Saturday, January 29, 2011

Bartut Olle/ Habari Yako / How are you?

My New Home

Hi everyone! I have been very lax in my blogging, though this is not my fault. Turns out, my village is in the middle of nowhere (I know, shocking) and so I do not get cell phone or internet service there. This is the first time I have had internet since December. I found a parish in Marsabit town that has free wireless internet. So this blog entry is very long. I have actually been writing it since Christmas and just kept adding on to it. I hope it will catch you up on the happenings here in Kenya.
When I last wrote, Ana and I were stuck in Nairobi with plans to go to the medical officer’s house for Christmas. Ana’s supervisor, however, wanted to get home and Ana had to go with him and I was not going to stay in Nairobi by myself. So at 5 am on Christmas Eve we went downtown and found a cramped matatu to take us to Rongo, a six hour drive. Matatus, if you recall, are supposed to fit 14 people. This one had 18, plus luggage. This is not the most crowded matatu I have been on, but it was the longest journey. We made no stops but one. Kenyan towns are all drive though service. You pull up and anything you need to buy is thrust in your window. This pit stop was KFC. The guy next to me bought some chickens- live, unhappy chickens. There was no space on the matatu, so they were put under my feet. If I put my feet on the floor, I stepped on one, then he would squawk and everyone would look at me funny. I will never, ever complain about airplane travel again. During the incredibly uncomfortable journey, I saw some of the most beautiful views of the Great Rift Valley. We drove along a one lane road with a high cliff on one side and a drop off into the Valley on the other. It was incredible. And someone puked. This seems to happen a lot on matatus and is always a great smell to have on a cramped vehicle. It’s okay, I only got a little vomit on me. Finally, Ana and I arrived in Rongo. Her supervisor is very kind, and his wife is lovely. They have six children who want to stare at us, play with all our stuff, and generally just not leave us alone. Christmas Eve dinner was prepared by the wife, Ana, and me. The supervisor kept calling me into the living room to ask if the food was ready yet. I wanted to tell him to stop watching TV and come help, but I restrained myself. We ate dinner which was definitely the worst food my poor taste buds have ever encountered. It was greens and ugali made in a way that turned them into a disgusting, smelly, gooey decoction. It was terrible. After dinner, I was depressed and hungry so I went to bed. Ana and I lay on the bottom bunk in the storage room while people kept coming in and out and kids were hiding under the bed, and we licked a melted candy bar off the wrapper and lamented about our situation. Late that night, I woke up and had to go to the bathroom. In Kenya, that is outside. I left the room and went to the door to find it padlocked. I searched all around the house for the key and couldn’t find it. I didn’t know where any other bedrooms were or anything. My anti-malarial medication has a side effect that makes me have to urinate often. And I am unable to ignore it, if I try, I’ll pee my pants. I’m like a four year old. So I am stuck in this house, now I am just looking for something to pee in. Anything will do, a sink, a plant, or a cup. There is nothing. I finally cannot hold it anymore and I pee into a cup I found in the kitchen. There is no window to pour it out, and no other way to get rid of it but to wait till morning. So I go back to bed. An hour later, Ana has the exact same problem, with the exact same solution. We both get up in the morning to empty our cups, she does hers fine. I look for mine, and find it missing. Someone must have found it before I woke up and emptied it. How hilarious and embarrassing is that?
Christmas morning, Ana’s supervisor said he would take us to Sori; it is near to where PCV Brennan lives and where some people were meeting for Christmas. We made it by the afternoon and spent the rest of the day in Karungu Bay with Brennan, Reilly, Karl, and Emily. Brennan lives in a McMansion on a hill overlooking the lake. We cooked spicy hamburgers (the meat was a little green, so we ground it up, spiced the heck out of it, and over-cooked it a bit) with guacamole and pineapple slices. We also had fried potatoes. We ate on the porch, watching the sun go down over the lake. When it was dark, the light show began. We were surrounded by lightening and it was not raining. It was an incredible show that was as good as fireworks. Below the lightening, on the lake, we watched the fishermen take their boats out to catch fish. They put small, floating oil lamps on the water to attract the tiny silversides. There were hundreds of these tiny lights bobbing and floating around the inky, black lake. On our shore, they moved freely and created shapes. Across the lake, on the Ugandan side, the lights all blended together to form a line, like a distant, twinkling city. Above the lightening, it was a clear night. I have never seen so many stars in my life. There were shooting stars, the brightest I have ever seen, streaking across the sky to fall into the lightening. As we sat there, our astronomers, Ana and Emily, pointed out actual constellations (Betelgeuse, Vega, the Andromeda Galaxy), and we made up our own on the lamp-starred lake. We had: “The Chai Ladle”, the “Creepy Smiley Face”, and “The Seahorse”. After the show, we went in the house and turned it into a haunted house. We moved all Brennan's couches (he has, like, 10) into the middle of the room, hung a chair in a doorway, and draped mosquito nets over everything. Then we played hide-and-seek. The goal was to scare the pants off the seeker. The seeker was allowed one wind-up flashlight that had been taped over with duct tape. With the bats in the rafters, the creaking doors, and Karl singing children’s songs in a creepy, little girl’s voice, it was a terrifying game.
After Brennan’s house, I went to Oyugis with Emily and stayed a night in her supervisor’s house. Then I helped her move in. She lives in an even more beautiful place than Brennan. Her town is overgrown with vegetation, it looks like Cambodia. She has rolling green hills sprinkled with thatched roof houses, banana and avocado trees everywhere, and a view of the lake. I stayed with Emily until New Years. We cooked for the first time for ourselves. We made a couple of jiko cakes, and figured out frosting which doubled as chocolate fondue. We made a jiko quiche, which turned into a small volcano –molten on the inside, pumping smoke out of the middle. For New Years, we all went to Kisumu. It was HOT and wonderful. We rode around the city in “tuk-tuks” which are three wheeled vehicles that are driven like jet skis. They are adorable and I love them. We got milkshakes, had really cold drinks, and ate pizza. New Years Eve we spent on the roof of our hotel, overlooking the lake. There were fireworks (which kinda sucked), a DJ (who really sucked), and champagne (which was delicious). There were about 14 PCVs from our training group and a bunch from other groups. I got to see all my friends and it was absolutely wonderful. After New Years, I followed Cindy home. She lives in Sega, near the Ugandan border. To get to her place, we crossed the equator. It was an exciting concept, but less cool in actuality. I was on the made up, wooden seat in the aisle of a matatu, and all I saw was the yellow Equator Ball. Still cool though. Cindy’s house is very small, one room. She does have a dog, which belongs to her neighbors. I loved him and I taught Cindy how to train him. We decorated Cindy’s house by going to Busia (a town straddling the border with Uganda) and buying a ton of crazy-patterned fabric. Then we nailed it, quilt style, to her ceiling. It looks awesome.
Finally, on the 4th, I got a call saying it was time for my vacation to end and I had to go back to Nairobi. In all the traveling I have done over the past few weeks, I have never actually done any by myself. I was a little nervous. But I got up at 7 am on Wednesday, caught a matatu from Sega that took me to Kisumu, only stopping four times to bribe cops. I found a bus in Kisumu to take me to Nairobi; it somehow had an extra person and we had to stop at the police station in some tiny town so cops with big guns could get on and yell at everyone. I saw a herd of 40 zebra! When I arrived in Nairobi I got a little lost; the taxi didn’t even know where I was and could not find me. It was getting dark, and I was getting nervous. Downtown Nairobi by yourself at night is probably the worst possible scenario you can find yourself in. So I found a police officer who found me a taxi, and I made it to my hotel all safe and sound. I ate at a nice Italian restaurant, all by myself, which I have never done before. I was proud of myself for, you know, not dying. Then it was my last day in Nairobi. Friday (Jan 7th), I was on a tiny, baby plane to Marsabit. Because of my terrible luck, I had issues at the airport with my luggage. Unbeknownst to me, there was a 20 kg weight limit. I had brought 40 kgs to Kenya originally and then I bought a ton of stuff. Then PC gave me 80 or so books and manuals during training. Needless to say, I was way, way over 20 kgs. The pilot was nice enough to let me have 31 kgs: one bag. The other three had to be left behind in Nairobi with the hope that they will get sent to me soon. Anyway, I got on this tiny, baby plane that only fit 4 other people and the pilot, my bag was strapped in as an extra person. The propeller was on the nose and the seatbelts were these crazy military-racecar-harness contraptions that had to be buckled by the pilot. The whole plane could fit in your standard two-car garage. We flew out over Nairobi and I immediately spotted an elephant. From the air he looked like a gigantic hippo. The rest of the flight was fairly uneventful, just incredible views of mountains, forests, volcanic craters, huge plateaus, turbulent rivers, tea plantations, and rice paddies. You know, the usual. After two hours, which I spent with my face pressed against the window, we landed at the Marsabit airstrip. I looked pretty scruffy and was wearing my cleanest skirt; it is my inappropriate one that only grazes my knees. I figured I would get in, meet my supervisor, then go to my house and relax. Nope. Remember my bad luck? I was greeted by a welcoming committee of my deputy headmistress, my principal, Curtis, and Curtis’ counterpart. Alright, so that wasn’t so bad. I just wish I was dressed to impress. After hugs all around, they told me I would be staying in town for the night since my house had absolutely no furniture. So the four of them took me to lunch then showed me around town. It is gorgeous and I am already in love. It is huge and has absolutely everything. The people are friendly, it is cool (compared to the western area I have been staying), and there are millions of butterflies floating around. As my principal walked me around bargaining with carpenters to build me a bed for cheap, I was skipping around like a four-year old trying to catch the butterflies. The town is nearly all Muslim. This is why the welcoming committee was bad. I didn’t get to change and so I walked around looking like a prostitute. I did not see one woman who was not covered from tip top of her head to toes. And here I was, already standing out for being mzungu, walking around with a skirt that showed off my entire pasty calves. If that wasn’t bad enough, we kept meeting teachers from my school, students, and members of the Board. I might as well have been naked. Besides the bad first impression, I am actually really looking forward to living in a Muslim area. The mosques are beautiful, the women are beautiful, and the clothes and scarves they wear are beautiful. First payday I am going shopping. Though, I’ll have to hurry up and learn Borana. I do not understand one word of what anybody says. Curtis taught me the greeting and I forgot in, like, an hour.
My house is wonderful and the perfect size for me. I have two bedrooms, a sitting room, and a kitchen. A carpenter made me a beautiful king-sized bed, two stools, a coffee table, a couch, and two chairs. I also bought a gas stove because cooking on a jiko takes an intolerable amount of time and I am lazy. I have electricity, plenty of water, an indoor bathroom (room where you take baths, not a toilet), and private choo. I am very happy to have a choo after staying at Cindy’s house where her flush toilet didn’t even accept toilet paper. My principle, Guyo, and my deputy headmistress, Grace, are wonderful and are taking very good care of me. Besides bargaining for everything for my house, they also paid for most of my dishes and kitchen stuff. Guyo said I could treat him as a father and Grace as a mother. Grace will let me stay with her if I get stressed and Guyo offered me money if I needed it. I have no complaints so far. This place was so worth the wait and the hassle.
From my front porch, I have the most beautiful view of the desert. One of my neighbors described it as “a vast ocean mirage” and that is exactly what it looks like: a grayish, blue ocean extending forever. The Catholic compound is an oasis in the desert. The sisters planted a great garden that has roses, wildflowers, vegetables, and fruit trees from as far away as India. They also have built a hospital clinic where they have disabled children who come and stay. They even have a physical therapy room and a visiting therapist. My neighbors are all very nice and most do not speak English at all. Some do not even speak Kiswahili. My students have taught me the greeting and are determined to teach me how to communicate. Every evening I watch the bats fly out from my rafters and fly out over the desert. At night, I sometimes am woken up to hyenas making a ruckus. Yesterday night, there was a creature on my porch and I do not know what it was. It looked like an anteater/fox mix. (update: I looked it up, it is a “civet”) . My village is tiny, called Dirib. It has one store (okay, a tin shack) that sells Blue Band, Camel’s milk, and almost nothing else. Every day I walk from Dirib, the village my house is in, to my school in Kubibagasa. It is a 3 km walk and takes me about 45 mins. It is a lovely walk through very desert-y looking desert. There is really nothing out there. I follow the road which is really just a wide, dirt path and pass acacia trees, acacia bushes, and rocks. There is an occasional mud and grass hut, and sometimes I meet a herder with his goats or a woman carrying water. They never can speak my language. There is one fork in the road and I asked someone where it led to. She answered, “nowhere”. I insisted that it must go someplace, it was a road. She said that it lead out into the desert where there was absolutely nothing except temporary nomadic shelters. She urged me to never take a wrong turn or I would wander in the desert forever. Wonderful, I thought, as I have such a fantastic sense of direction. On Saturday (the 15th), I had to go to school for Parents Day to show everyone the new white teacher. I was not looking forward to it (no one spoke a language I knew so I sat quietly from dawn till dusk) but then, on my way to school, I saw a camel and her baby in the desert. Camels are big! I was so excited, I almost peed myself. Then on the way home, I passed a whole herd. There were both babies and adults plodding along the road in a line, making that camel-y noise, with the sun setting behind them. It was like a movie. I loved it! Now I am used to things, and I see camels every single day. They look ridiculous when they run. Yesterday, I walked past a whole line of them, and the head guy stopped to lean over and peer in my eyes, drool stringing from his mouth. I reached up to touch him and he yanked his head back in a huff. As I passed the last one, a small baby as tall as I am, I couldn’t resist, and tried to touch his flank. So he kicked me. I guess I learned my lesson. That is all I will mention for now. Thanks for reading and if anyone wants to send me American food, or a book on how to teach circuits (physics) to kids who don’t have electricity, my address is PoBox 117-60500, Marsabit, Kenya. Miss you all!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Sargent Shriver's legacy: the Peace Corps

It was John F. Kennedy who 50 years ago urged the nation "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." But it was Sargent Shriver, his tireless brother-in-law, who put the thought into practice.

Shriver died this week at 95, one of the last of the Camelot clan. But his legacy is more than membership in a political dynasty. It's the Peace Corps, which has sent 200,000-plus Americans of all ages overseas to test their beliefs and share backgrounds with other nations in need of teaching and training.
Shriver almost lived long enough to take part in the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps coming in March. He was its founder and the guiding light who designed an entirely new foreign policy initiative.
The plan took shape in a post-midnight campaign stop at the University of Michigan, where candidate Kennedy challenged a small audience of students to consider taking their talents overseas to help poor countries. He firmed up the brainstorm thought and gave it the name Peace Corps in a later speech in San Francisco. A catchy idea was born, but there was no blueprint on how to make it work, a sign that the endeavor might be only a campaign gimmick.

When Kennedy won office, he picked Shriver, a campaign insider married to his sister, to road test the sketchy idea. As Shriver recalled it, "Everyone in Washington seemed to think that the Peace Corps was going to be the biggest fiasco in history, and it would be much easier to fire a relative than a friend."
But the new director become a true believer and turned the idea into a success, one of the most lasting of the gilded Kennedy era. His enthusiasm and drive gave the new program the spark it needed to survive, even though early recruits and target-country staffers received only bare-bones training. Shriver spent weeks in the world's backcountry, cheering up volunteers and urging them on.
Both then and now, Africa remains the top destination. But, as an example of the program's evolving character, the focus has grown from teaching English to include AIDS/HIV work in the continent most afflicted with the epidemic.

The Peace Corps survived the Vietnam era, the Cold War and independence movements in host countries that often saw Washington as an enemy. It covers only basic living expenses and discourages both staff and volunteers from making a career in the organization, a tone set by Shriver who disliked bureaucracies.
Its informal slogan - low pay, lousy conditions, brutal weather - left no mystery about the nature of the job. But the plain message of public service on a worldwide stage took hold and never faded. Most Peace Corps veterans regard their time as the most memorable experience in their lives. They stay in touch with each other and remain immersed in public service.

The organization has served the nation in other ways, providing a nonmilitary foreign policy option. It's remained an integral part of "soft power," a benign form of aid and development that spreads American idealism in personal terms. The result is a political rarity: across-the-aisle support for the Peace Corps and its yearly budget of $400 million. A columnist for the conservative National Review's online publication this week suggested the liberal-authored institution be nominated for the next Nobel Peace Prize.
Monumental as it is, the Peace Corps wasn't Shriver's only feat. After the Kennedy years, he went on to launch Head Start, Legal Services for the Poor and VISTA, a home-grown version of the Peace Corps. He served as ambassador to France and helped his wife Eunice found the Special Olympics for developmentally disabled athletes. Among his few setbacks was a run as vice president with George McGovern on the Democratic ticket in 1972 and a later run on his own as a presidential contender. Both ended in sharp defeat. Shriver was a man who couldn't resist public service or devising new ways to channel his restless volunteer spirit.

Though he faded from public view over the last decade due to his advanced age and the onset of Alzheimer's disease, his message is still as fresh and timeless. In a culture soaked in celebrity and material success, the idea of public service and humble personal action should have a role, too. That was the message of the Peace Corps back then, and it remains true today, a half century later.

Ambassadors to the world 


Volunteers to date: 200,000-plus
Countries served: 139
Gender of volunteers: 60 percent female, 40 percent male
Average age: 28
Volunteers over 50: 7 percent
Marital status: 93 percent single
Pay: Living allowance; $7,425 payment upon returning home
Term: 27 months
Main activities: Education, 37 percent; health and AIDS, 22 percent; business development, 14 percent
Largest service areas: Africa, 37 percent; Latin America, 24 percent; Eastern Europe/Central Asia, 21 percent

This article appeared on page F - 10 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Burn, Bury or Ditch

I received a text message from Ryan this morning asking me whether she should burn, bury or ditch her trash. I was shocked and appalled to find out she was even considering any of the options, especially since she is one of the most environmentally conscious people I know. If you know her at all, you'll know that she single-handed founded the Recycling Club and the Environmental club at her college and has been known to hold "Eco-parties." Yes, she is a nerd, but she's my sister and I love her ;) Anyway, for those who don't know yet (and have yet to read the previous posts on this blog) Ryan is in Kenya on a Peace Corps mission. I'm pretty there is not a whole lot of indoor plumbing...  so its safe to assume there isn't Thursday morning trash pick up in matching blue bins and a thriving recycling program. More likely you wake up to a wild hog rummaging through your garbage. So what is a environmentally conscious girl to do when your living on a wild life refuge that doesn't even have an accessible road? The rest of the village either burns the trash -- putting toxins in the air, buries the trash -- ensuring their kids will grow up on a landfill, literally, or they ditch it -- out of sight, out of mind.. right? A similar discussion was highlighted in the New York Times: Should the US Burn or Bury Its Trash?

I am leaning towards the burning idea though here are some downsides:

 But it's quite obvious leaving it there, whether in your own yard or somewhere else on the nature preserve on which she lives, is equally bad if not worse. What would you do? Would love your suggestions!!