Friday, January 27, 2012
It is almost February and my school is getting ready for the form one students to report. I am anxious for them to come so I can begin teaching. I am currently only teaching one class and am afraid I am getting relaxed and used to my light schedule. I also think it is not the best practice to have students show up to school more than a month after opening day. I am actually not looking forward to the first few weeks of teaching the form one students. It will take them a few weeks to understand my accent and a few more weeks after that for them to get and trust my method of teaching. I expect I will do better this year than last year, since I know what to expect but I am still wary of those “what, is she crazy?” looks I am going to get for the next month or so. I am working with an all male staff these days. Our deputy principal, who I loved, moved to Nairobi to go back to school for her Master’s degree. Our other female teacher moved to be with her husband and have babies (she’s pregnant with twins!) in down Kenya. I actually enjoy being with all men. I think it teaches them to be less sexist. They had to pick a man to be in charge of the weekly shopping for food, they take turns serving lunch each day, and for meetings they have to have a male secretary to take minutes. It is good for them. My school has recently acquired a new administration block. It includes a staffroom, some offices, and (my favorite addition) a WC or water closet. When I first saw it, it was being used to store books because the construction guys never built a space for the waste to go. Yesterday, though, the workers were digging a nice, big, cement- lined hole for the facilities. I excitedly asked if that meant we could soon use it. I hate using the choo at school. It is a good 5 minute walk away from the staffroom, a terrible situation if you are sick. The door doesn’t close all the way or latch so you have to pray, as you are approaching, that no one is currently using it or you will walk in on them. Worse is making awkward conversation as they leave or you cross paths. They know what you are going to do, you know what they did. “Oh, hello Mr. Principal. How was your… um, day?” Even if you don’t meet someone at the choo, it is still a dirty, fly- clouded, smelly hole with (for some odd reason) raised footrests that only serve to impair proper aim. Needless to say, I was looking forward to an indoor bathroom that had an actual door and an ability to be cleaned. But when I asked if we could use it, I was told that we COULD but that no one WOULD. I think these Kenyans find going to the bathroom indoors to be a foreign and needless endeavor. Weirdos. During counseling this week, I had one girl who wanted to ask a teacher if she could move to the front of the class because she had poor vision and was having trouble seeing the board. She recounted the story of how she got this poor vision issue and it totally baffled me. Apparently, way out in the rural villages there are people who say things that can cause rashes on the face. They say things like, “Oh, little girl, you are beautiful! You will be so beautiful when you grow up!” Then the girl will get a red rash on her neck and face. I stopped the student to clarify, “you mean like a blush? They compliment you and your face gets red, that’s called a blush.” She nodded and continued her story, “Oh, well this happened to me and the redness went up my cheeks and into my eyes and they started to bleed. This gave me bad vision. Have you seen this?” I told her that words could not cause her eyes to bleed and she replied, “not in towns, but waaaay, way out there,” gesturing behind her to the desert with both hands. “Out there, there are… certain people … who can do this with words. Aiee!” With a full body shudder, she paused to cross herself. I attempted to explain that it was not possible to cause injury with just a phrase, but without a medical reason to explain bleeding eyes, I am afraid I did not convince her. I was talking with a friend of mine, Choke, who is from Ethiopia. He has read the Quran and we have a lot of interesting conversations about religion. Recently, we have been talking a lot about the Al-Shabaab terrorists and their beliefs and the jihad, or holy war, they have declared. Choke has been lamenting the recruitment Al-Shabaab has done in Kenya because of some personal friends of his. Two young boys, smart kids who could be in university now, were neighbors of his. One of them joined the Kenyan army and was sent to Somalia to fight the terrorists while the other boy was recruited by Al-Shabaab. The two boys are now fighting each other in Somalia; they are two friends on opposite sides of the war. Choke was explaining what a waste it was of a good kid with a future to join Al-Shabaab. He also disagreed with the reasons for the fighting. He told me that in the Quran, it discusses three types of jihad. The first type of holy war is against your own soul. The point being to fight to change your own soul to better worship God. The second jihad that puts you against others has the purpose of proselytizing Islam to nonbelievers. But in this you are not allowed to take up arms nor are you allowed to harass. The Quran says that you may preach but if the person to whom you are preaching does not believe then you are to leave them to their own counsel. The third jihad is the only one where you are allowed to take up arms to cause injury to another. But this is only if you are being prevented from worship. As an example, if you are being barred from attending mosque, you may attack those standing in your way. But the Quran does not support any other killing. And nowhere in the book does it say there is a reward of any kind (no 7 virgins) waiting in heaven for those who kill another. Choke gets pretty indignant and upset at the portrayal the Al-Shabaab are giving to a religion he maintains is built on peaceful and quiet worship.
Sunday, January 22, 2012
We are already in the fourth week of classes and this is off to a good start. The biggest change from last year is that I am the school counselor now and I absolutely love it. I never really thought I would enjoy listening to a bunch of teenage girls’ problems but it has been truly great. I am getting to know the students and I feel like I am actually helping them more than by being front of them in class as a teacher. The problems I hear cover the whole spectrum including boy troubles, falling asleep in class, whether to convert from Islam to Christianity, need tutoring in math, and even medical issues. Not to say that I am qualified to treat medical problems, but I can do a lot better just using common sense than a lot of the treatment given at the local medical clinic. For example, on girl had a cut on the heel of her foot caused by wearing uncomfortable shoes. After a few days it got very swollen, painful, and infected. She went to the local dispensary and got 5 injections. Two days later, the foot was getting worse, a sick looking open wound, so she went back and was given 5 more shots. She came to me after another day of pain and I offered the only advice I could. I asked her if they washed the wound at all. She said no, they hadn’t touched it. I put on lab gloves and scrubbed the wound clean. I rinsed it well, put on some first aid cream, and covered it with a bandaid. The next day the swelling was down and she could walk without limping. Now I am not a nurse, and I am not sure what was in the injections, but I think that basic first aid for any wound should be to clean it and I would hope that the only medical facility in the area would know that. In my first biology lesson of the term, I was talking about the importance of proper nutrition and one of the students asked “are there any nutrients in soil?” Whenever I get questions like that I cringe because I just know what they are going to say. “Soil? As in dirt? Why do you want to know?” The student’s reply “because people eat dirt.” I was surprised and exclaimed “WHO?!” And of course, a bunch of girls started nodding, saying they often ate it by the handful. When I asked, in a strangled voice, why, one girl looked at me with a glint in her eye and said “appetizer!” I asked if they thought it tasted good and everyone agreed that it did. I can only assume that the girls, who eat only githeri (beans and maize) every meal of every day, are lacking something in their diet that gives them cravings for something else. I know that they also eat paper and chew on sticks. I had to spend the next 30 minutes trying to convince the girls that there was NO good reason to ever eat dirt. “But,” one girl said, “pregnant women do it!” And I had to tell them that pregnancy can also give you strange cravings but there was never any reason to eat soil. I don’t know if they will listen to me. I have the feeling, judging by their faces when I told them, that they will not want to give up their afternoon treat. I told them a year ago to stop eating paper, and they all continue to do it. Most of my students come from the villages in the immediate surrounding area. One girl, Doris, lives in a well made mud house next to the borehole near the school. She was a form one girl last year and so would be in form two this year. She was one of my favorite students last year because she always participated in class and had the happiest smile on her face. She is daughter of the village chief and so I was surprised when I passed her on my way to school the first day. I asked her why she had not yet reported to school and she said she was sick. I told her to get well and come the next day. The day came and she still didn’t show up; when I passed her on the road, I asked why. She said that she decided not to come back to school. The reason: she wanted to get married. How horrifying! I tried to convince her to come by telling her all the things education can bring her. Opportunity, enlightenment, a chance to go to university, travel to see the world, a good job, etc. She just looked at me with that beatific smile and shook her head no. “I want a husband,” she said. I begged, “but you are so young! Just come for one more year.” But she was convinced. And I lost one of my best students to a lifetime of marriage, babies, and fetching water. That depressed me. There is another mystery animal running around the school compound. This one is called a “wakala.” My teachers asked me to identify it and when I asked them to describe it one guy said “you know chameleon? It is like that,” and immediately another teacher said, “no, it is more like an alligator.” Then they both looked at me expectantly. An animal that is similar to both an alligator and a chameleon? They said it was “big like a small alligator, but had skin like a chameleon.” I have no idea what this creature is (allimeleon? chameligator?), but I hope I never meet it.
Saturday, January 14, 2012
It is amazing to see what a difference 6 weeks can make. When I left Mars, it had been raining for a few weeks. Everything was muddy and new greenery was just starting to peek out of the ground everywhere. Now, I have returned to a completely different world; it is beautiful. The grass everywhere towers over my head, the shambas (farms) are filled with maize 8ft tall, every tree is filled with weaver birds and flocks of swallows, and even a few flowers are gracing the fields. I spent my first day back slashing the dense grass with a panga (machete) in order to forge a path to my choo. While slashing, I made sure to leave a patch of sunset-colored snapdragons alone. I am glad to be back home; six weeks living out of a backpack is rough even on the dustiest Peace Corps volunteer. I started my journey the day before Thanksgiving. My plans took me to Loitokitok, where I trained for service last year. I was going to meet the new education volunteers and help them through their first attempts at teaching in front of a Kenyan classroom. This group is about half the size of my group, and they were awesome. One thing I have noticed about PCV’s, is that it is rare to find someone you don’t immediately get along with. You may not be immediate best friends, but there is an instant “yeah, I get it” level of understanding. I think it is because of the fact that most PCV’s have a heavy dose of crazy/weird/not normal in their personalities. Anyway, Model School was a fun week of meeting new people and pretending I knew what I was doing when it comes to teaching. During Model School week, I also took the opportunity to visit my first Kenyan national park, Amboseli. It is a relatively small park but had tons of animals. The visit nudged me a lot closer to a life goal of mine: see the entire “cast” of the Lion King. I saw warthogs, zebra, giraffe, wildebeest, ostrich, guinea hen, marabou stork, dung beetles, secretary birds, and tons of elephants. The herds of elephant stretched across the horizon, hundreds of members strong. After an hour, it was a little repetitive. My friends and I thoroughly annoyed the taxi driver by singing, on repeat, the elephant march song from The Jungle Book. The one that goes, “Oh, we march from here to there, with our trunks up in the air….” After Loitokitok, I went to Nairobi for a mid-service medical exam. That was fun. We were greeted at the hotel reception desk with a gift from Medical, a brown paper bag into which we were to “deposit our fecal specimen.” After dropping off our deposits, before which we had a great time coming up with horrible ways to tease the medical staff. My favorite idea was to melt a chocolate bar and going into the office eating out of the sample tube using the convenient spoon provided. The rest of the three days in Nairobi was spent eating delicious food and waiting for our TB tests to be read. Two people in our group tested positive for tuberculosis and have to spend the next nine months having liver function tests and taking intense antibiotics. Once I left Nairobi, which was way too expensive for my tastes, I headed out to a town called Sega near the border of Uganda to spend a week with my friend, Cindy. We spent the week doing absolutely nothing of importance; it was great. We made donuts and watched movies. One day we had a “one-armed movie marathon” which, although only consisting of two movies, was enough to remind you of the underrated importance of arms. We also repeatedly sang 525600 minutes from the Rent soundtrack using kitchen utensils as microphones until the point where we could hit the high notes without making glass shatter. I left Cindy’s house and traveled to Malaba, another Uganda border town, to stay with a friend named Ali. Ali and I also watched a lot of movies, but we tempered it by also occasionally going outside. One day, we went on a long hike up to a point where there are cave paintings. It was strange to walk around the village, seeing the thatch huts and outdoor cooking ovens made of grass and think about the villagers and their ancestors that have probably lived in that same area the same way for thousands of years. Up on a hill, there was one large stone wall decorated in symbols and paintings. There were horse- type drawings, and human faces, and, my favorite, an elephant. Most of the paintings were drawn with red ochre, a bright dye that is very common in the rocks around the area. Above the cave paintings, there was a high overlook that had amazing vistas all the way into Uganda. From up there, we could clearly see Mt. Elgon, some kilometers to the north. Mt Elgon is another place on my list to visit; my only reason for wanting to go there is because the Ebola virus was discovered there. Ebola is an extremely volatile and deadly disease, and I find it incredibly fascinating. Ironically, the next day a newspaper reported that a person in Nairobi had died of Ebola. (After investigating the situation, they determined that she did not have Ebola, but some other hemorrhagic fever that caused her to bleed out in a taxi before she even made it to a hospital.) After Ali’s house, I traveled to Hell’s Gate National Park in Naivasha where I was to meet Cindy and her mother for some good old-fashioned bicycling. When I heard that you could bicycle through Hell’s Gate, which happens to be the place of inspiration for Pride Rock in the Lion King, I knew I had to invite myself along. Yes, I am that dorky. We saw no lions, but we did get to startle a group of baby giraffes into running across the road to where their babysitters watched and bicycle to within touching distance of some zebra who refused to move out of the way. Hell’s Gate also has a beautiful gorge that requires you to leave your bike behind, hire a guide, and then do some ridiculous rock climbing. There are hot springs and volcanic rocks shaped into beautiful layered swirls and rooms given entertaining names like “Devil’s master bedroom” and “Devil’s shower”. The entire day was filled with beauty but at the end of it, I was exhausted. Seriously, who thought it would be a good idea to bicycle 13 kilometers in one day? I left Naivasha the day before Christmas Eve using the WORST public transportation. I know I have said this before, but I swear I will never, ever complain about travel when I get back to the real world. There can be nothing worse than travel in Kenya. I bought a bus ticket, and was told the bus would leave in one hour. After three hours of waiting, those in charge had all the passengers pick up their things and walk for 40 minutes to the outskirts of town where the highway was. Apparently, there was no bus and so we all stood at the side of the road as the men waved down passing vehicles trying to get them to pick us up. When they tried to sell me to a regular vehicle with four men in it, I was incredulous and told them I paid to get on a BUS not hitchhike with strangers. Another hour or so, and I finally got on a hideous purple bus with way too many people. I was supposed to go to Kisumu and it should have take 4 hours, after 8 hours and breaking down twice, I was fed up. I called the friend I was meeting in Kisumu, Ana, from the side of the road and I told her to come get me in a taxi. She said she could be at the next town in an hour and I could meet her there. I asked our driver to drop me in that town and he said it would take 20 minutes. An hour and a half later, we still are not to this town. Every time I ask someone how far it is, they say “it is just here, not far, just here”. Clearly, no one knew where we were. The fat, deodorant-free guy next to me (there are very few overweight people in Kenya, so it is ironic that I get to share a seat with one every time I get on a bus. And when I say ‘share a seat’ I mean, I lean against the window while his thigh is slightly on top of mine and his arm will hit me in the stomach and face every time he gestures emphatically) kept telling me creepy things like “If I was Al-Shabaab, I would kidnap you!” Anyway, we finally got to the town, I met my friend and we headed to her house in Sondu. Ana is the queen of hospitality. She refuses to let anyone in her kitchen to help. As a guest, your job is to sit there and look pretty. It was nice, and she is a great cook. She made some very delicious Indian curries. On Christmas Eve, she and I, and another friend, Brennan, went out and collected green branches to make our version of a Charlie Brown Christmas Tree. We took a stick and put it upright in a wine bottle. Then we tied on green branches using purple yarn. For decorations, we made origami cranes, origami irises and paper snowflakes. It was very spindly and adorable. Ana and I spent last Christmas Eve together and it was a disaster. This year, we were determined to make it good. With Brennan there, who was our host for last year’s Christmas day celebration, and two other volunteers that I had never met, we managed to make an amazing meal for both Christmas Eve and Christmas day. Our best creation of the day: we discovered how to make granola. It made a delicious fruit cobbler. When we weren’t cooking, we were relaxing, chatting, singing Christmas songs and watching How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I had a great time, it was probably the simplest Christmas I’ve ever had. The day after Christmas, I headed to Kisumu to meet up with Cindy and her mother again. I have been to Kisumu a few times before but I have never done the touristy things so we went and planned on visiting the Impala Park and going hippo watching. The impala park is basically a fenced in area with a bunch of zebra and impalas inside. There are also cages with other animals. It is a Kenyan zoo. I didn’t really enjoy seeing the animals in such small areas, but the literature said that they animals were all rescued from the wild (I tried to believe that). The animals did look active and healthy, not like the lethargic animals in American zoos. I watched the lions roaring at each other, and then chase each other around the cage. I watched the leopard stalk a child who was on the other side of the fence and not paying attention. At the monkey cage, the residents came up and held my hand, and tried to steal my sunglasses. One of them poked his hand through to the cage next door where there was a tortoise he could pet gently on the head. The highlight of the park came when talked to the keeper outside the cheetah cage who allowed us to go inside and pet the two cheetahs. It was a little scary; when mine stood up abruptly I nearly fell over in my anxiousness to back up. After the Impala Park, we went out to the beach where you can hire a boat to take you out onto Lake Victoria and go search for hippos. There were three guys on our boat. One to run the engine, one to paddle when the engine wouldn’t start, and one to constantly bail the water out of the boat. As we tut-tutted along to the marsh were the hippos live, I asked the obvious question: hippos are really dangerous, why are we bring this dinky boat into chomping distance? The men on the boat said that there were two populations of hippos in the lake, the ‘nice’ hippos and the ‘not nice’ hippos. The not nice hippos would definitely kill you if you looked at them. The nice hippos would allow you to get really close without trying to eat you. I, being really too excited to care, believed the men knew what they were talking about. We spent a good hour circling the boat around a group of about 7 baby hippos, “babies” the size of Volkswagens. But we didn’t get eaten, so that was good. From Kisumu, we were headed to Uganda to meet a bunch of other volunteers and go rafting the Nile River. As soon as we crossed into Uganda, you could tell you were in a different country. The Matatus were clean and not overstuffed. The roads were smooth and pothole free. When the matatu stopped, no one tried to harass you or grab you. As we drove along, everyone looked relaxed. It was the hottest part of the day, so everyone was sitting under a tree, or sleeping on a shaded porch. I wondered what it must be like to be a Peace Corps Uganda volunteer, calm and relaxed all the time? I can’t imagine what that would be like. My favorite thing about Uganda: they have ridiculous money. It is like they got the design from a board game. It was small and brightly colored. They had bright green, ocean blue, pink, and purple. They also had cute pictures. The blue one had a fish on it. In addition, the exchange rate was so outrageous that I couldn’t even bargain in the markets. The smallest bill was a one thousand shilling bill. We went out to lunch with eight people and the cost ended up being twenty THOUSAND shillings. It was such an insane amount of money, but ended up being about $8. I went to the bank and converting a bunch of Kenyan shillings to the Ugandan ones and was given so many bills that I nearly asked for a suitcase to carry them in. It was so much money, I didn’t have enough space in my wallet. We arrived at the camp, a place called Adrift Rafting, that had nice dorm style rooms and a gorgeous deck overlooking the Nile. We met a bunch of other volunteers, mostly business volunteers, and went on a boat trip to watch the sunset over the river. Adrift has their own bungee tower where crazy tourists can voluntarily leap off a 44 m high platform. That evening as I watched some people take the jump, one of the business volunteers came up and mentioned that those people must be insane. I agreed and said that no one in their right mind would do something so stupidly risky. The guy nodded and nudged me, “hey, you and I will watch from a safe distance as the people from our group do it.” I turned to him and said “Oh, I’m doing it!” I’m pretty sure he thinks I have multiple personalities. Either way, the next morning, Cindy, me and two others from our group climbed the endless staircase to the top of the bungee tower. I was really, really nervous. I kept asking the guys in charge genuinely concerned questions like “have you ever had anyone vomit on the platform?” I watched the first guy leap off and nearly peed myself. I went second, thinking I could not watch someone else do it or I would lose my nerve. There are two guys who strap you in and get you all ready. They first ask you if you want to touch the Nile. I said I did. They use your weight to adjust the length of the rope. I was told that the goal is to jump as far off the platform as possible. If I jumped far enough, I would dip just the tips of my hands into the river, if I just fell straight off the platform, I would get wet up to chest level. I was sitting in a chair while the guy wrapped a towel around my ankles, followed by a thick rope. I noticed that he was not actually tying any knots; he was just wrapping the rope around the towel and clipping it to another rope. I was trying not to panic and started asking questions to get my mind off of what I was doing. “How long have you been doing this?” I asked. His response was, “today is my second day.” I assumed he was kidding. Next question, “How many times have you jumped?” Answer: “Oh, I would never jump… way too scary.” “Are there crocodiles down there?” “Not today.” I stopped asking questions then. I stood up, ankles bound, hopped to the edge of the platform and told the guy I was too scared. He told me not to look down, to look at my friends way over on the observation deck. He told me to “smile! This is going on facebook!” My stomach dropped and I started panting. I thought I was having a panic attack. He asked “are you ready?” I said “I can’t do this!” He said “Yes you can!” then they started counting down. As loud as they could, they yelled “ONE, TWO, THREE, BUNGEE!!!” I didn’t even hesitate (if I had, I wouldn’t have ever been able to do it); I launched myself off the platform. I was too terrified to even scream. I only had time to remember to suck in a quick breath and keep my head tucked in (so I wouldn’t break the water with my face) before I plunged all the way into the Nile up to my ankles. The guy at the top of the tower apparently had an “oops” moment because I was NOT supposed to go in that deep. He said that the rope was stretched out and I would be the last person to use it. I bounced up and down a few times, and having found my breath, I was screaming how freaking terrifying that was. I was lowered into a waiting boat and rowed to shore where I had trouble standing because my legs were shaking so bad. I don’t know if it was the cold (I was, of course, dripping wet), the adrenaline, or the lack of circulation to my feet from the rope being wrapped so tight. I watched the last two people jump with a sense of elation at having done something I always thought I would be too scared to do. From there, our group immediately got on a bus to the part of the Nile with all the rapids. The rapids we were to raft went up to class 5, out of a high of class 6. There were some rapids that were off the charts and too dangerous for even the experts to pass. On those, we were going to walk around and get back in the river on the other side. Our boat was filled with women and was christened “Team Uterus!” to the chagrin of our male guide. One of the other boats had a volunteer who decided to dress up like Santa Claus. I can’t wait to have kids so I can tell them I went white water rafting with Santa Claus. Throughout the day, our boat flipped twice. Each time, it was scary because we could see it coming. It was like a cross between sledding in snow and body boarding in the ocean. First you are paddling and you see this deep hole, you paddle harder and start plunging down into the hole (it feels like sledding), on the other side of this hole is a huge wave. The top edge of the wave is constantly breaking. If you’ve ever been in the ocean and approached by a breaking wave, you know that you want to dive in before the wave breaks in your face because if you hit it, you will get knocked over. So we are paddling down into this hole, trying to get enough speed to blast up the other side, but as we head up the face of the wave, we know that it is too steep; we are going to curl over and end up with the raft on your head. Our guide yells “HOLD ON” and we all grab onto the edge of the boat. It is futile, we flip. I end up under the boat. It was loud and dark; I take a breath and push myself out from under. Our guide quickly flips the boat back over and hauls one girl in who turns around and pulls the rest of us in. There are only four, out of eight, left and we paddle hard to escape the rapids. There is a fleet of kayakers who swarm in after each raft and pick up anyone who falls out. We collect our missing companions and have a few minutes to catch our breath before the next rapid. Sometimes we don’t flip, but just toss out a couple of our team. In the end, we flipped a total of three times, and I got tossed out only once. That time, my pants got sucked to my ankles and I floundered in the rapid for a few minutes with my bare rear end floating on the surface until a kayaker came and rescued me. And once we got stuck in a hole for a few minutes of exhilarating churning. It was like being in a washing machine, our boat was completely full of water and we all thought we would be stuck there until someone pulled us out. We got out eventually, and got through the rest of the rapids with no one drowning, but everyone spending a lot of time in the water. It was a great time. The next day I was extremely sore. It definitely felt like I had been tossed around on some rocks all day. I left Uganda on New Year’s Eve. I was glad to get out of the place with the crazy monopoly money and back to my normal looking cash. I had planned on doing something fun for New Years Eve, or at least being awake for it, but I was so exhausted I ended up falling asleep by 9pm. Pretty pathetic, but after the craziness of the previous weeks, I didn’t really care. By January 2nd, I was in Nairobi stocking up on packaged food and spices for the next few months, and on the 3rd, I was back home in Marsabit. I had a few moments of panic when I remembered what it was like to have crappy cell phone service, no internet, and no market to get food from. But in general, life was not so bad. It was very nice to have a few days to just relax in my house before going back to school. And now, school has started. I am off to a good start, I am much more confident than previous terms, and I have a lot more plans for secondary projects. I am hopeful that this term will be great and I am ready to start getting things done and counting down the remaining months. For now, I am in town and the stima (electricity) is out (of course) so I am going to do some shopping and hope that it comes back in time for me to post this.