Monday, February 28, 2011


I have been the school counselor for a few weeks and I have not really done much. Last week that changed. I do not even know how I feel about all that has been revealed this week. I sat down today to write this blog because my brain doesn’t know what else to do. I have been thinking almost non stop about the issues I am going to tell you about and I have no helpful reaction. I wish I knew what I was supposed to do.

On Wednesday I was having a mini counseling session with five of my form one students. One girl asked me for advice on how to say no to a persistent guy who was pressuring her. She said he told her he loved her and that he would take care of her. The student knew that being in a relationship at her age was difficult and she was afraid her school work would suffer. She also said she knew he was only saying he loved her so she would have sex with him. This smart student wanted to wait until she finished school before she got into a relationship. I gave her some advice. I told her to just be direct and tell him no, don’t let him promise you the world because the risks (HIV, pregnancy) are too high for a girl her age. She said she had tried that and he would not leave her alone. Then she told me that if a girl says “no”, the man will just beat her up. My mouth dropped open and I said, “Is that true?” Her friend who was sitting next to her chimed in and said yes, the men here will not be said no to. I told the girls that that was very wrong of the men to do that and said they have to be prepared, if he tries anything to try and fight back. Kick them in the groin, scream, run away. Then another girl spoke up, “Then they will come back, and they will bring all their friends”. I was in total disbelief. What was I supposed to say to that? I got very angry and I told them that that was unacceptable. No man has a right to treat them like that. But what practical advice can I tell them? Everyone knows about this problem and no one talks about it. These girls have been dealing with this since primary school. I asked when the men start harassing them and I was told that kids as young as 10 are forced or convinced to be a relationship with a much, much older man. The men tell the young girls that they will give them free rides on their motorbikes. This is a very, horrifyingly common situation. Of the form one class, only 3 of the girls were not in a relationship of this kind, and those three were in front of me asking for help. Once you have agreed to a relationship in exchange for a ride, the men spend their time trying to get you to do more. The girls who were sitting in front of me were the only ones who were not getting free motorbike rides. They knew the risks. One of them told me what would happen in the best case scenario; if you did not get AIDS or pregnant and the relationship ended. When the time came for you to get married, a man would pay a very large price for you. The dowry could be as high as 100,000 shillings, some cattle, and eight large bags of clothes. If the husband was happy with you he would even pay more after the wedding. But when he found out that you were not a virgin, he would be extremely angry. And he would pay nothing for you. You would be shamed and your family might starve.

That same day, I was walking home from school when I saw one of my students sitting by the side of the road. Her name was Fatuma, and she was crying. I asked her why and she said that she was being sent away from school to go get her parents. She owed a thousand shillings in school fees and could not afford to pay. If she could not come up with the money, she would not be able to return to school. She was in Form 3 and only had one more year to go. If she dropped out now there would be no future for her. Just like in America, if you do not have a high school diploma there are very few jobs for you. And here, where everyone is poor, there is no such thing as a minimum wage job. If you do not have a degree, you do not get a job, ever. Fatuma was crying because she knew that it was pointless, she would go and get her parents and they would not have the money. I walked her home, gave her a hug, and a piece of candy. I wanted so badly to give her the money, I have it, and I can afford it. But then what would I say to the other 120 students who are poor and need help? I could not give Fatuma the money and I felt terrible. One thousand shillings is thirteen American dollars. This girl’s entire future depended on her finding $13.

Thursday I came to school and was approached by one of the teachers to have a counseling session with a girl named Jillo. She was having a problem in all her classes, she could not stay awake. As soon as a teacher walked in the room, she would be asleep. During her prep times and during breaks, she was a bright active girl. I was requested to talk to her to find out what the problem was and if we could fix it, she is failing every single class and the teachers are concerned. I sat with her and talked for awhile. She said that she did not know what the problem was, she couldn’t help it but every single class put her to sleep. I asked if she was sick, if she was not sleeping at night, if she was stressed, or discouraged, or bored, or if she hated every single class. She said it was none of those reasons but she would not say what she thought the problem was. I gave her a piece of paper and told her she had until Monday to write me a letter telling me why. I said it would be anonymous and I would not even tell the other school counselor. I left and went and spoke with the other counselor and told him my plan to find out the problem. He said that he knew what she was going to write. She thought she was bewitched. He meant that literally and with no sarcasm. Jillo thought that someone had put her under a spell. Her parents also thought that was the case and wanted to take her to a witch doctor who could break the spell. The counselor convinced them that we should wait and try talking to the girl first, a witch doctor was too extreme at this stage. I have until Monday to find out what the problem is and then I have to fix it. And I have no clue what I am going to do.
When I got here I thought my job was to be a teacher. I was going to teach biology and physics and be a good friend to these students. Now I have no idea what to do. This whole week has changed my perspective on things. I feel like there are so many huge problems that I will not be able to even touch no matter how long I am here or how much I want to. I want a hundred cans of mace that I can give out to every girl, I want to give Fatuma $13 dollars, and I want Jillo to have a future that is far away from ignorance and witch doctors. Even if I were able to do all these things, the problems are still here. On the days when I think “what am I doing here? I could be eating a cheeseburger in a bar enjoying all the luxuries America has to offer,” I think about what I would be leaving behind. I could never go home to where life is easy and be able to sleep at night knowing the students are dealing with problems that I could never imaging dealing with. I may not be able to help these girls fix the problems, but I can stay for two years and listen to them.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Back to School

Last week was our midterm break. I got to relax in my house in my PJs, visit town without the pressure of having to rush home and finish laundry, and I even skipped church. It was wild! And only eleven people came to my house on Sunday to ask me what was wrong, where I had been, or why I had skipped church. I’m not exaggerating about that number, I counted. Eleven. I thought I had no friends in my village and, during my more sullen moments, I imagine if I were to die, I would be completely devoured by roaches or mice or whatever it is that makes noise in my kitchen at 2am, before anyone would notice. But I am happy to report that people will come over to check on me if I haven’t been to the choo in a few hours. Lucky me.

So Sunday, I was lying around my house and I decided to drag myself off the couch where I had been lying like a corpse since I got out of bed. It was like, 2 in the afternoon, and I thought, about time for breakfast. I decided I would make some French fries. I went to my box of potatoes and dumped the whole thing on my floor to look for the biggest ones. This was a horrendous mistake. One of the potatoes had rotted, silently, and was now filled with something that only belongs in nightmares. Even the word gives me the heebily jeebilies. Maggots. There were maggots all over my kitchen floor! I have never been so grossed out in my life and I have seen some pretty gross stuff. But the sight of their tiny, white bodies, writhing on the floor… bleearrgghh! I dropped the potato I was holding and did the ‘ohmyGOD theyrealloverme!!’ dance for a few minutes. Then I took a deep breath, grabbed a plastic bag and stepped back in the kitchen. One glance and I ran out of the kitchen and did the dance again, this time trying to control my pesky gag reflex. Once more, deep breath and into the kitchen, this time using two plastic bags as gloves and a stick to push all the potatoes back in the box, then I ran out and threw it down the choo. I wanted to disinfect my entire house. But TIA (This Is Africa) and I have no bleach or scrub brush or 409; so I had to settle for spreading some hot water all over the floor and rubbing it with a Sham Wow. Now my imagination is creating maggots all over the house. Stray rice grains, escaped bread crumbs, the invisible nothing that is absolutely everywhere and looks just like a maggot. I had graphic dreams about maggots last night, damn mefloquin, they were friendly, inch-wormy maggots. Now my hatred of flies has escalated. I don’t hate flies; hate is too mild a word. I loathe flies with the fire of a thousand suns. I want to punch one in its face, and I try, but they are too darn fast. Does anyone know a way to kill flies? Some tried and true, housewives trick? Can I light them on fire or drown them?

On Monday, since there were maggots all over my house, I thought I would go visiting. I was doing my best to be anti-antisocial. I even allowed myself to be attacked by the preschool kids. They cannot pronounce my name, it sounds adorably like “Lion”, and they tried to strip me naked. Forty of the little scamps surrounded me and distracted me by poking me in the…chest, (yeah, I don’t know why) and while I was fending them off, they had undone the tie on my wrap skirt! Iko sawa, I think they were too little to be scandalized. Next I visited with a form 3 student (that is Junior year) named Halima who lived nearby. She showed me her photo album; it was falling apart and had Leo DeCaprio from Titanic on the cover. It was full of blurry photos of her many brothers and sisters as they were growing up in a village near Lake Turkana. There were pictures of her mother and sisters in traditional Rendille or Samburu (I can’t tell the difference) dress. In the photos of her brothers at their circumcision ceremonies the boys look a little pained because the picture was taken immediately after the procedure, the circumcisor (guy who does circumsicions?) is still kneeling between the boys’ knees. Halima also told me about her mother who passed away on Christmas, at four pm. She said her mother had been sick for years but was doing better and talking completely normal right before she passed. In the tradition of her people, Halima shaved all her hair off in remembrance of her mother. Halima told me all this with a smile on her face. She is a much stronger person than I am.

Now midterm break is over and it is back to school. Today is Wednesday and it is the first day back. I am starting to understand why the majority of our students are failing; this school has such a different way of running things that I just do not see as conducive to learning. We opened today, and some students have not come back from break. Classes are supposed to start at 7:20 am, my first one is at 8 am. I was totally unprepared so I went to school early to make up a lesson. But when I arrived, all the students are still outside cleaning. Then they had an assembly. Classes didn’t actually start until 8:20 so I only got to do half a lesson. In addition, three quarters of my form ones (that is Freshman year) were not in class because they were being punished for being late or for wearing flip-flops (not part of the uniform). So the punishment for being late to class is to be sent outside to spend the day in the blazing sun picking up acacia thorns from the dusty clearing they call the football (soccer) field, and the student will miss a whole day of classes. I felt that it was pointless to cover new material when three fourths of the students were missing, so I just did a review of last week. It was very boring and redundant. But what can you do?

I have been asked by some of you at home about what you can do to help my students. I spoke with the deputy principle and what this school needs is “Stuff”. They have no library, a shortage of textbooks, no internet access, not enough supplies for lab practicals, not enough paper, few notebooks, no visual aids, no reference books, etc, etc. So if you have a stack of old Nat Geos lying around, need some Karma points, or want to help me look like a rockstar to my school, here is a list of some things the school needs:
-Books for students to read recreationally (anything teens, or younger, would like to read to practice their english)
- notebooks, paper, flashcards (so they can study for exams)
-Rewards for good work (stickers, pencils, toys, candy)
-National Geographic or similar magazines (make science interesting!)
-Study guides for English, math, bio, chem., geography, history, physics, health, agriculture
-books of review problems (so I can have students do that for an alternative punishment)
-Bill Nye the Science Guy! (if those still exist, or other educational videos/documentaries)
-educational posters, or poster paper so I can make some
-markers, crayons, colored pencils

And for those with boatloads of cash, every school could use expensive technology: microscopes, digital cameras, and laptops. If you do want to sponsor a girl’s tuition, one year costs about 20,000 Kenyan Shillings, that’s around $260. If you want to give part of that, I can put it in a scholarship for the neediest students.
Alright, that’s enough of my begging. Thanks for reading. I am going to close my blog today with the food item I have been thinking about all week. A large, juicy hamburger with big chunks of brie melted on it, topped with avocado, tomatoes, and ketchup; served with a side of macaroni and cheese with cut up hotdogs. Man, I’m hungry. Have a good week!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Yay for midterm break!

am in a better mood this week. Last week I was in the middle of a dip of the Peace Corps roller coaster. Today I feel good because I am on midterm break until Wednesday. I told everyone I was leaving town and now I am free to do whatever I want for five whole days. It’s gonna be great. Lately, I have been getting some flak for not spending more time with the people in my village. It is not really fair of them to say that since I am followed by people yelling mzungu from 6 am when I leave my house till 7pm when I can shut my door and pretend to be busy. Of course the neighbor kids come in my house to laugh at me, and my other neighbors always want a quick chat, so by the time I climb into bed, I am never really relaxed. And if I step outside, I will invariably meet someone who will ask me why I am so anti-social. It is not my fault if Kenyans are ridiculously friendly! Its exhausting. Anyway, now I am free! I am hoping to go into Marsabit forest and see some elephants. That would be awesome. If not, I’ll just do my regular shopping, continue the quest for a cell phone that will work in the network black hole I live in.

On another topic, I have been observing people in my village and despite living here for a couple months, I still feel out of place. I think it is the clothes I wear, but I am too lazy to go to Town and buy a more modest outfit. I am sticking to my knee length skirts, scandalously short sleeves, and uncovered hair. But in case anyone wants to visit, and fit in, I thought I would give you a quick lesson on how to dress to fit into my town. Ladies: First, put on a pretty dress. Something bright, colorful, and fun. Like neon pink. Make sure the dress goes all the way to your feet, for modesty’s sake. Then take another dress, this one must be a muted, un-fun color. Like brown, or black. Make sure this dress is long sleeved and also goes to your feet, again for modesty. Put this dress on over the first dress. Now take a scarf and wrap it tightly around your head to cover your hair. Now take another scarf, make this one brightly colored and throw it jauntily around your head like the fashionista you are. Now you are fit to go anywhere, whether it’s the bore hole to fetch water, or to church. Now men, yours is more complicated so pay attention: Go to your closet. Pick anything. Put it on. Voila! Whether its dirty or clean, ugly burmuda shorts or a suit, a well put together outfit or (more commonly) a random organizational disaster, you’ll fit in.

Speaking of clothes, for those of you who donate clothes to Goodwill and wonder “who will ever want this faded high school football team t-shirt?” I have wonderful news for you. It somehow arrives here in Africa. Never fear that your favorite local business t-shirt that you got for free when they opened is at the end of its life. Donate it to Goodwill, and it will be reborn to a local man who will put a suit jacket over it and wear it to church. Last week, I saw a Washington Mutual T-shirt. A month ago there was a bright orange State Penitentiary shirt. And I could play sports team bingo with the number of logo hats there are in my town. This place is the afterlife for clothes. The secretary at my school has a favorite outfit she loves to wear. It is a shiny, maroon, mermaid-style, poofy shouldered, prom dress from someones past. Its great and she wears it twice a week. I should have brought my old prom dress, I would fit in perfectly if I wore that, under a black dress of course.

I know I have been talking about clothes up to this point, but I am going to completely change the topic because I just realized what the ‘meat’ I have been eating for lunch for 6 weeks reminds me of. I think it is cow stomach. Its either that or octopus. I can see its little sucker feet! I am not very familiar with identification of cow anatomy, so if someone knows what part of the animal has small circular structures that look like octopus suckers, please let me know. I am going to stop staring at it and just eat it anyway, cause it’s the only meat I get. And don’t worry, it actually is delicious if you don’t chew it and chase it with rice. We have a really good cook at my school. I don’t think I could turn unidentifiable chunks of cow into something an American would call edible, let alone delicious.
Alright, I have grossed you out enough for one day. I am going to go post this and then see what is going on in the rest of the world. And by that I mean I’ll be checking Facebook.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

I love being white and super ric h

We Americans are very lucky; it is pretty cool how every one of us has glowing ivory skin and pockets full of cash. Well, that’s what America means to a Kenyan. Lately I have been wishing for only one thing: to not be white. I am getting really tired of people asking me for money. I have started to not be polite when they ask. I know that I have white skin, and most white-skinned people who come here are wealthy, and they are apparently very generous to every person they meet. But I have no money and even though I have never had biscuits or pens or 5 shillings or sweets or tuition money since I got here, I still get asked every single day. I want to say, “You know me, we are neighbors, you know I don’t have spare shillingis”. Kenyans do not use the word “please” like we do in America. It is not considered rude to say, “Give me money” even though it drives me bananas. When little kids say it, I tell them “Hapana, mimi si banki, mimi ni mwalimu” (No, I am not a bank, I am a teacher) or I just tell them, “tabia mbaya” (bad manners). When adults ask me, they do it without preamble. The other day I had a conversation with a neighbor that went like this:
Me: Habari Yako? (How are you?)
Him: Ninahitaji shillingi mia moja tu. (I only need a hundred shillings)
Me: Sema tena? (Say again?)
Him: Nipa shilling mia moja. (Give me a hundred shillings)
Me: (pause)… Nina hakuna pesa, pole. (I have no money, sorry)
Couldn’t he even say hello first?
On Monday, I taught the form ones for the first time. At the end of class, one girl came up to me and said she wanted to ask me something but was afraid of me so she wrote me a letter. The letter was her life story; she has 6 brothers and sisters, her father had died, her mother had to make illegal home brewed alcohol and charcoal just to feed the family. She was the only one in her family going to school, and she would have to drop out because she had no money for tuition. Could I please pay for her schooling? This one is harder to deal with because I feel bad, even if her story sounds too awful to be true, I want to help her. But again, I do not have money. And even if I was wealthy, after all, I do have more money than they do, I still could not help everyone. When I told her no, I felt like I kicked a puppy. So I told her I would look to see if she could get a sponsor. I don’t know why I said that, I don’t know how to find a sponsor. I know that one or two girls here have them, rich couples in America who fund their education, and now I have to try to find one for this girl.
When I am generous, I feel like the students are ungrateful. This is probably my American sense of manners influencing my perception again. I was doing Review Jeopardy for my physics class and I brought a bag of Hershey Kisses. It was the last of my Christmas candy from America, and I felt very magnanimous for giving it up to the girls. As soon as I handed it out, there were maybe 3 or four pieces left, the girls started fighting over it. “Give it to me!” “No, just for me”. I told them I did not have enough for the whole class so I was going to give it to the teachers. They said okay, but then a crowd followed me out of the class begging me for more. Not one person said thank you. And for the rest of the week, students keep approaching me asking for more. “You bring for me tomorrow” It makes me not want to give them things, even though I know they deserve it.
I wrote the paragraphs above earlier today while I was at school, I was frustrated that this kid who I see every day asked me for biscuits, again. I wanted to slap him; and when I told him no, he ran away mumbling something under his breath, that in my mind, was “Screw you, Lady”. But then on my way home from school, I passed the Kubibagasa bore hole again, and it hit me how bad the drought was getting. The past few days have been hotter than…well, it’s hot. The people here are suffering because the bore hole is drying up. The herders bring their animals to the bore hole, and wait from morning to night for the water to come, and when it does, it is too little to water all the animals there. Yesterday, a cow died at the bore hole, and they ‘processed’ it right there. I gave an upbeat “Habari!” to the guy holding a machete in one hand, and a cow leg it the other. The women and girls with their 20 liter buckets on their backs walk for hours in the sun to get here, and then they wait all day for water that is probably not going to come. The road home is crowded these days, yesterday I waded through a herd of 200 goats, because there is little food and no water in the desert so they are just migrating. The men, who normally only have guns at night, carry their huge weapons during the day now to protect their few animals from being stolen. Yesterday, an old man died in my village. My village is very, very small, so this was a big deal. Someone told me he died of an illness, but they think it was caused by malnutrition. Without water, there is no milk from the camels or goats; that is their main source of food. And the elderly cannot eat githeri, their other staple food, a tough mix of maize kernels and beans that hurts your jaw to eat. So the man got sick and died, and the drought is just going to get worse. The rains are not supposed to come until April. I am pretty good with heat, I like the desert, but even I have been complaining. I am drinking almost 15 liters of water a week, and I am sweating most of it out. I am so exhausted by the walk home, and I am thinking I can no longer do it while the sun is high, I’ll have to wait until after 6 pm.
Now I feel guilty for complaining about people asking me for things. If I had a starving family at home, I would beg rich people every day. It makes me wish that I was actually wealthy. It has gotten to the point where I do not want to drink out of my water bottle while walking to school because I know every person I pass would love to have my liter of water. So if you are rich, and you do come to Africa, please do not give candy and money to children. It turns them into money- grubbing little monsters. But if you are rich, please give to charity, or churches, or become a sponsor, or come here and volunteer.
See what I did there? I relieved my guilt and turned the tables around. Instead of people asking me for money, I am asking you for them. See how that worked out?
And now after that depressing note, I’ll leave you with something positive. I saw a couple dik-diks on my way to school yesterday. (Google it) They are Adorable with a capital A. And so are baby pundas (donkeys), and baby goats. Baby goats are so tiny! I just want to grab one and make a run for it, but the guys with the big guns would probably object. My neighbors got a tiny baby goat a few days ago and I think they are keeping it in their sitting room, I can hear it bleating to its mommy through my wall right now. There, now I ended the blog by talking about baby animals. Don’t you feel better?

Friday, February 4, 2011

Life Skills

I am starting to get a handle on this whole teaching thing. I won’t say I am a good teacher, there are many days when I am pretty darn crappy. I just do not know high school physics well enough to make it very interesting. But the students really love having me as a teacher and that makes me feel better after each lame lesson. The students beg me to stay after class and continue teaching, or to come during their breaks and teach. When I left the Form Four classroom the first time, they all burst into excited laughter. The Form Three girls gave me a round of applause, I did not know why and I made them stop, and the Form Twos always call me back as I am walking away, “Madame Ryan! Madame Ryan!” and when I turn around, “We Love you!!”

This week, I started teaching Life Skills and I am already feeling out of my league. I had it in my mind to be a fun, interactive class where the students could trust me and we could talk about issues that relate to them. I have only taught one class to each form and already it is a much bigger job than I anticipated. I feel like I need a degree in psychology to handle some of the questions the girls ask. I let them run the class the first day; they could ask me any question they wanted. This was a bad idea because I incorrectly assumed they would ask me about boyfriends, schoolwork, and friendship. They did ask me those questions but also added so much that I was unprepared to handle. It is like they have been saving up a lifetime of questions and only now are given a chance to ask.

We discussed abortion, racism, poverty, friendship, fear, self esteem, sex, why some people are shy and others are not, when they should get married, and many other topics in the short 40 minute period. Two of the classes even convinced me to sing “Stop in the Name of Love” in an acapella solo (it wasn’t pretty). When we spoke about whether it was appropriate for a secondary school girl to have a boyfriend or lover, one student asked what a person should do if she is in love with someone who treated her badly. I got the impression she was in a bad relationship but how can I advise her in a group of 30 other students? I tried to give her advice and get some information about the problem but she kept saying “But what if you love him?”, as if the love negated her need to take care of herself.

My form 2 students told me they are failing all their classes because they do not understand when the teachers speak English, it is their 3rd language. Out of the 130 students, there is only one girl with a B-, there are a few Cs, but nearly all the students are at D or below. The students are afraid of the teachers, they might get caned if they speak up. The teachers are convinced the students are “not serious” and lazy, and they do cane them.

My form 3 class asked me about homosexuality; they all agree that, as a sin, it is up there with incest. They are all very religious and I do not want to imply that the Bible or Quran is wrong, but I have to tell them how I feel about the issue and it is a direct contradiction to what they learn in their religion classes. And when my form 4 girls asked if I had been circumcised, every one of them has been, I could not stop my shudder. I did not know how to explain my opinion on female circumcision in a culturally sensitive manner with no preparation in the 5 remaining minutes of class. They live in a completely different world; I am not qualified to tell them how they should live but I have to say something and all I have is my American knowledge and opinions. I can only be honest with them but it makes me nervous to be molding these girls. I know that they trust me but I cannot give both sides of the issues and I think they really should have that.

As we were finishing up class, another girl asked me which I would become: a wife or a sister (nun). It is hard to comprehend that they see those as the only two options. I think they are trying to see the other choices. I left class with my mind full. I learned more about their culture, knowledge, society, expectations, and experiences than I ever expected. Just with the one introductory day, I have a whole years worth of topics to discuss. I talked with the deputy principal and the other teacher in charge of guidance and counseling about the girls’ need for a mentor. Next week, we are going to split the girls into small groups that will meet with a teacher every day. Hopefully, the girls will open up more and be able to talk about these issues. I also need to do some classes about sexual health. The students know almost nothing about their bodies and they really need to know that you cannot cure STD’s by washing with cold water.