Sunday, July 31, 2011

Shake Your Happy Curve

Everything in my experience tells me that a storm is coming. The sky is slate grey, the air is thick and heavy and engulfing everything in a misty-looking fog. The wind has picked up, gusting across the desert leaving large eddies and small tornados of dust in its wake. On the horizon to the east, from the open desert, an ominous grey cloud is rolling in. It looks like a storm is coming- but it is not. The rolling grey cloud is actually a continuous line of dust. The grey is the atmosphere choking on desert sand. If you look straight up, the sky is crystal blue. This is not a bad dust storm. I have heard of some here that reduce visibility to near zero for up to six hours. This is a mild dust storm but it has been going on for three days. I think I would prefer a more intense, shorter storm. This dirt is fine, not coarse like beach sand, but more like clay particles. It is so fine that when it grabs onto your legs, like mud, you can’t brush it off. You can’t even rinse it off. You have to scrub. The fine particles crawl into your eyes and mouth. I am in the staff room, which you would think would offer some protection, but the dust creeps in through the metal ceiling and blows around. I squinch my eyes and mouth shut until the wind calms down but I can still taste dirt and my eyes tear up. After three days of this, I am starting to feel sick. My nose is stuffed and runny, my throat itches, I have a sinus headache, and I am sure my lungs are a nice reddish brown. The dust is thick on every surface; it looks like an elderly persons home when she hasn’t dusted in a year. You can write “wash me” on my desk every fifteen minutes. 

One of my students lost her father over the weekend. I think he died of an illness of some kind. The girl, one of my form two students, is now an orphan. Her mother passed a way only a few months ago. As a show of respect, my teachers wanted to collect some money for her. They asked each of us to contribute a hundred shillings. That poor girl has lost both her parents and the only thing we can do for her is give her a thousand shillings? I felt awful, but what could I do? I only hope she has other family members to take care of her. She is not the only orphan at my school. I actually have quite a few, all of them are poor and struggling with school fees. If I had a way to find them sponsors I would, but I don’t know how to find them. 

It is almost time for vacation. I have four more days in Mars and then I am heading to Mombasa for a cross-sector peace corps training. As valuable as Peace Corps training always is, I am really much more excited to see my friends. I don’t ever get to talk with them and never, ever get to see them. I love my village, and I have lots of friends here to keep my busy, but it is hard sometimes to be away from my Peace Corps family. I plan on getting a lot of hugs. In lieu of my PC family, I have been getting my hug-fix from a group of wazungus from Spain. They are loud and hilarious and speak very bad English. We spend a lot of time miming to each other and laughing at the mistakes. There is one guy who is the most outgoing but has the worst English of the group. So he says things like “Are you very happy!? Normal happy or very very happy? Happy New Year!!”  And he repeats this over and over again. You don’t know whether to smack him or laugh. The Spaniards are here to do some volunteer work for St. Pauls. And because I have nothing better to do, I am helping them. They love to dance, and sing, and eat. Every night is a party with them. I have never met people who acted so free and crazy while completely sober. They taught me salsa, and belly dancing, and all the good Spanish swear words. When they were teaching me how to belly dance, we were laughing at our slight protruding bellies, and they said that in Spain they call that the “happy curve”, which I think is an eminently appropriate name for it. 
Yesterday, we threw a joint birthday party for me and two of them who also happened to have birthdays this week. We sang happy birthday in Spanish, Kiswahili, and English. We ate cake and spent the whole night laughing and shaking our happy curves until we were exhausted.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Man Steals Cucumbers, Lynched by Mob

I used to live in a twon where the local paper had headlines like “Mrs. O’leary’s cat stuck in tree again” and “Church Potluck raises $230 to buy Mrs. O’Leary a kitty leash”. But now I live in a strange world where the paper has stories that are so outrageous it is hard to believe they aren’t made up. In one paper this week there was a story called “Opus Dei clan attacks young woman after her parents sue for holding her for indoctrination purposes”. And here I was thinking Opus Dei only did crazy things in Dan Brown novels. Then there was the horrifying “A high school girl who was pregnant with triplets is stabbed in the throat with a sword seven times by her secret lover: a local pastor”. The pastor was rescued (Fortunately? Unfortunately?) by police before he was lynched by a mob. Next was a story about “an underage teenage boy is killed by a Village Chief for having an affair with his wife- an underage teenage girl.” And the last tragic story in that day’s paper was talking about “an 11-yr old girl and her 9-yr old brother who were caught planning to kill themselves by eating rat poison because their mother was torturing them and denying them food”. Then there was the smattering of the usual filler stories: “Man steals goat, lynched by mob”, “Woman steals bushel of cucumbers, lynched by mob”, “Man lynches another man, then is lynched by mob.” I try to mitigate my disbelief by telling myself that the paper covers stories from the whole country. That’s a lot of people and a lot of crimes. But then I remember that Kenya is about the size of Texas. And I don’t think Texas does much lynching these days. 

I went home early from school last Tuesday because I had finished marking my exams. I was walking home and I was thinking to myself “Man, its HOT”. I don’t really like to complain about the heat, especially since America is going through a heat wave. But I would like to mention that in America, in general, I do all I can to avoid doing major activities during heat waves. When its hot, my to- do list involves sitting in a moist puddle on my couch letting an oscillating fan evaporate my sweat. Here on hot days, I still have to dress in my work clothes (knee-length skirts and button down blouses) and go hiking through the desert. I usually arrive to school or home really really sweaty, which is, you know, fun. Tuesday, I was heading home, I was wearing my uncomfortable shoes because my comfortable ones finally kicked the bucket.  After a kilometer or so, the blisters were bleeding and covered in a thick layer of red dust. It was more than kidogo painful. So, in my heat fried brain, I thought it would be a good idea to take my shoes off. I was walking happily along, weaving languorously along the road, singing along softly to my ipod, when I realized that my feet were burning in the sand. I thought it might be a good idea to stop and relax in some shade. There is only one tree on my 3 kilometer route but I found it and sat happily for awhile watching the dust tornadoes until the pain in my feet receded enough to put my shoes back on. I sat there staring at what I pretend is an ocean view. In the mornings it is a beautiful blue but in the heat of the afternoon it was a mottled, dusty brown. I sat there, staring, and I saw a huge dustornado. I see them all the time, but this was the biggest and it wasn’t a loose column of dust like usual, but a tight, narrow, serpentine pillar weaving amongst some huts that were barely visible in the distance. The tornado looked like an actually tornado. I’m pretty sure I saw a cow swirling around in there. I watched for the whole 7 minutes it was on the ground until it was sucked back up into the sky. There was a pair of hornbills in the acacia tree above me. The male is pretty with his black and white plumage and bright macaroni-and-cheese orange beak. But the female is gorgeous and monochromatic. Her shiny black beak makes her look like a black and white photograph. They make a call that sounds like a dog yelping and it startled me out of my stupor. I put my shoes back on and continued on my way home.      

I got home and boiled a sweet potato for lunch. The water that was left behind when the potato was finished was green. Not pea green or forest green, but a “hey! Its black! (swirl, swirl) Nope, its green” green. I don’t have any idea why it was green, but I ate the potato anyway. 

Last Saturday I went to Marsabit Forest with some form 3 and form four geography students. They live in Marsabit but have never seen an elephant and never gone into the forest. There is a big debate about the forest because it is the only area with food for animals, water, and trees for charcoal. The local people are too poor to visit the forest leagally and so they never see the benefits of conserving it. As a result, the locals are grazing their herds in there and cutting down trees for firewood. The human encroachment is driving the elephants out into the town. It is only a matter of time before the buffalo, lions, and cheetahs also start leaving to find food. So the trip was a wonderful opportunity for the students to see these wonderful animals and really understand what they are learning in class. Some of them will have never even seen a picture of an elephant.
We went into the forest and explored for hours. We were lucky enough to have a armed guide to take us to all the good spots. We were able to get out of the car and wander in the woods treading lightly and spotting elephants. We were also lucky enough to  see and touch a dead elephant. The poor thing had been shot a few days before while out maurading in town. After a few days, he succumbed to his injuries deep in the forest. The park guides cut off his 45kg tusks to prevent people from stealing and selling them and then they leave the carcass for the jackals and hyenas. We were able to see the elephant and touch him. He was a beautiful animal and I was very sad to see him dead. Being an oversensitive girl, I was nearly emotional. The students, other teachers, and the guide were not exactly sad as they climbed all over the poor thing. They stood on him, and laughed, picking up his ears, and posing for photos. It made me very sad. And when one of the teachers on the trip wanted to throw his garbage out the car window as we drove back to the gate, I was angry and had to make him stop. The students had a wonderful time and got to have a great experience. I loved being a part of it. And of course any excuse to see more elephants is a great day in my book.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Will You Marry Me?

Will You Marry Me?
This has been a fairly busy week. We have end of term exams. I had to set and invigilate (that means write and then sit through), which is a very boring process, and then I have to start marking. One of Sasura’s teachers got a job in Wajir or Moyale or someplace equally far away last week and quit. With only one days notice, he was gone and left all his classes vacant. All the math/science teachers took part of his load and I was given Physics Form Three. I do not mind taking the class, there are only two students and they are very good at teaching themselves and so it will be more like private tutoring than actual teaching, which I am much better at. The only problem is that I have not done high school physics since, well, high school. And I wasn’t all that good at it then either. I spent this week trying to learn how to do the work, and it was really hard. I wish I had internet or a Physics for Dummies book or something. I had to have the students teach me how to do some of the problems, and I think we will most likely be learning together. Before you say “high school physics? How hard can it be?”, here is the book’s way of explaining how to determine specific heat capacity of water by the continuous flow method:
“Under steady conditions, none of the electrical energy supplied is used in heating the apparatus and, therefore; V1I1t=(m3-m1)c(ϴ2- ϴ1)+H. After the rate of flow is altered, temperature difference is the same and the heat lost in time t is again H. V2I2t=(m3-m1)c(ϴ2- ϴ1)+H.
Hence; (V2I2- V1I1)=[(m3-m1)- (m2-m1)]c(ϴ2- ϴ1)”

And it goes on like that for a few more lines of symbols. Now, I am not saying that it is impossible to learn, and, in fact, it is just a matter of plugging numbers into the correct spot. My difficulty comes from figuring out how to build a ‘well-lagged calorimeter’, learn the difference between an ammeter and a voltmeter, figure out how to explain a ‘constant head tank’, and remembering how to do a math like this: 1/(5 )×8×〖10〗^(-6)×〖66.7〗^2±1/2×10×〖∛407×10〗^(-6), without a calculator (that is an actual problem from the book). Math has never been my strong suit and I generally do all I can to avoid it. That is not generally a quality you want in a physics teacher and for me, a girl who still forgets her 7’s multiplication tables, trying to do cube roots just makes my brain hurt.

Anyway, because of all the extra work taking on a new class entails, lesson planning, exams, and learning the names of my students (Halima- which is easy to remember because every third girl in my school is named Halima, and Arbe- which I remember because of that episode of the Simpsons where they are trapped on a desert island and someone says “I’m so hungry I could eat at Arbys!” and although I have never actually eaten at Arby’s, that line and the Arby’s commercials where they are giving away, like, five weirdly gray sandwiches for the price of one, has always prevented me from ever trying it. Though, now that I am living in Africa and for lunch had goat innards and ugali which tastes like the stuffing of a teddy bear, I would be willing to commit murder to get my hands on just one weirdly gray sandwich. Long story short, Form three physics makes me think of food), I have been very busy and tired. In America I would deal with a rough week by going home, having a glass of wine, taking a hot shower, and watching Glee. Here, I have a different ‘rough day’ routine. I walk home blaring my ipod, rudely ignore the children who are giggling and making fun of me in Kiborana, then once I am home, I start making dinner because if I don’t eat by 7, my neighbor will interrupt me and I’ll be too busy with her to eat until 9pm. I don’t have a cold glass of wine, but I make some Crystal Light, which after the schools water that tastes like a campfire for some reason, is nearly as good. (I know its not, but don’t burst my bubble) Then, on especially tiring days, when I just want to relax and watch Glee reruns, I turn off my lights as soon as the sun goes down. That prevents the neighbors and other villagers from coming to my house all evening just to say hello. The downside is that I have to wander around my house in the dark for a few hours trying not to trip over stools or yank my laptop of the table by the cord. But the evening of peace is worth it.

I have been feeling very protected this week. Not that I ever have felt unsafe, but the people here have been nearly cloying in their effort to make double sure nothing happens to me. I’m sure my parents will love to hear that. But it is kinda like living at home and having your parents checking up on you all the time. I stayed after school once and got a ride home from my principal and met the village chief on the road, he had gone out to look for me when the sun went down and I hadn’t come back. A few days ago, I was spending some quality time in the choo and my neighbor came by and got very worried because I had left my front door open and was ‘missing’. On Sunday night, I was making a phone call to America when a man on a pikipiki (motorcycle) stopped and waited for me to finish. I was a little nervous because it was dark and I didn’t know who it was, but I was within earshot of plenty of people who could come to my rescue. When I got off the phone, the man spoke and I realized it was the Village Chief again. He wanted to chastise me for standing in the dark- who knew what strangers were lurking about?- and then had me walk home while he kept his headlight on me. The next day at school, my principal called me into his office. The Chief apparently called him to let him know of my reckless behavior. I was chastised a second time. On Wednesday, a new group of men arrived in the village. They are from Down Kenya and are here to work on a ‘dam’. I put dam in quotes because they are building the ‘dam’ out in the middle of the desert where there is nothing, not even a village let alone a dammable body of water.  I know the men are new because they are super curious about me. One asked for my phone number, I told him I was not allowed to give it out, and at his persistence, I gave him instead my incorrect email. I apologize to whoever owns They all asked where I live and since everyone knows anyway, I just emphasized the fact that I live on a fenced in compound that has a night watchman. Thursday morning, I met one of the men on my way to school. I hate meeting people on my way to school. During my commute I am usually still waking up, I usually have not had coffee or chai, and I am enjoying the solitude, the soft Nora Jones coming from my ipod, and the sun rising over the desert. I do NOT like having someone pepper me with questions for forty minutes. “Where are you from? Did you know Obama is from Kenya? Are you married? Why not? Can I be your friend?” This particular gentleman was from a tribe called Kikuyu, which made absolutely no difference to me, and he wanted to marry me. I thought that was stupid because I was a stranger, I was being taciturn/bordering on bitchy, and he had already told me about his wife. When he proposed, I laughed once, loud and derisive. And then I said no. He then spent the next 10 minutes trying to convince me. His attributes were that he was building a dam (has a job), wanted to open a duka (small store), and was planning on visiting America someday, most likely via me. Nothing I said would deter him and I eventually just ignored him and walked faster. He followed me all the way to school eventually telling, not asking, me he would visit me at home someday. I (lied) said I was not allowed to have visitors, and he, being more than a little dumb, said “name the day and I’ll come!” I again said no, he could not come visit. He said “Friday! Prepare your supper, I’ll be there!” We had arrived at school so I just sighed in frustration, and practically ran into the staff room. He can be certain that I will not be answering my door on Friday. His harassment had made me a little bit cranky, and I apologized to my form one Physics class for my distraction. When I told them why, they wanted to know why I didn’t say yes (really?!). I was still cranky after the lesson and complained some more to one of my fellow teachers, Dub. He told me to report the guy to someone. I assured him that harassment was something I get ALL THE TIME here, and that I was not worried for my safety. It was extremely annoying and ruined my morning, but didn’t feel dangerous. Dub is a good friend and was still worried. He said all the locals are harmless, but these guys were strangers and that I should be wary. I thanked him for his concern. Dub then went and told my principal. My principal is worse than my father (Sorry, Dad). He called me into his office and wanted to get the guy in trouble. He was a lot more worried than Dub and said he was going to talk to the guy. Within half an hour, the guy’s supervisor was in the principal’s office. I was called in to describe the guy, and once I identified him as the Kikuyu, the boss got pissed. He and the principal started yelling in rapid kiborana while I sat there, completely lost. The boss wanted to fire the guy immediately and send him back to Kenya. I tried to explain that the guy didn’t have to lose his job, a simple “stop asking the white girl to be your wife” would suffice. There was more rapid kiborana and I caught the word “ijolle”, which means ‘child’. I was a little offended at being described as a child and my principal saw my face and stopped the rant to ask me how old I was. I told him that, at 25, I was nowhere near being a child and could take care of myself. I realized how petulant I sounded, but I really didn’t want some unemployed stranger being angry with me. I wanted to tell them that it was not my first proposal, it wasn’t even my first proposal this month, but I was afraid they would ask me for a list of names so they could go out and shatter some kneecaps. They eventually agreed not to fire the guy, but he was going to get a stern talking to. While I appreciate everyone trying to protect me, I really do not want to be known as ‘the woman who gets you in trouble if you talk to her’. After my principal nearly had all the primary school kids beaten because they wouldn’t leave me alone and one threw a rock, I am now much more wary about just complaining in the staff room.

I got a package today from America. It feels like Christmas every time. My principal calls me into his office at school and hands me a small yellow piece of paper saying that I have mail. I stare at the scribbled writing trying to use my psychic abilities to figure out who sent me something. Because of school, I spend the next five days, or until the next time I can get to town, gauging my fitness level, trying to guess what would happen to me if I walked the 15 km to town. Worst case scenario: trampled by elephants. Totally worth it if the package has Twizzlers. The next Saturday I bring an extra large plastic bag (here they call them ‘paper bags’ for some annoying reason) to town, the ones here have a picture of Disney’s Aladdin on them, optimistically hoping for a box that is way too large for me to carry. Maybe it contains a two-year supply of cheese, some comfortable Victoria’s Secret bras, and all seven Harry Potters? On the ride to town I anxiously tell everyone that I have mail from America. I am very selfish though and so when they ask what I was sent I say “socks”. I get to town and run straight to the post office. Once I have the package in my hand I usually sit down on the nearest curb and break into the box right there, eating any delicious food items. This week I was able to restrain myself and put the box in the truck behind the drivers seat so I couldn’t be tempted. I wanted to savor the package in my own house so I could have unrestrained glee without attracting too much attention. Once home I used my teeth and nails to break through the layer of “this box has been opened by customs and all the good stuff has been confiscated” tape. The first thing I pulled out was an old stuffed animal I had when I was a little girl and still loved. My puppies at home also loved it and my mom sent it to me slightly chewed. It reminded me of my pets and it, along with the accompanying pictures of my dogs sleeping in tight little balls, made me tear up. I moved onto the comfy looking lounge pants. I immediately put them on. Next in the box: VELVEETA! The most wonderful pasteurized deliciousness made in America. That and the packet of gravy made me squeal/wimper.  I made my way through the sanity saving box, gasping in delight with each item. The noise I made sounded like the noise my little puppy, Lillie, used to make when she saw someone she loved come home- right before she leaked a little puddle of urine. 

I do not know how much the American news is covering the drought over here but over here it is big news. Two years of low, or no, rain has destroyed crops and livelihoods of people all over Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia. I heard there were thousands of refugees from Somalia trekking to a camp in north Kenya to recive food aid. That camp is not close to me and I am not seeing the refugees but I am seeing a lot of effects of the drought. Every single day in the national paper, we get the paper but it is always almost a week late, there is a story about bandits killing tribesmen for their cattle. Those stories are always in my region. The last big one had a gun fight between Samburu and Borana tribesmen on the road from Isiolo. Isiolo is about a days drive south of me, it is the closest large town to Marsabit. The bandits were unsuccessful in stealing cattle, but they did kill a few herders. The herders returned fire and managed to wound some of the bandits who ran off. The bandits came back home- here in Marsabit-  and ended up seeking treatment at the local hospital in town where they were arrested. I read these type of stories every day. The government gave some of the herders weapons, AK47s, to protect their herds. But that means everyone is armed and able to steal their neighbors goats. The situation is getting worse, but even if the bandits successfully steal, the cattle are all so gaunt that they aren’t providing milk, they don’t have meat, and they are dying. Even the camels look emaciated. I often see herders carrying the body of one of their goats that died on the search for food. The domestic animals are not the only ones being affected. I never saw jackals when I first came here I heard they were only out very late at night, but now they are out hunting at dawn and dusk. I saw one on my way to school when it should have been sleeping in a burrow someplace. The jackals are not that dangerous, I think, but the elephants are. We’ve been hearing stories about them leaving the protection of the forest to search for food. The road to town is littered with trees trampled by elephants. If you are in town at night you can hear the popping gunshots as the wildlife service try to scare the elephants back into the park. It is now extremely dangerous to walk in town at night because of them.

I haven’t yet seen any human deaths or severe suffering from the drought but I am afraid that it is only a matter of time. I am very lucky to have a reliable water supply and plenty of money to buy food. But the food prices are skyrocketing. A case of milk used to cost 100 shillings, and today it costs 350 Ksh. Eggs used to be 10 ksh each, now they are double that at most places. Some foods have increased by up to 150%. At the current prices, with everyone losing their cattle, no crops growing, and very limited water, I am just waiting for the children to get skinnier. One story in the paper talked about a man who lives in a village to the west of me who watched his herd of 100 camels and 60 cows die in a few short weeks. The man was so devastated that he went mad and now sleeps next to the pile of bones remaining from the herd. Another story told of a young mother with newborn twin boys who has run out of breastmilk and is now feeding her babies water. She said that she was only able to eat a small cup of porridge every other day. It is pretty heartbreaking to read. I can’t imagine seeing it.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

They can smell my fear…

Yes, I think they can smell fear, and no I am not talking about hyenas, or jackals; I am talking about camels. Those damn camels! I love them even though they are being big jerks. I am becoming scared of them. A few weeks ago, a camel was strangely offended by me. He had run towards me, kicking up his heels and tossing his head like a silly, upset horse. I had just stood there, not sure what he was trying to do. It wasn’t until later that I realized that he could have easily kicked me in the head and, I dunno, killed me or something. From then on, I was wary of camels. I wasn’t afraid, but I just made sure not to get too close. Then I noticed that they were noticing me. Is it my skin color? I would walk past a herd of them and every single one would turn his head to watch me walk by. Mother camels would stand between me and their young and Dad camels would guard the whole pack- walking in front to edge me off the path. Then, a couple weeks ago, I noticed that they now didn’t even want to walk past me. They would see me coming at a distance and stop. Their herders would yell and smack them with sticks and they would take a few steps and stop again. I learned to use that as a sign that they were threatened, and as soon as I got close to them, they would swing their heads and stomp their feet. This week, one was forced to walk down into a ditch near the road on his way past me and he carried the momentum up onto the road and ran in my direction making a huffing noise that sounded like a vaccum cleaner that sucked up a childs toy. I stumbled off the path in the other direction trying to get out of the way while the old man behind the camel ran to whack the camel on the nose with a stick. I am sure the camel would have kicked me, but he had his two front legs loosly tied together to keep him from running away. The old man got his camel under control and walked by muttering gruffly to me in Borana. I assume he was saying something like “Goodness me! I am at a loss to what this here camel was doing! I am ever so sorry!” 

I left the experience with legs like jelly and a new fear of camels. And don’t you laugh thinking that they are just big cows. Cause they aren’t. They are REALLY big cows. With really big dinner plate sized feet. They are like big moose. Can you imagine standing there, two feet from a running, angry moose and not wanting to pee your pants? If you’ve never seen a moose, then I guess my analogy is lost. But anyway, I was scared. I walked the rest of the way home trying not to be freaked out- there are camels everywhere!  What was I going to do? In my village, there are more camels than cars and more camels than houses. Surely it is my destiny to be killed by a camel, and soon. This was very worrying. Then I wondered if the camels were really identifying me, the white lady with the ripped red backpack, or if they were noticing that I was afraid and were just attacking because they thought it was hilarious to freak out the mzungu.  The next morning, I was walking along when I saw a camel up ahead. It was, of course, a giant boy camel. And of course, I had to walk by him at the narrowest part of the path, squeezed in by a large acacia bush on one side. AND of course, his herder chose that moment to be distracted by another passerby. She was in the middle of the world’s longest greeting. “ngini badada? Badad. Bartukai? Ay-bartu. Fi-ya? Fiya-fiya. Salam alikum? Alikum salam. Akum? Dasa…” and I, meanwhile, was trying to calm my breathing and not look the camel in his giant staring eye. I thought “this is it, I must pretend to not be afraid. Either I’ll be trampled into the acacia bush anyway or the camel will see me as an equal and leave me alone.” I focused on the woman behind the camel, she was finished with her conversation but was not close enough to save me with her big stick. So I just pasted on a giant smile, looked past the camel and loudly and confidently greeted the woman. “Ngini badada?! Badad. Bartukai!!? AY-bartu. FI-ya?!! Fiya-fiya.” And then I was past the camel. It worked! My legs were shaking, but the camel had not taken one step in my direction. So yes, camels can smell fear. 

Someone said to me a few weeks ago, “Wow, Ryan. When you have a bad day, you have a really bad day.” Yesterday, I had a really bad day. And I'd like to know why so many of my stories end with the phrase "and then I ate a bug". I had gotten home a little late, it was already almost dark. The electricity had been out for over a week and I desperately needed to wash my hair (I'm pretty sure a small animal has its burrow in there) and I had gotten into the habit of cooking dinner before it got really dark. I lit a candle that I had put in an old honey jar. I didn’t like the bare candles- they made me spill wax on myself. I put down my makeshift lantern on the floor of the kitchen then went back to the living room to turn on my ipod so I could sing obnoxiously while cooking. Back to the kitchen and I went to pick up the lantern again. My skin instantly boiled, searing, melting my middle finger onto the glass jar. I jumped back and screamed “F*CK!!” Then I ran to my line of jerrycans full of water and stuck my hand in the small jug of water sitting on the floor. I am sure I could hear the sizzle when my hand hit the water. The burn started to cool down and, when I could breath without wimpering, I picked up the jug, my hand still submerged, to go back to the kitchen. I was going to blow out the candle but I found that the jar had shattered from the intense heat. The glass shrapnel was sprinkled on my kitchen floor amidst puddles of still burning wax. The wax itself was on fire. What the hell do they make candles out of in Kenya? I blew out the wax and then gingerly picked up every tiny shard of glass, I was pretty sure I would step on some later. The water in my bucket was getting warm from my hand and my burned finger started to hurt. I pulled it out of the water to look at it, but 3 seconds in the warm air and the pain was intolerable. With a whimper, I put my hand back in the jug, but now that it was warm, my finger was still searing. I dumped the warm water out and then refilled the jug from the jerry cans. The big jerry cans hold 20 liters of water and they were full. I usually need two hands and a foot to hold and tilt the can without spilling water all over. I only had one hand, and it was dark, so I of course spilt water all over the floor. Once my hand was back in the cool water, I tracked down my flashlight. It was dying and the beam was very weak but I was mad at candles for the moment and so I dealt with it. I looked at my hand and saw that only my middle finger was badly burned. The skin looked like a hot dog when you cook it in the microwave for too long without poking holes in it. It was bubbly and a gross looking mosaic of red and white. After an hour of sitting on my couch in the darkening room I realized that my finger was not going to get any less painful any time soon and I still needed to cook dinner. Since I live in Kenya, there is absolutely nothing that I can make that would be fast or easy.  It is Wednesday, so I have no bread, no eggs, no pasta, and all my veggies are too old, smushy, and wrinkly to be eaten raw. They simplest thing I could make was leftover rice with a white sauce and some vegetables. Normally, I would take a clean pot and melt some Blue Band. I would sauté onions, green peppers, carrots, and tomatoes. I would add more Blue Band so there was enough liquid to make a roux. I would add some flour and stir until thick. Then I would slowly add milk, stirring until a sauce forms. Add some spices, pour over rice and voila! Dinner! But on this day, with the extreme pain of a burned finger, things didn’t go as planned. I gathered all my ingredients close to the stove, I use a small gas cylinder with a metal burner on top. The whole contraption comes up to my knees and with no counter space, I use the floor for cooking. I took my flashlight, put it on the floor, kneeled next to my ingredients and lit the stove. I was very impressed with myself for lighting a match with one hand, and it was my left hand.  But I couldn’t take the leftover rice out of the pot so I had to cook with the old rice in the pan. I figured, no problem. I took some Blue band and started to melt it while I chopped vegetables. I started with tomatoes cause I figured that would be the easiest. I had to keep my right hand submerged in the water jug and so I used my left hand to chop. I didn’t have a free hand to hold the tomato so I basically pressed the knife into the tomato and cut it into rough wedges. I couldn’t get them small, or even, or even cut completely. The tomato juices kept making my knife slide and the tomato kept rolling. I ended up with about six ugly chunks of tomato and by then I was frustrated and so I threw them in the melted Blue Band. I decided that I would end up slicing my hand off if I tried to cut anything else so I stopped after the one decimated tomato. My hand was starting to burn because the water in the jug was warm so I went to the living room, dumped out the warm water, tried to fill with cool water, slipped and dumped the entire 20 liter can onto the floor. I instinctively grabbed the can with both hands to hoist it back up and then I screamed “F*CK” again when I scraped the fresh burn. I quickly dunked my hand back in the cool water jug whispering “f*ck f*ck f*ck f*ck” until I smelled my dinner burning and ran back to the kitchen. I needed to stir the food but I had only one hand and I needed to hold the flashlight so I could see. This is where it gets fun. I put the jug of water on the ground on the right side of the stove, I bent at the waist to keep my right hand in the water. I put the flashlight in my mouth; it is actually a headlamp with a missing strap so I put the rubber square that normally goes on your forehead in my mouth. I pointed the flashlight into the pan and with my left hand, stirred. With my right hand nearly touching the ground, my torso twisted to reach the pan, and my knees slightly bent, I felt like I was doing a complicated yoga move. The rubber of the flashlight tasted awful and made me drool pretty profusely. The drool caused the flashlight to slip and I dropped the flashlight, twice, into the pan of cooking fat and rice. I would then have to pick it up and put it back in my mouth. Occasionally, my right hand would suddenly start screaming in pain and I would realize that in my distraction I have stood up too far and accidently removed my hand from the water. I added flour to the rice-tomato-blue band mixture and stirred. I was doing something wrong because it didn’t thicken like it was supposed to. But by then, I didn’t give a shit. I poured the milk in slowly, kind of, and stirred some more. I dropped the flashlight into the pot, again, and fished it out, again. The food was pretty much ready but I knew from experience that it would taste bad if I didn’t add spices. I tried to sprinkle in some salt, gently, but you can guess how well that worked out. I did the same thing with the pepper. I didn’t bother trying to add any other spices. I tasted the oversalted dinner and it tasted like old rice with cooking fat, milk, and salt. In other words, it was not good. My trick for fixing a messed up sauce is to add a small can of tuna, the fishiness covers up a lot, and it adds the only source of protein in my diet. Unfortunately, opening a can of tuna requires two hands even with the fancy pull tab. Since I didn’t have an extra hand, I used my big toe. My filthy, dusty big toe. I tried not to touch the actual tuna, which worked pretty well. I dumped the tuna in the pan and stirred. It still tasted pretty bad. But I was tired, cranky, hungry, and in pain. I didn’t care. I took the pan off the heat I sat on my couch in the dark, my flashlight was fading, and took a few big bites. It was hot and filling so I didn’t care about anything else. I changed the water in my jug once more, and then I ate about half the pan of food. In the dim light of the flashlight, I saw what I thought was a bug in my food. I looked closer, and fished it out with my spoon. I looked closely at the bug and it was a small brown creature that lives in my flour when it goes bad. “Shit.” I used flour full of bugs.  I took the light and looked closely at the pan of food. I fished out 7 weevils before I gave up. I had eaten HALF of the food and who knows how many insects. Feeling a little nauseous, I stopped eating. With nothing else to do, I went to bed and crawled under my mosquito net to avoid the flying bugs. By 11pm, I was still awake, still in pain, and still having to change the water in my jug every ten minutes. I had dozed once, but ended up dumping the jug of water on myself and my bed. I peeled off my wet clothes, curled into a ball, and used the puddle of cold water on my mattress to soothe my burn for the rest of the night.

Don't worry. I bounced back to my usual good mood the next day when I saw a baby camel with a big black crow on his head. Teehee! The baby couldn't figure out how to get the bird off. Silly thing!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

"They are quiet and waiting in the shadows"

I ran out of kerosene in my gas tank this week and was unable to cook for four days. The first day I was unprepared and had to eat a room temperature leftover mashed potato sandwich. It was actually not bad. But two day leftover mashed potato sandwich on moldy bread? Not so much. I ate it for breakfast but didn’t realize the bread was moldy until halfway through the sandwich. That evening, I went over to the Brothers’ and told them my plight, they of course offered to let me eat there and I ate amazing food for those four days. Fried fish baked with red sauce and cheese, fruit salad with oranges, apples, mangoes, and passion fruit, samosas that tasted like Chinese eggrolls, vegetarian pizza with soft doughy crust topped with carrots, zucchini, eggplant, and a hard boiled egg (an odd, but delicious addition). Their cook is a lovely young woman named Nora. Nora is teaching me how to cook Kenyan foods and American foods in different ways. For example, I have always made fried chicken by dipping it in a whisked egg and then flour. She dips it in flour first, then in the egg. The breading ends up thicker and sticks to the food better. Intriguing! While she teaches me how to cook main dishes I am teaching her how to cook desserts. She had never heard of brownies, and so I made some. I was a little worried because I have never made brownies without using boxed mix, and I have no measuring cups so I was guessing with all the ingredients. And the oven in the Brothers’ house has no temperature control beyond “off” and “high”. But the brownies turned out great, and I feel a little better about mooching off the Brothers’ all the time. Next week, I am going to make sugar cookies while she teaches me the recipe for egg-roll-like samosas.
As I was leaving Sunday evening, I passed the gate keeper’s house and saw a friend of mine standing outside. Mr. Ngure called me over to ask if I was afraid of the dark. I said no and asked if he was, and he said “Yes! Of course!” He said that I should be afraid of hyenas. I have convinced myself that I am safe from hyenas and Mr. Ngure destroyed all my hopes. Our conversation went like this:
I said, “I am scrappy, I could fight them off.”
He responded, “they have strong jaws and can crack your neck.”

“I don’t hear any out right now, they don’t come out until late.”
“they are quiet and waiting in the shadows”

“They only hunt the weak or sick”
“You are alone and small, they hunt in packs and can take you”

I asked him, now that I WAS afraid, what I should do. He said I should carry a stick like a rongo (spelling?). It is a short, thick club carved out of wood with a knob on the end; the knob is for smashing in the skull of predators. Many of the men around here carry them for protection. It is the Mace of rural Kenya. So I said, “where can I get one?” And he told me that they were traditional and I wouldn’t be able to buy one. So he scares me, tells me the one weapon that will protect me, and then tells me I can’t have the weapon. Like they were waiting for this moment, the hyenas started howling. I walked briskly home, well aware of the wind that was blowing past me obscuring any sounds of paws in the bushes, and noticing again just how dark it is when you live in a village without electricity. My flashlight barely illuminated the path and the scorpions scuttling across in front of me; I could see nothing outside the beam. I made it home alive, obviously, but I don’t know what I am going to do in the future.

My good friend, Leah, had typhoid and malaria last week. She was sick enough to stay home from work, she is the secretary at St. Paul’s, for almost a week. I am not sure if she had actual malaria or “malaria” (with air quotes) which is the term Kenyans use for any illness. The typhoid was certainly real though, she was taking, like, eleven pills a day for the week. I introduced her to the American cultural norm where we bring hot soup to friends that are sick. (Does everyone do that or is it just me and actors in movies?) But I didn’t have hot soup, it doesn’t exist here (okay, it does but usually involves the boiling of the non-edible parts of a goat). I instead brought over my last packet of Lipton’s chicken noodle, sent by my wonderful American friends, and cooked it for her. She loved it and the sentiment. Here in Kenya, when friends are sick, not only do people cook dinner for them, but they also clean their house. Leah had all the male teachers doing her laundry and cooking all week. And since the Swiffer Wet Jet hasn’t quite made it here, she even had someone bent over with a rag mopping the floor by hand.

I got to school Wednesday after being away for a week on midterm break. My break was nice because I did nothing besides eating at the Brothers’, watching movies, occasionally marking mid term exams, and sleeping in until the decadent hour of 7 am. It was cool, cloudy, and beautiful the whole time. Now I am back for the last four weeks of the term. The heat and sun is back, and my group of wazungus from Minnesota left Wednesday morning. I didn’t say goodbye. I felt very bad because I had intended to go by and thank them for the three backpacks full of art supplies they gave me for my students, but I just made excuses all day and didn’t end up doing it. I realized, then, how much I hate goodbyes and clearly didn’t want to do it. (I avoid goodbyes whenever possible. I’m pretty sure my two year goodbye to my mother in America sounded like this: “Bye! Have a good day at work!”) I had seen the wazungus nearly every day that they were here for 4 weeks and I absolutely loved them. The kids were typical American teens: chattery, angsty, unintentionally self centric, funny, friendly, outgoing, and loud. I have never spent much time with the 14-16 age group and it was a little crazy, but fun. The four adults were awesome. They teased each other and actually laughed at my sarcasm which was a strange but glorious feeling. They caught me up on the news in America (Oprah retired!?) and even gave me some old American newspapers. The two women reminded me of my mother and the men reminded me of my dad. I didn’t know them very well, but when I thought about them leaving, it made me sad. They were also very generous and not only gave me bags and bags of things to give to my students, but also gave me shoes, clothes, and American snacky snacks. They really brightened up my little corner of Mars and I’ll miss them.

Things will get back to normal now, well, as normal as they can get around here. I just read in the newspaper from a few days ago that there is a string of crimes in a region to the south of me. Apparently people have been stealing arrowroot (tastes like chalky sweet potatoes) from farms and the farmers are retaliating by shooting the thieves with poison-tipped arrows. And I thought people only did that in Indiana Jones’ movies.

NOTE: If you are squeamish, skip this paragraph, I am going to talk about dead dogs. :/

In my area, the dog with suspected rabies has been killed. The local agro-vet decided it wasn’t worth the risk and is going around killing all the dogs by leaving out poison-tainted meat. On the one hand, it is sad to see them all being killed, but on the other, if rabies got into the human population around here, I can just imagine how awful that would be. Even an animal lover like me can see the sense in culling the pack now, before it gets bad. In case you are wondering what happens to the bodies I’ll be glad to tell you. The dogs wanted to die in their home, i.e. here on the school compound. They were poisoned and died in the morning, one behind the lab, one next to the Form three classroom, one in the field. There are probably more hiding someplace- I haven’t seen any live dogs all day and there are at least six adults in the pack. The local government said that they would come and collect the dogs, but by late afternoon there was no sign of them. Even a call to the Village Chief couldn’t get the ‘dog collectors’ out here. In this hot environment, the carcasses started decomposing immediately. The last thing we need is a bunch of rotting, poisoned, possibly rabid carcasses hanging out near the students. By the time our lab assistant got the animals into a wheelbarrow to be buried- our only other alternative- they were already well into the bloat stage. It was pretty disgusting. Our lab assistant thought it would be a good idea to bury them 20 feet from the staff room, right next to the kitchen. He got halfway through digging a shallow hole before the teachers decided that was probably a bad idea. We had him wander out into the desert with his load to get rid of it off in a distant corner of the school compound. I assumed they would still bury it- leaving a dead animal exposed is just asking for hyenas to eat it. And do we really want a pack of rabid hyenas? Or a pack of dead and rotting hyenas? But they were speaking kiborana and the only words I know in that language are “tree”, “house”, and “child”, none of which were helpful in the situation. So the dogs were dumped out near the far fence and we will just have to see what happens.

There is another unanticipated consequence of the dead dogs. They were completely infested with these gross, flying, spider-beetle things and as soon as the dogs were killed, the spider-beetles went off to find a new home. They have the same intelligence as all bugs and are zooming aimlessly around the school, pinging off peoples’ heads. It is very distracting in class. I was trying to stay on topic while my girls were twitching and squealing in their seats, only to be interrupted by a spider-beetle zooming into my hair, setting off my own full body twitch. The class would burst into laughter every time I said a sentence like “the density of concentrated sulfuric acid is 1.8 gcm-3 so to calculate the volu-ooOOOeee-ick”.

I apologize for the excessive use of parentheses this week. I got a little carried away- maybe I should start using footnotes?