Sunday, October 31, 2010

what we've been up to

Hello! I’m sorry we haven’t been writing as much as we should but we’ve been doing so much here that by the end of the day we are exhausted. I’ve loved staying in Chuilambo because every day we do something new and meet new people and learn new things. For this blog I’m going to try and cover a lot of time and give some snap shots of what we’ve been up to.

One day we went on home visits with our friend Timothy. We went to three different houses. In one of the houses we saw an old woman. When we visited this same woman in August, she had been to sickly to leave her bed. Now she is able to walk and go outside. She said that the community has been taking such good care of her. I really admire how strong this community is. When someone is sick it becomes everyone’s responsibility. In another one of the homes we met an old man who has lost both of his wives and is raising two children by himself. He is HIV positive and told us about how his kids both help him so much with everything. I loved listening to him talk about how much he loves his children and how close he is with them.

>My birthday was on Tuesday! I am now seventeen. We went into town and I went crazy in the grocery store buying biscuits, chocolate, soda, and ice cream. We also went to the movie theater to celebrate! I loved getting cards from my family as well as Callie, Winnie, and Joseph’s family. I hadn’t been looking forward to my birthday since I’m so far away from my friends and family, but it turned out to be a really great day and it made me appreciate the friends and family that I’ve made here.

On Wednesday we went to a primary school called Nametsa. It is on a mountain which Joseph calls a “speed bump” so that it’s easier for him to convince people to go there. It is literally impossible to get to this school without doing some serious climbing. It was tiring but also fun. We were accompanied by Winnie, Joseph, and the new Deputy Director of Umoja, Linda. When we got to the school we rested, introduced ourselves to the students, and then Callie, Joseph, and I (adventurous trio that we are) decided to climb even farther up the mountain. We clambered over boulders as fast as we could while panting and sweating as one of the Naetsa teachers led the way effortlessly leaping from rock to rock. When we reached the top Joseph had to sit and breathe for about 20 minutes. He said he was watering the plants with his sweat. I cannot imagine making that climb every day to get to and from school without shoes.

We did art with students from Bar Anding’o Primary and Huma Girls Secondary schools. There are so many really talented students. They made some beautiful pictures of what they think shows Kenyan culture. The Huma students are so skilled at drawing that when we showed the pictures to the Deputy Headmistress she said, “Eh! We need to get an art program for these girls!”

>Sometimes kids just show up at Margaret’s house looking to do art. One evening we were having an unexpected drawing session when the power went out. The kids kept working until the daylight was completely gone, but even then they didn’t want to stop drawing. We brought the flashlights onto the porch and Callie and I held them overhead while the kids finished their drawings. It was a good moment.

Today was an especially fun day because it’s Halloween! We decided that Kenyans have been Halloween-deprived for too long and we took it upon ourselves to introduce them to the scary, sugary, really fun day. Margaret thought we were a little bit crazy as she listened to us describing trick-or-treating, costumes, goblins, black cats, jack-o-lanterns, and vampires. We invited all of the children who are sponsored by the Hope Women’s Group to come and have a little Halloween party with us. We made all of them masks that they decorated and tied around their heads with yarn. Callie and Winnie and I went into separate rooms in Margaret’s house and we instructed the kids to knock on the doors and say “Trick-or-treat!” At the first door we gave them silly bands (the rubber bands that are shaped like animals). At the next door they received large stickers with pictures of cute puppies on them, and at the third door they got a piece of candy. They probably thought it was really weird and didn’t really understand why we were doing this, but they got little presents so they’re happy. I thought it was pretty cute.

Of course the kids weren’t the only ones who got to celebrate. Callie, Winnie, Steve (Winnie’s brother), Laura (Winnie’s cousin), Timothy (a member of the local volunteer group), Jacob (Winnie’s uncle), and I dressed up too I put on Winnie's dress, earrings, necklace, shoes, and backpack, as well as a name tag that said “Hi my name is Winnie." Winnie donned glasses, Callie’s orange flower earrings that she always wears, and a Callie outfit. Callie modeled a classic Annie outfit (tie-dye v-neck tucked into a skirt). We even took out her weave yesterday so that her hair would be curly like mine. Steve and Laura switched outfits. Timothy dressed up in one of Margaret’s church dresses and Jacob was a cat. I’d say the day was a success.

We only have five days left here, and I’ve been thinking about what I’ll take from this portion of our trip. Living here is hard work. We do laundry until our backs ache, our hands are pruney, and our knuckles are bruised. We shell peanuts until our thumbs are red and splintered. We walk for miles to visit schools. We carry coal on our backs on the thirty-minute walk from town. We’ve dug trenches for water pipes and we’ve killed weeds with hoes on Margaret’s farm.

Though the work has been hard, it’s also very gratifying and it’s helped me see things a little bit differently. At home I usually only pay attention to negative things: stains on my clothes, problems with our water, or my food getting cold. Here I’ve started to delight in the absence of stains and dirt on my clothes. Just arriving at a school feels like an accomplishment. I smile at the sight of steam rising from the food. It’s a treat to have a whole bowl of peanuts that are ready to be eaten and I savor every drop of water that I drink. When I get so excited about these simple pleasures that I’ve always taken for granted, every normal day starts to seem extraordinary.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Going With It

The thing I’ve learned most from living in Kenya is to “go with the flow.” At some point I realized that it’s best not to fight or try to understand anything, but better to just let it happen. I’ve learned more from just taking things as they come than I would had I stopped to analyze and question things about life in Kenya. A perfect example of this is the funeral we attended on Thursday.
We were told we would be leaving at 9 so, taking Kenyan time into account, we prepared ourselves to be ready by 9:30, expecting to leave at 10. When we went to eat our breakfast, however, we discovered the house was quickly filling with women. Within an hour, at about 9:30, the sitting room and front porch held 40 – 50 women, doing micro-financing. When we asked our host, Margaret, if we were still going to the burial, she said of course and that all these women were coming, too, but first they needed to do micro-financing and then she needed to bath. She said it in such a way that made me start to wonder why I had questioned it in the first place; of course, if, at 9:30 in the morning before a burial you feel you urgently need to do some micro-financing, then you’re going to do it.
At about 11, Margaret came into our room and told us to hurry up, that it was time to go. It was time to go right then, no waiting. So we scrambled into our shoes and ran out the door after her, leaving the 50 women in the house to continue their micro-financing. At home, I wait on my mom a lot. We’re usually about to go somewhere and then she gets a call so I sit around and wait for her to be ready. Then, once she’s ready she always jokingly gets impatient with me, saying “come on Callie, I’ve been waiting.” Margaret reminds me of these times, except she isn’t joking. In Kenya, you have to constantly be ready to go at any second, even if that second is 3 hours after your planned departure.
We got to the homestead and sat under a tent in plastic chairs that had been gathered from every home in the area. “Oh good,” said Margaret, “it’s just starting.” I decided not to wonder about her originally telling us it started at 9:30, since it was now almost 11:30. The coffin was carried out from the house, led by 3 pastors and followed by a group of singing women. Every few seconds, they would put the coffin on the ground and turn around for a few seconds. Then they would pick it back up, walk a few feet, and do the same thing again.
For the next two hours, men and women got up and gave testimonies (eulogies) in Luo, the tribal language of this area. After that was an hour of “preaching the word of God,” as Margaret called it. This gave Annie and I a good 3 hours to zone out and have a break from all thinking. During this time, however, our non-thoughts were interrupted by two mourning women. We had been told before that many try to mourn as loudly as they can, even if they didn’t know the deceased, to get attention. Often families hire mourners for the burials to make them more exciting. The first woman was older and ran into the house with blood-curdling screams. After a few minutes, she quieted down and came out with some other women to sit down. The second woman was in her 20’s and waiting until she was in the middle of the homestead to start wailing and running towards the house. Within 5 feet of the door, she threw herself onto the ground and began rolling around and screaming. Luckily, she got her backpack off first so she was more comfortable down there. Two men came and dragged her, yelling, into the house. She took a little while to stop, but was then brought out, looking and acting perfectly fine. Later I looked over and she was talking and laughing with a group of friends. Funny how those little moments of insane grief just come and go.
When the talking was over, the women started singing and Margaret said it was time to view the body and give offering. I looked up and suddenly the casket was open with the offering plate on the glass, right over the now-exposed body. She said if we were afraid to look, we could just give offering without viewing the body. We asked her how to do this and she said “don’t look.” Hadn’t thought of that.
So we got in line with our offerings and approached the coffin. It was clear that if you wanted your money to make it into the plate, there was no way not to look. Everyone in front of us was blowing kisses and waving to the body. I gave a polite smile as I placed my offering and then tried to look away, thinking he wouldn’t want me staring at him since I’d never actually met him.
When the line ended, they carried the coffin to the grave and began burying it. However instead of joining the crowd watching, Margaret and her BFF, Margaret, rushed us off to the house across the street to eat before the crowd came. They hurried us into a small store room with bunk beds in it and told us to sit. If they weren’t two adorable, gossiping old ladies then I would’ve been concerned that I was going to be killed. They brought in little dishes of food and plates and told us to serve and eat. Margaret the Second said if we didn’t eat more our intestines would growls, which meant they were angry at us for not feeding them more. When we finished eating, we washed our hands and left.
There were so many times that day, including later when we were stuck inside a church that was about 20 feet from home because it was raining so hard, in which I just had to silently laugh and think to myself “I’m living in Kenya, go with it.” I’m not really sure that’d work anywhere else, but in Kenya, it’s a good way to live.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Little Moments

HI! We have been in Chuilambo for about a week now so we’re starting to feel at home. It’s very different than Neema since we aren’t just focusing on one place and one group of kids, but that can make it more exciting too. It is so strange to think that our trip is already half-way over. Looking back at our time in Kenya I’ve noticed that the memories that have stuck with me the most are the small, seemingly unimportant moments that couldn’t have been planned or expected.

We left Neema house almost three weeks ago. Our last day there was also the first day for three new children. Two of these were the smallest babies I’ve ever seen, the third was a little boy named Wellington. He had soft hair, long eye-lashes, and a stomach bloated from hunger. He was accompanied by his father, though he was held by the social worker. We later learned that his father was an alcoholic who had been buying drinks before buying food for his son. When he first arrived at Neema, Wellington was, understandably, a little dazed. He was given food, asked question after question in a language he wasn’t used to while surrounded by staring strangers. He drank porridge sitting next to his new mother and watched his real dad drive away without even saying good-bye.

After he had had porridge, Wellington got his nails cut (he really didn’t like that) and we put him to sleep on my bed. We tried to give him a sucker but he had no idea what to do with it and chucked it across the room before drifting off.

We woke Wellington up about an hour later and were surprised when he let Callie carry him to the changing table. After being cleaned up he went onto the porch to watch his new brothers and sisters get tea. They all asked his name but he was shy around them. He was surrounded by nameless strangers, not knowing that they are the only family he has. After the kids went back to school, we were on the porch with Penina (the house mom), the babies, and the other toddlers who were napping on the rug. Wellington was still sitting in the chair. He wasn’t strong enough to walk, he could only sit and stare at the stickers and silly band that we had put in his lap. I decided to try and talk to him.

I used my limited Swahili vocabulary to start a conversation. I showed him the sticker and told him it was a “kitty”. I asked him to say “kitty” and even Penina was taken aback when he did. Then I showed him how to put the sticker on his shirt. He handed me the rubber band. I said thanks and put it on my wrist. Callie had put a sticker on his arm that said “WOW.” He peeled it off and handed it to me as well. His skin was so weak that when he took off the sticker, the first layer of skin came with it leaving a hexagon mark on his arm. I asked him to say “wow” and he said it. We were all so surprised because he hadn’t been talking at all.

10 minutes later Wellington was sitting on my lap chatting merrily. We were pretending that a rattle was a car and making engine noises as he made it zoom across my arms. I asked him all the Swahili questions I knew: what’s your name? Where’s Annie? Where’s the cat? Where’s the car? I was sad that my new friend had arrived on the day we had to leave, but I was also happy that this sweet little boy was being given a second chance. He had the chance to learn and develop. He had the chance to be taken care of and loved.

Last Wednesday, Wellington passed away. He hadn’t been able to eat and he only stayed at Neema for three days before being moved to the hospital where he died. I can’t help thinking about the what-ifs. What if he had come to Neema one week earlier? What if his dad had had one less drink? We could spend all our energy wallowing in the unfairness of it all and regretting things that we can never change, but that doesn’t help anyone. I think that Wellington should help remind us all that victims of hunger aren’t just statistics. I think that some people believe that if they aren’t able to make a huge difference and save lots of people, then they shouldn’t try at all. But just helping one person actually is making a huge huge difference. Hunger is 100% preventable and I really think that everyone can play an important role in putting an end to it.

So, like I was saying, in this trip (and life in general) it’s the little moments that mean the most. Like doing laundry with a friend, holding a sleeping baby girl on a crowded bus, watching a child smile as they color for the first time, walking down the street singing a favorite song, and teaching a little boy how to say “wow.”

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Coming Together of Cells

Death is an interesting thing. It’s something that most fear greatly, and yet it is also something that there’s no getting around. The other day we were driving with our friend Whitney when she got a call. After talking for some time, she hung up and told us that it was her sister’s old boyfriend. Her sister, Bailey, died last year. Whitney and Bailey were very close, as they were only a few years apart and the only girls in the family.
Whitney told us about how they used to sing the Backstreet Boys together when they were cleaning and how they would have dance competitions on the weekends.
Bailey’s boyfriend still calls the family to check in and see how they’re doing, although he refuses to return to their home, where Bailey is buried. For some time after Bailey’s death, her boyfriend would call Whitney just to hear her say “Hello” in a voice almost identical to Bailey’s.
Whitney told us how once, when Bailey and this boyfriend were separated for a short time, Bailey heard “So Sick of Love Songs” by Ne-Yo on their favorite R&B radio station and the two belted the lyrics that Bailey could relate to so well at the time. For some time after Bailey’s death, Whitney couldn’t listen to this song, or that radio station, without crying.
Bailey and her boyfriend dated for 3 years and he had told Whitney that he was going to propose to Bailey on Valentine’s Day. That same Valentine’s Day was the day that Bailey was buried.
Whitney told us how finally, after a few months, her mother turned the radio on to the R&B station. Whitney protested, but her mother said it was time to go back to normal and continue loving R&B. She said Whitney could cry over it one more time, and then she must move on.
Bailey’s funeral was very hard on her boyfriend; he tried to drown himself in the well and had to be held back by relatives and friends. During the burial, he was taken into the city and was only brought back once the body was covered and in the ground. He spent the entire night weeping on her grave.
Whitney told us this and then laughed and sang “So Sick of Love Songs.” We asked her why she was laughing, and she said “I just can’t believe it’s real. It’s just a soap opera to me.” It’s so crazy it can’t be real life. Except it is real life.
A sister of mine gave me a quote to take with me on my trip: “Life is a whim of several billion cells coming together to be you for a while.” Cells came together to be Bailey for a while, loving a boyfriend and singing R&B with a sister, before ending in a soap opera. When you think about it, this quote places a lot of pressure on us: we have this one set of cells, that could become a soap opera at any time, to live the “whim” of life. We have to make these cells mean something, we have to make these cells remembered, whether it is through a kind act or through R&B songs. What is even harder is that we must do this knowing that we too might not get our Valentine’s Day.
But rather than being discouraged by this, I think of Whitney, whose semblance of cells have a kind of resilience that is indescribable. I think of Whitney, who keeps singing Ne-Yo and can laugh about the soap opera of life. I think of Whitney and want my “whim of several billion cells coming together” to be like hers.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Things that you can't learn in just any high school

Hello! Right now we are staying at St. Ignatius Loyola Mawego Girl’s Secondary School (say that 5 times fast) and, so far, it has been a really interesting experience. While we were in Eldoret we were constantly with children. Yes, they were all adorable and I miss them terribly, but we couldn’t communicate with or relate to them as well as we can with these high school girls. Here, we are with girls our age who are really very similar to us. They like to dance and talk about boys. They travel in packs (high school girls can’t even walk to the bathroom alone) and complain about homework. They make fun of each other and like to dress up and pretend to be on a catwalk. All of us are biding our time in high school, thinking up crazy dreams for the future.

Along with the similarities, there are also many differences that have made this exchange interesting. I’ve learned a lot about education in Kenya and some of the problems that the secondary students are facing. The thing that I think would be the most challenging about being a student in Kenya is that you never get to learn in your first language. There are 42 tribes here and each one has its own language. The country’s national language is Swahili and its official language is English. Swahili was created so that people from different tribes can communicate with each other and people use English for very official business as well as in government. In schools they are required to speak only in these two languages, but since neither of these are the students’ “mother-tongue” it’s much harder for them to progress at a fast pace. For example: in literature class they are reading a book called, “The River Between,” which was written by a Kenyan author. Since the book was written in English (the girls’ third language) the students have to concentrate on understanding the words before they can discuss the themes, analyze the characters, and look into other in depth aspects of the book and the writing style. I can’t imagine covering the content in my English classes in my third language. I don’t know how they do it.

Another thing that is very different about the Kenyan education system is the way in which students apply for university. At home colleges look at your grades all throughout high school, your sports, your clubs, your application essays, and recommendation letters from your teachers. It makes it so that we have a lot of chances to prove ourselves and show our strengths. In Kenya, the students’ futures are entirely dependent on the exams they take at the end of their senior year. That would terrify me. Sine their school year is different than ours (students enter a new grade every January) the seniors here are only weeks away from their exams and I’m shocked at how calm they are. I honestly don’t think that I would be able to handle that stress. They have one day to take the exams and they are expected to take them even if they’re sick. The exam can’t be repeated and it is the only thing colleges look at when selecting students. I feel like I would completely fail the exam from stress alone.

Another challenge facing Kenyan students was brought about by the former president. Grace told us that in an effort to raise the number of people who are offered a college education, the president lowered the passing grade from a C+ to a D+. Because of this, people who really had not learned enough and still needed to be taught more thoroughly were going to college and becoming teachers themselves. As you can imagine, this had a negative impact on an entire generation of students. Grace said that she doesn’t know how long it will take to phase out the teachers who were accepted because of this policy or how long it will take to catch-up the students who were taught by these unqualified people.

I have learned a lot about the difficult things about being a student here, but the girls have also shown me the good side of their secondary schooling. They like how they always have access to their teachers (since a large percentage of Kenyan high schools are boarding). They like that since they are in a boarding school they don’t have to worry about the large quantity of household chores that are usually a girl’s responsibility if she lives at home. They say that they are eager to be educated because they want to make it so that in their generation, “A woman’s place is not only in the kitchen."

All the people in this school (from the headmistress to the freshmen) really recognize the problems facing the girls and are constantly looking for ways to advance the students, the school, and the country as a whole. Through these girls, I’ve learned more about staying focused on a goal, I’ve tried learning how to dance (but that didn’t go very well), and I’ve learned never to settle, even if you’ve done well, because there is always an even higher goal to reach for.

Miss you all!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Getting Back in Touch

So if you hadn’t noticed… we’ve been out of touch for a little while. It was a busy last week at Neema and a busy weekend at Kakamega and has been a busy first few days in Mawego. So, I’ll just give you a list of some of the adventures we’ve had lately:
1. About 4 hours before we left Neema on Friday, 3 new children arrived. Two of them are babies from Sally Test whom we had met previously when at the hospital. Samwel is 2 months old, pouts his lips all cutely, and is what I thought was the smallest baby ever. Seth Moses is 1 month old, premature, and actually is the tiniest baby ever. The third child, Wellington, is equally as cute as the mini ones. “Welly” is 3 and a half but, because he was extremely malnourished, could pass as a 2 year old. He is very weak and cannot walk, but he isn’t too weak to smile and giggle. Fortunately Joseph follows Kenyan time very seriously so we got to spend a few extra hours with the newbies, just enough time to teach Welly how to say “wow!”
2. We spent 5 hours in church on Saturday. I now just have to so much respect for K-dog Strongy for his limiting of church services to 1 hour. We arrived at 9:09 AM and left the church at 1:59 PM. However, though there were hours filled with Swahili in which I wished desperately that it wouldn’t be offensive for me to sleep along with the other Kenyan attendants, I found the service very interesting. I may not agree with much of it, and may question the length of their services, but I find their unconditional faith impressive.
3. I got a weave, AKA my usual Sunday afternoon activity. In actuality, I just got my hair braided, but this does involve curly black and red false hair. It took about four hours and there were some moments where I was close to passing out from pain, but I gave Kakamega some good entertainment as many stopped to watch the mzungu getting her hair braided. I did this because my locks have been spoiled by Herbal Essences and shower heads so a place like Mawego, where one must shower from a bucket, is not a friend to my hair. Whilst I have my weave of glory, the whole washing thing will really become a piece of cake, something that I would very much like to eat at this time. Yikes.
4. We learned that the true way to a Kenyan teenager’s heart, especially if she’s a girl named Lucy who lives in Kakamega, is through the words “beat it” heard harmoniously from the lips of dear Michael Jackson, whom Lucy may or may not have pleasures for. Oh my.
5. We moved to Mawego Girls Secondary School on Monday afternoon and in 7 short hours were already taking part in one of the best dance parties of my life. It started out as a getting to know you session, then into an “Annie and Callie watch the girls dance ridiculously well” into an “all of the girls stare at Callie and Annie attempt to dance and laugh at their inability to shake it.” It was actually quite enjoyable… now to come up with the promised “American cultural dance” for Saturday night. Suggestions?
6. We semi-mastered the “squatty potty”; there is no toilet at Mawego, just a pit latrine… AKA a whole in the ground filled with cockroaches. These are the times when I think boys got off easy in life.

We’ve been doing other activities like attempting to teach a typing class, walking to lagoons, and getting marriage proposals on the streets. I don’t think it’s necessary for me to say that we love it here and feel right at home. I once read from someone that each night before they go to bed, they ask themselves if they are proud of who they were that day and if so, they believe that day was good. I’ve been asking myself that question recently and I’m not sure I’d say I’m proud of myself, but I’m happy, and if I’m able to make someone else happy, if even for a moment, then I’m okay with the day. So tell me: will you be proud of who you were today?