly shopping for food, they take turns serving lunch each day, and for meetings they have to have a male secretary to take minutes. It is good for them. My school has recently acquired a new administration block. It includes a staffroom, some offices, and (my favorite addition) a WC or water closet. When I first saw it, it was being used to store books because the construction guys never built a space for the waste to go. Yesterday, though, the workers were digging a nice, big, cement- lined hole for the facilities. I excitedly asked if that meant we could soon use it. I hate using the choo at school. It is a good 5 minute walk away from the staffroom, a terrible situation if you are sick. The door doesn’t close all the way or latch so you have to pray, as you are approaching, that no one is currently using it or you will walk in on them. Worse is making awkward conversation as they leave or you cross paths. They know what you are going to do, you know what they did. “Oh, hello Mr. Principal. How was your… um, day?” Even if you don’t meet someone at the choo, it is still a dirty, fly- clouded, smelly hole with (for some odd reason) raised footrests that only serve to impair proper aim. Needless to say, I was looking forward to an indoor bathroom that had an actual door and an ability to be cleaned. But when I asked if we could use it, I was told that we COULD but that no one WOULD. I think these Kenyans find going to the bathroom indoors to be a foreign and needless endeavor. Weirdos. During counseling this week, I had one girl who wanted to ask a teacher if she could move to the front of the class because she had poor vision and was having trouble seeing the board. She recounted the story of how she got this poor vision issue and it totally baffled me. Apparently, way out in the rural villages there are people who say things that can cause rashes on the face. They say things like, “Oh, little girl, you are beautiful! You will be so beautiful when you grow up!” Then the girl will get a red rash on her neck and face. I stopped the student to clarify, “you mean like a blush? They compliment you and your face gets red, that’s called a blush.” She nodded and continued her story, “Oh, well this happened to me and the redness went up my cheeks and into my eyes and they started to bleed. This gave me bad vision. Have you seen this?” I told her that words could not cause her eyes to bleed and she replied, “not in towns, but waaaay, way out there,” gesturing behind her to the desert with both hands. “Out there, there are… certain people … who can do this with words. Aiee!” With a full body shudder, she paused to cross herself. I attempted to explain that it was not possible to cause injury with just a phrase, but without a medical reason to explain bleeding eyes, I am afraid I did not convince her. I was talking with a friend of mine, Choke, who is from Ethiopia. He has read the Quran and we have a lot of interesting conversations about religion. Recently, we have been talking a lot about the Al-Shabaab terrorists and their beliefs and the jihad, or holy war, they have declared. Choke has been lamenting the recruitment Al-Shabaab has done in Kenya because of some personal friends of his. Two young boys, smart kids who could be in university now, were neighbors of his. One of them joined the Kenyan army and was sent to Somalia to fight the terrorists while the other boy was recruited by Al-Shabaab. The two boys are now fighting each other in Somalia; they are two friends on opposite sides of the war. Choke was explaining what a waste it was of a good kid with a future to join Al-Shabaab. He also disagreed with the reasons for the fighting. He told me that in the Quran, it discusses three types of jihad. The first type of holy war is against your own soul. The point being to fight to change your own soul to better worship God. The second jihad that puts you against others has the purpose of proselytizing Islam to nonbelievers. But in this you are not allowed to take up arms nor are you allowed to harass. The Quran says that you may preach but if the person to whom you are preaching does not believe then you are to leave them to their own counsel. The third jihad is the only one where you are allowed to take up arms to cause injury to another. But this is only if you are being prevented from worship. As an example, if you are being barred from attending mosque, you may attack those standing in your way. But the Quran does not support any other killing. And nowhere in the book does it say there is a reward of any kind (no 7 virgins) waiting in heaven for those who kill another. Choke gets pretty indignant and upset at the portrayal the Al-Shabaab are giving to a religion he maintains is built on peaceful and quiet worship.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Allimeleon

We are already in the fourth week of classes and this is off to a good start. The biggest change from last year is that I am the school counselor now and I absolutely love it. I never really thought I would enjoy listening to a bunch of teenage girls’ problems but it has been truly great. I am getting to know the students and I feel like I am actually helping them more than by being front of them in class as a teacher. The problems I hear cover the whole spectrum including boy troubles, falling asleep in class, whether to convert from Islam to Christianity, need tutoring in math, and even medical issues. Not to say that I am qualified to treat medical problems, but I can do a lot better just using common sense than a lot of the treatment given at the local medical clinic. For example, on girl had a cut on the heel of her foot caused by wearing uncomfortable shoes. After a few days it got very swollen, painful, and infected. She went to the local dispensary and got 5 injections. Two days later, the foot was getting worse, a sick looking open wound, so she went back and was given 5 more shots. She came to me after another day of pain and I offered the only advice I could. I asked her if they washed the wound at all. She said no, they hadn’t touched it. I put on lab gloves and scrubbed the wound clean. I rinsed it well, put on some first aid cream, and covered it with a bandaid. The next day the swelling was down and she could walk without limping. Now I am not a nurse, and I am not sure what was in the injections, but I think that basic first aid for any wound should be to clean it and I would hope that the only medical facility in the area would know that. In my first biology lesson of the term, I was talking about the importance of proper nutrition and one of the students asked “are there any nutrients in soil?” Whenever I get questions like that I cringe because I just know what they are going to say. “Soil? As in dirt? Why do you want to know?” The student’s reply “because people eat dirt.” I was surprised and exclaimed “WHO?!” And of course, a bunch of girls started nodding, saying they often ate it by the handful. When I asked, in a strangled voice, why, one girl looked at me with a glint in her eye and said “appetizer!” I asked if they thought it tasted good and everyone agreed that it did. I can only assume that the girls, who eat only githeri (beans and maize) every meal of every day, are lacking something in their diet that gives them cravings for something else. I know that they also eat paper and chew on sticks. I had to spend the next 30 minutes trying to convince the girls that there was NO good reason to ever eat dirt. “But,” one girl said, “pregnant women do it!” And I had to tell them that pregnancy can also give you strange cravings but there was never any reason to eat soil. I don’t know if they will listen to me. I have the feeling, judging by their faces when I told them, that they will not want to give up their afternoon treat. I told them a year ago to stop eating paper, and they all continue to do it. Most of my students come from the villages in the immediate surrounding area. One girl, Doris, lives in a well made mud house next to the borehole near the school. She was a form one girl last year and so would be in form two this year. She was one of my favorite students last year because she always participated in class and had the happiest smile on her face. She is daughter of the village chief and so I was surprised when I passed her on my way to school the first day. I asked her why she had not yet reported to school and she said she was sick. I told her to get well and come the next day. The day came and she still didn’t show up; when I passed her on the road, I asked why. She said that she decided not to come back to school. The reason: she wanted to get married. How horrifying! I tried to convince her to come by telling her all the things education can bring her. Opportunity, enlightenment, a chance to go to university, travel to see the world, a good job, etc. She just looked at me with that beatific smile and shook her head no. “I want a husband,” she said. I begged, “but you are so young! Just come for one more year.” But she was convinced. And I lost one of my best students to a lifetime of marriage, babies, and fetching water. That depressed me. There is another mystery animal running around the school compound. This one is called a “wakala.” My teachers asked me to identify it and when I asked them to describe it one guy said “you know chameleon? It is like that,” and immediately another teacher said, “no, it is more like an alligator.” Then they both looked at me expectantly. An animal that is similar to both an alligator and a chameleon? They said it was “big like a small alligator, but had skin like a chameleon.” I have no idea what this creature is (allimeleon? chameligator?), but I hope I never meet it.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Home Again, Home Again. Jiggity Jig.

It is amazing to see what a difference 6 weeks can make. When I left Mars, it had been raining for a few weeks. Everything was muddy and new greenery was just starting to peek out of the ground everywhere. Now, I have returned to a completely different world; it is beautiful. The grass everywhere towers over my head, the shambas (farms) are filled with maize 8ft tall, every tree is filled with weaver birds and flocks of swallows, and even a few flowers are gracing the fields. I spent my first day back slashing the dense grass with a panga (machete) in order to forge a path to my choo. While slashing, I made sure to leave a patch of sunset-colored snapdragons alone. I am glad to be back home; six weeks living out of a backpack is rough even on the dustiest Peace Corps volunteer. I started my journey the day before Thanksgiving. My plans took me to Loitokitok, where I trained for service last year. I was going to meet the new education volunteers and help them through their first attempts at teaching in front of a Kenyan classroom. This group is about half the size of my group, and they were awesome. One thing I have noticed about PCV’s, is that it is rare to find someone you don’t immediately get along with. You may not be immediate best friends, but there is an instant “yeah, I get it” level of understanding. I think it is because of the fact that most PCV’s have a heavy dose of crazy/weird/not normal in their personalities. Anyway, Model School was a fun week of meeting new people and pretending I knew what I was doing when it comes to teaching. During Model School week, I also took the opportunity to visit my first Kenyan national park, Amboseli. It is a relatively small park but had tons of animals. The visit nudged me a lot closer to a life goal of mine: see the entire “cast” of the Lion King. I saw warthogs, zebra, giraffe, wildebeest, ostrich, guinea hen, marabou stork, dung beetles, secretary birds, and tons of elephants. The herds of elephant stretched across the horizon, hundreds of members strong. After an hour, it was a little repetitive. My friends and I thoroughly annoyed the taxi driver by singing, on repeat, the elephant march song from The Jungle Book. The one that goes, “Oh, we march from here to there, with our trunks up in the air….” After Loitokitok, I went to Nairobi for a mid-service medical exam. That was fun. We were greeted at the hotel reception desk with a gift from Medical, a brown paper bag into which we were to “deposit our fecal specimen.” After dropping off our deposits, before which we had a great time coming up with horrible ways to tease the medical staff. My favorite idea was to melt a chocolate bar and going into the office eating out of the sample tube using the convenient spoon provided. The rest of the three days in Nairobi was spent eating delicious food and waiting for our TB tests to be read. Two people in our group tested positive for tuberculosis and have to spend the next nine months having liver function tests and taking intense antibiotics. Once I left Nairobi, which was way too expensive for my tastes, I headed out to a town called Sega near the border of Uganda to spend a week with my friend, Cindy. We spent the week doing absolutely nothing of importance; it was great. We made donuts and watched movies. One day we had a “one-armed movie marathon” which, although only consisting of two movies, was enough to remind you of the underrated importance of arms. We also repeatedly sang 525600 minutes from the Rent soundtrack using kitchen utensils as microphones until the point where we could hit the high notes without making glass shatter. I left Cindy’s house and traveled to Malaba, another Uganda border town, to stay with a friend named Ali. Ali and I also watched a lot of movies, but we tempered it by also occasionally going outside. One day, we went on a long hike up to a point where there are cave paintings. It was strange to walk around the village, seeing the thatch huts and outdoor cooking ovens made of grass and think about the villagers and their ancestors that have probably lived in that same area the same way for thousands of years. Up on a hill, there was one large stone wall decorated in symbols and paintings. There were horse- type drawings, and human faces, and, my favorite, an elephant. Most of the paintings were drawn with red ochre, a bright dye that is very common in the rocks around the area. Above the cave paintings, there was a high overlook that had amazing vistas all the way into Uganda. From up there, we could clearly see Mt. Elgon, some kilometers to the north. Mt Elgon is another place on my list to visit; my only reason for wanting to go there is because the Ebola virus was discovered there. Ebola is an extremely volatile and deadly disease, and I find it incredibly fascinating. Ironically, the next day a newspaper reported that a person in Nairobi had died of Ebola. (After investigating the situation, they determined that she did not have Ebola, but some other hemorrhagic fever that caused her to bleed out in a taxi before she even made it to a hospital.) After Ali’s house, I traveled to Hell’s Gate National Park in Naivasha where I was to meet Cindy and her mother for some good old-fashioned bicycling. When I heard that you could bicycle through Hell’s Gate, which happens to be the place of inspiration for Pride Rock in the Lion King, I knew I had to invite myself along. Yes, I am that dorky. We saw no lions, but we did get to startle a group of baby giraffes into running across the road to where their babysitters watched and bicycle to within touching distance of some zebra who refused to move out of the way. Hell’s Gate also has a beautiful gorge that requires you to leave your bike behind, hire a guide, and then do some ridiculous rock climbing. There are hot springs and volcanic rocks shaped into beautiful layered swirls and rooms given entertaining names like “Devil’s master bedroom” and “Devil’s shower”. The entire day was filled with beauty but at the end of it, I was exhausted. Seriously, who thought it would be a good idea to bicycle 13 kilometers in one day? I left Naivasha the day before Christmas Eve using the WORST public transportation. I know I have said this before, but I swear I will never, ever complain about travel when I get back to the real world. There can be nothing worse than travel in Kenya. I bought a bus ticket, and was told the bus would leave in one hour. After three hours of waiting, those in charge had all the passengers pick up their things and walk for 40 minutes to the outskirts of town where the highway was. Apparently, there was no bus and so we all stood at the side of the road as the men waved down passing vehicles trying to get them to pick us up. When they tried to sell me to a regular vehicle with four men in it, I was incredulous and told them I paid to get on a BUS not hitchhike with strangers. Another hour or so, and I finally got on a hideous purple bus with way too many people. I was supposed to go to Kisumu and it should have take 4 hours, after 8 hours and breaking down twice, I was fed up. I called the friend I was meeting in Kisumu, Ana, from the side of the road and I told her to come get me in a taxi. She said she could be at the next town in an hour and I could meet her there. I asked our driver to drop me in that town and he said it would take 20 minutes. An hour and a half later, we still are not to this town. Every time I ask someone how far it is, they say “it is just here, not far, just here”. Clearly, no one knew where we were. The fat, deodorant-free guy next to me (there are very few overweight people in Kenya, so it is ironic that I get to share a seat with one every time I get on a bus. And when I say ‘share a seat’ I mean, I lean against the window while his thigh is slightly on top of mine and his arm will hit me in the stomach and face every time he gestures emphatically) kept telling me creepy things like “If I was Al-Shabaab, I would kidnap you!” Anyway, we finally got to the town, I met my friend and we headed to her house in Sondu. Ana is the queen of hospitality. She refuses to let anyone in her kitchen to help. As a guest, your job is to sit there and look pretty. It was nice, and she is a great cook. She made some very delicious Indian curries. On Christmas Eve, she and I, and another friend, Brennan, went out and collected green branches to make our version of a Charlie Brown Christmas Tree. We took a stick and put it upright in a wine bottle. Then we tied on green branches using purple yarn. For decorations, we made origami cranes, origami irises and paper snowflakes. It was very spindly and adorable. Ana and I spent last Christmas Eve together and it was a disaster. This year, we were determined to make it good. With Brennan there, who was our host for last year’s Christmas day celebration, and two other volunteers that I had never met, we managed to make an amazing meal for both Christmas Eve and Christmas day. Our best creation of the day: we discovered how to make granola. It made a delicious fruit cobbler. When we weren’t cooking, we were relaxing, chatting, singing Christmas songs and watching How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I had a great time, it was probably the simplest Christmas I’ve ever had. The day after Christmas, I headed to Kisumu to meet up with Cindy and her mother again. I have been to Kisumu a few times before but I have never done the touristy things so we went and planned on visiting the Impala Park and going hippo watching. The impala park is basically a fenced in area with a bunch of zebra and impalas inside. There are also cages with other animals. It is a Kenyan zoo. I didn’t really enjoy seeing the animals in such small areas, but the literature said that they animals were all rescued from the wild (I tried to believe that). The animals did look active and healthy, not like the lethargic animals in American zoos. I watched the lions roaring at each other, and then chase each other around the cage. I watched the leopard stalk a child who was on the other side of the fence and not paying attention. At the monkey cage, the residents came up and held my hand, and tried to steal my sunglasses. One of them poked his hand through to the cage next door where there was a tortoise he could pet gently on the head. The highlight of the park came when talked to the keeper outside the cheetah cage who allowed us to go inside and pet the two cheetahs. It was a little scary; when mine stood up abruptly I nearly fell over in my anxiousness to back up. After the Impala Park, we went out to the beach where you can hire a boat to take you out onto Lake Victoria and go search for hippos. There were three guys on our boat. One to run the engine, one to paddle when the engine wouldn’t start, and one to constantly bail the water out of the boat. As we tut-tutted along to the marsh were the hippos live, I asked the obvious question: hippos are really dangerous, why are we bring this dinky boat into chomping distance? The men on the boat said that there were two populations of hippos in the lake, the ‘nice’ hippos and the ‘not nice’ hippos. The not nice hippos would definitely kill you if you looked at them. The nice hippos would allow you to get really close without trying to eat you. I, being really too excited to care, believed the men knew what they were talking about. We spent a good hour circling the boat around a group of about 7 baby hippos, “babies” the size of Volkswagens. But we didn’t get eaten, so that was good. From Kisumu, we were headed to Uganda to meet a bunch of other volunteers and go rafting the Nile River. As soon as we crossed into Uganda, you could tell you were in a different country. The Matatus were clean and not overstuffed. The roads were smooth and pothole free. When the matatu stopped, no one tried to harass you or grab you. As we drove along, everyone looked relaxed. It was the hottest part of the day, so everyone was sitting under a tree, or sleeping on a shaded porch. I wondered what it must be like to be a Peace Corps Uganda volunteer, calm and relaxed all the time? I can’t imagine what that would be like. My favorite thing about Uganda: they have ridiculous money. It is like they got the design from a board game. It was small and brightly colored. They had bright green, ocean blue, pink, and purple. They also had cute pictures. The blue one had a fish on it. In addition, the exchange rate was so outrageous that I couldn’t even bargain in the markets. The smallest bill was a one thousand shilling bill. We went out to lunch with eight people and the cost ended up being twenty THOUSAND shillings. It was such an insane amount of money, but ended up being about $8. I went to the bank and converting a bunch of Kenyan shillings to the Ugandan ones and was given so many bills that I nearly asked for a suitcase to carry them in. It was so much money, I didn’t have enough space in my wallet. We arrived at the camp, a place called Adrift Rafting, that had nice dorm style rooms and a gorgeous deck overlooking the Nile. We met a bunch of other volunteers, mostly business volunteers, and went on a boat trip to watch the sunset over the river. Adrift has their own bungee tower where crazy tourists can voluntarily leap off a 44 m high platform. That evening as I watched some people take the jump, one of the business volunteers came up and mentioned that those people must be insane. I agreed and said that no one in their right mind would do something so stupidly risky. The guy nodded and nudged me, “hey, you and I will watch from a safe distance as the people from our group do it.” I turned to him and said “Oh, I’m doing it!” I’m pretty sure he thinks I have multiple personalities. Either way, the next morning, Cindy, me and two others from our group climbed the endless staircase to the top of the bungee tower. I was really, really nervous. I kept asking the guys in charge genuinely concerned questions like “have you ever had anyone vomit on the platform?” I watched the first guy leap off and nearly peed myself. I went second, thinking I could not watch someone else do it or I would lose my nerve. There are two guys who strap you in and get you all ready. They first ask you if you want to touch the Nile. I said I did. They use your weight to adjust the length of the rope. I was told that the goal is to jump as far off the platform as possible. If I jumped far enough, I would dip just the tips of my hands into the river, if I just fell straight off the platform, I would get wet up to chest level. I was sitting in a chair while the guy wrapped a towel around my ankles, followed by a thick rope. I noticed that he was not actually tying any knots; he was just wrapping the rope around the towel and clipping it to another rope. I was trying not to panic and started asking questions to get my mind off of what I was doing. “How long have you been doing this?” I asked. His response was, “today is my second day.” I assumed he was kidding. Next question, “How many times have you jumped?” Answer: “Oh, I would never jump… way too scary.” “Are there crocodiles down there?” “Not today.” I stopped asking questions then. I stood up, ankles bound, hopped to the edge of the platform and told the guy I was too scared. He told me not to look down, to look at my friends way over on the observation deck. He told me to “smile! This is going on facebook!” My stomach dropped and I started panting. I thought I was having a panic attack. He asked “are you ready?” I said “I can’t do this!” He said “Yes you can!” then they started counting down. As loud as they could, they yelled “ONE, TWO, THREE, BUNGEE!!!” I didn’t even hesitate (if I had, I wouldn’t have ever been able to do it); I launched myself off the platform. I was too terrified to even scream. I only had time to remember to suck in a quick breath and keep my head tucked in (so I wouldn’t break the water with my face) before I plunged all the way into the Nile up to my ankles. The guy at the top of the tower apparently had an “oops” moment because I was NOT supposed to go in that deep. He said that the rope was stretched out and I would be the last person to use it. I bounced up and down a few times, and having found my breath, I was screaming how freaking terrifying that was. I was lowered into a waiting boat and rowed to shore where I had trouble standing because my legs were shaking so bad. I don’t know if it was the cold (I was, of course, dripping wet), the adrenaline, or the lack of circulation to my feet from the rope being wrapped so tight. I watched the last two people jump with a sense of elation at having done something I always thought I would be too scared to do. From there, our group immediately got on a bus to the part of the Nile with all the rapids. The rapids we were to raft went up to class 5, out of a high of class 6. There were some rapids that were off the charts and too dangerous for even the experts to pass. On those, we were going to walk around and get back in the river on the other side. Our boat was filled with women and was christened “Team Uterus!” to the chagrin of our male guide. One of the other boats had a volunteer who decided to dress up like Santa Claus. I can’t wait to have kids so I can tell them I went white water rafting with Santa Claus. Throughout the day, our boat flipped twice. Each time, it was scary because we could see it coming. It was like a cross between sledding in snow and body boarding in the ocean. First you are paddling and you see this deep hole, you paddle harder and start plunging down into the hole (it feels like sledding), on the other side of this hole is a huge wave. The top edge of the wave is constantly breaking. If you’ve ever been in the ocean and approached by a breaking wave, you know that you want to dive in before the wave breaks in your face because if you hit it, you will get knocked over. So we are paddling down into this hole, trying to get enough speed to blast up the other side, but as we head up the face of the wave, we know that it is too steep; we are going to curl over and end up with the raft on your head. Our guide yells “HOLD ON” and we all grab onto the edge of the boat. It is futile, we flip. I end up under the boat. It was loud and dark; I take a breath and push myself out from under. Our guide quickly flips the boat back over and hauls one girl in who turns around and pulls the rest of us in. There are only four, out of eight, left and we paddle hard to escape the rapids. There is a fleet of kayakers who swarm in after each raft and pick up anyone who falls out. We collect our missing companions and have a few minutes to catch our breath before the next rapid. Sometimes we don’t flip, but just toss out a couple of our team. In the end, we flipped a total of three times, and I got tossed out only once. That time, my pants got sucked to my ankles and I floundered in the rapid for a few minutes with my bare rear end floating on the surface until a kayaker came and rescued me. And once we got stuck in a hole for a few minutes of exhilarating churning. It was like being in a washing machine, our boat was completely full of water and we all thought we would be stuck there until someone pulled us out. We got out eventually, and got through the rest of the rapids with no one drowning, but everyone spending a lot of time in the water. It was a great time. The next day I was extremely sore. It definitely felt like I had been tossed around on some rocks all day. I left Uganda on New Year’s Eve. I was glad to get out of the place with the crazy monopoly money and back to my normal looking cash. I had planned on doing something fun for New Years Eve, or at least being awake for it, but I was so exhausted I ended up falling asleep by 9pm. Pretty pathetic, but after the craziness of the previous weeks, I didn’t really care. By January 2nd, I was in Nairobi stocking up on packaged food and spices for the next few months, and on the 3rd, I was back home in Marsabit. I had a few moments of panic when I remembered what it was like to have crappy cell phone service, no internet, and no market to get food from. But in general, life was not so bad. It was very nice to have a few days to just relax in my house before going back to school. And now, school has started. I am off to a good start, I am much more confident than previous terms, and I have a lot more plans for secondary projects. I am hopeful that this term will be great and I am ready to start getting things done and counting down the remaining months. For now, I am in town and the stima (electricity) is out (of course) so I am going to do some shopping and hope that it comes back in time for me to post this.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

Today is Thanksgiving. I am sitting outside my hotel room in Nairobi watching the rain. I had pizza for dinner and a Spanish omelette for breakfast. I am waiting to get on a matatu that will take me to Loitokitok where I will be helping the new Peace Corps trainees. I had planned on being in Mars by myself for the holiday so I couldn’t be happier. I will get to spend thanksgiving with PC volunteers. I have never met them and they have probably never heard of me but since we are all peace corps, they are part of my extended family and I am very happy that I will get to spend Turkey day with family. There won’t be stuffing, or turkey, or cranberry sauce, but at least I will be with family. I left my village so abruptly that I didn’t really have time to mentally prepare. I know it sounds strange, having to prepare to go to someplace as innocuous as Nairobi but I have been living in Mars and it really might as well be another planet. I hadn’t even been to Marsabit town in weeks and weeks. I just don’t like the hustle and bustle of town life. I like to stay quiet and easy in my little village. The last time I went to town was to pick up a package from the posta. This being a very small village, the guy at the post office saw the package and told his daughter (who is one of my students ) to tell me to come get it. Also, the posta gave a notice to a man who drives a truck for a local NGO who came to Dirib and gave the letter to my neighbor who gave it to me. My principal also knew. While I appreciate the efficiency of the ‘word-of-mouth’ system, the problem comes when the people in charge of opening my mail to inspect it write a detailed list of everything that is in the box on the notice slip. So everyone in my village knew that I was getting shoes, snacks, and a sampling of small liquor bottles. The customs guys were very thorough in writing exactly what type of alcohol (three bottles Smirnoff, Jose Cuervo, Malibu, Jack Daniels… ). By the time I got the box I had at least five people who asked me to share. That day, I also went to town to stock up on food. The rains had stopped for two days which was long enough for a truck to get through and bring bread back to Marsabit. I visited my fundi (seamstress) because she is also one of only two or three places I know of that sells Kenya souvenirs. I bought a bunch of handmade jewelry for future Christmas gifts. I felt like I spent a lot of money but then I realized that I bought gifts for every friend and family member and I had spent less than 10 bucks. Converting to America money always slays that buyer’s remorse. I also went to the area of the market where they sell spices to buy some incense. I was tempted to buy some of the traditional medicines that are sold in small piles all over. They look like piles of kindling or bundles of sticks or even piles of ground colorful powders. I asked what each did and some are for ulcers, some are for arthritis, and some are for malaria. They are all taken by boiling into a tea which is drunk by the patient. While I was tempted to buy some, I figured it was probably useless at best, and dangerous at worst, so I walked by without purchasing. Last Tuesday, I went to school to invigilate an exam. On the way, I had a conversation with a Borana woman. I am very excited and proud to say that it was my first real conversation in kiborana. I can officially communicate in three languages (four if you count me being able to say three full sentences and a couple of swear words in Kenyan Sign Language). The convo was pretty short and nothing impressive but I am still going to be excited about it. There are some days when my life feels almost normal. I get up, get dressed, make coffee, commute to work, etc. And then there are other days when I realize “wow, where do I LIVE?” One day last week, when I arrived at school, the teachers were all excited because they had killed an “olokhe”. They didn’t know the English or Kiswahili name for the animal. They proudly walked me over the hole where the creature had gone to die while regaling me with their stories about how the animal has been prowling around at night, digging holes everywhere, and finally they were able to kill it by stabbing it twice with a spear. When I saw the animal I realized that the olokhe was a spiny anteater ( I think, its head was pretty deep in the hole). And it was HUGE. It was the size of a dog and had human looking feet that could fit into size eight shoes. The body was flesh colored and had sparse, bristly hairs all over. Its tail was long, thin and hairless. If I didn’t know better I would have said it was an “el chupecabra” (google it). I accidentally taught Galgallo, the adorable three year old, how to swear. He now knows “dammit” and “ass”. I am usually pretty good at controlling my language around Kenyans. No one here swears, its very strange. I have been replacing many swear words with the word “awful”. It works to replace $h*t in sentences like“I feel awful”; and it replaces the F word nicely too “I feel awfully awful”. But when I am in my house and talking to myself (yes, I talk to myself), I use the opportunity to get all my swears out. It used to be fine around Galgallo, he was too shy and young to understand what I was saying. But now he is at the age where he repeats everything people say. It is fun to hear him learning three languages at once. But when I kick over my water jug and swear, he is always in my doorway to repeat the word with a big giggly smile on his face. The taxi is on its way to come get me and take me to a matatu headed for Nairobi so I am going to go. I wish everyone in America a Happy Thanksgiving. And Family: I miss you guys so much and I think about you every minute of every day. On holidays, I think about you twice every minute. Love you! One last thing: the best student answer for final exams was from a Form One student who, when asked about the definition of temperature said: The higher the temperature, the cooler the terminology

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Mvua Ilinyesha (The Rain Rained)

I went out for a walk around the village during a lull in the rains and I realized what an entirely new world had emerged. My village looked like other places in Kenya that I have visited. It was green with lush, tall grass. Purple and yellow flowers dotted the fields, children played in puddles and vines crawled over everything. It is beautiful and I wandered around looking for a place to relax in the sun. I found this one place that seemed quiet. It was out of site of the road and overlooked a hill with no grass huts nearby, and therefore no kids constantly yelling at me. I stood there and said to myself “THIS is my new spot”. I was going to go there often with a good book and get away from everything. I stood there for a moment, overlooking my new spot, when before you could say “habari yako” a mother and her son walked up behind me and started chatting. I greeted them and then sidled away down the hill closer to the road trying to be out of sight of all people. But then rush hour started. Everyone and their mother started heading home. I saw a group of my students, a man who asked me what was wrong with me (a person cannot be alone or inactive in Kenya without something being wrong), mamas with their babies tied to their backs, people carrying bags of rice, and lots of Muslims heading home after various Idd celebrations. I had to head home after a half an hour of people staring and laughing at me. I am sure they are thinking “look at that ridiculous mzungu! She’s standing in a field! Just standing! Silly!” Idd is a Muslim holiday, I am not totally sure what it represents, something about the fifth pillar of Islam (Hadji) when people make the nine-day trip to Mecca and something else about the ram that God gave to Joseph to take the place of the son in the slaughter. Anyway, like many holidays, it involves lots of visiting friends and family and lots of feasting. Lokho’s family killed a goat, but by the time they saw me to invited me over, all the good meat was gone. The family cannot afford rice so I was handed a tin bowl filled to the brim with intestines and one small boiled potato. It was one of the most disgusting things I have ever tasted. I do not mind all organs. I actually like goat liver (mmm, iron), and I think the kidney isn’t bad. But everything else just looks grey and bumpy, like toad skin or raw octopus tentacles. Most people do not use spices for cooking, maybe salt if you are lucky. And this goat had some nice yellow fat. Every time I get served matumbo, the taste gets worse. It is too tough to cut with a spoon, so I had to take nice big spoonfuls and then chew for a few minutes to get it to small enough pieces to swallow. I used the potato to cleanse the palette every few bites but my brain could not stop trying to identify each bite (“Is that the gall bladder?”). They do not usually serve drinks with meals either, so no washing anything down. I had to be polite, after all, it is very generous of them to feed me the little meat they have. Lokho tells me that they only get meat on very special holidays. I ate for about half an hour before I just couldn’t eat anymore. There were a few bites left, including one huge chunk of what looked like stomach wall with a border of yellow, bubbly fat. I left it and Mama fed the rest to Galgallo. I really hope she wasn’t offended by my lack of appetite so I made a comment later about how I usually do not eat meat. I don’t think it helped. I hung out for awhile with the family learning new kiborana words. When I stole Galgallo’s favorite rock and playfully held it out of his reach he giggled adorably repeating “not yours! Not yours!” and when he and his little brother (who is one and barely talks) played with the creepy crawlies that were everywhere, I learned my favorite Borana word thus far “coco” which means something scary. After a couple cups of chai to kill the matumbo aftertaste, I went home and as soon as I got in my door, Lokho followed me in. She said she had been outside when I left her house and she had just seen a large animal run by that she thought was a hyena. That freaked me out though she seemed completely calm. A hyena? On my front porch? Yikes. These people are crazy walking around at night. I did see that my neighbors had a big ‘animal poking’ stick which must make them feel safer. They used it recently on a pack of nine or so wild dogs (not Wild Dogs but feral dogs). Dogs scare me the least, but nine were in the compound this morning at 5 am howling like wolves. The leader of the pack ran past me. Most of the dogs here are scraggly and thin and diseased looking. This one looked like a cross between a pit-bull and a grizzly bear. The hyenas are afraid of people but the dogs aren’t. I toss out the remains from dinner and within seconds, the dogs are sneaking up to eat it. At least the hyenas are smart enough to run away when they see you. I haven’t gone to town in an entire month. I really have grown to hate town. Next year I am going to try to find a way to avoid town as much as possible. I just have to find a way to stop needing food. This last month without town was nice. I really enjoyed having the extra time to relax. I am finally remembering how to sleep in, though I am still up at eight AM and getting people coming to my door asking why I am still sleeping at such a late hour. But its better than waking up before six like I have been doing. I haven’t really intentionally been skipping town. I need to go at the very least to buy toilet paper (there are only so many creative alternatives). The first week was the Brother’s fault, it was pouring rain and they didn’t want to drive in it. That was a very good decision. The next week, it was raining and I didn’t want to go, so I stayed in my pjs and purposely missed the vehicle. The week after that was probably my fault as well but I can’t remember the reason I skipped, most likely laziness. This week, however, I had fully planned on going. I even wrote out a grocery list (it said “everything” in capital letters). It was raining but I wasn’t taking my chances. The Brothers usually go around ten o’clock so I got dressed and was out the door by nine to call them and double check that they were leaving despite the on and off rain. I walked around my compound in a leso (colorful cloth wrap) and flip flops searching for service while the rain had paused. I was still hearing this loud rushing noise and finally figured out that it was the river (well, what is normally a rocky gully). It was shockingly high and fast with waterfalls and rapids all over the place. I was watching mamas collecting water in jerry cans and noticed the kids running back and forth on the banks throwing rocks. I thought that was pretty risky behavior and the mother instinct in me had me standing there watching them from afar. All of a sudden, all the kids started screaming. I knew immediately what happened. One of them fell in the river. The kids were jumping up and down in a panic and every adult in the area ran down to the river to see if they could help. Everyone on my side (the wrong side) of the river also ran down. I took my shoes off and slipped through the mud with everyone else. The only word I could understand was “ijolle” (child). Some of the men carefully and slowly crossed the waist deep river, holding onto any flotsam they could find. I did not attempt to cross, I would have been washed away. I stood on the banks with the rest of the village trying to careen my neck enough to see what was happening. The village chief came by and finally told me, in English, that the young kid was pulled out of the river and was going to be fine. But he was worried because everyone needed to get from one side of the river to the other, and clearly it was too dangerous. He and the assistant village chief rounded up all the strong men and found a place where the river was narrow but swift. They made a human bridge, slowly passing each person across. Twice, a mama fell in the water and the whole village panicked. But eventually, everyone got across. I walked back to my house covered from the waist down in thick mud. I took a quick bath, changed all my clothes, and went to St. Pauls to catch the vehicle. Of course I missed it. As a consolation prize, I hung out in the Brothers house for awhile eating mandazi. They later apologized for leaving me and gave me a two day supply of mandazi to make up for it. I am still desperate to go to town, at least to get a package from America that has arrived for me. This is a very small village and the guy who works in the posta told his daughter, who is one of my students, about the package. Also, I got an official notice from my principal, who passed it to a fellow teacher, that listed everything that was in the package. So the rumor spread and now everyone I know is aware that I have received a package full of "energizer batteries, shoes, and miniature alcohol bottles". Thank you, Amanda! It has been raining paka na mbwa (cats and dogs) for the last few weeks. I am trying to hold on to my love of the rain, but it gets more difficult each day. The road is deteriorating to the point where I actually cannot get to school if it is raining. It is just too dangerous to cross the rushing rivers. And when it is clear enough that I can make it, the mud is still ankle deep in many places. My teachers are always impressed that I show up to school, especially when I show up with only my shoes being covered in mud. I have found a use for the constant crowd of children that follow me around. Since they spend their days playing, they know all the best routes across the rivers that will prevent you from getting completely soaked. It is a very handy thing. You just walk up to a creek, peer around you for a second, and from out of nowhere a child will appear to guide you. Its like magic. This Friday was a rough day and almost made me curse the rain. I had already missed Tuesday and Thursday because of the rains and I spent the days cleaning and doing all my laundry. Friday was the last day of classes before exams so I had to get to school to at least review with my students. The clothes I hung on the line on Thursday were still damp when I went to bed so I left them on the line thinking that, if it rained, they would just get an extra rinse and there had to be some sunshine before the weekend. But I was very wrong. Over the night it started to rain very, very, very hard. It was a real storm complete with lightening. I have no trees in my yard so one end of my laundry line was hooked to an open window. I woke at 3 am to remove my soaking wet couch cushions and move my coffee table out of the splash zone. I had no choice but to let the rain flood that corner of the living room. I got up as soon as the sun was up and went outside in the rain to take down my clothes so I could shut the window. I stepped outside into the storm and my mood immediately dropped. My clothes had gotten so wet that the line couldn’t hold them. Sometime during the night, the line had snapped, leaving all my clean clothes on the wet, muddy ground. Wonderful. Grumbling, I picked up everything, (I am going to have to rewash it all…), and took down the line (…and I’ll need to buy a new laundry line). I went back in my house and got ready for school. It was foggy, cold, wet, and muddy. I was not at all looking forward to the walk to school. I put on leggings and a loose skirt that would dry quickly if it got wet. My freshly washed shirts were all muddy and wet, so I had to wear a white button down blouse. Great for wet t-shirt contests. I put a large, yellow plastic bag with a picture of Aladdin over my backpack (I made sure Aladdin was facing outwards, you know… fashion first!) and set off for school. As I passed Lokho’s house, she came out and gave me my bright yellow umbrella back. I like that umbrella because its yellow and has Japanese writing and baby dinosaurs on it (isn’t it amazing the stuff you can find in a used clothing market?). It wasn’t really raining as I started to walk, so I tucked the “Adventures of Qiqi and Keke” umbrella between my body and the backpack. I crossed the first river, the one that usually prevents me from leaving my house. But today it was just a small, unbelievably muddy creek. As I was slipping down the road towards school, I noticed that, since the power was out and I got dressed in the near darkness, I had my leggings on inside out. Awesome. I was alone on my walk to school, presumably everyone else was being smart and staying inside. I crossed two more small rivers, managing to avoid getting too wet or muddy. I was listening to my ipod and cruising along getting lots of friendly waves from people standing in the doorways of their manyattas. How awful would it be to have a stick roof and a mud floor during the rainy season? I would expire from pure grubby frustration. By the time I got to the last big river in between me and Sasura, I was really tired of walking the really long way around to find a dry path. I went to the water’s edge and studied it for a moment. It didn’t look too deep; surely those are small rocks causing those eddies. I looked around, I knew from experience that it would take me 20 minutes to find a path over the water, and it would be very muddy. So, I thought, its only about six big steps to the other side and I would be, at worst, stuck in wet shoes for the day. So I charged on through. And, Oh, how very wrong I was. The first step took the water to my knees. The second step was up on a rock and I only had time to think “Oh, that first deep step was a fluke” before I took a third step that brought the water up my thighs. I sent a quick thanks to the big guy upstairs that no one was around to watch me practically swimming across the road. I surged the last couple steps onto the firm-looking bank only to find that it was not firm at all. Not even a teeny bit; it was the furthest thing possible from firm. I would have rather gone back through the river. The ground was mud/quick sand. I had one foot knee deep in muddy water and the other foot sank knee (KNEE!) deep in the juicy mud. I paused for a split second to consider my options. I figured speed was the key and tried to run up the bank. Needless to say, I was, of course, wrong. But, strangely enough, my tights are made out of some magic material that (sorta) repels mud. I escaped with mud thickly coated only from the shin down. I walked the rest of the way in a strange mood, I was happy. Somehow, fighting with the environment gets my mind effectively off any other stresses. And plus, I had that spring in my step that comes from when you just know you look good. I mean, seriously, if my high school nemeses could see me now. I had mud up to the knees, wet up the thighs, I was holding my skirt up high, I had tights that were inside out, a backpack covered in a plastic Aladdin bag, I was twirling a baby dinosaur umbrella (when it wasn’t packed like a sword in a scabbard), and I was singing, loud and most-likely off key (I had headphones on, I couldn’t hear myself). I felt like Sam Gamgee from Lord of the Rings (I love Sam, but lets be serious, he’s a dork). Or a hobo. I got to school, got laughed at by the teachers for my stupid “I’ll just walk straight across the river” idea, chastised by my everyone for attempting to come to school today (I was able to reassure them once I explained that I was quite proficient at swimming) , and made fun of for my inside out tights by my students. Then I got to spend the entire day with squelching shoes that were full of river water. When it was time to head back home I walked through Kubibagasa (the village where the school is) and was stopped by a whole crowd of people. They asked me if I knew there was a river to cross. I said yes and I asked if there was a way around. There wasn't, so I said "hakuna shida" (No prob!) and marched off to the river with the crowd laughing at me. I probably shouldn't have crossed the river, but what was I supposed to do? I put all my stuff in the Aladdin bag to keep it dry, hiked up my skirt and prepared to go in. The crowd followed me down to the river to watch and just as I put one foot in, a young man came up and told me to wait. He gallantly rolled up his cuffs and took my arm to lead me into the water. He slowly and carefully took me across. It was a good thing too, the river, while still looking shallow, had gotten waist deep. I am making a promise to myself that I will no longer try to cross a swollen river. I am not going to risk it. This week, one of my students asked me about homosexuality. In Kenya, homosexuality is very taboo. When I said that in America, many gays and lesbians get married, the girls gasped like I just pulled a unicorn out of thin air. The questions that arose were amusing. I got asked “when two men marry, who becomes the wife and who becomes the husband?” I was asked about homosexual sex, and I tried to gloss over the topic. But the girls wanted details. It was really difficult to explain how homosexual sex works without sounding like a cheap porn novel. They wanted to know if two men could have children. And, since America is clearly allowing all kinds of sin, is it legal to marry your brother or have sex with animals? And worse, can you marry outside your clan? And importantly, isn’t it illegal to have sex before marriage? When I answered “no, it is not illegal”, the student asking the question, called me closer, cupped her hand around her mouth to whisper “No, I mean… is it legal to have sex with someone who you are NOT planning on marrying?” This is the last week of school. We are doing exams and then everything is finished. I am hoping to fly to "down Kenya" the day after Thanksgiving. I am going to celebrate Thanksgiving a day late and hopefully have some delicious non-Kenyan food with some American. That is about as close as I'll get to tradition. I am still very much looking forward to it.

Monday, October 31, 2011

DikDik: the Other, Other, Other White Meat

Before I came to Kenya, I didn’t know anything about termites. Literally nothing. But I am starting to learn about them. For example: they are attracted to light, just like moths. Unlike moths, they are good at crawling as well as flying. This means that while the moths are flinging their bodies against my windows and door, trying futilely to get inside, the termites with fling themselves heartily into the door, fall to the ground and crawl underneath the giant crack under the door. Once inside, they will fly crazily around bumping into things. I have started stuffing dirty clothes under the door to prevent them (and those frisky spiky legged beetles) from coming in. This is very effective but in the morning when I remove the clothes, I discover that hundreds of termites have ripped off their wings and left them in a pile right outside the door in what I can only assume is a protest. “You don’t like us in your house, Ryan? Fine, we’ll just leave our wings here until you change your mind. Hope you enjoy sweeping first thing in the morning!” Why do they do that? What could the species gain from having wings that just fall off that easily? It is a mystery but leads my brain to fun imagination stories where the termites are flying when the wings drop, causing the termite to spin out of control like an airplane when its wings fall off. I hate the termites. I leave my lights off as much as possible but every evening at least two or three people come to my door to greet me, or sell me eggs, and I have to turn the light on and stand in the open doorway chatting for 15 minutes while all the termites in a five kilometer radius take advantage of the situation and decide to come in and share my dinner. Its annoying sana. My Rendille friend, Joseph, came over the other day to charge his cell phone and so I asked him if he knew why termites lose their wings. He said no and then, wanting to show me just how easy the wings come off, he caught a termite out of the air and proceeded to rip the wings off. Then he dropped it to the ground and let it scurry around, poor thing. I asked him if he ate termites and, to my amusement, he said, with mild disgust in his voice, “Nooo, we Rendille do not eat termites! We are not like those people from Rift Valley Province.” The tribalism here baffles me. Kenyans tend to be very loyal to their tribe and pretty harsh to other tribes. With 50+ tribes in Kenya, it all gets a little confusing. People will tell me things like, “Oh, I don’t like him. Why? Because he’s black.” And every time I hear it, I laugh out loud and point out “you know you are ALL black, right?” And then they laugh and are perplexed as to how I can’t tell the difference. Though, after a year, I am starting to tell the difference. I can tell who is Rendille and who is Borana, and not by their clothes but by their faces. I have trouble with differentiating between Rendille/Samburu because they are closely related. I can even tell, most of the time, someone from Meru or someone who is a Luo. Anyway, back to eating termites. I thought it was amusing that Joseph was so grossed out by eating termites when his tribe is known for drinking camel blood. But who am I to judge? I, after all, enjoy eating potatoes with the skin on, put sauce made of MILK on my pasta, and drink my tea cold. Heinous! Joseph had also come over to brag that he had caught a dikdik in his housing compound the other day. A dikdik is a tiny antelope-type creature. They are adorable, and apparently quite tasty. He was very proud of his accomplishment, even though all he did was trap the thing when it came in to nibble grass. But he promised that the next time he caught one, and surely it would be soon, he would be sure to bring me an entire kg of meat. I am actually looking forward to it. I would only very reluctantly eat a fried termite, but I would gladly eat a dik dik. What if it tastes like a delicious steak? (I doubt it tastes like steak, it probably tastes like goat) He also told me that if I wanted some tasty meat, I should get a slingshot and take care of those pigeons who defecate on my porch all the time. A delicious meal and I get rid of the annoying pigeons? Now wouldn’t that be killing two birds with one stone? (Yes, terrible pun, but I couldn’t resist.) Last Saturday was a long, rough day. I woke up at the usual time, around 6 am, and slowly made coffee and pancakes. I was savoring my delicious cup of hazelnut kahawa (a friend sent me powdered creamer and it was the greatest day of my life). When the little neighbor kids came by yelling and throwing rocks at my door. I ignored the adorable little bastards, trying to train them that throwing rocks will not get my attention. But it wasn’t long before I heard a horrible sound; it was the grating metal of the outside door bolt. I ran to the door but it was too late, I was locked in. I opened the window and tried to get the kids to come back. But the only words I know are “kot! (come)”, “lakisa! (stop that!)”, “Lon! (cow)” and a few other equally unhelpful phrases. I did say “es demt?!” which means “where are you going?” but they just giggled and said they were going home, before running away. They didn’t come back. I, not having cell network in my house, had to wait until a Kiswahili speaking person walked by who I could ask to open the door. What time was that? 8 pm. Yup, I was locked in my own house until eight o’clock at night. Every other day of the year will bring a visitor every hour but the one day I need someone, everyone decides to give me a break. That’s just my luck. I had to make good use of my night-time, lets-not-get-eaten-by-jackals-on-the-way-to-the-choo bucket. In addition to the embarrassment of the situation (seriously, who gets locked in their own house by a bunch of four year olds?), I also missed my chance to go to town and get food for the week. Though, that was more a problem for my tastebuds than an actual crisis. I am getting pretty good at making something out of nothing. (garlic mashed potato pancakes breaded with stale breadcrumbs fried in blue band = super yum). By the time Lokho came by to let me in, I was settled into my isolation and was fine and happy. But I was grateful to her, I didn’t want to explain to anyone what happened if I didn’t show up for school on Monday. That same evening, Lokho and I were watching some movie on my computer and I was multitasking and marking exams when all of a sudden a GIANORMOUS scorpion walked out of my bedroom. I have had quite a few scorpions in my house over the past year but they were all only a few inches long. This sucker was as big as the palm of my hand. Its claws looked like mini boxing mitts. My first thought was to take a picture and I wanted to make sure that there was something in the picture to give it perspective, so (my mother is going to kill me) I threw a pen at it. It had the expected reaction, coiling up with its boxing mitts up and its tail poised. After a few photos, I went about trying to catch him and take him outside. I wanted to kill it but I didn’t want to have to clean up a large handful of scorpion goo. Lokho, who was reading a book at the time, was standing on my couch squealing like a normal 13 year old girl and yelling for me to go get help and to be careful and to not touch it and that she heard someone died from being stung and they were deadly. She didn’t believe me when I said I was unafraid. I explained that even if I went and got a neighbor, they would do the same thing I was doing, and find a way to get it outside. So with her on the couch, I tried to catch the big black scorpion in a bucket. That part was easy, but when I tried to slide a piece of cardboard under the bucket and flip it over, the scorpion scrambled out. I’ll admit, that startled me, and I jumped about a foot in the air when it nearly crawled over my hand. Lokho screamed and then admonished me to at least put shoes on. I figured that was a pretty good idea. Once armed with shoes and the bundle of stiff grass that is my broom, I found the scorpion hiding behind my bedroom door. I felt like a knight with a sword (broom) in one hand and a shield (bucket) in the other. I herded it out of my room and to the front door. I whisked open the door to sweep him out into the night and was immediately assaulted by a million termites- the big red ones. They had been attracted to the light and now poured into my face. At that, I panicked. I jumped back and started swiping at them with my broom, completely forgetting my plan to take the giant scorpion outside and execute it. I kept the door open long enough to get the scorpion out and then I slammed the door shut and stuffed a pair of pants under the crack. I spent the next couple minutes twitching and swiping at the bugs as they flew around the room. Then, I went outside to finish off the scorpion. I turned off the light in my living room, whipped open the front door and danced through the cloud of termites to the porch light switch. I flipped it on then danced, swiping frantically at termites, out of the pool of light and into the gravel. I realized belatedly that I should have been watching to make sure I didn’t step on the scorpion, but I was lucky and the thing had run off. I searched the area and found him sitting on the edge of my porch. I approached, hefted the thickest shoe I owned in my hands, took careful aim and slammed the shoe down on the scorpion. I lifted the shoe and the scorpion walked away without a care. I slammed it down a second time and pissed off the scorpion; he attacked the sole of the shoe with its tail before walking away, annoyed but uninjured. I hefted the shoe a third time and waited till the scorpion was on a nice clear patch of ground, then, with a battle cry of “DIE!” I slammed the shoe down, then stood on it and ground it into the gravel. Then I scooted the shoe back and forth a bit, to smear the scorpion into the dirt, before lifting it again. Nothing; I think the scorpion was laughing at me by this point. Lokho suggested I try a rock. I picked a nice heavy stone, swung and smashed the scorpion. I lifted the rock, and, I’m not lying, the scorpion was fine! What in God’s name are those things made of?! I tried one more time, I SLAMMED that rock on the scorpion; this time I felt some goo land on my hand. I lifted the rock from the now crushed scorpion and crouched down close. It was dead. Finally. I stood up with a sigh and faced my front door. I could not bring myself to walk back through the cloud of termites so Lokho and I stood outside for a little while catching our breath. After a few minutes, she went over to the scorpion and poked it with a stick. “Ryan? Its still alive.” I could not believe it. I told her it was just the remnants of muscle activity but when I went back to the creature and performed a scientific examination (I poked it repeatedly with the stick) I found that, indeed, the bastard was still alive, curling and uncurling its tail. The thing had been hit with a shoe THREE times and a rock twice and it was still kicking. I gave up and went back inside my house, after making Lokho go turn off the light so I wouldn’t have to walk through the cloud of termites. Man, I hate termites. Dates are delicious. I had never had them when I was in America, I didn’t really know what they were covered in and I didn’t like eating things with pits. (like olives). Here in Kenya, dates are common in places like Mombasa where the date stalls line the streets, but here in Mars, they are extremely rare. I don’t know where you can get them. But one of my neighbors came over and brought me a whole bowlful of them and it turns out they are super delicious. Its like candy! (We don’t have much candy in Mars) Then one of my fellow teachers gave me a few dates. It was the teacher who I find attractive and it was really hard not to giggle girlishly when he asked, “Ryan, would you like a date?” (My favorite corny pick up line is “Hey Baby, want a raisin? No? How ‘bout a date?” ) I just smiled and said thanks, like a normal person. The form 3 biology class is learning about genetic disorders and the topic ‘albinism’ came up. The teacher, Mr. Hassan, was lecturing on the topic when one of the students commented that I must be an albino, you know, cause I’m white. Hassan told the students to ask me if I am actually albino. It is not the first time I have been called albino but it is just as amusing the second time. I get to explain that albinos have no color, not in their hair, not in their eyes, not in their skin. I also get to let them poke at my freckles and show them that I am as black as them, the difference is that I am only black in tiny, circular areas. In the staff room, when the teachers finished laughing at the idea of me being albino and having freckles like a leopard, we started talking about actual albinos in Kenya. The albinos here suffer from extreme discrimination. In many parts of Kenya, they are killed. In Tanzania, an albino person can be sold to a witch doctor who uses the body parts in ‘traditional medicine’. Many albinos are killed and eaten to make others rich. This week, I also had a serious discussion about FGM with my form one students. I do not remember what topic I was teaching, but one of the girls asked me to explain why I was not circumcised and why I thought it was bad. I remember a Life Skills lesson that I had at the beginning of the year about FGM and I remember asking how many of them had gone through the procedure. I remember being shocked and horrified about the number but in the months since, I convinced myself that I was wrong. I just couldn’t stand the idea of every single one of these girls having to go through that. But they have. Every single girl in my school, all 150 of them (minus maybe one or two girls from outside the Marsabit area) have had female genital mutilation. They were also shocked that I had not done it. Apparently, some of them were told that without the procedure they would be unable to give birth to children. I assured them that was not true at all. I also explained everything negative I know about the topic. I feel a little guilty because I became angry and indignant, not at them of course, but at their tribal elders. I know I should be open minded to other cultural practices but I just cannot help my abhorrence from expressing itself. I explain that the common name for female circumcision is ‘Female Genital Mutilation’, and then I had to explain what the word ‘mutilation’ meant, because they didn’t know. I told them that some reasons that FGM is dangerous is because of the possible infections, high blood loss, and pain. When I mentioned pain, a couple girls exclaimed, asking if I have seen it, if I really knew just how extreme the pain was. The remembered suffering was so clear on their face that it made my stomach drop. I ended my discussion by begging them to not let their future daughters go through that completely unnecessary procedure. Life in Kenya is never (never, never) dull. Tedious, maybe, but never dull. On Friday, I was in my last class of the day when the sky opened up. It is impossible to teach when the rain is deafening on the tin roof. I finished the lesson using charades; my class thought it was hilarious. I knew that I’d have to walk home soon, as the afternoon went on it was only going to get colder. And since it had been a thousand degrees out just that morning, I had on a light nylon skirt and a t-shirt, no jacket. I wrapped my backpack in a bag and started off home. I was soaked to the skin in ten minutes. The road to Dirib was decimated by the river of water. There was only slippery mud, bare rock, and brown rapids where the road used to be. I made my way along slower than usual, finally making it to a large hill above my house. The last distance should have taken five minutes but it took me over half an hour to get to my door. First, I came across a woman as wet as I was. She was wearing no shoes and had a baby goat under one arm and a panga (machete) in the other. She was clearly frustrated, running back and forth trying to get her herd of cold, unhappy goats to walk down the hill. Half the goats had gone down the hill, some had run up the hill to escape the flood, and some had taken shelter under a scraggly acacia bush. I asked if she needed help and then climbed down into the mud to prod the goats out from the bush. The littlest ones were too tired to walk, so I picked up one and she picked up the other and we went down the hill. My goat was so tired, it was an adorable thing, covered in mud and he rested his head on my chest and bleated softly as we walked. We caught up with the rest of the herd standing at the edge of a wide, deep, fast stream bisecting the road. The woman and I waded in, it was knee deep, and we carried our baby goats to the other side. We went back and forth carrying small goats and pulling big goats across. Once we all made it to the other side, I said goodbye and took a short cut over another hill to get home. I climbed to the top of the hill and saw that the normally rocky valley that I cross to get home was now a river. You could easily go white water kayaking in there. I went back down the hill to find a way around and it took me through three manyattas (housing compounds). But I finally found a way to cross three more knee-deep streams each a couple meters across. It was actually a little scary. I walked parallel to the giant river, walking on the narrow mud bank only a couple feet wide, holding onto the fence in case I slipped on the mud. I made it home safely, but stayed outside in the rain for another half an hour to fill all five of my 20 liter jerry cans, both my buckets, and my wash basin with rain water. I thought about doing some laundry and maybe washing my hair out there by standing under a flooded gutter, but I started to get very cold and figured if I died of pneumonia because I was busy washing my hair in the rain, people would make fun of me. I went inside and spent the rest of the evening drinking hot chocolate. By Sunday, the rain had stopped and everything is back to normal. And by normal, I mean, unpleasantly and disgustingly hot. As much as I hate to admit it, I smell like a camel. The deodorant/ antiperspirant here in Mars is, sadly, not up to the task of either antiperspir-ing or deodor-ing. Or maybe its just hit its limit, maybe it stops working at 10,000 degrees Celcius.