Saturday, September 24, 2011

Eyeball Logistics

I am on the hunt for an eyeball. Two eyeballs would be better. In my Form three (that’s 11th grade) physics class we are studying lenses. Part of the syllabus involves the human eye. I thought it would be cool to dissect an eye to see all the parts. I did an eyeball dissection once when I was in seventh or eighth grade at a science camp. And yes, I was that girl- the dork who went to science camp and loved it. Anyway, I remember dissecting a sheep’s eyeball and how hard it was (not hard as in difficult, hard as in firm); the lens of the eye was a hard orange-ish sphere and I took it home as a souvenir but my mother, quite rightly, made me throw it away (have I mentioned how big of a dork I was?). Anyway, back to my eyeball search. I imagine finding an eyeball might be slightly easier here than in America. I don’t suppose you can run down to Wal-Mart and pick up goat eyeballs. Then again, maybe you can. Maybe they are in the deli case next to things like hooves, tongues, stomach and other things only desperate people, or the French, eat. But here in Kenya, eyes are in great abundance, I think. There are butchers everywhere with large slabs of (sorta) fresh livestock hanging from hooks in the shade. People here eat every single part of the animal without shame. I am sure I can easily find an eyeball or two when I run into town on Saturday. The thing I am worried about is what to do with the eyeball. I don’t teach the physics lab until Thursday. What am I supposed to do with a pair of fresh eyeballs for four days? Despite Science Camp, I don’t know much about eyeballs. Will it go moldy? I have this image of it dissolving into an opaque gooey liquid the consistency of soft-set Jello. Can you dissect something that oozes like an undercooked egg? Can I freeze the eyes and defrost them the day of the lab? And also, why didn’t I choose to be a math teacher? I don’t think math teachers have to worry about eyeball logistics. We’ve been having a mosquito outbreak for the last few weeks. It is immensely annoying and incredibly itchy. I counted almost 50 bites on my left foot and every day there are more added. They are out during the day and at night and even when it is windy. It is really not fair. I accept that mosquitoes have a legitimate purpose on the earth that makes it necessary for them to annoy the living crap out of me but I thought they had to stick to their rules. Day time bloodsucking in giant flocks? Really? The drought is still here and as bad as ever so I don’t know where they are coming from. The tribal elders, the weathermen of Kenya, say that the mosquitoes come from the Chalbi desert where it is raining and are blown here on the strong winds. They say they have seen seasons like this before. They predict that we will get rain soon, the acacia trees are turning green in preparation, and then the mosquitoes will bring elephantitis that is followed by the “death of many”. I put that in quotes because that is exactly what they told me. That was the order of coming events: rain, more mosquitoes, elephantitis, death. Recently, I have seen a few cases of elephantitis and all the acacia trees are indeed turning green so I am not sure how accurate the elders’ prediction is. We had a few cold days that were cloudy and windy. Of course, instead of rain, the strong winds just brought the usual intense dust storms. In a five-hour staff meeting on Wednesday, we were having a debate about what to do about the students who were guilty of vernacular speaking. Also known as ‘mother tongue speaking’, vernacular is thought to be the biggest contributor to the majority of students failing their classes. While the teachers were arguing about what to do, I was busy thinking about cheese. This is not unusual, I think about cheese often. I imagine it like a first love, forever remembered and forever missed. Every time I eat a meal consisting of a giant pile of rice with a tablespoon of cabbage, I scrutinize the bowl and think “you know what would make this meal awesome? A half pound of shredded cheddar.” Today I have cheese o my mind because I got a text message from my in-town PCV, Curtis, that simply read “mayo and cheese… hell yeah”. I knew instantly what that meant. My favorite store, Baslum, run by three young Indian guys, had cheese again. About once every three months, the place will get five or six packages of Laughing Cow processed cheese wedges. Every time, I attempt to buy them out and then spend the next three months pining for more. So to hear that we have cheese AND mayonnaise in Marsabit is a dream come true! Just think! I could have grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches, or real tuna melts, or cheesy casserole. Me and cheese is like Winnie the Pooh and hunny or Homer Simpson and beer. When I was in America, I, until recently, did not like cheese on my hamburgers. I am sitting here in Kenya wondering what the heck I was thinking. I wasted so many years, so many delicious, charbroiled, special sauce smothered opportunities. When I get back to America I am planning on putting cheese on everything, including breakfast cereal. I also plan on gaining 150 pounds in the first three months and then having a myocardial infarction. I have pigeons and doves living on my roof. I don’t like them because I have a tin roof and when the birds fly in it sounds like a helicopter is landing. They roost right outside my front door and every time I step outside, the take off in a burst of feathers and coo-ing that startles me every time. Also, they defecate on my porch. Monday, one of the doves died. I heard it fall over and slide down the roof to thud on the ground. I went outside to investigate and saw the bird lying uninjured on the ground. His eyes were closed and his wings neatly folded. It looked like he died in his sleep. I had this great plan to bury the bird in a deep hole for a few months and then dig up the skeleton to use in my school’s science lab. It was getting dark, so I decided to dig the hold in the morning. When I got up and went outside, I discovered the bird was gone. Presumably, it was eaten by some animal, mongoose maybe. The animal left no blood or anything, but did pull out all the bird feathers to leave in a scattered pile all over the place. I presume the animal did it just for fun, but it made me think that the bird was not eaten, but rather it exploded. Lokho wrote a poem about AIDS for a school assignment. I think it is very good, especially considering that English is her third language. I asked her if I could put it up online and she was very excited about the idea. She thinks it will make her famous. Fear of AIDS by Lokho Sora, 13 years old We know you as detrimental to education Dragging behind progress without question Entering every place with your deadly deformation Storing of poverty in our dear generation Knocking on our doors in all versions Pretending as if to bring us salvation Hatred is your tool of aggression Be aware we know you as Mr. Aids We know you as a person A terrible fire that never pardons Stronger than heavy boxer Tyson More dangerous than a dragon Moving in Africa like passion Seriously affecting our bodies with poison Why are you wandering in Africa? Why start from Liberia and Somalia Causing disaster in Sudan and Ethiopia Taking the role of master in Nigeria Trying Kenya like uncontrolled diarrhea Entering Marsabit through unknown media I suppose you are not awarded a degree of honoree What could be your cause? You must have come on a fast horse Providing Africa with your dose Letting the sons of Africa mourn For the cause that is never known Anarchy is the seed you’ve sown And impatient we have grown Get lost from our face, We have no room in our place We have no words to give you Let us all participate in the chase To remove AIDS from our space Making development all our race Creating love as our base Unified with peace in every case

Saturday, September 10, 2011


Last week I went to a Borana tribal celebration called Gadamoji. It took place near a small village called Kubi Dibayu and was extremely crowded. There were hundreds of people all dressed up in traditional tribal clothes. Most of them looked exactly like my neighbors look every day. The celebration was a coming of age ceremony and retirement party that only occurs once every eight years. The event was a month long in preparation culminating in singing and dancing and feasting. Every eight years the tribe celebrates the life of all the oldest members of the tribe; they are called mzee (pronounced em-zay). The people come from surrounding villages and set up a temporary house in Kubi Dibayu. Each family that has an old man to honor will build a hut out of sticks and grass. Because of the drought, there was no grass to cover the houses so everyone used discarded plastic bags. There were about fifty little houses in a row and I was told that the family can build the entire structure in less than an hour. The houses were large enough for the whole family to fit a little uncomfortably and each hut was connected to the one next door so all the families could socialize. The huts were elaborately decorated on the inside with traditional decorated pots and baskets. The women and young girls of each household put grease in their hair to make it shine and wear a traditional watertight basket on their backs made for carrying camels’ milk. Some of the women wore leather belts decorated with the shells of large land snails. All the women wore their hair down and some had their hair partially braided to signify they were married while others had a piece of metal, similar to tinfoil, in their hair for every child they had. The men of the family carry spears and carved walking sticks and on their heads wore turbans and a strange headband that, I thought, appeared like a large silver chess Queen protruding from their foreheads. The morning of the celebration, the old mzees shave their heads and put the hair in a two foot high, compact, mud cone outside the hut. Then the mzee goes into the hut into a special room separated by a curtain. He has to remain in the room for three days. Meanwhile, outside all the youngest members of the family are also busy. The little boys and girls have their hair put in dreadlocks and colored with henna and are given leather and shell headpieces to wear. They wear them all day and then, in the evening, they also have their heads shaved. During the main part of day, the sons of each household go from hut to hut, chanting and singing while an announcer recites details about the mzee’s life. Details that make him revered are killing elephants and lions, how many children he has, and whether he is a tribal elder. When the men come to the door of the hut, the daughters of the household join in the singing. The men go into the hut looking for an item of significance; it is like a treasure hunt. The women have put a symbolic item in the house representing the mzee’s spirit and it is protected by the women. The men have to find it and the longer it takes the more luck the mzee has. During the hunt, some people get very emotional and start shaking and crying and fainting. The men who become upset get very violent and start fighting that scares all the spectators into running away. Once the item is found, everyone cheers and the women ululate. In most cases I saw, the special item was one of the small traditional baskets with some camels’ milk inside. The men each dip the end of their spears into the milk and then taste it. Once everyone has had some of the milk, the item is returned to the family for safekeeping and the men move on to the next house. After all houses have been visited, there is a big feast. This time, because of the drought, there is not enough food to feed all the guests. But the families of the mzees all get plenty because part of the tradition is to bring a goat or young cow as a gift to the family. I had a great time; it was very fascinating. I also enjoyed not having to make conversation with strangers. Almost no one spoke Kiswahili or English so I was able to wander around and take pictures and smile. I was the only mzungu in the group of hundreds and hundreds of non-English speakers. Needless to say, I got a LOT of attention. I even got to use my newly learned kiborana phrase “Larisa” (Don’t do that) when people were playing with my hair. Everyone around me just laughed, they just think it is hilarious when I speak kiborana. I was also surprised at how many people I knew. My deputy principal was there, her father was being honored. I saw our laboratory technician, a bunch of teachers from surrounding schools, my neighbor, and many of the women that I usually pass on my way to school. After spending the day at Gadamoji, I went back to my village and spent some time with Lokho, my neighbor. She has been having a rough time lately and I felt that I should give her someone to talk to. She told me this story about her only friend from school who used to be very in to studying and school but then got a boyfriend and changed her attitude. Lokho tried to warn her friend that this guy, who happens to be Lokho’s older cousin, had many other girlfriends and was just using her. Lokho told the girl that there was nothing that the boyfriend could give her that was more important than her staying in school and focusing on her studies. But Lokho could not get through to the girl and she went with the boy and stopped being Lokho’s friend. Lokho was very sad and angry at the girl. Lokho said that she found out recently that the girl, only thirteen years old, now has HIV. To make matters worse, the cousin who gave the friend HIV was now living in Lokho’s house and telling Lokho that she really needed a boyfriend and that he would be very happy to “do it if no one else will”. It made me absolutely sick but at least Lokho is too smart to listen to the guy. She said that she now avoids the cousin and refuses to talk to him. She said “we are no longer family” and sadly she said I was now her only friend. The very next day, another cousin of Lokho, the one year old Guyo, came down with malaria and had to go to the hospital. The Aunt and Uncle took the baby to the hospital leaving Lokho at home with the cousin and the toddler, Galgallo. As soon as they were alone, the cousin kicked Lokho and Galgallo out of the house and refused to let them back in. They had to sit outside under the scorching sun all day with no water. By the time the aunt and uncle got home, Galgallo was crying hysterically and Lokho had been begging the cousin for hours to let them come get water. The aunt and uncle immediately kicked the guy out of the house but poor Galgallo has been nearly silent and crying a lot for the last couple days. Whenever he is asked why he is upset he says “I am just remembering.” Some days this place just breaks my heart. There are no more camels. It is raining in the Chalabi desert and so the herders have moved on to literal greener pastures. There are also no more cows. But I am told that they are all dead. The only livestock left is skinny goats and dirty sheep. All there is left for them to eat is garbage.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Four More Days of Lassitude

I have been in Mars for a week now and all I feel is apathy. I don’t even know if apathy is the right word. When I thesaurasize ‘apathy’, looking for a more appropriate word, I get the many choices: boredom, laziness, lack of interest, lethargy. All those seem to describe my feelings quite perfectly and I am much too lazy to pick just one. I do not know why I feel like this; maybe having a really awesome vacation lends a boring pallor on anything that comes after. All I know is, I don’t feel like doing anything. I don’t want to get out of bed, but staying in bed is equally unpalatable. I can’t stand being in my house alone all day but the alternative is to go outside and see people, which is just slightly worse. If I could go do something or go somewhere and not have to work so hard at being polite or understood, I would do it. I want to go for a hike, but there is no destination out here. Friday I walked to town, all 15 km, because I needed an activity and that allowed me to be alone with my thoughts and still be productive with my time. I was able to get to town in a little over two hours but many Kenyans thought I was crazy. And apparently, the road to town is dangerous, even in the day time. Not only by sketchy locals (the Boranas tell me that Rendilles are hiding in the forest) but also, as I was warned by some kids, from marauding elephants that are out to “shika mtu” or “take people”. I am not sure I believe any of the warnings. Is it more dangerous to be on my two feet, capable of running away, or to be perched atop a lorry that is going 80 km an hour on the bad road? Or hitching a ride with strangers on an old, rusty tractor, sitting precariously above the wheel holding on with one hand? With those alternatives, I’ll take my chances and go on foot. In case you are wondering why I have to go to town at all, the reason is not only to kill some hours in the day, but also to get food. During the term, I have always depended on the Brothers of St. Paul to take me to town in their nice land rover. But the Brothers are not here. I am kinda on my own, fending for myself like a true Peace Corps volunteer. The Brothers are in “Down Kenya” along with all my English speaking neighbors, every single one of my friends, and all my colleagues. I am pretty much alone except for the kiborana speaking women in my small village. I do have one neighbor who is here to talk to. Lokho and her aunt and uncle. And the toddler, Galgallo, who is an endless source of smiles and entertainment. The whole family is Muslim and invited me to celebrate Eid, the end of Ramadan. And, since they know me so well, they waited until the large crowd of strangers left to invite me over. None of the strangers speak English and I get pretty uncomfortable when being obviously talked about and laughed at in Kiborana. So I did spend get to spend a day talking about America and religion and why I do not have a religion. One thing I have been doing with my free time is practicing my Kiborana. I figure, if I can actually communicate with my neighbors maybe I can find a side project in my village that is productive. I am going very slowly because I don’t have an actual teacher. I listen to Galgallo and have Lokho translate. Lokho speaks English and Kiswahili and despite being very good at all three, she sometimes gets confused. So I don’t know what an “amosi” is except that it is an animal big enough to kill chickens. I know “makankeen” is something to do with names but I don’t know if it is “what is your name?” or “my name is”. I do know how to say “es demt” which is “where are you going?” But with my limited skills I can still only talk to children, and even they just laugh at me like I said something hilarious. I did meet a man on my way to town who spoke a little English. He said “where are you from” and when I answered “America” he said every American thing he could think of. “oooOO-BAMA! Hilory Cleenton! Buffalo soldier… super power, independence 1776, BUFFALO SOLDIER! Two parties, republicans like war! First president George Washington! George Bush Senior, fifty states, ILLINOIS! Buffalo soldier!” He was very excited, in particular, about the song “Buffalo Soldier”. He sang it repeatedly but only knew the words “Buffalo Soldier”. It was a strange ten minutes we spent together. On a sad note, my village is not doing too well. There are the dead corpses of cows killed by the drought scattered around. Everyone I talk to, even if it is just greetings, only has the lack of food and water to talk about. This area hasn’t gotten rain in six years and there is no reason to hope that the rainy season coming up will be any different. It makes me feel sad and ineffectual. Here I am complaining because my phone won’t update facebook and the people here are actually starving. And those who are not starving are dying in other awful ways. In the last week, I know of four people who have died in my village alone. One, a fifteen year old kid, was killed in a pikipiki accident on the road. An old man, whose house I can see from my front door, died from tuberculosis. Another young kid, in Lokho’s class, died from suspected yellow fever. He just had a headache one day and then died before he got to a hospital. I don’t even know how the last person died but I could hear the cries of mourning all day. My local dispensary is working with Food for the Hungry to try to provide relief to the people. Every two weeks they come and provide a cup of porridge and some oil to every child under five years. The program is supposed to go on until December. But I don’t see how it will be enough. During the Ramadan celebration there was supposed to be a big feast. And my generous neighbors opened their home to many people, giving each person who came by a plate piled with food. They apologized to me because they said they wanted to slaughter a goat in celebration but they couldn’t afford it. They still gave me a large pile of meat, mostly globs of fat, on top of rice flavored with a single chopped tomato. I ate in front of the family, who had eaten earlier. I felt terrible because there was the Aunt, nursing the frightened baby, and four toddlers, all just staring hungrily at me while I ate. Galgallo knows me and was unafraid to get his own spoon and share off my plate. I fed some of the rice to another little girl who had a cough and some skin infection on her legs. I snuck the globs of fat to the two other young boys who were watching; they were two of Lokho’s 7 brothers and were a little afraid of me so stood by hugging each other refusing to touch me except to shake my hand. My neighbors lost a couple of chickens last night. They are being killed by the creature they call an amonsi. I am not sure what it is but I think it might be similar to a mongoose. I know that there is another animal, a civet, which lives around here too. I saw a civet one night; it was making strange noises outside my house. I don’t know what a civet is really, I only know what my Kenya guidebook tells me, but I am staying away from it. Even in the early evening there are creatures that are cat-sized, but not cats, running around my compound. They are not skittish, but I am, and so I no longer like to be outside after dusk. The hyenas and jackals have been coming out early too. I never thought I would say this, but I miss peeing in a hole outside, because the alternative is peeing in a bucket in my living room, and then emptying it in the morning. Just like in medieval manors. Or nursing homes. School starts in four days. I will be glad to get back to work so I have something productive to do. This week I have already read three books, gotten halfway through the “animorphs” book series, watched all the episodes of Glee, finished season two of Modern Family, started P90X, built an extra shelf on my paper mache cabinet, sewn new covers for the cushions on my couch out of lessos, fixed some rips in Lokho’s favorite Muslim dress, had a solo Glee soundtrack dance party, quit P90X, gave Lokho an eye test and when I learned she has eyesight almost as bad as mine, gave her my old, slightly scratched glasses, learned how to make yogurt, and walked to and from town (that’s thirty kilometers) twice.